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Feb 15 2005
More on the 'God Gene'

Is Religion All in the Genes?

An "analysis" of Democrats and Republicans from the Ladies' Home Journal in 1962 concluded: "Republicans sleep in twin beds some even in separate rooms. That is why there are more Democrats."

That biological analysis turns out surprise! to have been superficial. Instead, modern science is turning up a possible reason why the religious right is flourishing and secular liberals aren't: instinct. It turns out that our DNA may predispose humans toward religious faith.

Granted, that's not very encouraging news for the secular left. Imagine if many of us are hard-wired to be religious. Imagine if, as a cosmic joke, humans have gradually evolved to leave many of us doubting evolution.

The notion of a genetic inclination toward religion is not new. Edward Wilson, the founder of the field of sociobiology, argued in the 1970s that a predisposition to religion may have had evolutionary advantages.

In recent years evidence has mounted that there may be something to this, and the evidence is explored in "The God Gene," a fascinating book published recently by Dean Hamer, a prominent American geneticist. Hamer even identifies a particular gene, VMAT2, that he says may be involved. People with one variant of that gene tend to be more spiritual, he found, and those with another variant to be less so.

There's still plenty of reason to be skeptical because Hamer's work hasn't been replicated, and much of his analysis is speculative. Moreover, any genetic predisposition isn't for becoming an evangelical, but for an openness to spirituality at a much broader level. In Alabama, it may express itself in Pentecostalism; in California, in astrology or pyramids.

Still, it's striking how faith is almost irrepressible. While I was living in China in the early 1990s, after religion had been suppressed for decades, drivers suddenly began dangling pictures of Mao from their rear-view mirrors. The word had spread that Mao's spirit could protect them from car crashes or even bring them sons and wealth. It was a miracle: Ordinary Chinese had transformed the great atheist into a god.

One bit of evidence supporting a genetic basis for spirituality is that twins separated at birth tend to have similar levels of spirituality, despite their different upbringings. And identical twins, who have the same DNA, are about twice as likely to share similar levels of spirituality as fraternal twins.

It's not surprising that nature would favor genes that promote an inclination to faith. Many recent studies suggest that religious people may live longer than the less religious. A study of nearly 4,000 people in North Carolina, for example, found that frequent churchgoers had a 46 percent lower risk of dying in a six-year period than those who attended less often. Another study involving nearly 126,000 participants suggested that a 20-year-old churchgoer might live seven years longer than a similar person who does not attend religious services.

Partly that's because the religious seem to adopt healthier lifestyles they are less likely to smoke, for example. And faith may give people strength to overcome illness after all, if faith in placebo sugar pills works, why not faith in God?

Another possibility involves brain chemistry. Genes that promote spirituality may do so in part by stimulating chemical messengers in the brain like dopamine, which can make people optimistic and sociable and perhaps more likely to have children. (Dopamine is very complex, but it appears linked to both spirituality and promiscuity, possibly explaining some church scandals.)

Evolutionary biologists have also suggested that an inclination to spirituality may have made ancient humans more willing to follow witch doctors or other leaders who claimed divine support. The result would have been more cohesive bands of cave men, better able to survive and to kill off rival cave men.

Of course, none of that answers the question whether God exists. The faithful can believe that God wired us to appreciate divinity. And atheists can argue that God may simply be a figment of our VMAT2 gene.

But what the research does suggest is that postindustrial society will not easily leave religion behind. Faith may be quiescent in many circles these days, or directed toward meditation or yoga, but it is not something that humans can easily cast off.

A propensity to faith in some form appears to be embedded within us as a profound part of human existence, as inextricable and perhaps inexplicable as the way we love and laugh.



Source: International Herald Tribune

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