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Evolutionary psycho-logy: Commandeering genetics to explain why Obama really is a Muslim

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Okay, here’s one for the annals, something that is going to make it even more difficult for evolutionary psychology to get the respect the field thinks it deserves.

A controversial academic from the London School of Economics has recently penned a blog post for Psychology Today called "If Barack Obama Is Christian, Michael Jackson Was White." Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist who gained attention (I’m not sure fame is the right word) for various outlandish claims, including the assertion that low intelligence is the basis for poverty and disease in places like Africa, drawing critics who suggested that he was trying to lend legitimacy to the faux science of eugenics. His blog, "The Scientific Fundamentalist: A Look at the Hard Truths About Human Nature," has recently featured entries on topics such as why men go through midlife crises. (Answer: "From an evolutionary psychological perspective, a man’s midlife crisis is precipitated by his wife’s imminent menopause and the end of her reproductive career…" Sic. No, very sic.)

Now Kanazawa has returned with another howler: the notion that religion is genetically determined and therefore (you guessed it) Obama, like his father, is really a Muslim. Wow. I guess he’s trying to top his previous attention grabbers. Anyway, this one ranks up there.

Here’s the logic (probably the wrong word):   Muslims, as other religious groups, are made up of "endogamous" ethnic groups, which marry within the religion and then become genetically distinct from other groups over time. In this world view, genes are all, so Michael Jackson was still black even though he tried to alter his appearance. "No matter how white his skin was, underneath he was still just as black as the day he was born," wrote the blogger. So Barack Obama has "Muslim" genes from his father, although he declares himself to be a Christian. I told you logic may be the wrong word. 

So let’s let the man speak:

"Similarly, the fact that Barack Obama’s father was a Muslim Kenyan, descended from a long line of Muslims, will remain true until the day he dies, and nothing he ever does in his life can change half of his genes that he inherited from his father. His genes are for keeps. The fact that he has attended Christian church for the past 20 years is not going to change that.   Michael Jackson looked white much longer than Barack Obama sat in the pews of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church. Obama is still as (half) Muslim as the day he was born."

That quote deserves a replay to savor its outrageousness. So what about that other "half," for one? And do adherents of Islam in the West African country of Senegal have the same "Muslim" genes as the Uighurs in western China? That’s just for starters. Maybe this is why evolutionary psychology often encounters such intractable public relations problems.

But Kanazawa’s posting really did achieve its tacit goal of setting the blogosphere afire. Here are two of the best responses, including one from the Psychology Today blog site:

"I need more information to understand the claim that "Obama is still as (half) Muslim…" If religion is inherited through the Y-chromosome, he is fully Muslim; if it is inherited through the mitochondrial DNA, he is fully Christian; if the religious gene is located somewhere else, he has a 50-50 chance of being one or the other, and the premise of Satoshi’s post is moot. Now, Satoshi knows all this. I therefore conclude that his post is meant to entertain, enrage, and befuddle. That’s too bad because the primary purpose of these blogs is to help, advise, and educate. Am I wrong?" ­­-Joachim Krueger, One Among Many (Psychology Today)

"Religion, unlike eye or hair color, is not something we’ve discovered as a genetic trait. There has been no discovery of a "religion gene." So while Kanazawa provides the analogy of Michael Jackson and his apparent attempts to become lighter-skinned, it is a false analogy. Skin color is encoded into our genetics. Religion is not. If it is, I would ask Kanazawa to point out the gene (or set of genes) religion is encoded on."­ -John M. Grohol, World of Psychology  

Kanazawa will probably keep it up in the future. Good for some hoots. Bad for evolutionary psychology.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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  1. 1. maxsmart 3:01 pm 08/31/2010

    It seem to me unlikely that many behaviors are determined by proteins while many organic structural and hormonal and other juicy things may be related metabolically but not hyperbolically. Might have beens are caused by tiny mights that have burrowed there way into your thoughts and actions in the course of growing up. Since behaviors are linked to thoughts and thoughts are somewhat dependent on language which is not genetically determined as farsically as we can tell.

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  2. 2. JLaurel 3:13 pm 08/31/2010

    "Sic. No, very sic."

    HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! Genius!!!

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  3. 3. ing St Hawk 3:41 pm 08/31/2010

    Religion should be seen as a tiny part of psychology.
    Psychology should be seen as a tiny part of biology.
    In biology nothing makes sense accept in the light of evolution.

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  4. 4. TheTruth 6:23 pm 08/31/2010

    The obvious problem standing out is individuals like you who can’t seem to understand there’s no gene for low intelligence. If that’s the case, there should be genes for racism, ignorance and down-right foolishness. People exhibit low intelligence when the appropriate opportunities to develop skills isn’t given. Not genetics. These ‘evolutionary psychologists’ need to look within the current events and work on something more productive instead of blowing smoke up asses concerning our president. All their work has shown is their ignorance and hatred over-shadows their intellectual status and titles. It’s a shame to work so hard to become an effective member of intellectual society to only toss it in worthless statistics and issues which promote hatred and separatism. What a shame.

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  5. 5. way2ec 6:33 pm 08/31/2010

    No problem. When did the Church declare that the indigenous people of the Americas were in fact human, complete with souls? Did the Church have to rule on the humanity of the other "races"? Seems we are still dealing with the very nature of being born human. African Muslim is inherited through the father? gives "half breed" a whole new twist. If a Christian man, say a Crusader, raped a Muslim woman, was the child a Christian through the father? What will the Church rule on this one? Baptism is strong enough to erase the "original sin", but in Obama’s case, does his christian baptism have the "power" to "erase" the muslim "inheritance"? And what about the other religions of the world? Well at least Obama’s mother tongue was English. God forbid that he utter an Arabic word while in office. Oh, one more question for the cretins, will Obama’s daughters also inherit the muslim "genes"?

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  6. 6. JamesDavis 7:05 pm 08/31/2010

    I don’t think there is a word in the English language that can describe how frightfully stupid Kanazawa is… Wait, there is a word in the English language that describes how incredibly stupid he is…REPUBLICAN!

    If you remember, (R) John McCain started this crap when he was loosing miserably to Obama. The Republicans had two major losses back to back so they (Republicans) set out to try and make Obama look as bad as their demigod Bush, Jr. looked throughout his reign. That task is becoming impossible because no one can look or act as stupid as Bush, Jr..

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  7. 7. wfonviel 10:43 pm 08/31/2010

    If I recall correctly, Obama’s father was not religious at all. His grandfather was a Muslim, but he converted to it after having been a Christian. He turned to Islam because he thought the Christian attitude of "turning the other cheek" was too wimpy. The earlier members of the Obama lineage were probably animists. Thus Kanazawa’s declaration is fatally flawed before even considering the absurdities of his pseudo-science.

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  8. 8. way2ec 11:23 pm 08/31/2010

    Donald, your ignorance, stupidity, and racist comments are protected by freedom of speech, but that won’t protect you from yourself.

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  9. 9. way2ec 1:25 am 09/1/2010

    Did a little more reading. The spread of Islam into Kenya has been fairly recent. How long does the pseudo-scientist Kanazawa think it takes for the genes of Muslims to become affected, or perhaps "infected" so much so that their religion can be inherited? Does the fact that Obama Sr. started out as a Christian change the "genetics" in his case? Since Obama’s mother, Ann, was born into a Christian family, does that make Obama’s birth a Muslim-Christian inheritance? As for the majority of Kenyans who aren’t Muslim, what do their children "inherit" religiously speaking?

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  10. 10. sjn 2:05 am 09/1/2010

    If every trait, behavior, taste like/dislike is genetically encoded, then somewhere we will find the genes that drive some people to ascribe everything to their genes. The gene gene????

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  11. 11. Ultracrepidarian 3:56 am 09/1/2010

    It’s clear that Obama got those distinctive ears from his Maternal grandfather.

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  12. 12. Ultracrepidarian 4:02 am 09/1/2010

    Donald, you’re excused. You really can’t help it. It’s in your genes.

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  13. 13. David N'Gog 7:38 am 09/1/2010

    I’d be interested to see how dominance and recession works.

    If someone carries two christian genes and someone two muslim genes is islam dominant producing a muslim phenotype?

    This would explain why some religions have faded over the years. The genes for Zorasterism is still very much in existance, but they are recessive and spread about the population in low numbers that they rarely recombine.

    Do baptists have different genes to catholics or is it just environmental pressures that make the christian gene appear in different denominations?

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  14. 14. Jess Hurchst 8:37 am 09/1/2010

    If being muslim is inherited down the male line and being Jewish is inherited down the female line what would the children of such a marriage be?

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  15. 15. sparcboy 9:13 am 09/1/2010


    (As there is virtually nothing intellectual in any of the previous comments, I thought I might digress as well.)

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  16. 16. oldvic 9:47 am 09/1/2010

    Since Islam is a relatively recent religion (about 1400 years), the Muslim genes must be an example of ultra-rapid evolution.

    Let’s call it "blitz-evolution"(TM).

    Or could it be that Mr. Kanazawa meant "Muslim JEANS"?

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  17. 17. David N'Gog 9:49 am 09/1/2010

    Of course, fans of designer babies will welcome this discovery.

    Imagine, being able to pick the religion of your child before they are born by inserting the religion gene of your choice.

    "OK Doc, I want twins, one blue-eyed boy Buddhist, and one green-eyed girl Taoist. Thanks Doc."

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  18. 18. E-boy 10:43 am 09/1/2010

    It’s very sad to me that people still play the hackneyed nurture nature game. No serious evolutionary or genetic scientists believe there is a "Jerk" gene a "Republican" gene or a "Democrat" gene and they certainly don’t believe religion is genetically determined. Nor do modern scientists believe biology or environment play the ultimate role in behavior. It’s both. They’ve known that for a very long time now and this game of inventing controversies for rhetorical purposes is getting quite old.

    The fact that someone with credentials is mis-using them to give credance to outlandish claims is even sadder. The guy is an attention seeking junkie of the worst kind.

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  19. 19. focalist 2:58 pm 09/1/2010

    Here’s a real question though- what if it is discovered a potential president has the genes for a mental disorder like schizophrenia, dementia, or what have you? Ethically, I mean- it would of course be political fodder immensely.

    We have already identified genes which predispose for many diseases. I myself have Crohns- which is driven by a malformation on NOD2, as I understand. It’s a good idea for my kids to watch themselves for signs of the disease, because they at least carry the gene… even though they only stand a one in thousands chance of actually getting sick. That’s just good common sense. What happens if we start appying this type of "caution" to mental disorder genes- and using that to manipulate others?

    There is obviously more to the equation than genetics, but I could see a political opponent saying "he’s got the schizophrenia gene, we know that, and he’s already going psychotic. Remove him from office!"- and how would someone defend against an accusation like that?

    The article points out how out of control some of these people are- so I could envision a smear campaign based upon almost anything, in light of this "scholar’s" writings…

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  20. 20. KateGladstone 3:14 pm 09/1/2010

    I won’t pardon your ignorance. You’re the pot that called the kettle black.

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  21. 21. KateGladstone 3:16 pm 09/1/2010

    My previous comment was addressed to the "extreamly" ignorant person with the worst spelling of all the posters — the one who says that such things happen because of low intelligence among blacks.

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  22. 22. Birdsong 4:19 pm 09/1/2010

    McCain was born in Panama- no one discusses this. You need to take a spelling class and also get an education to improve your genes, if that is possible ! With this logic, Jesus was a jew so can’t be Christian !

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  23. 23. In-Tokyo 7:26 pm 09/2/2010

    @ing St Hawk

    Such profoundness is better served up in proper English.

    Religion should be seen as a tiny part of psychology.
    Psychology should be seen as a tiny part of biology.
    In biology nothing makes sense EXCEPT in the light of evolution.

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  24. 24. Rohbiwan 8:07 pm 09/2/2010

    Regardless, why can’t religion be genetic – regardless of this case? This magazine and many others have shown that there is a "religious center" in the brain. If so, it is certainly a product of our genetic blueprint, is it not? If there is a part of the brain that deals with religion, and it has an evolutionary cause (we all know it must), then religion at some level is beyond doubt genetic. Is that not the case as well?

    Lets not be so quick to dismiss that religions proclivity is a genetic trait, and as this is a new field, I can’t say what exactly that means, so maybe we should be asking the question again without bias before discarding it…..

    or would that not be logical?

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  25. 25. Rohbiwan 8:13 pm 09/2/2010

    Fact check on claim McCain was born in Panama – you can be born out of the country and still be a natural born citizen. It’s not discussed because it’s not an issue.

    As for the President’s birthplace, the point seems moot.

    and you should know that Jesus was a Jew, as Christians teach right now – Jesus was NOT a Christian – no one thinks he is.

    So my advise, learn what a natural born citizen is, learn a little about Christianity (and this is coming from an atheist), or continue to display ignorance on both topics.

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  26. 26. Squish 4:21 pm 09/4/2010

    This is a little bit like the fiasco with Stephen Hawking. He recently had a statement published that the "universe can and will create itself from nothing". Theists went on the offensive, however most of them didn’t seem to realize that Hawking was merely stating that there is no need for any god-of-the-gaps to explain our existence, as there was a need for, say, the cosmological constant. So his view of god was much more mathematical/physical (mathematical reasoning does not necessitate a god, creation can come from gravity) and not so much theological.

    Likewise I think Kanazawa is mainly going for reactions, but he really isn’t thinking about Islam and Christianity as separate faiths, but as largely isolated separate breeding pools – there being of course many disparate pools within each religion.

    I read the article, and felt that he was talking about how religion contributes to creating the boarders in different sub-populations, as different religions can prohibit cross-over breeding and encourage endogamous breeding. And when cross-over occurs between groups, religious culture would tend to prefer the outside group to at least be of the same religion.

    This endogamous idea is already common with Judaism, but not as common with Christianity and Islam, the other two Abrahamic faiths. Forget the real religious stuff, Kanazawa just wants to say (inflammatorily) that half of Obama’s genes belong to a largely endogamous gene pool that itself can be characterized as resulting from the mating decisions (and wars etc.) of people belonging to a largely Muslim cultural history. I don’t know how accurate this is.

    It is unclear whether the author thinks that those genes, when expressed solely in a Christian cultural way, maintain any cultural memory or tendency towards Islam (like a Jewish orphan being adopted in a Muslim or Christian family unaware of parentage, yet somehow becoming ‘Jewish’). The author would have sounded mad to suggest that there is this type of religious genotype that results in a behavioural phenotype.

    One thing we can all be proud of, is that we are all ancestors of those who tended to kill rather than be killed before reproduction, and, more positively, were social enough to get along in some sort of group.

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  27. 27. sir bill 7:22 pm 09/7/2010

    Religion is the root of psychology. But denied.

    Wonder what this man would be classified as: born in Iraq, Dad Muslim, Mom Jewish. Areal person who worked for me for ten years. Good worker.

    And watch for this to be on Fox news etc. soon.

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  28. 28. loveslawyerjokes 4:27 pm 09/8/2010

    Rohbiwan…There was a recent article entitled "If Religion is a Side Effect of Sex, Does That Mean God Doesn’t Exist" in SciAm last June. The area of the brain that is stimulated during prayer is the same area that is stimulated during sex. I think it has more to do with feeling good than genetics.

    Also, the Constitution says that a president must be born on American soil. People born of American parents in a foreign country must obtain American citizenship. More recent law has also included foreign American military bases as qualifying birth places for a president. I recall that there was an accusation that McCain was actually born in a hospital that was not on the U.S. base. Never proven and a moot point, anyway. Now you have learned a little more about citizenship, smartass.

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  29. 29. loveslawyerjokes 4:49 pm 09/8/2010

    I’m not so sure what’s so "Sic. No very sic" about the correlation between menopause and mid-life crisis. Wouldn’t it be an evolutionary advantage for an older, yet still fertile, man to seek out a younger, and still fertile, mate? After all, while we were evolving only the fittest lasted into middle age. ("How do you get the Men in Menopause" joke omitted)

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  30. 30. Mycroft 9:29 pm 09/15/2010

    What about a half Jewish blood and half Christian blood person?

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