This post is in response to If Barack Obama Is Christian, Michael Jackson Was White by Satoshi Kanazawa


From time to time, I read Satoshi's posts for kicks. I can always count on him to bring forth the latest hypotheses from evolutionary psychology with panache, present them as if they have been proven, dismiss the alternatives, and mock the skeptics. Nonetheless, he does have a lot of good material and his posts are never boring. Usually, I can see (I think I can) where he intends the audience to notice the line between science and entertainment.

It seems to me, though, that in his post "If Barack Obama Is Christian, Michael Jackson was White" he steps over that line. His point is this: Religion, like race, consolidates through endogamy (inbreeding). Over generations, genetic markers for blackness, whiteness, Catholicism, and Islam emerge. As a consequence, a person can no longer choose a religion just as he or she can no longer choose a race. Satoshi offers Michael Jackson's condition (vitiligo) as proof that he, Jackson, was trying to do the latter and Barack Obama's choice of worship as an exemplar of the former. In his words,

"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."

You're kidding, right? If you are, never mind. We all had a good laugh. If you're not, I should respond. I think you are abusing evolutionary psychology to make an unsustainable essentialist argument. I agree that there is a grain of truth. Over generations, endogamy homogenizes populations. Genetics affect attitudes. Attitudes differ in their heritability, and highly heritable attitudes are particularly stable within a person, predictive of behavior, and resistant to persuasion. Religious attitudes can be of this kind. But that's about it. Genetics is not the only factor that stabilizes attitudes; culture has the same effect. Likewise, there are a lot of forces that promote attitude change. How many generations ago did your ancestors become evolutionary psychologists and bloggers, Satoshi, and how was the first Kanazawa converted to the cause? Will your descendents ineluctably be evolutionary psychologists?

The essentialist argument is unnecessarily stringent, scientifically vacuous, and politically arrogant. As to stringency: We don't need to postulate an immutable Catholic (or whatever) "thingy" within a person's soul (or string of DNA). We can happily study degrees of associations between measurable attributes and how these associations change. As to vacuity: We can't measure essences; we can only assume them. This assumption itself is a feature of our own folk psychology. Science should be in the business of overcoming such thinking. As to arrogance: The assumption of essence wants to deal a knock-down blow against all alternatives. How can you argue with someone who has seen a truth so deep, so incontrovertible? Ironically, essentialist thinking can be found among certain rather reactionary systems of thought, some political, some religious. As you know, some ideologies categorically deny the possibility of conversion (or mere lapsing). Doesn't that make you shudder?

One more thing, 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?

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