What is kinship? What’s it got to do with Reproduction and Religion? Diana Cagliero

Susan McKinnon’s work “On Kinship and Marriage: A Critique of the Genetic and Gender Calculus of Evolutionary Psychology” explores how the ways that psychologists view kinship, through the lenses of nature and nurture, do not always account for the vast diversity of kinship relationships that are captured in anthropology. McKinnon spends the chapter exploring different types of kinship relations discovered by anthropologists and poses a critique to the argument of evolutionary psychologists. Evolutionary psychologists argue that for an organism to maximize its reproductive success it must have knowledge of a clearly defined boundary for which organisms are a part of their kin-groups and which organisms are not (106).

“Evolutionary psychologists reject the idea that the evolved human brain manifests a generalized capacity to create a wide array of cultural forms and learn a diverse range of behaviors” (McKinnon 108)

McKinnon uses multiple examples throughout the paper to explore how anthropologists have discovered a wide array of kinship relations, and many of these relations are not defined by the sharing of genetic material. She explains how through “even a simple perusal of systems of kinship terminology demonstrates that there is no single straight line between any underlying biological ‘reality’…and the social categories of motherhood” (110). McKinnon goes on to describe other kinship relations such as marriage, and argues that for humans, marriage involves social groups and relations not simply just the individuals in search for a mate driven by evolved preference mechanisms (McKinnon 122). Overall McKinnon’s closing argument against using evolutionary psychology as a primary lens for evaluating kinship relationships goes as follows:

“By reducing the variety of human systems of kinship and marriage to a ‘core mindset’ that looks suspiciously Euro-American in its valorization of the individual, of genetics, of utilitarian theories of self-maximization, and of an idealized 1950s version of gender relations, evolutionary psychologists erase what we know about the complexity of kinship and marriage around the world” (McKinnon 128).

  • What do you think of McKinnon’s closing argument? Do you agree with her critique of evolutionary psychology?

Warren Shapiro’s work is a direct critique of Susan McKinnon’s paper. In the abstract Shapiro refers to two positions commonly found when examining literature on kinship studies. He refers to McKinnon’s work as “collectivist”, or as assigning the group priority over the individual when making an analysis. Shapiro mentions the phenomenon of “focality”, which refers to focusing in on a different perspective, which is a feature he claims McKinnon’s analysis lacks.

Shapiro shapes his main argument by stating “evolutionary psychologists, who do not pretend to be specialists in the cross-cultural study of kinship, have managed to grasp the truth more profoundly than McKinnon”. Shapiro goes on to examine many of McKinnon’s examples and turn these on her, showing how McKinnon draws on the less practiced societal definitions of kinship and ignores the primary, consanguine link that ties most family members together through cultures. Shapiro dismisses the claim of a “West/Rest dichotomy” explaining how notions of kinship “are grounded in native appreciations of procreation, and from this base they extend to other areas of experience”.

Shapiro also argues that in the cultures that McKinnon describes as collectivist through mechanisms such as group motherhood or collective childhood are “concoctions”. He states “kinship in our species is nothing if not individual, because the bonding that we undergo, especially as children, is socially selective”. Shapiro’s opinion is that close procreative kin are universal and therefore relationships exist between them that are nearly universal.

  • Does your opinion on McKinnon’s work change after reading the Shapiro text? With whom do you agree with more, or are you somewhere in the middle?
  • Do you agree with Shapiro’s claim that McKinnon is a “collectivist” whereas he uses the ‘superior’ concept: “focality” when examining kinship studies?

After considering these more conceptual works on kinship and kinship theory, Marcia Inhorn’s paper “He Won’t Be My Son” provides an ethnographic study from which to analyze these concepts. In this study, Inhorn traveled to Lebanon to interview men from both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim populations at two different IVF clinics. Inhorn gathered research on the religious mandates in both sects to examine how the mandates were observed in practice.

Inhorn begins introducing the issues associated with IVF in the Islamic faith by stating, “Islam is a religion that privileges—even mandates—biological descent and inheritance” (95). Consequently, there is high cultural resistance to adoption although many Muslim couples take it upon themselves to become legal guardians for orphans (95).

“The very concept of social parenthood is culturally contingent and is deeply embedded in ‘local moral worlds’” (96).

 First, Inhorn explains the religious mandates surrounding IVF in the Sunni sect. In the first authoritative fatwa it states “IVF of an egg from the wife with the sperm of her husband followed by the transfer of the fertilized embryo back to the uterus of the same wife is allowed…However, because marriage is a contract between the wife and her husband, no third party should intrude into the marital functions of sex and procreation” (103). In effect, using the gametes of a donor or a surrogate is not allowed because it would equate to adultery and the resulting child would be considered a bastard. The Sunni Muslim men’s narratives were nuanced and many provided deeper responses than just “it’s against my religion” while the counter narratives revealed “complex moral decision making undertaken by men who have decided, usually on their own, to ‘go against their religion’ in creating alternative family forms” (106).

In 1999 Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini stated that “donation is not in and of itself legally forbidden…. both donors and infertile parents must abide by the religious codes regarding parenting. Thus the child of the donor has the right to inherit from him or her, as the infertile parents are considered to be like adoptive parents” (110). Furthermore, Shi’a Islam recognizes a “temporary marriage agreement” as an option for surrogacy (112). These differences in religious mandates between Sunni and Shi’a Islam perhaps accounted for the differential in the number of men interviewed by Inhorn who opposed gamete donation: 83 percent of Sunni men and 64 percent of Shi’a men.

“Ultimately, then, it should come as no surprise that the Middle Eastern IVF industry is flourishing—with and without donor gametes, in the Shi’ite and Sunni worlds, respectively. Indeed, when all is said and done, it is the love among infertile Muslim couples of both sects that has brought this industry to the Middle East” (117).

Morgan Clarke continues this analysis of how ARTs in the Middle East can offer insight into changing definitions of kinship in her work “Kinship, Propriety and Assisted Reproduction in the Middle East”. Clarke introduces two forms of kinship found in the Middle East; patriparallel cousin marriage (father’s brother’s daughter) and “milk kinship”. These concepts are tied together in “local notions of ‘closeness’, ‘honour’ and protection, all bound up with notions of gender and sexuality” and become problematic when ARTs try to find a place to fit into this kinship scheme (71). Through ART kinship is defined as a “biogenetic” relationship, this definition can come into conflict when Middle Eastern kinship structures are not always defined as solely biogenetic; rather legitimacy and inheritance are often primarily valued.

“ARTs and modern scientific understandings generally offer a challenge to traditional understandings of relatedness, and there is good reason to detect potential transformations in the Islamic Middle East, although the key issue here is, characteristically, that of the legitimacy of kinship relation, the role that the moral circumstances of a child’s birth have in constituting their kinship status” (82).

  • Does Clarke’s conclusion that inheritance and legitimacy are the main facets constitute kinship in the Middle East reflective of the narratives collected by Inhorn?
  • Overall what do you see as the biggest moral issue standing in the way of ARTs and kinship structures in the Middle East?

10 thoughts on “What is kinship? What’s it got to do with Reproduction and Religion? Diana Cagliero”

  1. The kinship studies were a nice variety of perspectives on the meaning of kinship and how it is applied in attitudes towards assisted reproductive technologies. You did a good job of outlining some of the key points. I read the Mckinnon reading first and did not expect to see a critique of it as the second reading. It did make me question a lot of Mckinnon’s ideas. I wondered if she realized some of the examples he was talking about- like the fact that people due distinguish between their birth mother and other family members they may call mother through the lexicon. Language reflects a lot about the cultures under study and it was nice to see Shapiro put it to use. Shapiro’s points made me realize that while every situation needs to be examined from an objective perspective, there are some overarching similarities that may be emphasized with only few exceptions. Thus, my ideas lay somewhere in the middle between Shapiro’s and Mckinnon’s.
    The fundamental ideas of the Islamic faith make assisted reproductive technologies challenging. They see members of a family that are not genetically related to the parents as tainting the bloodline. This is why adoption remains a controversial issue in Islamic society. Their emphasis on being faithful in a marriage has led to issues with the idea of donor technologies, though egg donations have been gaining acceptance in the Shi’ite sect due to the permissibility of temporary marriages. Assisted reproductive technologies are so controversial because of these Islamic narratives on remaining faithful and maintaining a pure bloodline. As long as these ideas constitute their culture, adoption and reproductive technology will probably not become mainstream.

  2. I also read McKinnon’s paper first and found that Shapiro’s work was crucial in more clearly addressing my questions and doubts that arose from McKinnon’s argument. Shapiro’s analysis of the lexical distinctions in kinship terms that the groups from McKinnon’s examples use was a very important detail.
    Fundamentally, I agree with Shapiro’s analysis in that we use our metal schemas and the theory of focality to understand and talk about kinship. I think kinship is so grounded in biological inheritance because society’s traditional view of a family has stemmed from the biological need for a mother (egg) and father (sperm) to procreate; however, kinship terminology has deeper meaning that is tied to the social aspects of parenting, otherwise recognized as kinships behaviors (solidarity, nurturance and altruism) (McKinnon 107). Hence, kinship has been extended to various “non-biological” situations tat encompass the more complex nature of human social experiences.
    Artificial reproductive technology has further confused or pushed the limits of our kinship schema. It has allowed for numerous new types of family units and more complex genetic ties. Shapiro and McKinnon mentioned how ARTs induce “more ambiguous references” of kinship terms. Religious doctrine is widely cited by the muslim people to express why ART is prohibited. But, few of the muslim narratives address why the purity of blood must be maintained through a child of husband and wife. Does this implicate that only certain marriage are allowed in the muslim communities?

    1. I know when first going into the readings, I was quite biased in my thinking. As a student of science, I have been taught evolutionary theory for most of my academic career. Still, I found it quite interesting to read McKinnon’s arguments in her work, On Kinship and Marriage: A Critique of the Genetic and Gender Calculus of Evolutionary Psychology, towards the ideas of kinship and marriage, contrasting the differences of the Westernization ideology to many other cultural ideas towards “motherhood.” Though, I still have to say I would not agree with her critique of evolutionary psychology. I have come to understand the field of evolutionary psychology as one used to look at and attempt to answer questions about psychological processes, such as language and perception, from an evolutionary standpoint. McKinnon’s view on kinship and marriage seem to come from a deep anthropological standpoint, which does well to highlight the differences in various cultures on similar ideas, that being of marriage and kinship. I believe evolutionary psychology to look at how different behaviors could have formed through evolutionary mechanisms, such as sexual selection while McKinnon’s anthropological view on kinship and marriage simple looks at how various cultures have formed and thus differ in their ideology of these topics. The former looking at the possible reason for the process while the latter compares the end result.
      My opinion on McKinnon’s work did not change after reading Shapiro’s text, What human kinship is primarily about: toward a critique of the new kinship studies, on human kinship. I do wholeheartedly agree with his logic of tracing kinship through the mother and the deviations that have come from the root link in other cultures. While “mother” can be a loosely used term, it’s still possible, and usually evident to people of various cultures, of whom they would identify as their “real mother.”

  3. I enjoyed reading Shapiro’s article after McKinnon. I feel as though Shapiro helped clarify some of the concepts and ideas initially mentioned by McKinnon, while also providing an alternative look/critique to McKinnon’s analysis. My opinion of McKinnon’s work did change after reading Shapiro’s analysis. I’m not sure who I agree with more, I would say I’m more so in the middle, leaning more toward Shapiro’s arguments. I agreed with his notion of kinship being an individual concept due to social selection, while also remaining universal. I feel as though kinship is definitely an individual creation, but the bonds of kinship do seem to be universal in the sense that one can see similarities across different cultures.
    Before reading Inhorn’s paper, I had never heard of the term ‘social parenthood.’ I do think that Clarke’s conclusion about inheritance and legitimacy, as well as religion, are the main facets that constitute kinship in the Middle East, which is why technologies such as IVF and surrogacy face so much debate. I would say the biggest issue standing in the way of kinship structures in the Middle East is the strong tie to religious fatwa’s. While the kinship structures of a typical family (i.e. mother, father, biological child) exist in the Middle East, I think the kinship structures between adoptive or surrogate children fail to form due to the fear of going against the traditional rules of one’s religion.

  4. Diana, I think you did a great job with the post. The structure of your post was clear and organized and made great sense to a reader. After finishing all the readings, I found the articles, “He Won’t Be My Son: Middle Eastern Men’s Discourses of Gamete Donation” and “Kinship, Propriety and Assisted Reproduction in the Middle East”, to be the most interesting. Both articles seem to focus on how assisted reproduction conflicts with the moral and legal terms present in Middle Eastern countries. To answer your question, Diana, on what I see as the biggest issue standing in the way of assisted reproduction in the Middle East, I feel it has a lot to do with the laws defined within the country. Perhaps the laws are not clearly directed towards IVF or other reproductive methods, so there is room for ambiguity when situations like this arise. Another reason could be differing religious interpretations, which aligns with the question if assisted reproduction is morally right or wrong. I feel that assisted reproductive methods, such as IVF, should be allowed if the opportunity is present. In general, I believe that one of the many goals of a man and woman is to continue their bloodline through generations, regardless of how it is accomplished. This is a great question you posed for discussion, but overall I feel there exists a multitude of options to consider, most of which regard issues on morality and legality.

  5. I like how you point out the different lenses that we talked about in class. I agree with McKinnon in the fact that kinship is very complicated, and thus we cannot look at it through just one lens. I tend to agree with Shapiro more than McKinnon because many of McKinnon’s arguments almost seem unnecessary. Overall, I think this was a very well written piece, and it was nice to focus on the different axes of comparison.

  6. Similar to other students, I read the McKinnon paper before the Shapiro paper. In my opinion, Shapiro did a good job clarifying nuances that were not clear in McKinnon’s paper. Although my opinion on a few of McKinnon’s ideas changed, such as the terminology of motherhood, overall, I am somewhere in the middle on the topics discussed. I can see what both McKinnon and Shapiro are arguing and understand their stances, but don’t yet know my stance on the issues.
    While the first two readings described kinship, the last two were the ones that interested me the most. Marcia Inhorn’s, “He Won’t Be My Son” was especially interesting to me due to the study conducted and the detailed conclusions. I was very surprised to see such a heavy religious perspective on assisted reproduction, especially when Inhorn described joint temporary marriages for gamete donors. It just went to broaden my knowledge on different perspectives of practices, such as IVF, donor insemination, and surrogacy, that are considered common in America.

  7. I really liked how you touched on all 4 readings in answering the question on kinship and the role of reproduction and religion. When reading Clarke’s paper, I had the same question as you about how it compared to the views of inheritance and legitimacy that Inhorn presented in her enthnography. To me, the parallel Clarke draws between the idea of kinship through patriparallel cousin marriage and milk kinship in a way is similar to Inhorn’s distinction between IVF and gamete donation ideals by Sunni Muslims. Inhorn mentioned how gamete donation is banned in Sunni dominant countries and that reminded me of the idea of “bodily substance” transfer as mentioned by Clarke. Perhaps if the milk between a nurse and the nursling can constitute a kin relation, then the transfer of gametes as a bodily substance also add to a portion of the stigma surrounding gamete donation.

    Furthermore, I liked how Inhorn made a distinction between the reproductive health of men and their wives and how that plays a role in the overall perspective of reproductive technologies in the Middle East. Inhorn showed how men choose to stay in marriages with infertile wives showing the emphasis of love and familial relations as a whole in kinship. Clarke touches on these points too as you mentioned by bringing up the importance of “closeness” and “honour,” but also the presence of a “biogenetic relationship.” After analyzing both pieces, I think the dilemma of the perspective of ARTs boils down to the issues with social and religious stigma vs. the need for love and familial relations.

  8. My opinion lies in the middle of both McKinnon’s “collectivist” approach and Shapiro’s “superior” concept. Growing up in a family that emphasizes the collective in many aspects of our life while living in the American individualist society, I have learned to embrace benefits from both approaches. Though they both evoke negative characteristics such as egotism and not worrying about oneself, I have learned to emerge respect for family and elders as well as form friendships based on non-genetic connection.

  9. To see better how preposterous the whole “culturalist” approach to kinship is, have a look at my recently published essay, “Toward a Post-Schneiderian view of Kinship” (JNL OF ANTHROP RSCH 2017).

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