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The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes Paperback – September 13, 2005
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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. (Gurus, churches and religions exploit this human necessity.)
Consequently it is not so far-fetched to look for the predisposition for such beliefs in our genetic code, genes that have been selected by the evolutionary process. The question remains however, exactly what behavior is it that is selected and found adaptive in an evolutionary sense? Hamer thinks it is some sort of personal transcendence--that is, spirituality as opposed to religion as such (see page 215). However I think there is reason to believe that what is selected is the more profane aspects of religion and spirituality. To put it bluntly, what the genes (interacting with the environment of course) code for are tribalisms such as following a leader and being willing to die for the good of the tribe, and in general following the authority of tribal ways and means, believing what the shaman says, what the priest says, what the ayatollah tells us, and what the documents of the tribe declare as true.
Edward O. Wilson in his book, On Human Nature (1978)--highly recommended, by the way--argued that the ability of the individual to conform to the group dynamics of religion was in itself adaptive. He added, "When the gods are served, the Darwinian fitness of the members of the tribe is the ultimate if unrecognized beneficiary." (opus cited, p. 184)
Still there is a sense in which it is possible to see the genetic predisposition toward faith and religion in a more morally positive sense. Hamer believes that "God genes...provide human beings with an innate sense of optimism." (p. 12) Clearly life must be worth living, and faith provides us with any number of compensations for a hard life: promise of an afterlife, a rebirth to a better station, karmic comeuppance for transgressors, and karmic reward for our perceived good behavior, punishment for sin, etc., are artifacts of faith and are the main tenets of many religions.
However as to the specific gene that Hamer comes to identify, the VMAT2 gene, which influences the flow of monoamines in the brain, it could be said that this gene is not so much the "God gene" as the "dope gene," the gene that helps us to get high. On page 77 he allows that "There might be another 50 genes or more of similar strength."
In addition to Hamer's central argument, there are aspects of this book that are interesting and valuable in themselves. The chapter on "The DNA of the Jews" is absolutely fascinating and gives us a good idea of what is possible by using the changes in either the "y" or "x" chromosomes to trace human migrations and intermarriages.
I also like the distinction that Hamer makes between spirituality and religion. We all know people who are spiritual, but don't go to church (or temple or mosque, etc). And we all know people who attend church regularly but are about as spiritual as hyenas. (I won't mention any White House occupants, past or present!) And it is clear that there are agnostic scientists who are very spiritual persons indeed.
However, the weakest part of the book involves Hamer's attempt to adequately define spirituality and to distinguish it from religion. He calls in the psychology and psychiatric establishments to help out. I don't think they help much. It is a daunting task to even define "God" adequately. In the final analysis he goes with the idea of transcendence. However what we humans want to transcend is our animal nature (and sometimes the evidence of our senses and our experience!). Part of the reason we wear clothes and otherwise cover up while imagining that we have souls and are made in the image of God is to make our animal nature less obvious. For human beings it is not sufficient to be just animals. We are (or should be) spirit as well. Hamer actually declares that "Spirituality...is, in fact, an instinct." (p. 6)
Finally, faith does not require a god. Taoism has "the way," and the Buddha famously turned aside questions about God as being beside the point, while the ineffable God of the Vedas is nothing that a believer in a personal god would recognize at all.
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. That variation, according to Hamer, is reflected by the ability of certain individuals to experience self-transcendence. He calls the variation the "spiritual allele". He can use that appellation since further testing showed no relationship of VMAT2 to intelligence or neurotic behaviour. VMAT2 is a "regulator" that appears to control the amount of "monamines" present in the brain. Monamines are the "emotion" chemicals - serotonin, dopamine and other compounds that regulate some brain activities. While many of the details of their impact remain obscure, Hamer postulates that, in the proper environment, these chemicals can give feelings of well-being, anxiety and the other emotions we are familiar with. He thus equates individual experiences of spirituality with activity from the VMAT2 gene. The type of experience, he continues, is likely related to the cultural framework of the individual. It seems clear, but remains to be proven, that the gender difference derives from how VMAT2 relates to genes in the X [female] and Y [male] chromosomes.
Hamer builds his case on some highly speculative, but interesting studies. He cites the SPECT scans of monks and nuns, Persinger's magnetic stimulation of the temporal lobes, and other research in support of his thesis. He is as methodical as the current information allows. Various cultural environments are examined, in particular the now-famous "Aaron's DNA" tracing of Jewish lineages. While these are solid bricks in the edifice, the structure requires much reinforcement. The book's presentation rambles into various interesting asides, which might well be relevant. Hamer fails to draw them together beyond making generalised references to the universality of "spiritual experience". His pandering to his US audience in the title would be forgivable, did he not continue to refer the "God" gene in the text instead of some less absolute term. His conclusion nearly topples the entire edifice by evading the deity issue altogether. We are left wondering how evolution provided humans with a "god module" while leaving the rest of evolution bereft. Hamer deserves credit for raising the issue of the supernatural as a biological behaviour trait in a comprehensive framework. However, much work remains to be done. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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.