Review: The God Gene

There was a time I would have read Dean Hamer’s The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes with the hope of finding a silver bullet, a factoid that could make religion all make sense. “It’s in our genes, therefore it’s something like a mindless reaction.”

Somehow, though, I find it comforting as I contemplate the changes slowly happening in my life. It certainly is a function of my reliance on science for answers.

And anyone looking for a scientific exploration of religion would do well to read this book: it is not fluff. There are detailed descriptions both of the genetic mechanisms at work and the methods of the various experiments used to test hypotheses.  Hamer does a good job of explaining both the specifics of the science as well as the scope of the research, all in fairly accessible language. He explains the search for a single genetic marker on DNA thusly:

Imagine you have 35,000 books about the size of this one. Now suppose there’s a single typographical error in one of the books. One wrong character in one word in one book out of an entire library. Your task is to find it.

Difficult? You bet. Now suppose you have to check 1,000 other libraries, each also containing 35,000 volumes, to see whether or not they contain the same typo.

This was the teas we faced in genotyping our nine candidate genes in 1,001 subjects. (67)

He then goes on to describe the polymerase chain reaction, which involves synthetic DNA and a lot of other ideas that are probably inaccessible to most of us. Hamer makes the science manageable.

While the book is titled The God Gene, the science the book covers is wide ranging. The first half is about genetics: there does indeed seem to be a gene that correlates well with a tendency toward religious thought. (The  gene in question is VMAT2.) However, Hamer also discusses memes in relation to genetics and religion, and he discusses substantially the role the temporal lobe plays in religious experience.

It is certainly tempting for both theists and atheists to use this information as ammunition in the eternal discussion war debate about the existence of God. Yet what’s most impressive is the balance Hamer strikes. He is cautious not to stake a claim on either side of the ultimate debate: the existence of God. While I tend to think, based on reading the book, that he might lean slightly toward a liberal theism, I’m not sure. And that’s a good thing.

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