Religion and Genetics

Religion and Genetics

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Are there studies that investigate the heritability of "believing in supernatural" (or related concepts)?

There are several twin studies showing, that the tendency to be religious has a genetic component. Not which religion you choose, because that is a cultural thing, but how serious you are abot it. I am lazy for a detailed report, but this blog can lead you to the studies:

Also this article:

EDIT after a few years - I was informed one link is broken and the other contains no citation. So I checked for new material today and wikipedia has a cool passage how genes and environment affect religion. Wikipedia saves the old version, so this is from March 8 2018, article Religiosity.

" The contributions of genes and environment to religiosity have been quantified in studies of twins (Bouchard et al., 1999; Kirk et al., 1999) and sociological studies of welfare, availability, and legal regulations [15] (state religions, etc.).

Koenig et al. (2005) report that the contribution of genes to variation in religiosity (called heritability) increases from 12% to 44% and the contribution of shared (family) effects decreases from 56% to 18% between adolescence and adulthood.[16] "

15 Nolan, P., & Lenski, G. E. (2010). Human societies: Introduction to macrosociology. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publisher.

16 L. B. Koenig, M. McGue, R. F. Krueger and T. J. Bouchard, Jr. (2005). Genetic and environmental influences on religiousness: findings for retrospective and current religiousness ratings. Journal of Personality, 73, 471-88

George McDonald Church was born on 28 August 1954 on MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida, and grew up in nearby Clearwater [2] [9] [10] [11] he attended high school at the preparatory boarding school Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts, from 1968 to 1972. [12] He then studied at Duke University, completing a bachelor's degree in zoology and chemistry in two years. [2]

In the fall of 1973, Church began research work at Duke University with assistant professor of biochemistry Sung-Hou Kim, work that continued a year later with Church in a graduate biochemistry program at Duke on an NSF fellowship. [10] [13]

As Peter Miller reported for the National Geographic series, "The Innovators":

"As a graduate student at Duke… he used x-ray crystallography to study the three-dimensional structure of "transfer" RNA, which decodes DNA and carries instructions to other parts of the cell. It was groundbreaking research, but Church spent so much time in the lab—up to a hundred hours a week—that he neglected his other classes [in the fall of 1975]". [13]

As a result, Church was not compliant with Duke graduate academic policies, and was withdrawn from the degree program in January 1976. He was told that "[We] hope that whatever problems… contributed to your lack of success… at Duke will not keep you from a successful pursuit of a productive career." [13] [14] The work gave rise to publications that include a Proceedings report with Church as lead author on an early model for molecular interactions between the minor groove of double-stranded DNA and β-ribbons of proteins. [15] [16]

Church returned to graduate work at Harvard University in 1977 under Walter Gilbert, [17] and completed a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology working on mobile genetic elements within introns of yeast mitochondrial and mouse immunoglobulin genes (1984). [4]

After completing his doctoral work, Church spent six months of 1984 at Biogen, the industrial laboratory site where Prof. Gilbert had relocated a sizable part of his former Harvard group [2] this was followed soon after by a Life Sciences Research Foundation postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco with Gail R. Martin, [18] [19] a member of the National Academy of Sciences and joint-discoverer of a technique to extract mouse embryonic stem cells. [20] [21]

Church joined the Harvard Medical School faculty as an assistant professor in 1986. [2] Church is now the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, [22] and a member of the Harvard-MIT health sciences and technology faculty. He was also a founding member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. [2]

Church has also served as director of the Center on Bioenergy Technology at Harvard, funded by a multiyear award from the U.S. Department of Energy. [ when? ] [ citation needed ] and of the Center of Excellence in Genomic Science (CEGS) at Harvard, funded by a P50-type award from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), a part of the National Institutes of Health. [23]

He co-founded Veritas Genetics and its European and Latin American subsidiary, Veritas Intercontinental, with the idea of bringing the benefits of genomic data to millions of people globally.

Church was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 2012 for contributions to human genome sequencing technologies and DNA synthesis and assembly.

Church is known for his professional contributions in the sequencing of genomes and interpreting such data, in synthetic biology and genome engineering, and in an emerging area of neuroscience that proposes to map brain activity and establish a "functional connectome." Among these, Church is known for pioneering the specialized fields of personal genomics and synthetic biology. He has co-founded commercial concerns spanning these areas, and others from green and natural products chemistry to infectious agent testing and fuel production, including Knome, LS9, and Joule Unlimited (respectively, human genomics, green chemistry, and solar fuel companies).

Genome sequencing and interpretation technologies Edit

With Walter Gilbert, Church published the first direct genomic sequencing method in 1984. [24] [25] Described in that publication were the cyclic application of fluids to a solid phase alternating with imaging, plus avoidance of bacterial cloning, strategies that are still used in current dominant Next-Generation Sequencing technologies. These technologies began to affect genome-scale sequencing in 2005. [26] Church also helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984. [27] He invented the broadly applied concepts of molecular multiplexing and barcode tags. [28] Technology transfer from his Harvard laboratory of automated sequencing and software to Genome Therapeutics Corp. resulted in the first bacterial genome sequence and first commercial genome (the human pathogen Helicobacter pylori) in 1994. [29] Church was also co-inventor of nanopore sequencing in 1995, [ citation needed ] which are now commercially available (e.g. Oxford Nanopore Technologies), [ citation needed ] but not in the form embodied in Church's contribution to the original patents. [30]

To aid in the interpretation and sharing of genomes, Church, in 2005, initiated the Personal Genome Project (PGP), [31] which provides the world's only open-access human genome and trait data sets. [32] [33] [34] Eight trios (mother, father, and child) from the Personal Genome Project are in the process of being chosen to act as the primary genome standards (Reference Materials) for the NIST+FDA program. [35]

To further advance personal genomics and sharing of genomic data, in 2018 Church co-founded Nebula Genomics, a company that uses blockchain and privacy-preserving computing to make genomic data available to medical researchers, while maintaining privacy. [36] [37] [38] [39] In February 2020, Nebula Genomics started offering personal genome sequencing for $299. [40]

Synthetic biology and genome engineering Edit

He has co-developed "genome engineering" technologies since 1997 via either general homologous recombination (recA and lambda-red) [41] or via sequence-specific nucleases. [42] Since 2004, his team has developed use of DNA array (aka DNA chip) synthesizers for combinatorial libraries and assembling large genome segments. [43] He co-developed Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering (MAGE) and optimized CRISPR/Cas9 discovered by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for engineering a variety of genomes ranging from yeast to human. [42] His laboratory's use of CRISPR in human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPS) is the latest contender for precise gene therapy. [44]

His team is the first to tackle a genome-scale change in the genetic code. [45] This was done in a 4.7 million basepair genome of an industrially useful microbe (E. coli) with the goal of making a safer and more productive strain this strain uses non-proteinogenic amino acids in proteins and is metabolically and genetically isolated from other species.

He has co-invented several uses for DNA, including detectors for dark matter – Weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), [46] anti-cancer "nano-robots", [47] and strategies for digital data storage that are over a million times denser than conventional disk drives. [48] Together with polymerase, DNA can be used to sense and store variation in photons, nucleotides, or ions. [49]

The BRAIN initiative Edit

He was part of a team of six [49] who, in a 2012 scientific commentary, proposed a Brain Activity Map, later named BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). [50] They outlined specific experimental techniques that might be used to achieve what they termed a "functional connectome", as well as new technologies that will have to be developed in the course of the project, [49] including wireless, minimally invasive methods to detect and manipulate neuronal activity, either utilizing microelectronics or synthetic biology. In one such proposed method, enzymatically produced DNA would serve as a "ticker tape record" of neuronal activity. [49] [51]

Woolly mammoth cloning Edit

In March 2015, Church and his genetics research team at Harvard successfully copied some woolly mammoth genes into the genome of an Asian elephant. Using the CRISPR DNA editing technique, his group spliced genetic segments from frozen mammoth specimens, including genes from the ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair attributes, into the DNA of skin cells from a modern elephant. This marked the first time that woolly mammoth genes had been functionally active since the species became extinct. [52] Their work has not been subject to peer review, however. Church stated that "Just making a DNA change isn't that meaningful. We want to read out the phenotypes." To do that, the team plans to perform further tests to get the hybrid cells into becoming specialized tissues, and from there attempting to turn the hybrid elephant/mammoth skin cells into hybrid embryos that can be grown in artificial wombs.

Technology transfer and translational impact Edit

Church has co-founded 22 [53] companies, including Veritas Genetics (human genomics, 2014, with Mirza Cifric, Preston Estep, Yining Zhao, Joe Thakuria), Warp Drive Bio (natural products, 2011, with Greg Verdine and James Wells), Alacris (cancer systems therapeutics, 2010, with Hans Lehrach, Bernhard Herrmann, and Shahid Imran), Knome (human genomics, 2007, with Jorge Conde and Sundar Subramaniam), [54] Pathogenica (microbe and viral NGS diagnostics, 2009, with Yemi Adesokan), [55] AbVitro (immunomes, 2010, with Francois Vigneault), [56] Gen9 Bio (synthetic biology, 2009, with Joseph Jacobson and Drew Endy), EnEvolv (Genome Engineering), Joule Unlimited (SolarFuels, 2007, with Noubar Afeyan and David Berry), and LS9 (green chemistry, 2005, with Chris Somerville, Jay Keasling, Vinod Khosla, Noubar Afeyan, and David Berry) [57] [58] [59]

He has participated in technology development, licensing patents and advising most of the Next-Generation Sequencing companies, including Complete Genomics, Life Technologies, Illumina, Danaher Corporation, Roche Diagnostics, Pacific Biosciences, Genia, and Nabsys. [59]

He was on the Scientific Advisory Board of Cambrian Genomics [60]

He is one of the co-founders of Genome Project-Write.

Support of open consent Edit

Church spearheaded the concept and implementation of open access sequencing hardware [61] and shareable human medical data. [34] He has noted the potential for re-identification of human research participants and the tendency for consent forms to be opaque – proposing an alternative "open consent" mechanism. [32] [33] He has participated in the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, [62] cautioning about the risk of synthetic DNA and proposing risk-reduction via licensing and surveillance. [63] [64] His laboratory has a major bio-safety engineering focus. [45]

Support of open education Edit

He has been an early advocate of online, open education since 2002. [ citation needed ] He is advisor to the Personal Genetics Education Project [65] and has spent a day teaching at The Jemicy School. [66] He has championed citizen science, especially in the fields of synthetic biology and personal genomics. [33] Since 2008, his team has been hosting an annual Genomes, Environments and Traits (GET) Conference with free online videos. [67]

Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative Edit

Church is a member of the Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative (RaDVaC), a group formed early in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic to create an easily produced, free and open-source vaccine for self-administration. [68]

Church was partly funded from 2005 to 2007 by the nonprofit Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation, a private foundation established by convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The affiliation was listed as for cutting edge science and education. [69] In his 2019 apology for "poor awareness" of Epstein's sex offender status, Church said he had "nerd tunnel vision" and articles on Epstein's crimes were unclear, placing responsibility on vetting donors on the development office. [70]

Church faced criticism for his response to a question from Der Spiegel where he speculated that it could be technically possible to make a Neanderthal by reconstructing its DNA and modifying living human cells accordingly. [71] Church pointed out that he was not working on such a project. [72] [73]

In his science and popular efforts, Church has also promoted open access genome sequencing and shareable human medical data, as well as online, open education and citizen science.

Church authored the 2012 NewScientist "top science book," Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves with Ed Regis. [74] [75] He has participated in news interviews and videos including at TED, TEDx, [76] [77] [78] and TEDMED venues, at PBS's Charlie Rose, [79] Faces of America, and NOVA, as well as at PopSci, EG, and The Colbert Report. [80] [81] He is a regular contributor to publications and videos [82] and is a member of the Xconomists, an ad hoc team of editorial advisors for the tech news and media company, Xconomy. [83]

Church has received accolades including election to the National Academy of Sciences (in 2011), [2] [84] and the National Academy of Engineering (in 2012). [85] He received the American Society for Microbiology Promega Biotechnology Research Award and the heptannual Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science of the Franklin Institute. [86] He authored the NewScientist "top science book," Regenesis (on synthetic biology) with Ed Regis. Church is a regular contributor to and has appeared widely in the media, including TED venues, NOVA, Faces of America, Charlie Rose on PBS, The Colbert Report, and Xconomy.

Other honors include the Triennial International Steven Hoogendijk Award in 2010 and the Scientific American Top 50 twice (for "Designing artificial life" in 2005 and "The $1000 genome" in 2006). [87] [88] Newsweek picked Church for their 2008 "Power of Ideas" recognition in the category of Medicine (for the Personal Genome Project). [89] In September 2010, Dr Church was honored for his work in genetics with the Mass High Tech All-Star Award. [90]

He is a member of the Research Advisory Board of SENS Research Foundation. [91]

Church is married to fellow Harvard Medical School faculty member in genetics Ting Wu. [92]

Church has been outspoken in his support of following a vegan lifestyle, for reasons concerned with health, and with environmental and moral issues. When asked about his dietary choice, Church replied, "I've been vegan off-and-on since 1974 when I was inspired by participating in an MIT nutritional study, and quite strictly since 2004." He goes on to elaborate 4 reasons:

"medical (cholesterol in fish & dairy), energy conservation (up to 20-fold impact), cruelty ("organic" animals are deprived of medicines that humans use), and risks of spreading pathogens (not just the flu)… [noting that] veganism is an issue for which personal and global love of life, health and wealth align. It's a pity to lose parts of our humanity and planet just due to a lack of recipes." [93]

George identifies as a sentientist. [94] Sentientism is a naturalistic worldview that grants moral consideration to all sentient beings.

In the context of the Personal Genome Project, journalists at Forbes and Wired have noted Church's openness about his health issues, including dyslexia, narcolepsy, and high cholesterol (one of the motivations for his vegan diet). [95] [96]

Church collaborated with transhumanist entrepreneur James Clement on the Supercentenarian Research Study, which aims to sequence the genomes of supercentenarians in hopes of discovering potential genetic factors behind their longevity. [97]

Genetics and Literature

More tha halfway through Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, we know little of what lead to the biological apocalypse, just somehow it was related to something Crake, formerly Glenn, did. What we do know is that Jimmy is left, watching over the Crakers, and serving as the priest of the religion he created to pacify the species.

In a sharp criticism, Atwood critiques the possible human need for religion, as a pacifying force and partial scare tactic. It harkened back to a line from the new and popular TV show, True Detective: “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of s***. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality?”

The combination is caustic – do we, as a species, need the threat of eternal damnation to control us? On the flip side, what would a loss of this control look like? Madness?

Then again, maybe that’s not what Atwood is saying at all: After all, the Crakers are not human. Moreover, Snowman made the religion up, after knowing about religion before the apocalypse. If there was no Snowman, would religion have been made by the Crakers at all? It a large leap to assume that religion would sprout rootless from a post-apocalyptic situation. To me, it’s interesting to think that it might…

So what does this say about the nature of man? If we need to be controlled by fear, maybe we’re heading to damnation regardless…

For some more great True Detective quotes, see here

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by maxhkushner0 on April 5, 2014.

One Response to “Religion of the Crakers”

Personally, as someone who is not particularly religious, I don’t feel compelled to do things for any reason besides the fact that it seems like the right thing to do. Is that selfish? I don’t know. But I think the point that you raise about the seeming necessity of a higher power to control our actions is definitely one that Atwood is exploring in the novel. Do the Crakers act peaceably because they don’t need religion to guide their morals or are they so beyond human that they don’t commit acts of violence? In Oryx and Crake, what is Atwood trying to contribute to the conversation about religions, morals, and the human spirit?


A chromosome is a structure made from tightly packed strands of DNA and proteins called histones. Strands of DNA are tightly wrapped around the histone proteins and form into long worm-shaped structures called ‘chromatids’. Two chromatids join together to form a chromosome.

Chromosomes are formed in the nucleus of a cell when a cell is dividing. It is possible to see chromosomes under an ordinary light microscope if the cell is in the right stage of cell division.

The number of chromosomes varies between species. Humans have 46 chromosomes. Some species can have many more than 100 chromosomes while others can have as little as two.

Religious beliefs shape our thinking on cloning, stem cells and gene editing

Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam react to new technologies and concepts in their own way – though there is rarely universal consensus on every issue within those religions. Not surprisingly, the basis for modern day beliefs is often found in scripture and related lore.

To better understand, for example, how religions view the use of human embryonic tissue for research and treatment, consider the ancient Jewish tales of golemim — super beings created by humans for protection and tasks.

Whereas Christian tradition for many centuries had a prohibition against this kind of “playing God,” Judaism offers many tales of people doing just that. Stories and parables about people creating synthetic life are mentioned in Jewish texts — notably the Talmud and the Zohar. These texts took form from late antiquity through the Middle Ages and into early modern times. They offer insights into how modern Jewish perspectives on biotechnology differ substantially from those of Christianity, whose scholars tend to put more weight on biblical passages.

One interesting tale from the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin 65b) involves two rabbis who got together just before the Sabbath to use their powers to create from nothing a 3-year-old calf, which they then sacrificed to make a Sabbath veal dinner. Another Talmudic passage (Sanhedrin 38b) describes the mythical Adam of biblical Genesis being created first as a golem. Later he is enhanced with consciousness.

Use of the word enhanced is intentional here. It’s not to imply that any Medieval Jewish commentary has any scientific relevance v is-a-vis transhumanism, or other applications of biotechnology, but because modern Jewish scholars see them as a kind of foreshadowing of current times in terms of ethical implications and potential dilemmas.

One interesting element of the golem tales is that they often go out of control and wreak havoc. This underlies a perspective in Jewish thinking that one should be cautious in applying biotechnology. But it also may suggest there is nothing prohibiting one from engaging in research and development in the first place — whether we’re talking about GM crops, cloning, chimeric organs, or genome editing, so long as policy makers and regulators take care to assure that the technology is put to beneficial use with appropriate safeguards.

While Islam doesn’t have a formalized collection of commentaries akin to the Talmud, practically speaking, Muslim perspective closely mirrors Jewish perspective. Hinduism takes a similar approach in that there are no particular principles that could be seen as a basis for prohibiting biotech development.

Christianity is a different story. The concept of “playing God” still bothers certain groups. Christian opinion on GMOs is split. However, when it comes to therapeutic cloning via somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to create embryonic stem cells, or use of embryos that have been created by in vitro fertilization (IVF) in fertility clinics, Christian views tend to be more prohibitive compared with other religions.

This is not to say there’s no crossover in opinion between Christians and non-Christians. An old saying goes that if you have two Jews, you have three opinions (and the same probably applies to Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians too). This became apparent as a fascinating discussion played out at Harvard University when representatives from Islam, Judaism and two sects of Protestant Christianity got together to discuss human embryonic stem cell research in 2007.

Assigned to present the Jewish view on embryology relevant to stem cell research, Eric Cohen, director of the Bioethics and American Democracy program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., started out doing just that. But over the course of the discussion, it became apparent that his own personal view aligned closer to that of a Christian — he assigned high moral value to human embryos and failed to distinguish an embryo from a blastocyst, a very early developmental stage that is really where human embryonic stem cell research is focused. In contrast to Cohen, Professor Omar Sultan Haque, of Harvard Medical School, sounded like he was in line with the mainstream Jewish view, even though he was presenting the Islamic perspective. But as we’ll see a little later, the Jewish and Muslim perspectives on life prior to birth — as well as an emphasis on doing good for the public and health — are very similar.

Comparison of religious perspectives on GM food

Hinduism and Islam generally have no inherent problem with GM crops.

“Apart [from] a few key factors, concepts like karma and rebirth, most of the people we call Hindu would probably not agree on many of the issues,” said Hindu scholar Vasudha Narayanan in an interview with VICE News. The basic approach to technology in Hinduism is to accept it based on its practical value, but when it comes to specific religious rituals, that’s when Hindus may take issue. “They may have it in the regular food, but they may not do it in offerings of food to the deity in a temple,” Narayanan added. “There would be ritual contexts in which GMOs might not be used.”

The question of Islamic feelings on the subject was addressed in the same Vice article by Ebrahim Moosa, a University of Notre Dame Islamic Studies professor: “I have seen people who have adopted a position of caution and said one has to watch this issue. It’s not a question of permissible or impermissible, but what is good for our society.”

Mainline Protestant sects of Christianity tend to have no particular objection to GM crops, though the Roman Catholic Church has some concerns according to a 2015 letter from Pope Francis. Excerpts only are quoted here for the sake of brevity. In recent years, smaller bits of it have been cherry-picked by anti-GMO activist groups to support claims that the Pope “slammed GMOs“, but it really presents a Vatican that is struggling to understand both the science and the broader issues:

It is difficult to make a general judgement about genetic modification (GM)…Genetic mutations, in fact, have often been, and continue to be, caused by nature itself..In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to “the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production”. The most vulnerable of these become temporary labourers, and many rural workers end up moving to poverty-stricken urban areas…Certainly, these issues require constant attention and a concern for their ethical implications. A broad, responsible scientific and social debate needs to take place, one capable of considering all the available information and of calling things by their name….This is a complex environmental issue it calls for a comprehensive approach which would require, at the very least, greater efforts to finance various lines of independent, interdisciplinary research capable of shedding new light on the problem.

Judaism has no problem with scientists fiddling around with plant genetics. It’s possible to find naysayer rabbis here and there who buy into the same activist concerns that seem to have influenced the Pope, but the general perspective from Judaism is that crops that improve human health and the food supply are beneficial, regardless of how they are made. Thus, when you ask Jewish scholars about GM food, they usually just want to make sure that you’re not talking about transferring genes from a pig, shellfish, or other non-kosher animal into a plant. Thus far, no such transgenic pig plant has come onto the market, and so for religious Jews, GMOs are not likely to become a major concern.

On the contrary, when considering GMOs developed for humanitarian goals — Golden Rice, for example — precedent upon precedent in Jewish law and scholarship weighs heavily in favor of the technology. This has to do with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam — repairing the world.

Conflicting views on when an embryo becomes a person

Embryo-based therapies include use of embryonic stem cells to grow new tissue to replace degenerated tissue, such as in neurodegenerative diseases. Embryos can come from donating parents, or they can be created by cloning the patient who is to receive the new tissue. The latter is called therapeutic cloning and it must be distinguished from reproductive cloning in which one creates a baby with her own genetic make up.

Therapeutic cloning has the potential to treat a range of conditions, from type 1 diabetes, to degenerative conditions like Parkinson disease and various blood disorders. There are disagreements within the various religions over the use of this technology. But the major objection to anything involving human tissue comes from Christianity — because of the belief that life begins at conception. The position was expressed in the 2015 letter of Pope Francis but also reflects views of various Eastern Orthodox and Protestant denominations.

Concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo? There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos.

Certainly there are some liberal Protestant denominations that disagree. And there are those who believe other considerations — finding cures for horrible diseases, for example — come into play.

Hinduism is not fond of abortion, but India permits termination of pregnancy up to 20 weeks of gestation based on a rationale of freedom of choice similar to that underlying the approach in the United States (characterized by complete freedom of choice for the mother during the first two thirds of pregnancy, but increasing restrictions during weeks when the fetus is viable).

Both Judaism and Islam see human ontogeny (development from gametes through personhood) as a kind of graded progression. The Babylonian Talmud considers the early products of conception (what science now calls the zygote, morula, blastocyst, and early embryonic stages) k’mayim, meaning like water until 40 days into pregnancy (tractate Yevamot 69b). At 40 days gestation, many embryos demonstrate the beginnings of brainwave activity (although obviously Talmudic period rabbis didn’t know this). At this point, there also has been a heartbeat for about 3 weeks seen easily on ultrasound — a fact that anti-abortion Christians use frequently in efforts to dissuade potential mothers from ending their pregnancies. But, being like water, a conceptus has no legal or moral status in Talmudic thinking.

Michael Sandel

A: I initially became interested in the subject through my service on the President’s Council on Bioethics. One of the topics we dealt with was the question of enhancement and genetic engineering for enhancement, and I became fascinated by the topic there and began teaching a course that dealt with these issues and wrote what initially was an article in The Atlantic. Both got into this book. What intrigued me most about it was not the technology as such but the questions about the human goods, the fundamental human values and virtues that are raised by debates over biotechnology. What struck me as especially interesting was that our usual way of talking about ethics, bioethics, moral philosophy didn’t seem to capture fully what’s at stake in the debate over genetic engineering. We usually debate costs and benefits, autonomy and rights. But that moral vocabulary doesn’t really seem to capture what’s at stake in this whole question of genetic engineering and eugenics. That, I think, is really what intrigued me most: If not autonomy and rights and utility, then what? That was why it was a philosophical challenge.

Q: What is at stake? You say these questions are almost theological.

A: Yes. Really to grapple with the ethics of enhancement requires us, I think, to confront questions that have been crowded from view in the modern world, certainly within modern philosophy. It raises fundamental questions that really do verge on theological questions: What is the proper stance of human beings toward the given world? What is the proper stance toward nature? Are there certain limits to the project of human mastery and dominion? Those are questions in moral philosophy, but they are also questions of theology and of religion.

Q: Have the teachings of faith traditions addressed these issues—whether man should aim for perfection?

A: Yes, different religious traditions give different broad perspectives on this question. Some sanctify nature as inscribed with inherent meaning. Others see the moral importance of nature as flowing from the fact of God’s creation. And there are some religious traditions that view human beings as participants in creation. This is true of the Jewish tradition, from which I come. On the one hand, human beings are empowered to exercise dominion over nature and even to be participants in creation and yet, at the same time, there are strictures against idolatry, which is a kind of overreaching and confusing human beings’ role with God’s. So the tension between these two impulses-—to participate in creation and yet not to overreach-—that, I think, is at the crux of some of the most interesting theological aspects of this debate.

Q: Where do you draw the line between trying to heal and trying to enhance?

A: I draw the line with health, with medical purposes. So I think it is one thing to try to restore normal human functioning—that would be health, that would be medicine, that would be curing or repairing. I think it’s something else to try to use biotechnology to enhance, to try to lift people above the norm, let’s say, of intelligence, or of height, or of musical ability, or to try to pick and choose the genetic traits of our children, to aim at designer children, to choose the sex of our children for purely non-medical reasons. These are really exercises in a kind of consumerist ethic that I think don’t have the same moral weight as medicine or health.

Q: But as a parent don’t you want the best for your children?

A: What I really want for my children is that they be loved and that they be happy and that they lead a good life. I suppose you could say that those goals could be captured in the idea of wanting the best for my children. But very often when we aim at the best, or what we may think is the best for our children, we aim really at lesser things, such as getting into a certain college. Never mind college, some parents expend great efforts to get their kids into the right nursery school or the right preschool, with the thought that that will set them on the path to success, to competitive success especially. So I think very often when we think we are aiming at the best for our children, what we are really doing is trying to position them for competitive success in an intensely driven kind of society. I’m not sure that always leads to the good life or to happiness.

Q: You have said maybe we should change the driven climate of the culture, and perhaps this quest for perfection really undermines the sacredness of the child-parent relationship.

A: I think part of being a parent, to love one’s child, is to accept them as they come—not to see them as instruments of our ambition or as creatures to be molded, as if they were themselves commodities. I think too often in our society parents, who may have good impulses, overreach and try to mold and shape and direct their child. That’s the phenomenon of hyper-parenting. I think people who want to use genetic technologies to gain a competitive edge for their children are engaging in a kind of overreaching that could really undermine our appreciation of children as gifts for which we should be grateful and, instead, to view them as products or instruments that are there to be molded and directed.

Q: You talk about gifts. Is that a religious argument?

A: Yes and no. It’s true that to speak of an ethic of giftedness, which is very much the ethic that I deploy in raising questions about designer children and genetic engineering—an appreciation of the giftedness of the child or the giftedness of life does have religious resonance, because a great many religious traditions emphasize the sense in which the good things in life are not all our own doing they are gifts from God. So that is one source of an ethic of giftedness, a religious source—the idea of God as giver of gifts. But what I argue in the book is that that is one important source for the ethic of giftedness but not the only source. It’s possible to make sense of what’s morally at stake in an appreciation of the gift of life, or the gift of a child, without necessarily presupposing that there is a giver. What matters is that the gift—in this case, the child—not be wholly our own doing, our own product. So I think there is a religious source, but I want to make room for religious discourse in arguments about bioethics and also for an ethical appreciation of these ideals and values by those who may not come from a religious tradition.

One of the ways in which parenting is a learning experience and an opportunity for moral growth is that we learn as parents that we don’t choose the kind of child that we have. In most of our lives, we are accustomed to aiming at mastery and control and dominion-—over nature, over our lives, over our jobs, over our careers, over the goods that we buy. But parenthood is a school for humility. We can’t choose the precise traits of our children, and that is morally important. It teaches us what William May, a theologian whom I greatly admire, calls “an openness to the unbidden.” I think this quality, as a trait of character, as a moral disposition—an openness to the unbidden—teaches us to rein in the impulse to mastery and control that we experience in so many other parts of our lives.

Q: What technologies really concern you, like non-medical sex selection? Say a family has five girls and wants a son. What would you ban or not ban and why?

A: My emphasis in the book is not on banning or regulating. I am trying to get at the moral arguments and the ethical status of various attempts at enhancement, or genetic engineering, or the bid for designer children. But there are implications for society at large. I would include non-medical sex selection as one of those practices that I think is morally questionable and that can carry adverse social consequences. We see, in some parts of the world, that sex selection for boys—and it’s usually for boys—reflects sex discrimination against girls, and it leads to very large imbalances—in China, in Korea, in India—in the population between boys and girls, a vast disproportion of boys to girls, and it reflects really this discriminatory attitude toward girls. So that’s one social consequence. But another consequence is really to our culture, to our moral landscape. The norm of unconditional parental love, I think, depends on the fact that we don’t pick and choose the traits of our children in the way that we pick and choose the features of a car we might order, or a consumer good. If we go too far down the road of choosing the genetic traits of children, my worry is that parenting will be less a kind of school for humility than it should be, and we will become too accustomed to regarding children as instruments of our ambition and of our desires.

Q: What would a “perfect” society look like if parents did pick the traits of their children?

A: By a perfect society you mean a dystopian society?

A: I think [there are] two kinds of risks. One has to do with the life of the children who would not only feel molded and made and packaged almost as commodities by their parents, but might feel the intense pressures that go with that, because if parents are aiming at choosing children who will be good athletes, or great musicians, or who will get into Ivy League schools, or who will be tall enough to make the basketball team, then there is a danger that the life of the child will bear the burden of that expectation and the risk of disappointment and the cost of disappointment will be even higher than they are now, and even now they can be considerable. So that’s one, the effect on the child. The other effect that I worry about is the effect on the parent, that the moral teaching of humility and of the limits to our control that parenthood teaches-—that that will be lost and that we will begin to think of children more as consumer goods than as gifts that we can’t fully control and for which we aren’t fully responsible.

Q: You see troubling comparisons with the eugenics movement.

A: I do think there is a similarity between the dark history of eugenics and present attempts to pick and choose the genetic traits of children. There is one very important difference. Traditionally, eugenics was state-sponsored and coercive. They were collectivist, and so there was the dark history of forced sterilization. The majority of American states had laws by the 1930s that allowed for forced sterilization of socially undesirable categories of people, so-called feeble-minded, for example, and with Hitler culminating in genocide. So the real question is: If you remove the coercion and you make it an individual choice, is eugenics still objectionable? I would say that it is. What we have today is a kind of privatized or free-market eugenics. It’s not an attempt to try to improve entire societies or to increase humanity’s germ plasm, as the old eugenicists said. It’s an attempt, usually by affluent parents, to give their kids an edge in a highly competitive society. But it does carry the idea, which comes from the eugenic past, that it is for this generation to pick and choose the genetic traits of the next generation.

Q: And it’s only for those who can afford it.

A: In the privatized version, it’s only for those who can afford it. So a further objection now to eugenics is that it will only deepen the gap between rich and poor, and possibly inscribe that gap in our biology. That is also a troubling prospect.

Q: Should faith communities speak out? If it is just left up to the marketplace, will that determine who can afford the technology? Should there be more discussion, and should religious groups get involved?

A: Yes, I do think this is an issue that faith groups should become involved in, because it does raise questions about the proper stance of human beings toward the given world. It involves the tension between the aspiration to human mastery, control, and dominion over nature, over children, over future generations-—the tension between mastery and dominion, on the one hand, and reverence, or respect, or restraint, or humility, on the other. And most religious traditions speak to this deep human tension between mastery and restraint, between dominion and humility. I think that’s the kind of moral vocabulary we need to make sense of the challenge posed by new genetic technologies. Unless faith communities participate in public debate about these questions, that part of the moral vocabulary will not find full expression.

Q: What is morally owed to those who suffer from disease or disability if not healing or trying to make them more perfect, healthier? Is there a higher good than relief of suffering?

A: The relief of suffering is a great good. The curing of illness and disease—these are great human goods. This is the mission of medicine. I do not argue that nature is sacrosanct in the sense that we must never tamper with nature. That would disempower, really, all of medicine. That would mean that we can’t combat dread diseases—malaria, polio, all of which are given by nature, if one thinks about it. So my argument is not that we must never intervene in nature. My argument is that there is a moral difference between intervention for the sake of health, to cure or prevent disease, and intervention for the sake of achieving a competitive edge for our kids in a consumer society. I think morally those two ambitions have a very different status. One of the differences is that aiming at health, restoring health—that is a goal that is both morally important and limited, because it aims at the restoration of normal human functioning, which is an important part of human flourishing. But aiming at giving our kids a competitive edge in a consumer society—that, in principle, is a goal that is limitless. There is no end. In fact, one can imagine a kind of hormonal arms race or genetic arms race, whether it’s to do with height or IQ, conceivably, in the future. So it’s limitless, and that’s another of the features that sets it apart from medical intervention. It really puts biotechnology in the service not only of health but of consumerism, really, and the drive for better consumer goods than one’s neighbor has, or than one had last year. This is a kind of limitless spiral, and even from the standpoint of resources I think it would be a great tragedy to devote medical resources and genetic technological breakthroughs to purposes that are not to do with health or medicine, but instead are to do with satisfying the desires that are created by the consumer society.

Q: You mentioned the Presidents Bioethics Council, and stem cell research has been a huge subject there. What needs to be done about stem cell research? What are the moral arguments?

A: In my criticism of genetic engineering for enhancement I am more in line with what my colleagues on the council thought than in my views on embryonic stem cell research. I’m a supporter of embryonic stem cell research. I do think there are very important moral and also religious questions at stake in the debate over embryonic stem cell research. The most fundamental question is: What is the moral status of the early embryo or blastocyst, which is destroyed in the course of stem cell research? And so those who view the blastocyst, the very early unimplanted embryo-—we are not, of course, talking about a fetus, but an unimplanted embryo in a lab-—there are some who believe that blastocyst has a moral status equal to that of a baby or of a fully developed human being, and if they’re right about that then embryonic stem cell research should not be permitted. I don’t think they are right about it, but in the book I try to take seriously their arguments and to address them. I think it’s important, where moral arguments do inform political views, to welcome those religious arguments into the public sphere not to exclude them and say no, no, no, that has no place to welcome them but also to engage with those views, to test them, to argue with them, and in some cases to learn from them. So my argument about stem cell research in the book defends it, but only after taking seriously the religious objections that people raise based on the moral status of the embryo.

Q: Defend it based on what?

A: Mainly the way I try to go about engaging with the debate about the moral status of the embryo is to try to lay out what I take to be the strongest possible arguments in favor of regarding the blastocyst as morally equivalent to a baby and then seeing whether those arguments can be sustained, whether they are adequate arguments. So I think that it’s important not to—just as faith-based arguments should not be kept out of the public arena, neither should they be exempt from critical scrutiny and rigorous philosophical argument.

Q: What is your reasoning to support the view that embryonic stem cell research is moral?

A: The main way of arguing is to see whether those who object to embryonic stem cell research on the grounds that the blastocyst is morally equivalent to a person—whether they are prepared to pursue the full moral logic of that position. And if they were, then you would not only restrict, as President Bush has, federal funding of embryonic stem cell research you would ban all embryonic stem cell research. Right now, the Bush position is that it shouldn’t enjoy federal funding, for the most part, but it should be permitted in the private sector. If it were truly infanticide, if destroying that embryo were really morally equivalent to infanticide, you wouldn’t say we should deny federal funding to this infanticide but we should allow it to continue in the private sector. Take the example of yanking organs from babies to save other people’s lives. You wouldn’t permit that. Not only that you would not permit fertility clinics to create and discard excess embryos if you really regarded those excess embryos as siblings of the children who were implanted and created. You wouldn’t say, well, we’ll ban embryonic stem cell research or deny it federal funding, but we’ll let fertility clinics create and discard thousands upon thousands of frozen embryos. You wouldn’t permit it, and yet many of the people who want to restrict embryonic stem cell research are not raising their voices to shut down fertility clinics that create and discard excess embryos. So it’s a test of consistency, mainly. Now some are consistent and would shut down fertility clinics that create and discard excess embryos. There is a further test for them, which is: In natural pregnancy, more than half of fertilized eggs fail to implant or are otherwise lost. Should we regard that as an instance of infant mortality? And if so, why are we not mounting ambitious public health campaigns to try to save and rescue all of the fertilized eggs that are lost in natural pregnancy? We would need a public health campaign of massive proportions if there really were over a fifty percent rate of infant mortality. And what about the religious traditions that consider those lost embryos as infant deaths? Do they mandate the same burial rites for lost embryos as for babies who die just after birth, and if not, why not? So it’s a test. And this is not to parody the religious position it’s to take it seriously and to explore its moral logic and to see whether that moral logic is carried out fully by those who profess to hold the position in the specific case of embryonic stem cell research, but not in all of these others.

Q: Does Jewish teaching about the importance of doing everything to save a life influence your thinking on this and other bioethical topics?

A: I have a broad but not an expert or scholarly background in the Jewish tradition. I’ve tried to learn what I can from childhood, but I am not an expert on Jewish teachings in this area. It is true that the Jewish tradition emphasizes the moral mandate to save life. It also has a different position from the Catholic Church on the moral status of the embryo. It has a more developmental view of when human life, in the sense of personhood, begins than does the Catholic Church. And so that may have influenced me, but I think I’ve also been influenced by arguing through these questions with colleagues on the President’s Council on Bioethics, with students, and with others, some from religious backgrounds, others not. I do think it is very important that the religious communities do try to bring their teachings and their insights to bear on the stem cell debate and on the debate about genetic engineering.

Not in our stars but our DNA: Is faith and embrace of religion (and astrology) hardwired?

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves….

So says Cassius in the Shakespearean play Julius Caesar. Writing in an age when even Galileo, despite knowing that the Earth was just a planet, believed in astrology, Shakespeare was exposing astrology as the superstitious nonsense that we know it to be today. The planets and stars do not control us. Instead, Cassius insists, “Men at some time are masters of their fate.”

Most people in our modern society would agree with Shakespeare in practice, but large numbers of people also still believe in astrology, along with other pseudosciences, at least when they’re not at a job interview. They’re not fated to think this way based on the relative positions of the Earth, planets, and stars at the time of their birth, but might the thought patterns underlying such beliefs be “fated” in a genetic sense? Overall, as with many aspects of human behavior, the answer is starting to emerge as a complex interaction between genes and multiple other factors.

Evidence for a genetic basis of belief

Several studies conducted in recent years have posed questions on matters of religion to identical twins raised apart, making great efforts to eliminate the influence of culture. One study, for instance, quantified religiosity based on three components: “self-forgetfulness”, “transpersonal identification” and “mysticism”. Values for these components, in turn, were calculated based on responses to questions using terms such as “spiritual order”, “power that cannot be completely explained” and other expressions that are not linked specifically to any religion or culture.

The results showed genetic factors accounting for 40-50 percent of religious belief, as defined by the questions that were asked. Thus, the authors concluded that spirituality and faith are 40-50 percent inherited, meaning if all environmental factors are equal twins have a 40-50 percent chance of having the same religious beliefs. It sounds impressive, but it’s really not, since it also implies a 50-60 percent chance that twins growing up in the same household will end up very different in terms of religion. One might stick to the beliefs of the particular organized religion of the family while the other grows up as an atheist.

Attempting to hone in on how a genetic basis for religious belief might actually work, another study looked at a handful of genes affecting how certain parts of the brain react to the chemical dopamine. In turns out that patterns in these genes relate to how susceptible one is to confirmation bias–the tendency to interpret new information (or to remember information) in a way that confirms one’s beliefs. Not only is confirmation bias strong in religious believers and those who believe in astrology, psychics, and other pseudosciences, but it’s also been shown to be largely independent of one’s educational level.

Nature and nurture

Despite the findings discussed above, other studies, some very recent, show that genes are fighting an uphill battle against the environment when it comes to religious belief. As recently as 2013, a twin study looking at religion in secular societies found strong correlations for religion between twins, but this was true for both identical and fraternal twins. This means that the shared family environment was key, not the shared genes, although the genetic factor proved more important for “personal religiousness” (belief in deities and finding comfort in religion) compared with attendance of religious ceremonies. In the same year, another study found that religion depends on multiple factors, including personality traits, which themselves result from complex nature-nurture interactions. Finally, a study published last year demonstrated effects of various genetic factors on religion to be only moderate.

Environmental factors

Polling data from the National Science Foundation actually show that the number of Americans believing in astrology has risen significantly over the last ten years. The trend is dominated by 18-24 year-old age group, where the increase in astrology belief is alarmingly high. This is despite the Millennial Generation (those born from the early 1980s to early 2000s) having much lower rates of religious affiliation and belief compared with older Americans. For astrology, significant increases also were found all the way into the younger end of the Baby Boom Generation (born mid 1940s-early 1960s). Between the Millennial and Boomer generations is Generation X, whose members, like Millennials, also cling much less to traditional religion compared with older generations. Clearly, the basis of such dramatic changes in belief must be environmental (cultural and society) rather than genetic, and it could be that astrology and other “new age” beliefs are rapidly replacing traditional religious ideas.

Thus, while susceptibility to bias and “spiritual” thinking (for lack of a better term) seems to be influenced to some extend by biology, the form that it takes might now be transitioning, due to cultural, nurturing factors. Whether it’s a fault, or something not so bad, is something that we can debate in another setting. As for whether it is in ourselves, here we can say that Shakespeare was partly correct. It is partly in ourselves, and partly in our environment.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician, and science writer. Follow @CosmicEvolution to read what he is saying on Twitter.

Effects of religion, economics, and geography on genetic structure of Fogo Island, Newfoundland

The population structure of Fogo Island, Newfoundland is described using geography, religious affiliation, economic factors (such as the presence of a fish-packing plant), and genetic markers. Five different analytic methods, R-matrix analysis, rii VS. mean per locus heterozygosity, predicted kinship (ϕ), mean first passage time, and Mantel matrix comparisons, were applied to the Fogo Island genetic and demographic data. The results suggest that geography plays a role on Fogo Island in the distribution of genes, while religion, ethnicity, and economic factors play less significant roles. The communities with fish-packing plants and tourism serve as migratory “sinks” for Fogo islanders seeking employment. Reproductively, the most isolated village on Fogo Island is Tilting, and this is reflected in its genetic uniqueness, initially caused by Irish settlement and subsequently the action of stochastic processes. © 1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

Further Reading

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Religion and Genetics - Biology

Jason Dulle
[email protected]

Time magazine is not exactly known for being religion-friendly. They have done nothing to tarnish that reputation in their October 25, 2004 edition, in which they published yet another article challenging religious faith: "Is God in Our Genes?"

The story was prompted by the work of molecular biologist, Dean Hamer, author of The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes.1 Hamer argues that our sense of spirituality is a biological trait hardwired into our genes by evolutionary accident, or possibly even evolutionary design. The implication of Hamer's research is that religious faith and experience are nothing more than a misinterpretation of a biological phenomenon.

If spirituality has biological connections, is religious faith/experience based on genuine perceptions of a divine reality, or is religious faith/experience a biological misunderstanding caused by ignorance of our own physiology? Could belief in the divine be a myth of the mind?

Hamer's thesis developed out of a study he conducted on the topic of smoking and addiction for the National Cancer Institute. More than 1000 individuals took the standardized Temperament and Character Inventory test which includes questions that measure self-transcendence (the ability to get entirely lost in an experience, transpersonal identification, and a feeling of connectedness to a larger universe) and mysticism (an openness to things not entirely provable).

Hamer used the data to conduct a spiritual experiment on the side. He theorized that if our sense of spirituality has biological connections (or causes), those who ranked higher in spirituality should share some genetic link in common that those who ranked lower did not. As a result he "went poking around in their genes to see if he could find the DNA responsible for the differences."2 With over 35,000 genes and 3.2 billion chemical bases in the human genome, he limited his search for the "spiritual gene" to nine genes known to produce monoamines (brain chemicals that regulate mood and motor control).

He found what he was looking for in the gene known as VMAT2. "Those with the nucleic acid cytosine in one particular spot on the gene ranked high [in spirituality]. Those with the nucleic acid adenine in the same spot ranked lower."3 He concluded that "a single change in a single base in the middle of the gene seemed directly related to the ability to feel self-transcendence."4

While he seemed to have identified the spiritual gene, Hamer added some important disclaimers:

1. Human traits often involve the interplay of hundreds or even thousands of genes, so it is doubtful that our sense of spirituality is dictated by cytosine alone. Other genes or chemical bases are likely to be involved.
2. The presence of the nucleic acid cytosine does not directly translate into one's belief in God, or even a pursuit of spirituality. One may posses the nucleic acid and yet not believe in God, or pursue religion. They are simply more likely to do so than others.
3. There is a distinction between spirituality and religion. "Spirituality is a feeling or a state of mind religion is the way that state gets codified into law."5
4. If cytosine is related to spirituality as a contributing cause, it speaks nothing concerning the reality of God's existence. Hamer said, "My findings are agnostic on the existence of God. 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 fact."6

Kluger's Two Cents

The author of the article, Jeffrey Kluger, interacted with Hamer's thesis throughout. While his comments were generally supportive of Hamer's thesis, there were times he played the devil's advocate, bringing a sense of fairness and balance to the topic at hand. His comments are worthy of both note and examination.

He got to the heart of the debate when he asked, "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."7

Kluger's portrayal of evolution is intriguing. Notice his use of the words "so that." These words are teleological in nature, indicating an end for which something is done. By modifying an "act" of evolution with a teleological expression Kluger personalized evolution, treating it as an intelligent being rather than the mindless, random chance process that it is. Evolution can do nothing "so that" evolution can only do "that."

Kluger played the devil's advocate when he asked, "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?"8

While this is a fair observation that seems to work well in favor of religion, it actually works against it. If all human beings were created by God we would expect for all human beings to have this genetic chip, and yet they don't. Why? Why would some be programmed for religious belief but not others?9

Here is where Kluger's fair and balanced analysis ends, and his religious liberalism comes out in support for Hamer's thesis. Kluger treats religion as a placebo, or in the words of Karl Marx, "the opiate of the people." He views the question of religious faith from a utilitarian, rather than a metaphysical perspective. He doesn't ask Does God exist?, but rather What does religion do for man? For example he said,

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 why we're here in the first place.

In another place he argued that the presence of religion in all cultures in every age indicates that the idea of God "is preloaded in the genome rather than picked up on the fly," and is there for a good reason. He speculates that "one of those reasons might be that, as the sole species…capable of contemplating its own death, we needed something larger than ourselves to make that knowledge tolerable."10 Kluger echoed neuroscientist Michael Persinger's thoughts when the latter said, "Anticipation of our own demise is the price we pay for a highly developed frontal lobe. In many ways [a God experience is] a brilliant adaptation. It's a built-in pacifier."11

This utilitarian view of religion gives rise to the idea that religion was an invention of man because it helped him survive the "survival of the fittest" process called evolution. Kluger postulated that "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."12

While this is a great summary of religion-as-an-evolutionary-invention, Kluger does not consider just how a human behavior can be passed on genetically. If man invented God for social reasons, how do those beliefs get into one's genes? While it is possible for one's genes to change their behavior, there is no evidence to suggest that one's behavior can change their genes. Man's invention of God could only be passed on in a social manner, and thus belief in God could never be traced genetically. It would seem, then, that if there is such a thing as a spiritual gene, it must either be hardwired into us by a divine Creator so that we can contemplate and experience Him, or it was a chance happening of evolution. But there is no conceivable way in which belief in the divine can be a social invention that now shows up in our genes, compelling us to perpetuate that same social invention.

While I am pleased by Hamer's candid admissions concerning the limitations of his work, as well as Kluger's semi-fair and balanced analysis, a further critique is necessary to evaluate the soundness and value of Hamer's findings.13

Hamer's thesis depends on several presuppositions. First, he presupposes that religion has biological connections, which is why he was searching for a spiritual gene in the first place. He believes biology can explain religious faith and experience. This presupposition is based on scientific reductionism-the view that all reality can be reduced to a scientific explanation. In this case, all human behavior can be explained in terms of biological functioning. Kluger echoed this estimation as he summed up the force of Hamer's work, saying, "Our most profound feelings of spirituality…may be due to little more than an occasional shot of intoxicating brain chemicals governed by our DNA."14 Hamer himself said, "I think if we follow the basic law of nature, which is that we're a bunch of chemical reactions running around in a bag."15 I would agree with John Polkinghorne that "you can't cut [faith] down to the lowest common denominator of genetic survival. It shows the poverty of reductionist thinking."16

Hamer also presupposes anthropological monism i.e. human existence is purely physical. Because he makes no room for a human soul, any sense of spirituality we humans experience is assumed to have some physiological cause. But before Hamer can reduce spirituality to biology he must demonstrate that man is monistic--that we are just flesh, rather than flesh and spirit. Unfortunately he assumes it without rational justification.

It is also arguable that Hamer only saw what he wanted to see, and found only what he wanted to find: a genetic cause for spirituality. With 35,000 genes in the human genome I don't imagine it would be all that difficult to find "evidence" that fits your presuppositions. I have to wonder how many people scored mid-to-high range in spirituality and yet did not exhibit the presence of cytosine on their VMAT2 gene? Unless every person in that range exhibited the presence of cytosine it would be unreasonable to conclude that cytosine is the cause of spirituality. Even Hamer himself admitted that those who possess cytosine, who have experienced self-transcendence and mysticism, do not necessarily believe in God. But if our belief in the divine is due to our genetic wiring, how can one not believe in God when the wires are connected?

It would also be interesting to know the number of those in Hamer's study who had cytosine on their VMAT2 gene. Considering the fact that approximately 90% of Americans believe in the existence of God, if Hamer's thesis that belief in God is genetically influenced (if not determined) is true, we would expect to find approximately 90% of those studied to have cytosine on their VMAT2 gene. If say only 40% of respondents possessed cytosine, it would be good reason to doubt cytosine's influence in religious faith/experience.

While Hamer's find seems significant to the question of religious faith, in all reality the presence of a spiritual gene in our brain would accord well with common sense. Virginia Commonwealth University's director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, Lindon Eaves, stated the obvious: "Of course, concepts of God reside in the brain. They certainly don't reside in the toe. The question is, To what is this wiring responsive? Why is it there?"17 Indeed, these are the real questions. How did the genetic wiring get there (assuming the truth of the Hamer's thesis)? Is it there by design or by chance? Does it facilitate communication with the divine, or does it manipulate us into believing in the divine? Maybe a more pointed question would be Does it have anything to do with the divine?

The fact of the matter is that the "feeling of transcendence" Hamer studied has nothing to do with the question of God's existence. He admitted as much, saying, "The 'God gene' doesn't actually have anything directly to do with believing in God, only with the capacity to achieve self-transcendence." This severely diminishes the significance of his find. In separating spirituality from religious belief, Hamer has

jettison[ed] all that is customarily associated with theism, avoid[ed] everything that has to do with the content of belief, and redefine[d] his entire concern in terms of self-transcendence-an experience he admits can be purely secular. In other words, Dean Hamer tells us absolutely nothing about belief in God and very little about modern genetics. … Having redefined his terms, limiting the specific scope of his explanatory thesis to concern for self-transcendence that can be understood in purely secular terms, Hamer undermines his own argument and marketing strategy.18

The idea people believe in God because of mystical experiences is wrongheaded. One need not feel anything, yet alone have a mystical experience to believe in the existence of God. Arguably, most individuals who believe in God have never experienced Him in a mystical way. Quite a few believe in God for purely intellectual reasons. Others simply have an intuitive awareness of His existence.

The "feeling of transcendence" is not necessarily a religious experience. Indeed, if Hamer is right, the feeling is just a biological one. The monoamines involved in the feeling of self-transcendence are the same monoamines that are scrambled by ecstasy, LSD, peyote, and other mind-altering drugs. All Hamer's study really proves, then, is that body is capable of generating something akin to an acid trip without the acid! If the feeling of transcendence can be caused naturally by cytosine, or unnaturally by narcotics, there is no reason to attach any supernatural significance to the feeling. Hamer's study only proves that our natural orientation can be manipulated both naturally and unnaturally. There is no more religious significance to this finding than there is to any other advancements in our understanding of biology.

At best he demonstrated that it is not rational to conclude God exists simply because you have experienced self-transcendence, and nor is it rational to conclude that God does not exist because you have had no such experience. But to conclude that God is a figment of our genetic imagination because people have improperly confused biological functioning for a religious experience is a categorical error. Just as an acid trip cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, neither can a dose of cytosine speak to this issue. If the feeling of transcendence is a biological experience rather than a religious experience, then studies performed on that experience only tell us about biology, not religion. The question of God's existence remains a philosophical question, not a biological question. While the sciences can tell us a lot about the physical world, they are not equipped to evaluate the spiritual. Only philosophy is equipped to evaluate metaphysical issues such as the existence of God.

While Hamer's work is not necessarily atheistic, it is motivated by the atheistic philosophy of scientific reductionism, and lends itself to the idea that the need for God created the idea of God. It was not the first, and by no means will it be the last attempt to relegate religious faith to a by-product of evolution, with no basis in reality.

While many will use Hamer's findings to explain away religious faith as genetic deception orchestrated by Mr. Evolution, the evidence does not warrant such a conclusion. The following points must be considered:

1. While biology can tell us a lot about human beings, it tells us little about God.
2. The existence of a spiritual gene cannot be the cause of religious faith if all those possessing the gene do not believe in God.
3. The number of people possessing the spiritual gene should be proportionate to those who believe in God. If the number is disproportionate, the theory of a God-gene is suspect.
4. Belief in God cannot be an invention of man if it is genetic in nature. It is either the product of evolution or the product of a Creator, but it cannot be a product of man.
5. Establishing the existence of a spiritual gene, and establishing a causal relationship between that gene and religious faith are two different things. It remains to be determined whether God caused the gene, or the gene caused "God."
6. It does not follow that knowing which genes/chemicals facilitate our encounter with the divine casts doubt on the very existence of the divine.
7. The spiritual gene is not spiritual at all because it does not cause a religious experience. It causes a natural experience of self-transcendence that some have unwittingly interpreted as an encounter with the divine.
8. While humans may be guilty of confusing a biological function for a religious experience, it does not follow that God is a figment of our genetic imagination.
9. God's existence is not dependent on our experience of Him, and our experience of Him is not limited to a sense of self-transcendence.

In a society that has relegated religious faith to experience and feeling, knowing that their "religious" experiences/feelings may be genetic rather than divine in origin may cause them to lose faith. But for those of us who understand that religious faith is both rational and experiential, doubts cast on our experience are no match for the wealth of rational evidence in favor of God's existence. We do not believe in God merely because of some experience, but because the rational evidence compels us to. Any scientific find claiming to explain away our religious experience can never explain away our faith.


  1. Dikesone

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  2. Demetrius

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  3. Leyti

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