a blog with cultural bulimia.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Of course, none of that answers the question of whether God exists.

God and Evolution
Published: February 12, 2005

"(...) It turns out that our DNA may predispose humans toward religious faith. (...) 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 1970's 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. Dr. 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 Dr. 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.


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 of 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. (...)"