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Gene Wars

Battle of the Genetic Code

Geneticist Dean Hamer religious fervour may be linked to an individual's DNA.

Don’t blame Stephen Harper; he was just born that way.

According to The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired Into Our Genes, the recent book by gay American geneticist Dean Hamer, much of what we refer to as human religious fervour may, in fact, be traced back to an individual’s DNA.

“The whole title, The God Gene, is sort of a misnomer. What we are really talking about is people’s sense of spirituality which includes their appreciation of the mystical and reaching out for the universe and those sort of feelings,” Hamer said during a recent Sunday morning telephone interview with Xtra.ca.

“We haven’t discovered the gene that makes God or something like that. It really does have to do more with spirituality or mysticism than formal religion.”

The God Gene was released last September. Since then it has been both celebrated and maligned by religious and scientific communities.

“Some religious people have embraced the idea because to them being spiritual is something part of human nature,” says Hamer. “Others are upset because they think that I am saying that because there is a gene spirituality is nothing more than some sort of trick of the brain, which is not really the case at all.”

Hamer, who works at the US National Institute Of Health (NIH) in Maryland, adds that while some in the scientific community think that much of his work linking an individual’s genetic makeup to their behavior is “bullshit,” his team’s scientific study relating to the so-called ‘God gene’ received a favorable review in a recent issue of Nature Genetics, the leading magazine in its field.

“Understanding how humans got here and understanding how we operate is really important to understanding who we are and how we operate, and how we get along with one another as well,” says Hamer. “The thing that interests us all is not in the biology of things but in how each human being gets along with other human beings, whether it’s in bed or whether it’s in war or conflict…. And I think that a lot of how we operate and how we interact with one another is because of our biology and the way that we evolved. I think that that’s an interesting way to look at ourselves.”

Surprisingly, the well-respected researcher says he came across the connection between human spirituality and a possible correlating section on the genetic code “sort of by accident,” after noticing a pattern between how his subjects answered their questionnaires and specific blips on their DNA.

“But then, once I realized I had this data available, I became quite fascinated with the whole idea that we could study spirituality in a scientific way and it sort of took off from there,” he says.

Hamer adds that he and his staff spent more than three years collecting data related to their “God gene” study and another two to three years analyzing that data, searching for patterns.

“We just studied an ordinary selection of human beings ( they weren’t especially spiritual or not spiritual ( and we gave them a questionnaire that asks a bunch of questions that involves spirituality. Then we take DNA sample and we look at a bunch of different genes that are different from one person to the next,” explains Hamer. “Finally we put together that data looking for any connection between the questionnaire score and the people’s genes.”

Hamer, who married his partner Joseph Wilson in Vancouver early last year, is no stranger to controversy. In the mid-1990’s, the geneticist released his now infamous book, Science Of Desire: The Gay Gene And The Biology Of Behavior, claiming his scientific team had discovered the gene responsible for male homosexuality. While some activists panned the book, many in the queer community used his report as a way to help non-gays understand their behavior.

“So much of the rhetoric about being gay is, ‘Oh, it is some sort of choice or something,’ but if you actually look at the science of it, it is clear that that is not the case,” says Hamer, “and it would be useful for people to understand that information.”

Hamer says, in his opinion, the effect of nature and nurture on an individual’s psychological makeup is just about 50-50, including male sexuality.

“Actually it is impossible to study one without studying the other ( a geneticist who just studies the genetics of being gay is not going to get anywhere,” says Hamer. “Someone who just tries to figure out religion from a purely social side isn’t going to get that far either. If you don’t acknowledge that this is part of our human wiring than you’re not really going to understand what you are studying.”

Hamer says he doesn’t think his work, or the research of other scientists looking for connections between DNA and behavior, has reduced the mysteries of sexuality or spirituality to a series of meaningless chemical reactions and aimlessly firing synapses.

“I mean, I don’t think that anybody that is in the midst of having sex is going to sit around and think, ‘Hmmm, I wonder if this is [chromosome] XQ28 or T11 or if it is something that happened in my scout week.’ I think that they are just enjoying it,” he says with a chuckle. “And likewise, I don’t think that anybody that is meditating or having a religious experience is going to worry about if it was dopamine or serotonin or what they learned from the priest. I just don’t believe that that knowledge in any way diminishes the importance to human beings of many of the things that we do.”

Since the completion of his research that led to the God gene Hamer and his team at NIH have been hard at work on a treatment for HIV. Like much of his previous work, the good doctor is focussing on the deadly virus’s genetic code as a way to demystify the illness on the road to its cure.

“The only way to answer that is to do experiments and find out how it works,” says Hamer. “That’s the way we do things.”