Bioethics Discussion Forum: The God Gene?

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on January 25, 2005

CBC invites you to discuss the following topic. This week Dr. Hans Madueme, research intern at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity will be joining our discussion.

Topic: The God Gene. Is Spirituality hardwired into our genes?

(from the GlobeandMail.com, January 1, 2005) A review of the book by Dean Hamer, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes

Why do we believe? Why, in every corner of the Earth, in every time period in history, in every type of society from hunter-gatherers right up to postindustrial superconsumers, are there so many people who hold faith in a higher power?

It’s a great question, and one that Dean Hamer, a geneticist who works at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, tries to answer in his latest book. He proposes that faith is biological. Spirituality, he suggests, is underpinned by genes. It’s an idea that’s been out there for a while, but is still controversial. Hamer is no stranger to controversy: He was the co-author of a book a decade ago that suggested that homosexuality also has a genetic basis.

If you pick up this book thinking the author has discovered the critical gene for faith, you’ll be disappointed. He’s made some provocative discoveries, it’s true, but he doesn’t actually believe there is a single gene for spiritual belief. And you could be forgiven for thinking that if God has top billing in the marquee, he’d at least get a starring role in the book. But no. Right there in Chapter One, Hamer admits that the term “God gene” is a “gross oversimplification of the theory,” just a “useful abbreviation” for what he’s trying to write about.

CBC invites you to discuss the following topic. This week Dr. Hans Madueme, research intern at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity will be joining our discussion.

Topic: The God Gene. Is Spirituality hardwired into our genes?

(from the GlobeandMail.com, January 1, 2005) A review of the book by Dean Hamer, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes

Why do we believe? Why, in every corner of the Earth, in every time period in history, in every type of society from hunter-gatherers right up to postindustrial superconsumers, are there so many people who hold faith in a higher power?

It’s a great question, and one that Dean Hamer, a geneticist who works at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, tries to answer in his latest book. He proposes that faith is biological. Spirituality, he suggests, is underpinned by genes. It’s an idea that’s been out there for a while, but is still controversial. Hamer is no stranger to controversy: He was the co-author of a book a decade ago that suggested that homosexuality also has a genetic basis.

If you pick up this book thinking the author has discovered the critical gene for faith, you’ll be disappointed. He’s made some provocative discoveries, it’s true, but he doesn’t actually believe there is a single gene for spiritual belief. And you could be forgiven for thinking that if God has top billing in the marquee, he’d at least get a starring role in the book. But no. Right there in Chapter One, Hamer admits that the term “God gene” is a “gross oversimplification of the theory,” just a “useful abbreviation” for what he’s trying to write about.

But what is he trying to write about? One of the central problems of the book is that Hamer can’t quite put his finger on his research topic. Many people associate belief in a higher being with religiosity and churchgoing. But Hamer insists he’s not studying whatever it is that drives people to be part of organized religion. What he is interested in, he says, is a more rudimentary spirituality. But what does he mean by spirituality, and how do I, the reader, know if I possess it?

To be fair, spirituality is devilishly hard to measure. First of all, it’s subjective. Secondly, it’s ineffable. Rather than devise an instrument from scratch, Hamer borrows a questionnaire developed by Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist. It’s known as the “self-transcendence scale” and tries to tap into things like “self-forgetfulness,” “transpersonal identification” and “mysticism” to get at how “self-transcendent” a person is. It also has the advantage of having been incorporated into a larger questionnaire, known as the Temperament and Character Inventory, which is given routinely to huge numbers of people taking part in studies on everything from tobacco use to mental illness. So there are a lot of people out there whose self-transcendence has been scored and recorded without their even knowing it and many of them are the unwitting fodder for this book.

Is self-transcendence pretty much the same as spirituality? Hamer thinks so. He spends a few paragraphs describing each element. The “self-forgetfulness” part, for instance, is that feeling of getting so involved in something that you forget the passage of time. (Yeah, I’ve felt that — haven’t we all?) “Transpersonal identification” is concern about the universe and love of nature, and the willingness to make sacrifices on its behalf. (Yes, check. Well, sort of. How many sacrifices do I have to make to qualify?) “Mysticism” is when you’re fascinated by things that can’t be readily explained by the laws of nature. (Yes, sometimes.) But at the end of the book, I’m still left wondering: By Hamer’s measure, am I spiritual? I don’t know, because one thing he doesn’t include is the questionnaire or any of its specific questions. This is a grave and inexplicable omission.

According to evolutionary biology, if a gene variant persists in the population, it must confer some selective advantage. Specifically, it has to somehow help you reproduce or keep your young alive long enough so that they can reproduce. But is there any evidence that faithfulness improves the lot of the faithful?

When it comes time to answer that pivotal question, Hamer conveniently smudges the line between spirituality and religiosity. On page 52, they are “fundamentally different” — one innate, the other learned — but on page 148, they are “distant surrogates.” That’s because practically all the studies that have found tangible benefits from faith found it among churchgoers. In an analysis that combined results from 42 such studies, being involved with religion was consistently linked with living longer — about seven years longer, in fact, if you start attending around age 20.

“Such findings suggest that one possible evolutionary advantage of genes that promote our need to believe in something greater than ourselves — what I call ‘God Genes’ — is to improve health and longevity,” he writes. But how can he conclude that from these studies? Surely these findings suggest that belonging to a church might be beneficial. But by his own admission, church membership is learned and has little to do with genes. And you don’t have to be a diviner to figure out that organized religion offers a lot in the way of providing people with a strong social network and positive influences, which might affect their well-being.

Oddly, the most compelling evidence he presents on the benefits of non-churchgoing faith is his examination of the placebo effect. When a drug is tested, only some of the patients in the trial are given the active ingredient; others are given what is essentially a sugar pill, called a placebo. But it’s now well known that just believing you might be taking something that could make you better — even if you’re only taking an inert tablet — can improve your outcome. Many depressed patients who get better in antidepressant drug trials do so taking only sugar pills; placebos are almost as effective at combatting pain as over-the-counter medications. Even patients with Parkinson’s disease, when told they might be taking medication, exhibited fewer symptoms. What’s more, their brains actually produced more of a neurotransmitter they need than patient
s who were not treated at all. So what is the placebo effect if not a faith effect?

Hamer has not managed to clinch the idea that having God genes is actually beneficial or, if it is, what the benefit might be. What he has done is assembled a lot of fascinating bits of circumstantial evidence. He’s found, for instance, that there is a variant of a gene called VMAT2 that is associated with high self-transcendence scores. VMAT2 packages up a class of neurotransmitters known as monoamines. These include dopamine, associated with motivation, and serotonin, associated with depression and sexual drive.

Hamer’s VMAT2 finding throws up all sorts of interesting possibilities. Maybe it alters dopamine levels, which affects how likely a person is to hunt for food, build shelter and even desire children. Maybe VMAT2 affects sexual drive, which affects number of offspring. Maybe it affects how optimistic we feel, and maybe optimism helps people persevere through the hard times of life. All intriguing maybes, but all maybes just the same.

Alison Motluk is a freelance science writer based in Toronto. She is not religious, but she suspects she may be spiritual.

Suggestions for Discussion:

1. In the broader context, what is an ethical response to manipulating our brain activity-chemistry via drugs and / or genetic manipulation?
2. Why is there a perceived dichotomy between science and a discussion of transcedence?

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