2006. “God Gene”. In Encyclopedia of Anthropology. H. James Birx, ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Pp. 1093-4.
This is my self-archive version of this article; published version may vary slightly.
The belief in and attempt to manipulate the supernatural is widespread among human cultures. Although the particular content of any people’s religious or spiritual beliefs is dependent on their specific environment, lifestyle, social configuration, and history, the presence of spiritual or supernatural beliefs of some sort in virtually every society suggests that there may be a biological basis to the capacity to believe. Dean Hamer, a biologist and head of the genetic unit of the National Cancer Institute, believes that he may have discovered at least one of the biological traits that fosters spiritual belief: a gene responsible for the production of one of the chemicals used to regulate emotion in the brain.
The God Gene is the title of Hamer’s book presenting his research on the relationship between genes and spirituality. Specifically, the god gene is his name for a particular gene that codes for the production of the protein VMAT2, which plays an important role in regulating levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Although all people produce VMAT2, Hamer focused on what he sees as a key variation, a polymorphism named A33050C. Two of the variations include ether one or two molecules of cytosine, the other two molecules of adenine. Those with cytosine in this particular location scored, on average, much higher on tests designed to measure spirituality than those without.
In the course of research on smoking and addiction, Hamer administered a set of psychological tests to 1,388 subjects. Included was a set of questions intended to measure a subject’s self-transcendence, based on the research of psychiatrist Robert Cloninger. Cloninger’s test measures three qualities: self-forgetfulness, the tendency to become so absorbed in one’s actions as to lose track of the world around them; transpersonal identification, the feeling of connectedness to the universe and its inhabitants; and mysticism, the willingness to believe in things not approachable through reason. Based on his research of historical, psychological, and theological sources, Cloninger’s test is intended to measure individual spiritualism, divorced from the particular content of organized religious belief and orthodoxy.
Hamer’s findings suggested a strong link between the presence of one of the cystosine variants of the VMAT2 gene and spirituality as measured by Cloninger’s test. In test cases where one sibling had a cystosine variant, almost all scored markedly higher for self-transcendence than their non-cystosine bearing siblings. After correcting for other possible influences, Hamer was convinced that a significant correlation existed. What was left was to propose a mechanism by which VMAT2 might influence spirituality.
VMAT2 is short for vesicular monoamine transporter, a chemical crucial to the brain’s use of monoamines, brain chemicals that play a crucial role in both motor control and emotional status. Monoamines are stored in the brain in bubble-like vesicles; when a signal is generated by a neuron, calcium ions are released which bind to the VMAT2 molecules, causing them to separate and allowing the monoamine within – serotonin, domapine, adrenaline, or noradrenalin – to flow into the synapse. In laboratory tests, mice genetically altered to be incapable of producing VMAT2 were born at much smaller sizes than untreated mice, and were inactive, unwilling to move even to eat. All of the test subjects died within two weeks, almost half within three days.
Among other things, monamines- and thus VMAT2- play an important role in coordinating the responses of the thalamocortical complex, responsible for perception and reflection, and the limbic-brain stem system, which produces emotional responses. During periods of heightened spiritual awareness- the Buddhist’s meditative state, for instance, or the shaman’s trance- the thalamocortical system draws more and more of the brain’s blood flow and energy to itself, reducing the efficacy of the other centers of the brain in a process called “deafferentation”. One system affected by deafferentation is the part of the brain responsible for locating the body in space, which as it senses a drop in blood flow, signals to the limbic system, which in turn signals the thalamocortical system, forcing the thalamocortical system to draw even more energy to itself and setting up a feedback loop in the brain that produces a greater and greater feeling of detachment from or expansion beyond the body- a situation easily understood by most as describing a mystical experience. According to Hamer, those with one variant of the VMAT2 gene might find it far easier and more common to produce these kinds of feedback loops than those with the other- and thus be more open to mystical experiences.
Hamer himself notes that VMAT2 likely plays only a small, if essential role in spirituality, noting that spirituality is too complex a phenomenon to be reduced to a single gene or even a single neurological process. Even so, his work as it stands presents a number of difficulties. The first is the way in which he, following Cloninger, defines spirituality itself. Cloninger based his tests on a study of people he considered to be extremely spiritual – Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, Catholic saints, Buddhist monks – and then chose the traits that he felt marked them as spiritual. It is hard not to wonder if his criteria represent anything more than a Western notion of individual spirituality that may not have much meaning outside of a limited selection of major societies. Although they have been administered to Americans from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, the fact remains that they have yet to be administered outside of the United States, and may very likely reflect widely shared Western notions of spirituality, or even notions common to all centralized, state-based peoples. One has to ask if statements like “I am fascinated by the many things in life that cannot be scientifically explained” or “I believe that miracles happen” would tell us anything useful about the spirituality of, say, an Amazonian hunter-gatherer or South Pacific horticulturalist.
Hamer’s hypothesis is further burdened by his uncertainty about how to weight religious behaviour as evidence. Early in The God Gene, Hamer insists on the non-commensurability of religion and spirituality, noting that members of organized religions tend to score low for self-transcendence, while high scorers were almost always non- or even anti-religious. However, when Hamer attempts to build an evolutionary argument for the contribution of the god gene to human adaptive fitness, he relies primarily on aspects of religious behavior- for instance, the role of religion in fostering and maintaining social solidarity.
This contradiction reflects a more fundamental and possibly irreconcilable opposition in Hamer’s research. On one hand, he builds a case for individual variability, linking different levels of spirituality to the presence or absence of a particular gene. On the other hand, he tries to make a case for spirituality as a species trait, as part of the shared evolutionary heritage of humanity as a whole. In the first case, religion is opposed to spirituality, reflecting contemporary usage that associates “spirituality” with the individual and “religion” with the community. In the second, religion is presented as interchangeable with spirituality, so that the Venus figurines of Eastern Europe or the cave bear clans of Paleolithic France are seen as evidence for early human spirituality.
Ultimately, Hamer’s work presents more questions than answers. While his fundamental reasoning is sound- regardless of what we believe, there must be some neurological structure within which believing occurs- his conclusions are far broader than his research and evidence support. Basing universalist arguments about human biology on very culture-specific evidence seems hasty and even dangerous. Instead, he has provided us with a very preliminary hypothesis about one possible factor in spiritual behavior, one that probably deserves much more rigorous testing. Unfortunately, Hamer has only published his research for a popular audience, and has so far failed to provide the methodology, data, and detailed results on which he has based his conclusions, making it difficult, if even possible, for other scientists to follow up his work or compare their research to his. Until that happens, it is unlikely that the questions he raises will be adequately addressed.