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October 21, 2004

The God Gene....

Dean Hamer is doing press interviews for his new book The God Gene. In an interview with Beliefnet he says straight up:

The God gene refers to the idea that human spirituality has an innate genetic component to it. It doesn’t mean that there’s one gene that makes people believe in God, but it refers to the fact that humans inherit a predisposition to be spiritual--to reach out and look for a higher being.

I read Hamer's book at Powells when I was in Portland recently. It is 250 pages of big print and small pages, so it really is a quick read, and frankly much of it is pretty banal and unsurprising. Hamer & co. are basically offering a specific elaboration on a common drumbeat that has been coming out of "neurotheology" for several years now, that is, certain brain states are associated with spiritual transcendence & those states are partially genetically controlled. The irony of the balsy and sensationalistic title of Hamer's book is that the deeper you get into it the more qualified and cautious he gets. Even in the interview Hamer tries to decouple "spirituality" from "religion." Religion is complex, defining it is pretty hard as the shifting lines of practice and belief are very fluid. I happen to think researchers like Hamer are focusing especially on a peculiar subset of human beings. Those prone to become mystics, prophets or their followers, individuals who play the role of socioreligious catalysts. Neurotheology can not be understood without remembering that normal human variation means that though mysticism is a cross-cultural human universal, it manifests itself in a range of expression within any given population. Religion is like schizophrenia, there are clear genetic factors involved, but those factors are multitudinous, and interact in a dynamic fashion with a host of environmental variables. Within a vast constellation of variable combinations there resides the phenotype bounded by various constraints and delimiters that we call "religion." Rough statistical predictions based on large population samples can be made, but ultimately people are actually looking for individual relevance, ergo, the "bait & switch" tactics of Hamer & his fellow travellers.

Related: Carl Zimmer was unimpressed by this book.

Addendum: Hammer also wrote The Science of Desire: The Gay Gene and the Biology of Behavior. So his modus operandi is pretty set, take a controversial topic, offer a hypersimplistic sensationalistic explanation, and spend the rest of the time backing off and qualifying your claim after you've reeled your audience in.

Addendum II: A negative review from a Christian perspective. I think the author has gotten a little too preoccupied with the title of Hamer's book and bought into the publicity. Neurotheology and its affinal behavioral genetic fields focus on phenomena. The specifics of belief in any particular religion are contingent upon a host of fixed factors, foremost family & history, not genetics (though a predisposition toward fideism for example could be genetic, almost all religions offer fideistic flavors). Of course upstream personality factors with a genetic input could influence how likely one is to change from one's natal religion, but these are all very indirect and not nearly as grandiose as anything Hamer & his critics envisage. Interestingly there is a stream of apologetics which often imply that belief in God is innate ("The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God").

Addendum III: Carl has a follow up blog entry on the Time cover article.

Update: Jin blogs on this topic too.

Posted by razib at 01:04 AM