On Genes and Determinism
A Reaction of Sorts to Biology 103
This evening I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine. We were talking over her genetics exam, which she had just completed. She was telling me about the course of the class over the semester, about her professor, about what piqued her interest, about what bored her to sleep. She mentioned, in passing, the “God gene.” Her professor had been telling the class about the discovery of a certain gene that determined whether or not you believed in a higher power. She seemed enthused by this notion and so I pressed, “Do you really think the belief in God can be reduced to a single gene, a protein?” She said yes, the undeniable effect of the individual genetic code determined the presence or absence of belief, that biology trumped environmental factors. I’m very skeptical of such reductionist thinking, and so I’ve decided to investigate. How can we account for the prevalence of a phenomenon like religion? Can it really be reduced to the genetic code? Can any comparable phenomenon be reduced to our genes? The following paragraphs are a letter to my good friend, with whom I disagree, written with the hope of continuing our dialogue (as I don’t profess to have any sort of final answer).
The belief in a higher power is often cited as one of the essential pillars of humanity. We see religion the world over; it is apparent that religion occurs within a wide variety of environmental contexts. This may lead one to believe that the essential issue, whether or not an individual believes in a higher power (not to be conflated with the issue of how that belief is manifested, i.e. through Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) can be reduced to a common biology: all humans who believe in God (whose name, for the sake of this paper, we will use to denote all higher powers) have a genetic factor, entirely independent from environment, that dictates this belief. It may be true that individuals may be more inclined to believe in a higher power according to their genes, but I whole-heartedly disagree with the notion that a gene determines any aspect of an individual’s personality or spirituality. Perhaps it will benefit the discussion to address the recognized biology.
American geneticist Dean Hamer first proposed the idea of a “God gene” in his 2004 book bearing the same name (2). I cannot say I have read the book, and accounts of Hamer’s treatment of genetic determinism are highly varied. For this reason, I feel the need to assert that I am not responding to Hamer himself, but to the general ideology of genetic determinism (of which Hamer may or may not be a subscriber). Certainly the subtitle of his book, “How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes,” points to the conception of genes as an invariable code for behavior. Regardless of Hamer’s rhetoric, his arguments are based on scientific findings concerning the gene VMAT2 (2). This gene codes for the protein “vesicular monoamine transporter 2.” It works within the brain conveying the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and histamine (3). A basic knowledge of these neurotransmitters reveals that they are involved in an array of neurological activities, including but not limited to: attention, pleasure, social behaviors, sexual functioning, and sleep regulation (1). When these activities are considered together, do we immediately arrive at religion, at a belief in God? Certainly not. These functions may be involved in a belief in God: studying a higher power is indubitably a very engaging, rewarding endeavor, especially when done communally, but they in no way code for any sort of self-transcendence.
In denying a reductionist view of life, I am not denying the effect of the genetic code. It would be asinine to assert that biology had no role in behavior. I believe that biology predisposes us to a certain way of acting. This predisposition affects how probable one random action or output is over another. When we are confronted by an external stimulus we are able to draw on a catalogue of potential outputs, or responses. Our genes simply make one output more probable than another.
Our environment also plays an undeniably significant role in behavior and expression. For example, one could argue that it is entirely sociological, based solely on where you live and whom you associate with. Others may posit that it is rooted in cultural traditions and that your family holds the key to whether or not you believe in God. I would argue that none of these factors “hold the key”; indeed, I don’t believe there is a key to be held at all. There is no simple answer, no way to point to something. So how is a belief in God to be understood? Again we return to the notion of probabilities. An environment will affect the probability of a nervous system output in a similar way genes affect this probability. Genes and environment come together in a dialogue of chance; this dialogue is conceptualized by the conscious brain and synthesized into a coherent “story”: the narrative arch of our lives.
I believe that the ideology of “determinism” is just another “story” created by the brain to make sense of a blind, directionless universe. The conscious brain, charged with keeping intact the continuity of identity, imposes a diegetic structure on the random ways in which we change our environments through language. When we speak these “random changes” we call them “choices.” As soon as we conceive of the random changes made to the environment, we fundamentally change the actual environment. This synthesis is what constitutes the human notion of reality. It is the stuff of identity.
On a final note of analysis, I wanted to address a particularly weak aspect of the ideology of genetic determinism. Genetic determinism is borne, in part, of the generally accepted ideology of science as purveyor of ultimate truth. In this way, determinism defeats itself: it is, in part, a function of culture! If determinism were sound, we would be able to isolate a gene for its conception. A determinist would have an active gene and I would have an inactive gene. Certainly, no such gene has been found. Certainly, this view is inconsistent with our ever-fluid conception of science as a summary of observations.
In conclusion, we should move away from language that asserts that genes are a deterministic code to be read and invariably transcribed, and talk instead in terms of “genetic propensities” and “predispositions.” Indeed, we should abandon any language of determinism as reality is a function of a dialogue, not a monologue; behavior and identity are not one man shows. This type of language is more true to life. As the course comes to an end I am more and more enthralled by the notion that the ultimate mover of the universe is random chance. I am comfortable with the idea that my identity is merely a story I concoct in order to find my place among the heat, among the atomic collisions. I am comfortable with being an improbable assembly. I am amazed at human life.
1. "Neurological Control - Neurotransmitters." Brain Explorer. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. <http://www.brainexplorer.org/neurological_control/Neurological_Neurotransmitters.shtml>.
2. "Whither the God Gene?" Genome Life 16 (2005): 5. Duke.edu. Apr. 2005. Web. 16 Dec. 2009.
3. "Vesicular monoamine transporter -." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vesicular_monoamine_transporter>.