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The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes Hardcover – September 14, 2004

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From Scientific American

By page 77 of The God Gene, Dean H. 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." Of course. Why, the reader wonders, didn't Hamer call his book A God Gene? That might not have been as catchy, but at least it wouldn't have left him contradicting himself. Whatever you want to call it, this is a frustrating book. The role that genes play in religion is a fascinating question that's ripe for the asking. Psychologists, neurologists and even evolutionary biologists have offered insights about how spiritual behaviors and beliefs emerge from the brain. It is reasonable to ask, as Hamer does, whether certain genes play a significant role in faith. But he is a long way from providing an answer. Hamer, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute, wound up on his quest for the God gene by a roundabout route. Initially he and his colleagues set out to find genes that may make people prone to cigarette addiction. They studied hundreds of pairs of siblings, comparing how strongly their shared heredity influenced different aspects of their personality. In addition to having their subjects fill out psychological questionnaires, the researchers also took samples of DNA from some of them. Hamer then realized that this database might let him investigate the genetics of spirituality. He embarked on this new search by looking at the results of certain survey questions that measured a personality trait known as self-transcendence, originally identified by Washington University psychiatrist Robert Cloninger. Cloninger found that spiritual people tend to share a set of characteristics, such as feeling connected to the world and a willingness to accept things that cannot be objectively demonstrated. Analyzing the cigarette study, Hamer confirmed what earlier studies had found: heredity is partly responsible for whether a person is self-transcendent or not. He then looked at the DNA samples of some of his subjects, hoping to find variants of genes that tended to turn up in self-transcendent people. His search led him to a gene known as VMAT2. Two different versions of this gene exist, differing only at a single position. People with one version of the gene tend to score a little higher on self-transcendence tests. Although the influence is small, it is, Hamer claims, consistent. About half the people in the study had at least one copy of the self-transcendence-boosting version of VMAT2, which Hamer dubs the God gene. Is the God gene real? The only evidence we have to go on at the moment is what Hamer presents in his book. He and his colleagues are still preparing to submit their results to a scientific journal. It would be nice to know whether these results can withstand the rigors of peer review. It would be nicer still to know whether any other scientists can replicate them. The field of behavioral genetics is littered with failed links between particular genes and personality traits. These alleged associations at first seemed very strong. But as other researchers tried to replicate them, they faded away into statistical noise. In 1993, for example, a scientist reported a genetic link to male homosexuality in a region of the X chromosome. The report brought a huge media fanfare, but other scientists who tried to replicate the study failed. The scientist's name was Dean Hamer. To be fair, it should be pointed out that Hamer offers a lot of details about his study in The God Gene, along with many caveats about how hard it is to establish an association between genes and behavior. But given the fate of Hamer's so-called gay gene, it is strange to see him so impatient to trumpet the discovery of his God gene. He is even eager to present an intricate hypothesis about how the God gene produces self-transcendence. The gene, it is well known, makes membrane-covered containers that neurons use to deliver neurotransmitters to one another. Hamer proposes that the God gene changes the level of these neurotransmitters so as to alter a person's mood, consciousness and, ultimately, self-transcendence. He goes so far as to say that the God gene is, along with other faith-boosting genes, a product of natural selection. Self-transcendence makes people more optimistic, which makes them healthier and likely to have more kids. These speculations take up the bulk of The God Gene, but in support Hamer only offers up bits and pieces of research done by other scientists, along with little sketches of spiritual people he has met. It appears that he has not bothered to think of a way to test these ideas himself. He did not, for example, try to rule out the possibility that natural selection has not favored self-transcendence, but some other function of VMAT2. (Among other things, the gene protects the brain from neurotoxins.) Nor does Hamer rule out the possibility that the God gene offers no evolutionary benefit at all. Sometimes genes that seem to be common thanks to natural selection turn out to have been spread merely by random genetic drift. Rather than address these important questions, Hamer simply declares that any hypothesis about the evolution of human behavior must be purely speculative. But this is simply not true. If Hamer wanted, he could have measured the strength of natural selection that has acted on VMAT2 in the past. And if he did find signs of selection, he could have estimated how long ago it took place. Other scientists have been measuring natural selection this way for several years now and publishing their results in major journals. The God Gene might have been a fascinating, enlightening book if Hamer had written it 10 years from now--after his link between VMAT2 and self-transcendence had been confirmed by others and after he had seriously tested its importance to our species. Instead the book we have today would be better titled: 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.

Carl Zimmer's books include Soul Made Flesh and Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea.

From Booklist

Like his and Peter Copeland's Living with Our Genes (1998), geneticist Hamer's provocative new book begins with the caveat that a single gene rarely accounts for a complex behavior, such as homosexuality, which was instanced in Living, or spirituality, the focus here. Still, Hamer has done sufficient research to argue that a single gene is implicated in spirituality, and his highly accessible exposition of how he arrived at that point is pretty impressive, if occasionally a bit Mr. Rogers-like in tone. Later, he adopts antireligious geneticist Richard Dawkins' concept of the meme, or transmissible unit of cultural information, to expand upon how culture and genetics interact to prompt expressing spirituality through religion and thereby to sustain faith traditions, such as in the demonstration case here, Judaism. (Hamer thinks Dawkins' attitudes toward religion less than rational, by the way, and poses those of sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson as a healthy alternative.) He ends with another caveat: distinguish between beliefs and the act of believing--and the war between science and religion just might be resolved. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 241 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (September 14, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385500580
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385500586
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,087,249 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAME on July 26, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Perhaps this book should be called "The Faith Gene" instead of "The God Gene." Geneticist Dean Hamer himself admits that "The God Gene is in fact a gross oversimplification...There are probably many different genes involved..." (p. 8) Later on he writes, "I believe our genetic predisposition for faith [notice: not "God"] is no accident. It provides us with a sense of purpose beyond ourselves and keeps us from being incapacitated by our dread of mortality." (p. 143) Note also that the book's subtitle declares that "Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes" while on page 211, Hamer declares that we are "Softwired for God."

Hamer's problem with definitions and usage arises because he is trying to take an abstraction such as "spirituality" or "transcendence" or "faith" or a belief in "God" and measure this abstraction with personality tests or by observing broader forms of human behavior. Furthermore he wants to make a useful distinction between religiousness and spirituality, between the extrinsic and intrinsic expression, the former being mostly public, such as church attendance, and the latter mostly private, such as prayer or meditation. Having done this he then wants to find a gene or some genes that code for spirituality. This is like trying to catch the ether in a hairnet.

Nonetheless it goes almost without saying that however ill-defined such abstractions may be, they do in fact refer to something real. A belief in an afterlife, in souls and inherited karma, in gods and poltergeists, heavens and hells, in things mystical and extrasensory, in a reality beyond a purely material and animal existence is universal to all human societies, past and present, and would seem to be as necessary as the very air we breathe.
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Format: Hardcover
When an author admits within the first ten pages of the book his title's misleading, readers have a right to be sceptical. There's much in this book to be sceptical about. Hamer's thesis is of immense importance and must be addressed - is there a biological basis for "spiritual" experiences? How much influence do our cultures impose in how we view the supernatural? Hamer declares he has the answer - which, he confesses, is hardly "a gene" as implied by the title. While other authors have equated the spiritual and the biological, Hamer is the first to pinpoint a likely trigger for these experiences. In this very readable account, he explains why he thinks there's a link between genetics and "faith".

Hamer is an avid speculator - he would make a Wall Street broker blench. He proposed a "gay gene" in his previous book - a thesis that fell on sterile ground. In this book, he proposes that a gene acting as a gateway for hormonal activity is the likely precursor for "spiritual experience". Combining his own research studies and that of others, Hamer developed a test series for spirituality. Spirituality is difficult to define, but he adapts the term "self-actualisation" devised by Abraham Maslow. Self-actualisation is applied to those declaring, for example, that they're "at one with the universe". Although students of the various forms of transcendental meditation more often use that phrase, even adherents of mainstream faiths make similar statements. Why, Hamer asks, are such declarations so universal among cultures? And why do more women than men make them?

Hamer was introduced to the VMAT2 gene by a colleague. VMAT2 sits on chromosome 10 and may vary by a single nucleotide.
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Format: Hardcover
First there was Persinger, a voice in the wilderness who pioneered the study of the neurobiological basis of religious experience. Then there was Joseph, who devoted a lengthy chapter to spirituality, evolution, genetics, and the brain, in the 2nd edition of his 1996 neuroscience textbook. Persinger and Joseph basically stood alone--true pioneers, visionaries. And then came the "Me too" crowd of pretenders, and now we have Hamer whose book, for the most part, is simply a rehash of Persinger, Joseph, Alper, and others. Another reviewer accused Hamer of having a "Plagerism gene." That's much too harsh since he did take the effort to rewrite the words and ideas of these other authors--but without citation (naughty naughty!) And he did manage to get so much wrong! The thalamus, for example is not part of the "limbic system." Proteins and hormones are not synonymous. Catecholamines are neurotransmitters, and the Catecholamines include (are you paying attention Mr. Hamer?) norepinephrine and epinephrine. Serotonin causes "negative emotions"?? Hello? Is this guy a scientist? Does he even know anything about religion? Confuscius
was a religious leader? What? Confuscianism is a religion? Wrong, wrong, wrong! That's the problem with pretenders. If you really want to understand the neurobiology and genetics of religious and spiritual experience, read Persinger, or the edited textbook, NeuroTheology.
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Enough with the religious types, the atheists, and even the political wannabes who are abusing this space to promote their own ideas. I mean really - how did a rant against John Kerry get into a review of "The God Gene"?

I actually read this book and found it refreshing. Hamer starts out with a question - why is religion still such a big part of peoples' lives? - and tries to answer it the way scientists do - looking at data. The chapters on twins and siblings were especially interesting. Some of the material on brain chemicals and genes were hard going, but every once in a while the good Doctor lightens things up with a zinger, like the one about Monica Lewinsky.

The one complaint I have is the title. This book really isn't about God at all. It's about us humans and how we work.
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