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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

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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