God in the Gene (or, The God Problem)
Originally written in Spring of 2005 for a class on biotechnological communication.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
_________ pp. 16
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 materialist
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 lobes
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 time
Science and religion have been at odds with one another since science escaped its “handmaiden of religion” role during the Enlightenment.