Monday, August 30, 2010

Satoshi Kanazawa is wrong (again)

Longtime readers of this blog may remember a post from a couple of years ago - ingeniously entitled "Crazy Kanazawa" - in which I argued LSE evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa's call for a nuclear response to 9/11 was a touch... excessive. It turns out time has not diminished Kanazawa's silliness.

Responding to the astonishing Pew poll that found 18% of Americans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, Kanazawa wrote "If Barack Obama Is Christian, Michael Jackson Was White". This is such a mind-bogglingly stupid article that I suspect any summary from me will come off as a straw man, so I'll just quote Kanazawa at length:
Anybody who believes Barack Obama is Christian must also believe that Michael Jackson was white. Like other world religions, Islam not only is a religion but also comprises largely endogamous ethnic groups. When a group of individuals remain largely or entirely endogamous (marry only other members of the group and not outsiders), forming what geneticists call a deme, they become genetically distinct over time. A long history of endogamy, usually but not always necessitated by geographic or social isolation, is how genetically distinct racial and ethnic groups emerge. Muslims, both in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, are a largely endogamous ethnic group... It’s not only about who you worship; it’s also about who you marry.
One’s genome is entirely determined at the moment of conception, and absolutely nothing that individuals do during their lifetimes can alter the composition of their genes. For most of his adult life, Michael Jackson (apparently) believed he was white and (obviously) wanted to be white. He thus underwent numerous plastic surgeries to look white, and mostly looked and acted white. But his genes were still the same genes that he inherited from his black parents at the moment he was conceived, and no amount of plastic surgery could alter his genes. No matter how white his skin was, underneath he was still just as black as the day he was born.
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.
Erm... right. So, firstly, Michael Jackson suffered from the skin condition vitiligo and the auto-immune disease lupus, which combined to significantly whiten his skin. Suggesting that he "wanted to be white" is mere speculation, and I'm not sure what the hell it even means to "act white".

Second and more importantly, Kanazawa apparently just doesn't know what the word Muslim means. Communicated meaning is determined by usage and convention, and in the English language the word Muslim refers to someone who believes there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad was his prophet. Someone who converted to Islam yesterday is as much a Muslim as someone who, like all their ancestors stretching back to the 7th century, was indoctrinated into Islam as a child. (I blush to have to point this out, but, as Richard Dawkins has been repeating for years, no one is born a Muslim or a Christian. We are all born atheists). Now, granted, an author is free to use stipulative definitions - giving a new or specific meaning to a term for the purposes of some discussion - but it is obvious equivocation to defend the 18% of Americans who understand "Muslim" conventionally by invoking an entirely different, stipulative, definition.

It gets worse. Much. Worse. Remember the claim that Obama is "descended from a long line of Muslims"? Rather embarrassingly for someone making an argument like Kanazawa's, that's... erm... not true. His father, Barrack Obama Sr., was raised Muslim, was non-practicing and later became an atheist. His step-father was also "non-practicing" Muslim. His mother, Ann Dunham, was either an atheist or an agnostic. His grandfather, Hussein Obama, first converted to Catholicism, and later to Islam. His grandmother, Habiba Obama also converted to Islam later in life. Yes, that's right: Obama's grandparents converted to Islam. In other words... Kanazawa's argument is so mind-bendingly stupid that it's not only invalid, misguided, misleading, and has false supporting premises, it actually has a false major premise. Such sloppiness deserves nothing but contempt and ridicule.

Hat Tip: Jeff Martin.


  1. Maybe it's not just Kanazawa's political outburst that's silly. The one or two academic papers of his that I've read reports about seem seriously...sketchy...too. Granted, the reporting may just be as poor as much science journalism (especially about evolutionary psychology) you were onto recently. Granted, I should look for myself. But just not enough time right now.

    Which is why I wont say more here, re your reference to Dawkins's "We're all born atheist", than: it depends how you mean "born atheist". If you and/or he mean it entirely literally, then yes, we humans arent born with any belief about any particular god in our heads. But then that makes the claim rather trivial, since its true of so much else.

    If, on the other hand, you mean that we're all born with a disposition to doubt the existence of a god or gods; or that we're innately such that without being taught organised religion, we wouldnt be believers, then that seems false.

    Virtually all the work in the cognitive science of religion (really, religious belief) over the past decade or more indicates that we humans are born with minds that predispose us to believe in supernatural beings or gods (of course not necessarily the particular god of any particular religion, though there are reasons to think we're more inclined to some kinds of supernatural beings than others).

    But then I'd think you know about this work, so Im wondering where I've misinterpreted you, Mike...?

  2. Both Dawkins and I mean it in the trivial sense of "we're not born with beliefs of the form 'God exists'" nor, as far as I know, is there evidence of genetic predispositions to believe in particular Gods. I agree re the stuff about humans being predisposed to religious beliefs (we are "natural dualists" and readily perceive agency where there is none). Note, however, that monotheism is highly unusual historically, as is organized religion. Our "natural" (to the extent that there is such a thing) religious beliefs seem to be animism / ancestor worship / various superstitions...

  3. Hello, I don't know you, but I love you. Thanks so much for helping further prove that this guy is a complete nut and none of us should be listening to him!!

  4. Thanks Luna... Yeah, the guy's a nutter, really not worth taking seriously. It's time for PT to fire him.