Winter 2005 - Volume 8 Number 1
The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes
New York: Doubleday, 2004
I shall leave the question of whether God exists to God. If such an entity exists, then the answer will be self-evident (at least to God). Sum, ergo sum, so to speak. If, on the other hand, such an entity does not exist, then the question is moot. Either way, puny human brains will probably never figure it outnot, at least, in this life.
A much more manageable but by no means easier question is this: Why do human beings appear universally to believe in God?
By "God," of course, I am referring not to any particular applicant but to a rather flexible job description. Archaeologists, anthropologists and historians assure us that human beings have believed in some sort of supernatural being since time immemorial. Animism, pantheism, polytheism, monotheism and many variations on such themes can be found in every human society with which I am even vaguely familiar. True, there are always apt to be some members of some societies that forsake their spiritual traditions; but, I know of no human community of any size or stability that has not believed in something external to the material human condition. How such beings are imagined and, ultimately, worshipped is, of course, a fascinating subject for comparative study; more fascinating, however, is the question of why human beings developed the concept of the supernatural, spirituality and God in the first place.
There are plenty of explanations, apart from the one offered by traditional theology; but, as I said, for the current purposes I prefer to ignore the matter of the "truth" of religious belief in general, much less of any particular religion. For a general answer, a quick peek at any comprehensive college text in the social sciences will yield results. Psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists all have an array of explanations for the ubiquity of religious belief. These can be reduced to a few simple statements: religion is useful as a sort of social cement, as a support for certain moral values, and as a way to resolve the problem of mortality by giving the appearance of meaning to our individual and communal lives. Religion, in one way or another, promotes personal and social steadiness or, seen from a slightly different perspective, religion is an essential ideological instrument of social control. Whether established and maintained through consensus or coercion (though normally both), religion matters.
The natural sciences have been wary of religious discussion for some time. Until the nineteenth century, religion and science were profoundly intertwined. What was once called "natural theology" called clerics and scientists together and encouraged the project of "natural history" (Mendel, the ur-geneticist was, after all, a monk). Natural theology, rooted in Aristotle and Aquinas, was meant both to explain the facts of physical and biological science and to reveal how such complexities illuminated God's plan.
The big break-up might have originated in astronomy, geology or biology, but it was fated to come. One way or another, it would be evolution, understood as a material explanation for the creation and transformation of everything from the structure of the amoeba to the death of stars, that separated science from religion and precipitated what many call the "war" between them. Stephen Jay Gould, among other scientists, was happy to negotiate co-existence. Science, he said, is the study of nature; religion is a reflection on meaning and morality. Nature is amoral and scientists ought not to extrapolate ethical lessons from their studies; religion, on the other hand, is a quest for ethical and metaphysical knowledge and ought not to tread upon the territory reserved for science. These two great "magisteria," as Gould called them, are dual aspects of human life and should both be revered as long they do not trench upon each other's turf. Some philosophers and scientists have not been as generous. Those who seek to reduce all human thought and action to the consequences of purely material interactions normally consign religion to the trashcan of logical absurdity. All speculations about abstractionsespecially with spiritual, aesthetic, political or other unfalsifiable contentare dismissed as meaningless precisely because the only words that they will admit into their vocabulary are those susceptible to operational definition, observation and replicable experimentation. It is possible to say that it is calm, the sun is shining and the temperature is above normal. It is meaningless to say that it is a nice day.
It is from this background that Dean Hamer begins his inquiry into human faith in God. Hamer, praised by E. O. Wilson, the putative patriarch of sociobiology, is a "leading laboratory researcher" in the field of "genetics, molecular biology, and psychology." His most recent quest is for a biological explanation of faith. The search begins with a review of some scales developed by psychologist Roger Cloninger that purport to measure the concept of "self-transcendence." Composed of three sub-sets, self-trancendance is composed of "self-forgetfulness" (as in the tendency to become totally absorbed in some activity such as reading); "transpersonal identification" (a reported feeling of unity in the universe); and "mysticism" (a willingness to believe in extra-sensory perception, and so on). Here we seem to have empirical measures of warm and fuzzy feelings. Hamer is careful to state that these three scales combine to indicate a predisposition toward religion but not any particular relationship to any organized faith. The next step was to discover if these behavioural or attitudinal tendencies were the product of nature or nurture. Hamer assures us that Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus and Mohammed all had plenty of self-transcendence.
Lo and behold! A connection was found by studying pairs of twins who had been separated and raised in different families. As Hamer has stated, "we rounded up a bunch of people and measured their self-transcendence. Then we looked at a bunch of genes and looked for differences. And we found this one gene that was at least correlated with self-transcendence. It's called VMAT2, which stands for 'vesicular monoamine transporter no. 2.' It handles one type of brain chemical, monoamines, that have a lot to do with emotional sensitivity." Hamer assures us that Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus and Mohammed all had plenty of dominant VMAT2.
Hey presto! Hamer then reports that the results "suggest that this spirituality scale is at least partially inherited." Note the words: "suggest," "partially"not the stuff of scientific breakthroughs. I do not mean to sound unkind, but others do. Carl Zimmer, writing in the popular magazine, Scientific American, points out that Hamer rushed into print with this book before publishing his results in a credible scientific journal. As well, Zimmer continues, by page 77, "Hamer has already disowned the title of his own book. He recalls describing to a colleague his discovery of a link between spirituality and a specific gene he calls 'the God gene.' His colleague raised her eyebrows. 'Do you mean there's just one?' she asked. 'I deserved her skepticism,' Hamer writes. 'What I meant to say, of course, was 'a' God gene, not 'the' God gene.' " Given the weakness of its conclusions, Hamer might better have entitled his book: A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Variance Found in Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor Called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study.
Hamer's own discomfort with his thesis is revealed in the number of caveats that he employs and his frequent use of words such as "might" and "may," perhaps to acknowledge that his conclusions remain unproven. Most of all, though, it is important to look on pages 211-212 of The God Gene, where Hamer also retreats from his subtitle. "Just because spirituality is partly genetic doesn't mean it is hardwired," he says. "Spirituality takes practice."
Now, the final retreat. In the last quarter of the book, Hamer switches gears, for there is rough road ahead. Having established that one or more genes that have to do with monoamines are also slightly correlated with the answers to a questionnaire, he then changes the subject from genes to memes. The concept of a "meme" was formulated by fellow selfish-gene geneticist Richard Dawkins. A meme is a little chunk of culture (e.g., natural gas furnaces, the concept of zero, chariots, tuxedos or McDonald's golden arches). Dawkins claims that genes and memes share the capacity to be replicated and are passed down by a sort of natural selection. According to Hamer, whether memes are true or false, tonic or toxic, brief or enduring is of no consequence. What matters is that "if a meme can efficiently colonize the human brain, it will." God, we must imagine, is a very successful meme.
Some would argue that, at this point, the "leading laboratory researcher" has just about lost it. There was nothing very scientific about his original discussion of VMAT2; there is nothing much scientific about the importation of Dawkins dubious designation of a meme. If such a thing exists, I suspect its investigation ought to be turned over to some shaggy social scientists who have some experience with the study of magic.
Two last points. First, in 1993, Dean Hamer first became famous for discovering Xq28, the so-called "gay gene." His claim still awaits replication. Hamer has come to the notice of a number of critics, notably Nancy Ordover (American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism, pp. 57-124), who have linked Hamer's previous causation theories to eugenics at least as persuasively as Hamer links VMAT2 to God.
Second, geneticists have unsuccessfully tried to relate qualities such as innate criminality, immorality, intelligence and now self-transcendence to this or that item in the human genome. Hamer does hedge his bets. He admits that moving from slight correlation to clear causation is difficult. He says that VMAT2 amounts to no more than a genetic predisposition, and that faith also takes practice. He makes odd statements about DNA, sprituality and culture with a peculiar chapter on "the DNA of the Jews." He even says (for no very good reason) that there is a big difference between "drug-induced visions" and the "spontaneous mystical experiences" associated with substances such as psilocybin which "mimics" the natural monoamine seratonin associated with VMAT2. (God works in mysterious ways?). In the end, however, Hamer has produced a flawed work not only insofar as scientific method is concerned, but also in the basic conceptual instruments with which human thought and behaviour are to be understood.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.
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