Vmat2, or the God Gene: Reading Spirituality in the Human Genome
Vmat2, or the God Gene: Reading Spirituality in the Human Genome
by Student Contributor
As Ishmael, in the great American novel Moby Dick, stares into the water from atop the Pequod, he thinks to himself: "There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke" (2).It is only befitting to start a paper concerning the spirituality gene, a phenomenon that threatens to mutate the very nature of religion, with a novel that arguably claims truth is imperfect by default. With the discovery of vmat2, the assumed spirituality gene, it is hard not to think as Ishmael does; imagine if, as a cosmic joke, evolution led us to believe God was our creator, when in actuality He was nothing more than a creation of our neuronal imagination. This begs the question: Which came first, God or the need for God? Or, in other words, is religion a phenomenon that was induced from external signals, such as that from God above, or did evolution instill in us a sense of the divine? (3).While the above question is arguably unanswerable, Ishmael's conclusion in Moby Dick of a perfect universe interpreted by imperfect laws should serve as a warning against adhering to one school of thought, such as science, over another, such a religion, for they are both battling internal discrepancies. By examining the experiments concerning vmat2, this paper aims to consider the implications of a spirituality gene.
Imagine Mecca in the Islamic month of Al-Hijja, millions of pilgrims from all over the world gather around the holy site of the Kabaa, performing the appropriate rituals in their white garments in commemoration of Hagar's search for water in the desert. It's not too hard to see the divinity in the movement of the pilgrims, the symbolic stoning of the devil, the final visit to the prophet's grave in Medinah. It's there in the faces from the Middle East, Europe, North and South America, and Asia. If divinity is so easy to feel, then why is it so hard to explain? Ask any believer of any faith to describe divinity, and they'll most likely say it's a feeling – a sense – of a higher power (3).
Molecular biologist Dr. Dean Hamer, in his recently published book The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes explored this "sense," or feeling of a higher power, and has concluded that it could possibly be the result of a gene known as vmat2. This gene may be directly responsible for an inherited predisposition for spirituality. Dr. Hamer narrowed his search for the suspected spirituality gene to nine specific genes known to play major roles in the production of monoamines. These chemicals include serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which regulate functions such as mood and motor control. A variation in a gene known as vesicular monoamine transporter, or vmat2, seemed to be directly related to how volunteers for Dr. Hamer's experiment scored on his self-transcendence test. Those volunteers with the nucleic acid cytosine in one particular spot of the gene scored higher than those with the nucleic acid adenine in the same spot (1).A single change in a single base of the gene seems to be directly related not to the belief in God, but to the increased probability that that individual will identify as spiritual. The results of Dr. Hamer's experiments are not wholly impressive, mainly because his work has yet to be repeated, and much of his analysis is provisional, but it does demonstrate the belief by some in the scientific community that spirituality is not a result of transcendence; rather, it is a result of chemical signals.
Similar, and one could argue, more convincing, experiments were done in 1979 at the University of Minnesota where investigators began tracking down 53 pairs of identical twins and 31 pairs of fraternal twins that been separated at birth and raised in different environments. The investigators were looking for traits the members of each pair had in common, particularly their disposition towards spirituality, assuming that the characteristics shared more frequently by identical twins would be genetically based because of their identical DNA. Their findings demonstrated that identical twins have plenty of things in common, such as migraine headaches or similar fears, but most importantly, identical twins showed a similar overlap in their feelings towards spirituality and religion, much more so than fraternal twins. The disposition towards spirituality did not translate into a degree of observance of a particular faith, something that the investigators agreed was significantly impacted by environment, but it did translate into whether we're drawn to God from the beginning (3).
The theory that certain individuals are predisposed to spirituality, more so than others, throws the concept of religion in a questionable light. How fair is it to demand observance of a particular religion as the sole ticket to heaven, when an individual's ability to believe is a consequence of genes, something the individual has no control over? Did God selectively place the vmat2 gene in certain individuals over others, or is God merely an invention of the brain? These questions have dominated religious spheres since vmat2's introduction into the public sphere. The consequence of believing in vmat2's function is to reduce religion to a genetic predisposition, such as breast cancer, leaving believers to wonder how genuine their faith really is. On the other hand, Hamer disagrees with the notion that the discovery of vmat2 directly implies the death of God. In fact he states: "If God does exist, he would need a way for us to recognize his presence" (1).He seems to think that the discovery of vmat2 does not function to replace divination, but to confirm its existence.
As the research is still premature, it is difficult to formulate an opinion regarding the matter. The discovery of vmat2 seems to imply that spirituality is equivalent to a genetic phenomenon, such as eye color or the inherited predisposition for a particular disease. Incomplete penetrance could account for why some individuals are more spiritual than others, Mendel's 1st law of segregation could account for why spirituality may skip a few generations in a family, and genetic mutations could account for religious fanaticism. It all seems to fall into place and, yet, there still remains a sense of dubiety. To take these notions seriously would reduce the human experience to nothing more than a few interactions between brain chemicals. While some might find this notion comforting, others will find it unnerving, for "what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?" (2).This paper offers no solution to the above concerns for the sole reason that there is no solution, no answer that will result in the final 'aha' moment. It only offers this: a warning to those who try and claim truth either by scientific discoveries or religious revelations – there will always be something lacking.
1) Hamer, Dean. The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes. USA: Random House, Inc., 2004.
2) Herman, Melville. Moby Dick. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2002.
3)Is God in Our Genes, Times 25 Oct 2004
4)God and Evolution, New York Times 12 Feb 2005
Comments made prior to 2007
Before even discussing the substance of the book I should say that though it is called ìThe God Geneî it has nothing to do with either God and/or religion. Before I even had the book in my hands I heard Hamerís interview with Public Radio where he claimed that even the name of the book was not his but was forced on him by publisher. Then he denied that the gene he discovered has anything to do with religion. He even claimed that clergy scored pretty low on this gene.
Hamer in the book disclaims the link of the gene to religion stating that it does not prove that God exists as well as it does probe that he does not. So the gene he discovered had some other task than to make people religious or not.
I should say however that in the book he is carried away to link the gene to religious believes. He also heavily peppered the text with the term ìgod geneî that may again was forced on him by the publisher.
As many comments stated and as Hamer admits in the book there should be many of genes that influence human behavior. And the VMAT2, according to the questions Hamer asked population of students, probably has more to do with personís ability for imagination than to spirituality. He admits that borrowed from somebody else definition of spirituality is flaky. And flaky it is. Imagination is a better term for the phenomenon he discovered. Besides imagination probably serves to the survival of species that is the prerequisite to progression of one or more genes.
Another claim that Hamer briefly made in his book that above mentioned gene has nothing to do with belonging. I have reason to believe that it has everything to do with our herd instinct. We know that predators have never attacked a herd itself but rather one individual animal that strayed away from the herd. A lion that attacks zebra herd is a dead lion. Lions know it as well as zebras. So lions enforce the genetic code that forces zebras to stick together by destroying animals that have lower level of imagining themselves as part of the herd. I read also the research claiming that level of serotonin controlled by VMAT2 and pumped to brain increases significantly when individual in a company of other men/women. I do not claim that VMAT2 is the only gene that forces us to belong to the herd. However another anomaly Hamer discovered in his research hints me that VMAT2 definitely has something to do with herd genes.
According to him women in his test scored 18% higher than men. In many cases animal herd consists of female animals and their babies. Our closest animal relative chimpanzees have this kind of herd. Females have more need for the herd that their male counterparts who mostly concerned with spreading their genetic code as wide as possible. This female feature is also reflected by the fact that their brain area controlling verbal communication is few times larger than of males. In the herd they belong to the communication is a vital part of their ability to survive and bring up their babies. Is the ability to imagine oneself as a part of the herd necessary for better survival? Probably it is. Another book ìOur inner apeî by France de Waal confirms that. According to it apes developed very sophisticated communal behavior that helps them to survive.
The fact that people are leaving churches in both Europe and US does not mean that they do not need to belong to some group. Different from most of animals that belong to only one herd humans have a lot of choices of groups to belong to including families, political affiliations, friends, etc. That is what according to T. Shibutani and other socio psychologists creates our personality. Most of us distinct one group as dominant one. And it can be church, synagogue, mosque, etc. or it can be something else. It can be some imaginary group consisting of God , saints, and other divine creatures. After all without imagination there is no religion. As one of my Jewish Orthodox friend said once: anybody who claims that he talked to Hashem today would be considered kind of nuts.
Nobody of billions of believers today has seen God except in his/her dreams. So for person to believe in God imagination is absolutely necessary.
Now we need to discuss the human monopoly to VMAT2 gene. Hamer did not mention whether he or somebody else tested chimpanzees for example. Do other animals have the discovered variety of this gene? If so are they also spiritual? It does not take a lot of resources to test other herd animals.
In description of our consciousness Hamer claims that our brain works totally different from computers. I agree that it is different in many respects but there are also some similarities. Hamer claims in the book that new born baby has an instinct to suckle motherís breast. I do not know whether Hamer has never seen new born babies or did not pay attention to them. Most women will tell him that baby suckles everything around it until it finds motherís breast or mother gives it to him/her. This is not very bad mistake. However it illustrates very well what instinct is. It is just very mechanical action of suckling with lips, or smiling when you are happy, or crying when you feel pain or hunger. So instinct is what we call in computer world firmware. You press the button on the printer and it is ready to print. You send it data and it does print.
After a while first IFTE (if then else) instruction is written in babyís brain: ìif breast than milk.î And first image of breast also is written there. Later on this and many other instincts will grow trees of instructions and images programming our brain along with acquisition of new experiences.
So why are people becoming religious and/or faithful?
Probably because gene VMAT2 and/or other genes beg us to belong to the group we feel most comfortable with. I allege that most of our affiliations from religious and political to criminal gangs are the reflection of our herd instincts. They are getting weaker because they are less and less enforced by predators and/or repressive regimes.
Also with our recognition of ourselves as individuals different from all other of all groups we belong to we have hard time to accept the fact that we will perish after death. Religion offers us life after death and we are thankful for this gift.
It will be very interesting also to find out whether 9/11 hijackers had spiritual variation of VMAT2. I tend to believe that they did. They after all were very strong believers. It takes a lot of imagination to perceive yourself to be a Godís messenger to kill thousands of infidels and be rewarded by God in afterlife.
I should say in conclusion that Hamer as Columbus thought that he discovered way to India while in reality he discovered America ... Pavel Gurvich, 23 September 2006
You can change your genes by your thoughts, and feelings . I know of some dowsers whom have done with tests to prove it . I love them God genes . It's funny how the Brain produces all the bodies amino acids inside the brain ... Chris, 28 March 2007