The God Gene

Posted in Reviews at 18:20 by RjZ

I feel bad for Dr. Dean Hamer, author of The God Gene. He knew he couldn’t win. His academic advisors suggested he wait till he retires to write a book that posits that spirituality might be genetically linked. Early on in the book after explaining what he is not trying to do in his book: “I know from experience that some readers will ignore this caution, so I’ll repeat it for good measure. This book is about whether God genes exist, not about whether there is a God.” But no luck. Clerics and scientists were both up in arms about the book which either supports or detracts from both sides.

So I’ll repeat it for Dr. Hamer too. The God Gene is not about whether there is a God. Just the same I would say that Dr. Hamer is certainly sympathetic to the idea that there is a God although certainly not a an evangelical reading of the Bible. After an exhaustive and frequently rambling discussion of both genetics, memetics and dozens and dozens of stories of religious and spiritual twins Hamer states that “the fact that spirituality has a genetic component implies that it evolved for a purpose.” I am not a geneticist (but I am sure a reader or two of mine can shed some light on this) but Dr. Hamer himself is responsible for a theory that demonstrates that homosexuality is genetic even though clearly homosexuality doesn’t do much to reproduce. Homosexuality is likely linked to another gene that is selected for. You get one characteristic (which is strongly selected for) and sometimes you get the other characteristic. The fact that a characteristic has a genetic component does not imply that it evolved for a purpose. It may just be riding on the back of some other gene. After all, why would men still have nipples anyway?

The book uses many twin studies to compare and contrast spirituality and how it is expressed regardless of the environment the twins find themselves in. Even in my own life I have examples of this to share. Two men I know from Holland are brothers who both joined a catholic order when they were young. Both eventually left the order and while one is a catholic school teacher and the other is an artist today, it’s clear that while they may not be religious (that includes the school teacher) they are both very spiritual. Meanwhile, neither my brother nor I is particularly spiritual even if he does claim to be religious.

I appreciated Dr. Hamer’s abiding desire to keep treatise in the realm of science. He specifically defines each of his terms. For example he discusses spirituality instead of religion because there is a popular and quantifiable test for spirituality but not for religiosity. He discusses his research along with others and mentions both sides of nearly every claim. Unfortunately all this balance leads to an occasionally confusing book which comes out on the side that there is a gene that is correlated with spirituality and then investigates the ramifications of this gene from so many sides as to leave the reader bewildered. It’s a frustrating book for religious individuals who will surely see a threat in the idea that spirituality might be a result of brain chemicals and it is a frustrating book for scientists who read an extremely interesting idea that doesn’t really seem completely backed up, tested for, explained or, well clear what it means anyway.

Actually, I am just complaining because the book was unsatisfying to me! Here was my chance to finally understand just why I am simply devoid of spirituality. It’s not that I don’t believe in organized religion or ghosts or an afterlife, it’s that I can’t even conceive of why one should. I don’t feel like there is anything missing or what possible benefit these thoughts would give me and I’d hoped that eventually the book would discuss the contra case to what happens when we have a strongly expressed God gene. What happens when we seem to be lacking the gene altogether. No such luck.

1 Comment »

  1. Rachel Robson said,

    November 19, 2005 at 21:30

    The other reason, besides relcutance to endorse a controversial thesis, why academic scientists are extremely reluctant to embrace Dr. Hamer’s argument is because they’ve been down a similar road with him before. Back in the early 1990’s Hamer had allegedly found the genetic basis for male homosexuality, and got a lot of media attention for that. Later many of his studies were found to be questionable–patchy methodologies & whatnot. Like you found with The God Gene, Hamer had some intriguing ideas about the genetic basis for sexual preference that were just not well enough supported. A lot of scientists took his side then, only to later find out that no, the research really wasn’t there.

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