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. []

First Paper of the Quarter

I had to turn in my first paper of the quarter today, and, if I do say so myself, it sucked. If I was grading it, I wouldn’t fail myself, but I would strongly suggest a rewrite, a better attention to detail, and to not cover quite so much in the paper. I’m trying to remind myself that I didn’t know until last night that it was due, having basically left for a conference immediately after getting all the class syllabi for the quarter. Still, I’m a smidge of a perfectionist, and unhappy about it.

If you’re really masochistic, you can read the paper here. I gave it some suitably pretentious title, something like “Ghost Outside the Machine: Emergent Functionalism as an Option” or somesuch. Good title, at least – maybe I’ll pursue the concept in my final paper.