Hardwired for God? If you can get past the jargon, it’s an intriguing idea.
Dean Hamer is a geneticist and author of many books considered “popular” if you inhabit academia, but rather too wordy for the racks at the supermarket. This one is no exception, a suave and savvy treatise on the primacy of nature over nurture and the possibility that it’s our genes, not our grandmas, that make us good people.
Hamer runs through the usual “identical twins” phenomenon on his path to enlightening us about the “god gene.” Too many twins raised separately have too many characteristics in common to let us ignore the power of their genetic make-up in fashioning their often parallel lives. There are sisters who are, well, sisters (nuns) and brothers who find equal solace in the priesthood. Even the comparisons between ordinary siblings and fraternal twins are telling – nature beats nurture almost every time.
What is religion, then, and what gives us the basis to compare those who have it with those who don’t? Hamer takes us back to an early drug experiment, when psychedelic drugs were still considered harmless or possibly even helpful. A group of generally religious young men were put in the same Christian chapel and half of them were given psilocybin (a potent, mushroom-based hallucinogenic) and the others a placebo that would, for a short while, mimic some of the physical effects of the real pill. But after a brief interval, it soon became apparent to everybody who had the real deal – the men who took psilocybin - were blissed out. And the experience they had – the residual good effects of which lasted for years afterward – wasn’t specifically Christian, but had more to do with feelings of intense unity and connection with all life, with oneself and with something we like to call "god".
The scientist Hamer can make much matter of the physiological component of this well-meaning happening known as the “Good Friday experiment.” The chemical action in psilocybin “is a mimic of the monoamine serotonin,” and these day we all know what that means. Serotonin makes us feel good, makes us forget our troubles, makes us fall in love.
The God Gene is full of fascinating data, including tests done on meditating Buddhists monks who “think like dogs,” that is, relinquish ordinary thought processes in favor of a state of loss – loss of the sense of time and space, of cause and effect, of selfhood. “As the Buddhists meditate, they consciously attempt to clear their minds…they send signals through the thalamus to the cortex, the seat of the will.” They divert energy from “core” consciousness into “secondary or higher consciousness.”
Parts of this book read like pure flights of fancy, and one gets the feeling that Hamer just wants this all to be true, a rather endearing characteristic if you’re a warm fuzzy type and not overly concerned with scientific detail. But he backs up his assertions with a fair serving of facts, and leaves us all hoping he’s right. If there were a God gene, it would explain so much – why a sincere seeker could be born to an ignorant peasant family in medieval France, a family of no particular distinction, and go on to lead her people to military victory and herself to a death by fire.
It could also provide a sense of forgiveness to families into whose midst a monster, a serial killer or a savage dictator, is born, and for whom no nurture would ever have sufficed. Because of there is a God gene, there must also be…