[Paleopsych] Time: Is God in Our Genes?

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Is God in Our Genes?
Time, 4.10.25

Jeffrey Kluger, Jeff Chu/ London; Broward Liston/ Orlando; Maggie
Sieger/ Chicago; Daniel Williams/ Sydney

   It's not hard to see the divinity behind the water temples that dot the rice
terraces of Bali. It's there in the white-clad high priest presiding in the
temple at the summit of a dormant volcano. It's there in the 23 priests serving
along with him, selected for their jobs when they were still children by a bevy
of virgin priestesses. It's there in the rituals the priests perform to protect
the island's water, which in turn is needed to nurture the island's rice.

   If the divine is easy to spot, what's harder to make out is the banal.  But
it's there too--in the meetings the priests convene to schedule their planting
dates and combat the problem of crop pests; in the plans they draw up to
maintain aqueducts and police conduits; in the irrigation proposals they
consider and approve, the dam proposals they reject or amend. "The religion has
a temple at every node in the irrigation system," says David Sloan Wilson,
professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University in Binghamton,
N.Y. "The priests make decisions and enforce the code of both religion and

   Ask true believers of any faith to describe the most important thing that
drives their devotion, and they'll tell you it's not a thing at all but a
sense--a feeling of a higher power far beyond us. Western religions can get a
bit more doctrinaire: God has handed us laws and lore, and it's for us to learn
and practice what they teach. For a hell-raising species like ours,
however--with too much intelligence for our own good and too little discipline
to know what to do with it--there have always been other, more utilitarian
reasons to get religion. Chief among them is survival. Across the eons, the
structure that religion provides our lives helps preserve both mind and body.
But that, in turn, has raised a provocative question, one that's increasingly
debated in the worlds of science and religion: Which came first, God or the need
for God? In other words, did humans create religion from cues sent from above,
or did evolution instill in us a sense of the divine so that we would gather
into the communities essential to keeping the species going?

   Just as a hurricane spins off tornadoes, this debate creates its own
whirlwind of questions: If some people are more spiritual than others, is it
nature or nurture that has made them so? If science has nothing to do with
spirituality and it all flows from God, why do some people hear the divine word
easily while others remain spiritually tone-deaf? Do such ivied-hall debates
about environment, heredity and anthropology have any place at all in more
exalted conversations about the nature of God?

   Even among people who regard spiritual life as wishful hocus-pocus, there is
a growing sense that humans may not be able to survive without it. It's hard
enough getting by in a fang-and-claw world in which killing, thieving and
cheating pay such rich dividends. It's harder still when there's no moral cop
walking the beat to blow the whistle when things get out of control. Best to
have a deity on hand to rein in our worst impulses, bring out our best and, not
incidentally, give us a sense that there's someone awake in the cosmic house
when the lights go out at night and we find ourselves wondering just why we're
here in the first place. If a God or even several gods can do all that, fine.
And if we sometimes misuse the idea of our gods--and millenniums of holy wars
prove that we do--the benefits of being a spiritual species will surely outweigh
the bloodshed.

   Far from being an evolutionary luxury then, the need for God may be a crucial
trait stamped deeper and deeper into our genome with every passing generation.
Humans who developed a spiritual sense thrived and bequeathed that trait to
their offspring. Those who didn't risked dying out in chaos and killing. The
evolutionary equation is a simple but powerful one.

   Nowhere has that idea received a more intriguing going-over than in the
recently published book The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes
(Doubleday; 256 pages), by molecular biologist Dean Hamer. Chief of gene
structure at the National Cancer Institute, Hamer not only claims that human
spirituality is an adaptive trait, but he also says he has located one of the
genes responsible, a gene that just happens to also code for production of the
neurotransmitters that regulate our moods. Our most profound feelings of
spirituality, according to a literal reading of Hamer's work, may be due to
little more than an occasional shot of intoxicating brain chemicals governed by
our DNA.  "I'm a believer that every thought we think and every feeling we feel
is the result of activity in the brain," Hamer says. "I think we follow the
basic law of nature, which is that we're a bunch of chemical reactions running
around in a bag."

   Even for the casually religious, such seeming reductionism can rankle.  The
very meaning of faith, after all, is to hold fast to something without all the
tidy cause and effect that science finds so necessary.  Try parsing things the
way geneticists do, and you risk parsing them into dust. "God is not something
that can be demonstrated logically or rigorously," says Neil Gillman, a
professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York
City. "[The idea of a God gene] goes against all my personal theological
convictions." John Polkinghorne, a physicist who is also Canon Theologian at
England's Liverpool Cathedral, agrees: "You can't cut [faith] down to the lowest
common denominator of genetic survival. It shows the poverty of reductionist

   Is Hamer really guilty of such simplification? Could claims for a so-called
God gene be merely the thin end of a secular wedge, one that risks prying
spirituality away from God altogether? Or, assuming the gene exists at all,
could it somehow be embraced by both science and religion, in the same way some
evolutionists and creationists--at least the less radicalized ones--accept the
idea of a divinely created universe in which evolving life is simply part of the
larger plan?  Hamer, for one, hopes so. "My findings are agnostic on the
existence of God," he says. "If there's a God, there's a God. Just knowing what
brain chemicals are involved in acknowledging that is not going to change the

   Whatever the merits of Hamer's work, he is clearly the heir of a
millenniums-long search for the wellsprings of spirituality. People have been
wrestling with the roots of faith since faith itself was first codified into
Scripture. "[God has] set eternity in the hearts of men," says the Book of
Ecclesiastes, "yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end."

   To theologians in the 3rd century B.C., when Ecclesiastes is thought to have
been written, that passage spoke to the idea that while all of us are divinely
inspired to look for God, none of us are remotely capable of fully comprehending
what we are seeking. Scientists in the 21st century may not disagree, provided
that "hearts of men" is replaced with "genes of men." The key for those
researchers is finding those genes.

   Hamer began looking in 1998, when he was conducting a survey on smoking and
addiction for the National Cancer Institute. As part of his study, he recruited
more than 1,000 men and women, who agreed to take a standardized, 240-question
personality test called the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI). Among the
traits the TCI measures is one known as self-transcendence, which consists of
three other traits: self-forgetfulness, or the ability to get entirely lost in
an experience; transpersonal identification, or a feeling of connectedness to a
larger universe; and mysticism, or an openness to things not literally provable.
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," says Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist at
Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and the designer of the
self-transcendence portion of the TCI.

   Hamer decided to use the data he gathered in the smoking survey to conduct a
little spirituality study on the side. First he ranked the participants along
Cloninger's self-transcendence scale, placing them on a continuum from least to
most spiritually inclined. Then he went poking around in their genes to see if
he could find the DNA responsible for the differences. Spelunking in the human
genome is not easy, what with 35,000 genes consisting of 3.2 billion chemical
bases. To narrow the field, Hamer confined his work to nine specific genes known
to play major roles in the production of monoamines--brain chemicals, including
serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, that regulate such fundamental functions
as mood and motor control. It's monoamines that are carefully manipulated by
Prozac and other antidepressants. It's also monoamines that are not so carefully
scrambled by ecstasy, LSD, peyote and other mind-altering drugs--some of which
have long been used in religious rituals.

   Studying the nine candidate genes in DNA samples provided by his subjects,
Hamer quickly hit the genetic jackpot. A variation in a gene known as VMAT2--for
vesicular monoamine transporter--seemed to be directly related to how the
volunteers scored on the self-transcendence test. Those with the nucleic acid
cytosine in one particular spot on the gene ranked high. Those with the nucleic
acid adenine in the same spot ranked lower. "A single change in a single base in
the middle of the gene seemed directly related to the ability to feel
self-transcendence," Hamer says. Merely having that feeling did not mean those
people would take the next step and translate their transcendence into a belief
in--or even a quest for--God. But they seemed likelier to do so than those who
never got the feeling at all.

   Hamer is careful to point out that the gene he found is by no means the only
one that affects spirituality. Even minor human traits can be governed by the
interplay of many genes; something as complex as belief in God could involve
hundreds or even thousands. "If someone comes to you and says, 'We've found the
gene for X,'" says John Burn, medical director of the Institute of Human
Genetics at the University of Newcastle in England, "you can stop them before
they get to the end of the sentence."

   Hamer also stresses that while he may have located a genetic root for
spirituality, that is not the same as a genetic root for religion.  Spirituality
is a feeling or a state of mind; religion is the way that state gets codified
into law. Our genes don't get directly involved in writing legislation. As Hamer
puts it, perhaps understating a bit the emotional connection many have to their
religions, "Spirituality is intensely personal; religion is institutional."

   At least one faith, according to one of its best-known scholars, formalizes
the idea of gene-based spirituality and even puts a pretty spin on it.
Buddhists, says Robert Thurman, professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia
University, have long entertained the idea that we inherit a spirituality gene
from the person we were in a previous life.  Smaller than an ordinary gene, it
combines with two larger physical genes we inherit from our parents, and
together they shape our physical and spiritual profile. Says Thurman: "The
spiritual gene helps establish a general trust in the universe, a sense of
openness and generosity." Buddhists, he adds, would find Hamer's possible
discovery "amusing and fun."

   The Buddhist theory has never been put to the scientific test, but other
investigations into the biological roots of belief in God were being conducted
long before Hamer's efforts--often with intriguing results. In 1979,
investigators at the University of Minnesota began their now famous twins study,
tracking down 53 pairs of identical twins and 31 pairs of fraternal twins that
had been separated at birth and raised apart. The scientists were looking for
traits the members of each pair had in common, guessing that the characteristics
shared more frequently by identical twins than by fraternal twins would be
genetically based, since identical twins carry matching DNA, and those traits
for which there was no disparity between the identicals and fraternals would be
more environmentally influenced.

   As it turned out, the identical twins had plenty of remarkable things in
common. In some cases, both suffered from migraine headaches, both had a fear of
heights, both were nail biters. Some shared little eccentricities, like flushing
the toilet both before and after using it.  When quizzed on their religious
values and spiritual feelings, the identical twins showed a similar overlap. In
general, they were about twice as likely as fraternal twins to believe as
much--or as little--about spirituality as their sibling did. Significantly,
these numbers did not hold up when the twins were questioned about how
faithfully they practiced any organized religion. Clearly, it seemed, the degree
to which we observe rituals such as attending services is mostly the stuff of
environment and culture. Whether we're drawn to God in the first place is
hardwired into our genes. "It completely contradicted my expectations," says
University of Minnesota psychologist Thomas Bouchard, one of the researchers
involved in the work. Similar results were later found in larger twin studies in
Virginia and Australia.

   Other researchers have taken the science in a different direction, looking
not for the genes that code for spirituality but for how that spirituality plays
out in the brain. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg of the University of
Pennsylvania School of Medicine has used several types of imaging systems to
watch the brains of subjects as they meditate or pray. By measuring blood flow,
he determines which regions are responsible for the feelings the volunteers
experience. The deeper that people descend into meditation or prayer, Newberg
found, the more active the frontal lobe and the limbic system become. The
frontal lobe is the seat of concentration and attention; the limbic system is
where powerful feelings, including rapture, are processed. More revealing is the
fact that at the same time these regions flash to life, another important
region--the parietal lobe at the back of the brain--goes dim. It's this lobe
that orients the individual in time and space. Take it off-line, and the
boundaries of the self fall away, creating the feeling of being at one with the
universe. Combine that with what's going on in the other two lobes, and you can
put together a profound religious experience.

   Even to some within the religious community, this does not come as news.  "In
India in Buddha's time, there were philosophers who said there was no soul; the
mind was just chemistry," says Thurman. "The Buddha disagreed with their extreme
materialism but also rejected the 'absolute soul' theologians." Michael
Persinger, professor of behavioral neuroscience at Laurentian University in
Sudbury, Ont., puts the chemistry argument more bluntly. "God," he says, "is an
artifact of the brain."

   Even if such spiritual deconstructionism is true, some scientists--to say
nothing of most theologians--think it takes you only so far, particularly when
it comes to trying to determine the very existence of God. Simply understanding
the optics and wiring of the eyes, after all, doesn't mean there's no inherent
magnificence in the Rembrandts they allow us to see. If human beings were indeed
divinely assembled, why wouldn't our list of parts include a genetic chip that
would enable us to contemplate our maker?

   "Of course, concepts of God reside in the brain. They certainly don't reside
in the toe," says Lindon Eaves, director of the Virginia Institute for
Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University in
Richmond. "The question is, To what is this wiring responsive? Why is it there?"

   Says Paul Davies, professor of natural philosophy at Macquarie University in
Sydney, Australia: "I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that if
you explain something, you explain it away.  I don't see that at all with
religious experience."

   Those religious believers who are comfortable with the idea that God genes
are the work of God should have little trouble making the next leap: that not
only are the genes there but they are central to our survival, one of the hinges
upon which the very evolution of the human species turned. It's an argument that
's not terribly hard to make.

   For one thing, God is a concept that appears in human cultures all over the
globe, regardless of how geographically isolated they are. When tribes living in
remote areas come up with a concept of God as readily as nations living shoulder
to shoulder, it's a fairly strong indication that the idea is preloaded in the
genome rather than picked up on the fly. If that's the case, it's an equally
strong indication that there are very good reasons it's there.

   One of those reasons might be that, as the sole species--as far as we
know--capable of contemplating its own death, we needed something larger than
ourselves to make that knowledge tolerable. "Anticipation of our own demise is
the price we pay for a highly developed frontal lobe," says Persinger. "In many
ways, [a God experience is] a brilliant adaptation. It's a built-in pacifier."

   But the most important survival role religion may serve is as the mortar that
holds a group together. Worshipping God doesn't have to be a collective thing;
it can be done in isolation, disconnected from any organized religion. The
overwhelming majority of people, however, congregate to pray, observing the same
rituals and heeding the same creeds. Once that congregation is in place, it's
only a small step to using the common system of beliefs and practices as the
basis for all the secular laws that keep the group functioning.

   One of the best examples of religion as social organizer, according to
Binghamton University's Wilson, is early Calvinism. John Calvin rose to
prominence in 1536 when, as a theologian and religious reformer, he was
recruited to help bring order to the fractious city of Geneva. Calvin, perhaps
one of the greatest theological minds ever produced by European Christianity,
was a lawyer by trade. Wilson speculates that it was Calvin's pragmatic genius
to understand that while civil laws alone might not be enough to bring the city
's deadbeats and other malefactors into line, divine law might be.

   Calvin's catechism included the familiar Ten Commandments--which, with their
injunctions against theft, murder, adultery and lying, are themselves effective
social organizers. Added to that were admonitions to pay taxes, perform civic
duties, behave in a civil manner and submit to the authority of magistrates.
"You must understand religions very thoroughly in relation to their
environments," says Wilson. "And one problem for Calvin was to make his city

   The heirs to Calvinism today--Presbyterians, many Baptists and believers in
the Reformed tradition in general--see the roots of their faith as something far
more divine than merely good civic management. But even some theologians seem to
think that a deep belief in the laws of God can coexist with the survival
demands of an evolving society. "Calvin had a reverence for the Scriptures,
which then became institutionalized," says James Kay, professor of practical
theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary. "The Bible is concerned about
justice for the poor, equity and fairness, and all of those things were seen to
in Calvin's Geneva."

   Other struggling cultures have similarly translated godly law into earthly
order and in doing so helped ensure their survival. The earliest Christians
established a rough institutional structure that allowed them to transmit their
ideas within a generation of Christ's death, and as a result succeeded in living
through the Roman persecution; the Jews of the Diaspora moved as a cultural
whole through the nations of Europe, finding niches wherever they could but
maintaining their identity and kinship by observing the same rites. "All
religions become a bit secular," says Wilson. "In order to survive, you have to
organize yourselves into a culture."

   The downside to all this is that often religious groups gather not into
congregations but into camps--and sometimes they're armed camps. In a culture of
Crusades, Holocausts and jihads, where in the world is the survival advantage of
religious wars or terrorism? One facile explanation has always been herd
culling--an adaptive way of keeping populations down so that resources aren't
depleted. But there's little evolutionary upside to wiping out an entire
population of breeding-age males, as countries trying to recover from wars
repeatedly learn. Why then do we so often let the sweetness of religion curdle
into combat?

   The simple answer might be that just because we're given a gift, we don't
necessarily always use it wisely. Fire can either light your village or burn
down the one next door, depending on your inclination.  "Religions represent an
attempt to harness innate spirituality for organizational purposes--not always
good," says Macquarie University's Davies. And while spiritual contemplation is
intuitive, says Washington University's Cloninger, religion is dogmatic; dogma
in the wrong hands has always been a risky thing.

   Still, for every place in the world that's suffering from religious strife,
there are many more where spirituality is doing its uplifting and civilizing
work. A God who would equip us with the genes and the smarts to cooperate in
such a clever way is a God who ought to be appealing even to religious purists.
Nonetheless, sticking points do remain that prevent genetic theory from going
down smoothly. One that's particularly troublesome is the question of why Hamer
's God gene--or any of the others that may eventually be discovered--is
distributed so unevenly among us. Why are some of us spiritual virtuosos, while
others can't play a note? Isn't it one of the central tenets of religion that
grace is available to everybody? At least a few scientists shrug at the
question. "Some get religion, and some don't," says Virginia Commonwealth
University's Eaves.

   But this seeming inequity may be an important part of the spiritual journey.
It would be easy for God simply to program us for reverence; it's more
meaningful when the door is opened but you've got to walk through on your
own--however hard those steps may be for some. "I have never had a Big Bang
conversion experience," says the Jewish Theological Seminary's Gillman. "My
sense is that slowly and gradually, out of a rich experience of the world, one
builds a faith."

   Such experiences may ultimately be at least as important a part of our
spiritual tool kit as the genes we're born with. A poor genetic legacy but lucky
spiritual circumstances might mean more than good genes and bad experiences.
"Fortune includes the possibility of divine grace as well as environmental
influences," says Cloninger.

   No matter how the two factors balance out, scientists may eventually find
that trying to identify the definitive cluster of genes that serves as our
spiritual circuit board is simply impossible--like trying to draw a genetic
schematic of love. Still, they're likely to keep trying. "I am personally
convinced that there is a scheme of things," says Davies of Macquarie
University, "that the universe is not just any ragbag of laws." In the end,
genes may prove to be a part of that scheme--but clearly one of very many.
--With reporting by Jeff Chu/ London, Broward Liston/ Orlando, Maggie Sieger/
Chicago and Daniel Williams/ Sydney

   "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

   "With all your science, can you tell me how it is that light comes into the

   "Religion is an illusion, and it derives its strength from its readiness to
fit in with our instinctual wishful impulses." --SIGMUND FREUD

   "All our scientific and philosophic ideals are altars to unknown gods."

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