Book Review: The God Gene

A couple of summers ago, I checked out a few non-fiction books from the library.

One of them was The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes by Dean Hamer, a molecular biologist who studies behavioral genetics.

His premise was basically this: you can take this research either as proof that God exists or as proof that God is a psychological construct based on our human biology.  But either way, there appears to be a link between personality and spirituality that is genetically influenced.

The author used Robert Cloninger’s personality scale of self-transcendence, assigning a numerical rating to this trait in test subjects. Then he analyzed genes influencing the production of a monoamine transporter called VMAT2 and other brain chemicals to see if there was a link between increased production and self-transcendence. This was possible because self-transcendence was a unique trait, not strongly linked to other personality factors.

The studies focused on identical and fraternal twin studies in the search for a genetic link.

According to his data, ethnicity and race did not influence self-transcendence rates, and neither did age. But gender did. Strangely, women consistently scored higher than than men, which he couldn’t account for in his analysis. Also, Hamer did not find a correlation between self-trancendence and anxiety. He explained this meant that spirituality was not simply an expression of hidden fears, that spirituality is far more complex.

Here’s some other interesting soundbytes from his findings.

Even individuals who dislike all forms of organized religion may have a strong spiritual capacity and score high on the self-transcendence scale. (p.10)

Regardless of whether a person was male or female, the power of the gene was the same. The relationship between VMAT2 and self-transcendence was the same in every age bracket, from college freshmen to octogenarians. (p. 74-75)

We found that VMAT2 showed no correlation to either neuroticism or intelligence. There was also no correlation to novelty seeking, harm avoidance, self-directedness, cooperativeness, extroversion, introversion, openness, agreeableness, or conscientiousness. (p. 77-78)

Toward the middle of the book, Hamer explains how consciousness works and why we have a unique viewpoint. He gives an explanation for the biological basis of consciousness: communication within and between the thalamocortical and the limbic-brain stem systems. Monoamines like dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline, and serotonin all influence how we experience consciousness.

I found out something that could explain my nearly incurable optimism.

There is a natural, genetic version of Ecstacy in humans. It results from a variation in part of the serotonin transporter gene responsible for copying the DNA into messenger RNA. People who inherit one version of this polymorphism make more RNA, and therefore more functional transporter protein, than people who have the other gene. (p. 112)

And if you have excess dopamine, “life is incredibly stimulating–or at least seems so–even when there is nothing going on.” (p. 114)

Understanding how these brain chemicals work also helps us better understand unusual experiences. Monoamines don’t tell you specifics. Instead they give you “the overall tone of the brain” (p. 117).

They cause shifts in how we perceive the bigger picture. “People who have had mystical experiences often report a shift in their entire value system,” Hamer writes. “Feelings of spirituality are a matter of emotions rather than intellect. No book or sermon can teach one person to use a different monoamine transporter or another to ignore the signals emanating from the limbic system. It is our genetic makeup that helps to determine how spiritual we are. We do not know God, we feel him.” (p. 139)

People who went to church more often lived longer. And people who were prayed for, recovered more frequently. This could be due to the placebo effect, Hamer says, but it still causes a real, physical change.

Toward the end of the book, Hamer talks about how Judaism influenced the genetic development of the Jewish people, and cites research that points back to a single male ancestor that scientists nicknamed “Adam” and the start of the priestly line, the Cohanim, between 2,100 to 3,250 years ago, which is close to when the Bible says it happened. Hamer describes the DNA indications as evidence of an ancient tradition being carried out.

Since I’ve left behind much of my religious background, I found some of Hamer’s conclusions fascinating.

“The discrepancy between flagging attendance in formal religious settings and the high percentage of people who believe in God can be explained in large measure by the fact that spirituality is distinct from the precepts of any particular religion.” (p. 5)

Although religiousness does have a genetic component, it is much weaker than that for spirituality. Religion, unlike spirituality, is transmitted primarily not by genes, but by memes: self-replicating units of culture, ideas that are passed on from one individual to another through writing, speech, ritual, and imitation. (p. 13)

The take home message for parents is that telling a child what to do or how to think may encourage him or her to behave in exactly the opposite manner. (p. 177)

This is why I love science, and why I don’t feel that my love of science is in conflict with my spirituality, even during my journey out of fundamentalism. I hope science will keep studying this, as we find out more about the mystery of what it means to be human.

the_god_gene

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