God in the Gene (or, The God Problem)

Originally written in Spring of 2005 for a class on biotechnological communication.

God1 has a problem. Specifically, s/he2 has suffered a reductionist downsizing of massive proportions, going from an omniscient, everywhere being to a genetic predisposition, a singular regulatory gene. In the reductionist, geneticized view of God commonly referred to as “the God Gene”, after a book of the same name, God occurs in a particular gene, VMAT2, and is an expression of monoamines designed to make us feel better about life, stress, and death. The singular gene theory is also a fallacy that not even the author of the problematic title, Dean Hamer, subscribes to. And if it is such a fallacy that not even the author believes it, then why was it published? What point is it trying to prove, or serve?

In The God Gene, Hamer builds on the work of several scientists who have been studying spirituality, religion and the brain, including (and leaning heavily on) Michael Persinger, who studies the construction of the temporal lobe and how its construction affects one’s God experience. Hamer takes the idea of God in the brain a step further, looking for and finding a single gene he believes controls how spiritual we are. This, the aforementioned VMAT2 gene, and is involved in how the brain uses monoamines, a class of neurotransmitters including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. In simple terms, VMAT2 makes a protein that packages all of the different monoamines into secretory vehicles – the biological packages that the brain uses to store its signal molecules.3 Hamer and his team focused on finding a gene that would control both dopamine and serotonin functionality in the brain. Dopamine has been associated with a sense of self-transcendence and good will, while serotonin is well known to affect emotions, particularly negative ones such as depression an anxiety. He found this combination in VMAT2.

An obvious and immediate problem with the concept of a God gene is just that, and was pointed out by one of Hamer’s colleagues: “Do you mean there’s just one?” Hamer says that what he meant to say was “‘a’ God gene, not “the God gene ” ” [emphasis mine] and that “it wouldn’t make sense that a single gene was responsible for such a complex trait. …most of the inherited effects can’t be explained by VMAT2. There might be another 50 genes or more of similar strength.”4.” Fair enough, and if we had been overhearing his conversation with said colleague, it would be understandable that we went away with the impression of a God gene. But that’s not the case; Hamer had plenty of time to refine his book title, and chose to stay with the phrase that immediately raised the eyes of colleagues and demanded clarification. Why? It’s a question only Hamer can answer, but we can certainly speculate on it.

This isn’t the first time Hamer has promoted the theory of a single gene determining behaviour. Hamer is probably best known for his “gay gene” theory, brought to light by gay rights activists attempting to utilize the language of the Supreme Court to sway lower courts in a Colorado case on homosexuality and discrimination. Hamer and colleagues had published two reports that supposedly supported the existence of a “gay gene”, but the first and more substantive report was plagued with problems and the second report showed a much smaller percentage of men with the correct marker for the gene.5In 1993, when Hamer first declared the find of the gay gene, he very clearly stated that gay genes existed; several years later he backpedaled to say that “there is no ‘gay gene’ and I’ve never thought there was.”6 Obviously well aware of the controversy, he goes on to make the same “mistake” with The God Gene – mistake, or publicity?

While he repeats the “mistake” he made with the “gay gene,” Hamer did learn from the controversy, and with his “God gene” is being very careful to say “the term “God gene” is, in fact, a gross oversimplification of the theory. There are probably many different genes involved, rather than just one.”7 Hamer is also very careful to say that the God component of the gene is not a specific God, but is in fact a spiritual instinct that is hardwired into our brains, and that spirituality has a biological mechanism that is expressed in response to and shaped by our environment. Spirituality, then, is genetic, while God is cultural and mimetic.8 In this, Hamer harks back to Persinger, who constructed very specific phrases to talk about God Beliefs. Persinger divided God Beliefs into two categories, God Experiences and God Concepts. God Experiences are transient, emotionally loaded phenomenon associated with the temporal lobe of the brain, while God Concepts are cultural, verbal and pictorial conditionings. Taken together, your God Experience and God Concepts create your God Beliefs – whether or not you believe in God, how you define God, whether or not you see God as a melding with the Universal All (a very Eastern concept), or a more fatherly and/or strict authoritarian figure (as in Western mythology).9 It is also important to note that while Persinger was looking for God Experiences, he was not trying to reduce the question of God down to a single gene. Instead, Persinger was exploring a more emergent conception of God; that is, that God is a sum of parts. Persinger believed that “the God Experience is a normal and more organized pattern of temporal lobe activity.”10

It’s important to note the difference here. Persinger is trying to describe where and why God (or similar transcendent and universal experiences) exist, not how. Persinger is looking at electrical activity and fields as a means for God; God is in the electrical impulse. Persinger finds God in temporal lobe transients, which are electrical perturbations of the temporal lobe.

When they occur, the innate feelings of the God Experience are displayed. Depending on the extent of the activity, some experiences would be mild cosmic highs… Other more intense transients would evoke the peak experiences of life… They would involve religious conversations, rededications, and personal communions with God.11

The beauty of Persinger’s work is that it is not a reductionist approach; he is studying the why, where, and what: why do God Experiences happen, where do they occur, and what are they? Persinger deals completely in the emergent properties of electrical patterns, you can’t break it down into component parts. It would be like trying to take the flour out of a cookie once it’s been baked. In contrast to this, Hamer takes a reductionist approach in trying to find how the God Experience happens. For Hamer, all things must break down into their component parts, and then build back up. You take the Lego pieces out of the box, build the castle, take the castle apart, build the castle, take the castle apart, ad nauseum. As self-described materialist12, (as are most scientists13), Hamer’s reductive viewpoint makes sense – that doesn’t make it right.

Hamer argues for a geneticized basis for God, going further than Persinger’s electrical God to say that God is in the Gene. As noted, contrary to both popular opinion and Hamer’s book title The God Gene, Hamer does not argue for a single determining gene that defines God, just that the potential for God is within us, and that our ability to perceive God is based on what genetic combination we have. Those who are more devout simply are more genetically inclined to be. It is a geneticization or biodeterminist belief; not only do our genes determine if we believe, they determine that all there is to believe is cultural constructs that were developed to house our internal God Experiences. These experiences are similar to one another solely because we all have temporal lobes14, which all feel the same things during temporal lobe transients; it’s how we interpret the temporal lobe transients that varies. Spirituality, then, is what’s in the genes, and God is in our cultural constructs.

By acknowledging cultural constructs, Hamer appears be creating a role for environment, thus mitigating the nature/nurture controversy. As is popular with scientists, he uses twin models in an attempt to show neutrality by saying that they were raised in different environments and still have statistical correlation. The problem lies in Hamer’s definition of environment; he says “these twins were raised by different parents, in different neighborhoods, and sometimes even in different religions,” so “their similarities seemed to be the result of their DNA rather than their environment.” There are two immediate problems with this: first, the twins still shared the same in utero environment for nine very developmentally important months. Secondly, none of the twins Hamer uses to validate his point were raised outside the same environment of western Judeo-Christian culture. While income levels undoubtedly have an impact on a person’s beliefs, there is a core, shared national environment that should not be discounted for convenience.

Hamer’s first geneticized social issue was homosexuality, which he reduced down to a “gay gene” to argue for tolerance, equality and rights. Although he did backpedal on the singular nature of the gene, he repeats the assertion in his next social issue, religion and God – there is a singular God gene. Perhaps instead of looking at his reductive biological determinism, we should be paying attention to the issues Hamer chooses to focus on. Religion is undoubtedly one of the most debated and contested issues in our society right now. Many people consider it to be the cause of our current engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the cause of the World Trade Center attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin attacks in Tokyo, and so on. The list of things attributed, both negatively and (to a lesser degree) positively, to religion in the last ten years alone is awing. Over the course of history, religion has been responsible for more deaths, wars, and pogroms than all the governments combined. If we could explain religion, find its cause, could we neutralize it? Control it?

There is a common ecumenical belief that all paths lead to the same end point. That is, all religious beliefs and paths are merely different cultural interpretations of a single, unifying something. This ecumenical belief points out the similarities between all religions: the focus on family, love, respect, honour, peace, treating others well. Commandments like “kill the unbelievers” are swept away as cultural constructs that should be taken in stride with social conditions of the time15 On the surface you could argue that by focusing on the universality of a spiritual experience and relegating the interpretation of that experience to memes, Hamer et. all are trying negate what Persinger calls the religious encouragement that the believer is more special and unique than others, that “the believers of the Koran feel that it is just a little more valid than the Bible, and the believers of the Bible feel it is a little more valid than the Koran.”16 This is well and noble, but you have to wonder if there isn’t a more secular interest in God?

Science and religion have been at odds with one another since science escaped its “handmaiden of religion” role during the Enlightenment.17 Instead of existing to validate religious beliefs, science began to contradict and question those beliefs. Since that time, science and religion have been relegated to opposing spheres that continually battle for the beliefs of the population. Could it be, then, that instead of a well-intended attempt to bridge the divides of religion by showing the similarity and origin of spiritual beliefs, Hamer is attempting to go further than reducing God to a gene? By saying that spirituality is what we feel, and that our beliefs about God, Allah, the Universal Whole, are merely cultural, and that there is no outside authority, is Hamer trying to actually negate God completely? After all, it would be quite the coup for science to finally be able to say, with all authority, that God is well and truly dead.

  1. Persinger, Michael. 1987. “It may be called Allah, God, Cosmic Consciousness, or even some idiosyncratic label. Slightly deviant forms include references to intellectual abstracts such as ‘mathematical balance,’ ‘consciousness of time,’ or ‘extraterrestrial intrusions.’” In Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (New York: Praeger), pp. 1-2 []
  2. For the purpose of this essay, the spiritual Being referred to by Persinger, Hamer, etc will be referred to as God, for simplicity, and s/he to respect as many beliefs as possible. []
  3. Hamer, Dean. 2004. Hamer spends several chapters describing the role of VMAT2 on serotonin, dopamine, and how that combination would create perceptions of Persinger’s universal God-feeling. In The God Gene (New York: Doubleday), pp 56-69. []
  4. _________ pp 77. []
  5. Bereano, Phillip. 1996. “The Mystique of the Phantom Gay Gene.” Seattle Times Op Ed, February 25, 1996. []
  6. _________ []
  7. Hamer, Dean. 2004. In The God Gene (New York: Doubleday), pp 8. []
  8. Memes are ideas that can replicate and evolve. Richard Dawkins, who coined the term, specifically chose a phrase that sounded like gene, as he was trying to evoke that biological imagery. He has also been known to refer to memes, especially religion, as a virus; this, sadly, is not the place to discuss the fallacy of memes. []
  9. Persinger, Michael. 1987. In Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (New York: Praeger), pp. 1-8 []
  10. _________ pp. 19 []
  11. _________ pp. 16 []
  12. A philosophical view which says that all things that exist can be broken down into their fundamental, material components. []
  13. _________ “Most scientists, including myself, are materialists.” pp. 94 []
  14. Similar to how we all have a shared experience in pain; we know what it feels like when someone else stubs their toe. []
  15. Armstrong, Karen. 2000. The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. (New York: Ballentine). []
  16. Persinger, Michael. 1987. In Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (New York: Praeger), pp. 4 []
  17. Woiak, Joanne. Lecture, February 2004. []

trust bound

Sunday night, sitting here along with my beer and thoughts, wind howling outside, occasionally gusting snow against the window with some vengeance. Light comedy on the television, but I wonder if something more sober, or at least darker, might not be more appropriate. It’s not that I’m feeling particularly bad, or even dark and twisty, but I am feeling introspective. It’s been a very long week, a week of chaos, and mistakes on my part. I knew the chaos was coming, and mistakes were inevitable, but I still don’t like either…well, the mistakes, anyhow. I suspect I actually might thrive on chaos.

I’ve been called out on some personality traits, and it was a fair calling out, but it’s still an uncomfortable thing. I realized, talking to Jen earlier today, that it’s been a while since anyone has gotten in my face (nicely or otherwise) and thrown me back at myself, or was so pointed in challenging what I say and why I do/say certain things. I guess…I was the golden child who could do no wrong for a while, and this was an important thing for me to hold on to. It gave a lot of validity to what I did, and helped me get over things, the hurtful things, that came part and parcel with my divorce. And, that’s not here now – which is okay, but it’s going to take a bit of adjustment on my part. It’s not that I’m a prima donna, by any means, but it catches you a bit short when you’ve become accustomed to being treated a certain way, and suddenly that way is gone and you’re getting blunt analysis of your character.

Another part and parcel of that divorce is my utter terror of two words, two words I did my best to avoid in my years at UW, where I did as much as I could alone, by myself, relying on no one, stubbornly insisting I would do it, could do it, alone. Those words? “Trust me.” I don’t do well with trust, something I’m realizing as I sit here with my barely touched beer. I realize that a lot of the issues that have caused me so much stress in the last week soundly rest with that issue, that freaking out and panic in the face of having to simply trust someone.

I did trust someone, and I got my heart and life handed back to me post-paper shredder. I pulled myself back together with a lot of effort and duct tape, and learned that trusting other people is bad. Of course, I also spent a lot of time arguing that trust is good, and can happen again after it’s been broken – have marveled that we can pull ourselves back together and make ourselves vulnerable again. And that’s sort of the whole thing with trust – in opening yourself to trust, you also open yourself to what happens when trust is broken. Alfonso Lingis, in his book Trust, says this so beautifully:

In trust one adheres to something one sees only partially or unclearly or understands only vaguely or ambiguously. One attaches to someone whose words or whose movements one does not understand, whose reasons or motives one does not see.

Is it all the things that are known that encourage the leap, in this one instance, to adhere to something unknown as though it were known? Is it not because of a long past tried and true that someone becomes a trusted adviser? Is it all that one knows about laws, the institutions, the policing, and all that one knows about the values, the education, the peer pressure of individuals in a society that induce one to trust this individual met at random on a jungle path? But the more one knows about a tried and true adviser, the more clearly one sees that every act of loyalty opened an opportunity for disloyalty.

This was part of that summer institute I did, and so I have actually thought a lot about this – and I appear to have regressed a bit from the point I was at to where I am now. Perhaps that’s just a result of new environment, change,..and fear. If I screwed up in the past, no huge deal – just my pride. If I screw up now, I feel like we’re talking career bites dust sort of huge deals.

I pulled out my paper from the Institute – the project that came of it is sitting about 5 feet away, but it’s easier to just read what I wrote. And if I isolate out what I wrote on trust alone, of forming and losing and trying again, it still rings very true – almost insightful.

trust and time are intimately linked. one cannot exist without the other. time is a construct. all that exists is now, the present. we are always in the present, passing through it. we never reach the future, and the past is always behind us. we build trust, and make the decision to trust, based on experiences – events – from our past. these singular events allow us to look at the seemingly endless options in front of us and narrow them down; trust becomes a filter that allows us to make decisions. in the network of life, trust gives us a way of managing what would be incomprehensible.

when trust is broken, our options become limitless, and we are paralized, not in fear, but in choice. we have no way of narrowing down the potentiality of an event or situation without the ability to trust. but we trust – or not – based on prior events, and it is difficult to override those prior events that taught us that we cannot believe ourselves. without the ability to trust, we are everpresent in the now, unable to pass through the present. we become stuck.

to free ourselves from being stuck, we have to take a risk. we have to look at the future potentialities and guess, choose blindly, choose based on what other people offer you. trust is a multiperson experience, and if someone extends you their trust, they do so on the basis of their experience, and what they think of you. what they think you will do. the options become filtered through the actions of another. it is up to us, whether or not we accept that external filter. it is up to us to make the decision that a single anomalic event does not mean we always have bad judgment.

to become unstuck, you must trust.

the only thing that means anything is what we do.

I realize I have the choice to stand where I am, and have the future so open I am paralyzed, missing the trust I need in order to act decisively, to have futures narrowed to manageable potentiality. Or, I just…do what loyalty wants, and acknowledge that with an act of trust comes the potential for hurt, and the beauty of hope.

[The Daily 08-09-2006] The Road Continues

Kelly Hills
2006-08-09

It’s a hot afternoon in Washington, D.C. and a young boy buys a pickle from an ice cream and hot dog vendor, expecting cool relief from the sweet vegetable.

Instead, a flood of PCP and ecstasy floods his system, causing him to go into convulsions. By the time EMTs arrive, the boy has stopped respiration. While they are able to restore his breathing, and the hospital stabilizes him further, he does not wake up.

Two of the three neurologists to examine him are certain he is completely and totally brain dead. The third sees some electrical activity, and cannot say whether there is total brain death, but agrees that the child will never wake up.

Doctors wish to take the boy off life support; In their eyes, he is dead. He cannot survive without a ventilator and his heart needs assistance to beat. But the boy’s parents frantically demand doctors do everything possible to keep their son alive; they are Black Muslims, and believe that until Allah calls their son home, they must keep the child alive.

What’s a doctor to do?

If you have a clear idea, let me know. Robert Veatch, the ethicist, philosopher and professor asking my class this question, doesn’t have a comfortable answer, and neither do any of us.

The class, however, is not at the University of Washington. I have left the school, and even left the West coast — I’m now in Albany, New York, doing a slow boil in the high heat and humidity. They assure me the weather is not normal; I suspect they’re just trying to pull one on a Seattle girl.

I’ve spent the past six months using this space to rant and rave and think aloud, to provoke you (hello, pharmacy students!) into your own thoughts about ethics and medicine. I hope you’ve read what I’ve said and agreed, wanted to know more — or disagreed violently, and wanted to learn more.

I hope that at least a few readers decide to go down to the Health Sciences Center and take some of the medical history and ethics courses offered, maybe for a minor, maybe to join me along this road towards becoming a specialist in bioethics.

I’ve taken stands here that I don’t necessarily agree with, and I’ve worn my position on my sleeve. If you know me, you probably know which is which. For this last column, I’ll be obvious about having my heart and gratitude in the wide open.

I hear it’s tradition that your last column is a bit of reflection and goodbye. My time at The Daily has been one where I’ve had the chance, thanks to my dear friend Maureen Trantham, to explore some ideas about medicine, ethics and popular culture outside the formal academic setting. It’s been a wonderful opportunity and experience.

But as it may be evident, I’ve a lot to learn before I can comfortably call myself an expert. That’s why I’m on the other coast, three hours ahead, being steamed to death. I’ve joined a program run by the Alden March Bioethics Institute; I’ll be earning a master of science in bioethics from the Graduate College of Union University and Albany Medical Center, as well as a PhD in Philosophy from the State University of New York.

Hopefully, I’ll be following in the footsteps of those who’ve inspired me, the people you should seek out if you want to be so inspired: Phillip Thurtle, Denise Dudzinski, Sara Goering, Brian Reed, John Toews, Jess Olsen and all the great folks in CHID and MHE. Thanks … I’ll miss you all.

I don’t have the answer for the scenario I posed at the beginning of this article, but maybe I’ll come back in a few years and let you know what I’ve found out.

[The Daily 07-19-2006] Death Made Pretty

Kelly Hills
2006-07-19

Death by lethal injection was dealt a blow last month when a U.S. district judge ruled the process may cause extreme pain and suffering before death.

In the United States, death comes in a three-drug cocktail. First, a drug is administered to cause unconsciousness. Another causes paralysis and a third stops the heart.

The objection is that it’s possible for someone not to be fully unconscious after being given the first drug, and feel both the paralysis and the burn of potassium that will stop the heart, causing significant fear and pain.

The court ruled fatal drugs couldn’t be administered without certified medical personnel there to ensure the prisoner is first unconscious before administering further drugs.

Since no medical personnel can be found who are willing to violate the American Medical Association ruling that it would be unethical to participate in involuntary death, there have been no deaths by lethal injection since the ruling.

There is a second method that could be used to bring about death, and it’s one that requires no medical personnel to participate — administer a much larger dose of the drug that causes unconsciousness. The higher dose assures unconsciousness — so no awareness or pain — but it can also cause death by ceasing respiration.

So which matters more: The comfort of the to-be executed, or the comfort of the witnesses to the death? The first method takes only 10 minutes, and because of the paralysis, the prisoner appears calm and relaxed.

The second method becomes visually difficult for witnesses: the unconscious prisoner could jerk and spasm for upwards of 45 minutes before death.

I believe that too many people on death row are there falsely, due to the failings of science or the legal system. But I also believe there are people there who’ve admitted to their crimes, or for whom the evidence is more than overwhelming.

In general, these people are so heinous, reform appears impossible and it’s in society’s best interest if they were humanely euthanized.

The innocence issue aside, it takes entirely too long to move from sentencing to execution. We change so much in 20 years that we’re quite literally not the same person — our cells have died and been reborn and died again almost three times over. Multiple biological changes have occurred, and that’s not even beginning to consider the mental and emotional ones.

Secondly, there’s the objection of pain and suffering. Yes, the person is being executed — but I don’t think that means we should cause pain in the process. The supposedly “humane” death by injection is fraught with problems and pain, but a serene death for the prisoner is disturbing to witness.

Of course, we opt to comfort the witness and not the person being executed. It makes me wonder a bit at our attitude toward death: It’s OK, so long as it’s pretty and serene … ?

Is this just a manifestation of our general desire to have death be neat and tidy, a further extension of our attempt to sanitize dying? In our desire for neat appearances to comfort the vision we have of our own deaths, do we take the fast and cruel approach because it’s prettier?

I think most likely, yes.

[The Daily] – The Right to Life

The Right to Life
2006-07-05

So here’s a question for you to mull over: When were you old enough to make your own decisions?

Chances are you were pretty young when you figured out you didn’t like the taste of broccoli. And you probably weren’t old enough the first time getting drunk sounded like a good idea.

Now ask yourself this: At what age were you old enough to make your own medical decisions?

You were probably old enough to know what you wanted or didn’t want, medically speaking, before you turned 18. Probably even before 16 or 14, although it gets murkier the younger you go. Some kids are a lot more capable of that sort of thinking than others.

I doubt anyone thinks they were young children when they were able to make their own medical decisions. Since the concept requires speech, infants are ruled out.

This means in the case of infants and anyone else who hasn’t reached that nebulous age of “old enough,” someone else — a parent or legal guardian — is making their medical decisions.

This is how it should be, right?

Or is it?

Consider that by the time someone is in his or her teens, doctors will start asking for assent, if not consent, from the teenager. That is, they’re asking to sound out the patient’s feelings on treatment, aside from the feelings of the parent.

While legally the patient cannot give consent (unless, as in some states, it’s for issues related to sexual health), the patient can assent to treatment. Or they can disagree, in which case the doctor has to decide how to navigate the suddenly rough waters.

While you’d think doctors would want to avoid situations that could place them between patient and parent, the reason they do ask for assent is because — as I’m sure we’ve all experienced firsthand — children do not always follow parents in belief.

For most of us, we deviate from our parents’ beliefs in simple ways. PC vs. Mac, Democrat or Republican, science fiction or not.

But sometimes the apple falls pretty far from the tree, and children end up disagreeing with their parents about more serious, weighty things, like religion.

Religion has typically been the reason you would find a parent in court, arguing that he/she had the right to determine a child’s medical treatment. Parents who believe only in prayer, or who refuse blood or other life-saving treatments for any number of reasons, typically justify their decisions through religion.

That changed in Seattle last week when a 9-month-old baby was smuggled from Children’s Hospital by his mother, who wanted to pursue naturopathic treatments instead of allowing the surgical implantation of a shunt that would allow him to receive dialysis for his failing kidneys.

One Amber Alert and two days later, the mother was in jail and the child back at Children’s. Friday morning, a judge granted Child Protective Services custody, and permission for the surgery the mother so strongly opposed.

Not surprisingly, this case has privacy advocates up in arms, insisting that the government has overstepped its authority, and that parental rights are what matter.

In this case, the legal logic is similar to that used in religious cases, and it’s one I have a hard time finding any ethical fault with.

A child should be allowed to live to the point of making their own choice on whether or not to receive medical treatment, and until that age, you default to the assumption of doing whatever it takes to live.