Author Dean Hamer Discusses His Research on the "God gene" at AAAS
Dean Hamer, a molecular biologist who has made the provocative proposal that spirituality may be a product of our genes, discussed his work in a 26 May lecture at AAAS and cautioned that his research says nothing about whether God exists or not.
Hamer, chief of the gene structure and regulation unit at the National Cancer Institute, is author of a popular book, "The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes." The book received extensive media attention when it was published last year, including a cover story in Time magazine.
In his lecture, sponsored by AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, Hamer said his theory pushes science about as far as it can go in trying to explain complex human behavior. He said he is less sure of the merits of a genetic explanation for spirituality than he is of the genetic basis for more clearly biological traits such as anxiety.
But Hamer said it is worthwhile for science to explore why spirituality is such a universal force. He proposes that it is, at least in part, an innate behavior while involvement with a formal religion is a cultural trait.
Hamer has identified a single gene, called VMAT2, that he says is associated with spirituality. But he quickly noted that there could be hundreds of others involved. "I apologize for entitling the book 'The God Gene,' " Hamer said. It was a snappy title but not the best from a scientific standpoint, he said.
Hamer undertook his research on spirituality as a sidelight to a study he was doing on smoking and addiction. He had recruited 1,001 men and women who were asked to take a standard personality test. It included a section, designed by Washington University psychiatrist Robert Cloninger, that measures a trait called self-transcendence.
The characteristics of self-transcendence include an ability to get so wrapped up in an experience as to lose one's sense of self, a feeling of being connected to the larger universe and an open mind to events not readily explainable. Taken as a whole, such traits offer a quantifiable measure of spirituality, Hamer said.
Using DNA samples from the study participants, Hamer and his co-workers looked at 10 candidate genes that might explain the differences between high and low scores on self-transcendence. They focused on genes associated with production of brain chemicals called monoamines that regulate mood and conscious awareness.
Hamer found that a single change in the sequence of base pairs in the VMAT2 gene seemed to account for a difference in propensity toward spirituality. Having the VMAT2 gene, and the feelings of self-transcendence apparently triggered by it, does not mean that an individual will become an adherent of a formal religion, Hamer said.
Although a tendency to spirituality may be hard-wired in the genes, he said, that is no reason for some to deny the existence of God. "All that science can tell us is how the brain gets these ideas and how it passes them along," Hamer said. "Whether or not the ideas are true or not, I have no idea and science does not provide the answer."
A religious person, he said, could well look at his research and say it just proves that God exists and has given humans a mechanism to recognize that existence.
Hamer said it is important for other groups to replicate his research, which has not been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.
Some critics have argued that Hamer's work takes a reductionist approach to spirituality that devalues religious faith and risks viewing it as little more than the result of genetic selection. Hamer, who said he became more spiritual while writing his book, said science and religion can readily co-exist. "Spirituality is certainly something that can't be bad for us," he added, "or it would have disappeared."
Lindon Eaves, director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said Hamer's study was worthwhile. To ignore the genetic component of complex human behaviors, he said, "is to ignore what it staring us in the face."
But Eaves, who is also an Episcopal priest, took issue with Hamer's suggestion that spirituality is primarily a feeling. "The branch of religion that I come from sees spirituality as cognitive, as critical and as adaptive," Eaves said. He also said the correlation between formal religious belief and spiritual values is quite high. As a scientist, Eaves said, he sees similarities between science and religion. The scientific process, he said, "is a secular expression of the same inner pursuit of truth that we see in religion."
If spirituality has a strong genetic component, what is the selective advantage for such behavior from an evolutionary standpoint? Hamer replied that a sense of spirituality may improve psychological well-being and that there also is empirical evidence that "people who pray actually have longer life spans."
7 June 2005