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The God gene hypothesis states that some human beings bear a gene which gives them a prediposition to episodes interpreted by some as religious revelation. The idea has been postulate and promoted by geneticist Dr. Dean Hamer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the U.S. National Cancer Institute. Hamer has written a book on the subject titled, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes.
According to this hypothesis, the God gene (VMAT2), is not an encoding for the belief in God itself but a physiological arrangement that produces the sensations associated, by some, with the presence of God or other mystic experiences, or more specifically spirituality as a state of mind.
Simply put, the gene is involved in monoamines, neurotransmitters that have a lot to do with emotional sensitivity. The interpretation is that the monoamines correlates with a personality trait called self-transcendence. Composed of three sub-sets, self-transcendence is composed of "self-forgetfulness" (as in the tendency to become totally absorbed in some activity, such as reading); "transpersonal identification" (a feeling of connectedness to a larger universe); and "mysticism" (an openness to believe things not literally provable, such as ESP). Put them all together, and you come as close as science can to measuring what it feels like to be spiritual. This allows us to have the kind of experience described as religious ecstasy.
What evolutionary advantage this may convey, or what advantageous effect it is a side effect of, are questions that are yet to be fully explored. However, Dr. Hamer has theorized that self-transcendence makes people more optimistic, which makes them healthier and likely to have more children.
John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest of the Royal Society and a Canon Theologian at Liverpool Cathedral, was asked for a comment on Hamer's theory by the British national daily newspaper, The Daily Telegraph. He replied: "The idea of a god gene goes against all my personal theological convictions. You can't cut faith down to the lowest common denominator of genetic survival. It shows the poverty of reductionist thinking."
Walter Houston, the chaplain of Mansfield College, Oxford, and a fellow in theology, told the Telegraph: "Religious belief is not just related to a person's constitution; it's related to society, tradition, character—everything's involved. Having a gene that could do all that seems pretty unlikely to me."
Hamer responded that the existence of such a gene would not be incompatible with the existence of a personal God: "Religious believers can point to the existence of god genes as one more sign of the creator's ingenuity—a clever way to help humans acknowledge and embrace a divine presence." A verse in the Christian New Testament (Luke 12:48) could be interpreted as not inconsistent with the concept of a genetic predisposition regarding faith: "To whom much is given, much shall be required."
The DVD commentary for "The God Who Wasn't There" provides a counter-argument -- followers of non-Judeo-Christian religions experience similar emotions to Christians after their meditative and other religious exercises, too. Humans may simply be adept at undergoing psychological changes if they engage in activities that require extended attention.
Carl Zimmer pointed out that, given the low explanatory power of VMAT2, it would have been more accurate for Hamer to call his book A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Variance Found in Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor Called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study.
- The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes by Dean Hamer. Published by Doubleday, ISBN 0-385-50058-0.
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