The God Gene Meme

By Carl Zimmer | October 21, 2004 1:25 pm

Hamercover.gifLast month I blogged about my Scientific American review of Dean Hamer’s new book, The God Gene. I was not impressed. It’s not that I was dismissing the possibility that there might be genetic influences on religious behavior. I just think that the time for writing pop-sci books about the discovery of a "God gene" is after scientists publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal, after the results are independently replicated, and after any hypotheses about the adaptive value of the gene (or genes) have been tested.

Apparently Time doesn’t agree. In fact, juding from this week’s issue, they think it’s the stuff of cover stories. I should point out that the article itself contains some pretty good interviews with people other than Hamer about their own work–studies of spirituality in twins and the like. But Hamer’s work gets the lion’s share of space, without any mention that his results haven’t been published in a journal (let alone that the last results that got Hamer this sort of press–about a "gay gene"–could not be replicated). Time even copied Hamer’s title on their cover, despite the fact that in his book, Hamer backpedals furiously from it, saying that the gene he has identified must be one of many genes associated with spirituality. In fact, the Time article has to backpedal, too. It quotes John Burn, medical director of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Newcastle in England as saying:

“If someone comes to you and says, ‘We’ve found the gene for X, you can stop them before they get to the end of the sentence.”

You may be able to stop them from getting to the end of the sentence, but you can’t stop the presses.

Update, 11/1: The Time story is no longer available for free. I’ve linked instead to a Time press release.

MORE ABOUT: Evolution

Comments (7)

  1. it will sell well.

  2. gwangi

    It’s not just the popular press that’s guilty of using poorly supported theories to sell copies of their journals. Both Science and Nature have fairly well documented histories of publishing work that’s sexy instead of good.

  3. Time Magazine also published a cover story in 1975 entitled “Sociobiology”…

  4. Rosemarie Lieb

    There do exist individuals who cannot be “argued out of” their belief in the supernatural by stacks of physics books.In the past, such have gone to the gallows and to the stake ,convictions intact. Alive and well today, these folks are still equally certain, immovable.If not a gene, then a cocktail of brain chemistry?

  5. Lya Batlle

    Personally, I’m just tired of correlation being offered as cause and effect in science today. This is just another example of someone taking information a step further and jumping to conclusions.

    In today’s world, where the correlation between shifts in brain chemistry and depression, stress, etc, make drug companies attempt to convince people that the physical shifts are in fact the cause of the emotional reactions, is it any surprise that the media is excited about taking away yet another of what we consider our personal choices and leaving us with genetic pre-determined paths. I wonder if religious belief will be our next disease? I also wonder what these people would think of the extremely high correlation between ice cream orders in New York and deaths in Bombai? (Maybe they die of brain freeze when they receive shipments of ice cream?:P)

  6. Kenneth Lackey

    Lya Battlle,
    I’m interested in your suggestion that religion might be interpretted as a physically curable phenomenon, and also in your comment about causal inferences. Of course you are right that scientists (or rather, everyone) should be careful about making the leap from data to conclusion. However, would you agree that there are scientists out there who know with what level of authority a given set of data allows us to speak about a given conclusion?

    The problem with Hamer’s publications in the wider public is that even if he eventually takes a step back he later make the sorts of irresponsible jumps you’re talking about – a move which leads to big titles and big sales, coincidentally.

    As far as religion , I think that no, at least in America it is in no danger of being categorized as something we need to cure. While the evidence is and has been stacked against its ability to accurately describe reality in every relevant field – where we do not mean reality in a Jamesian sense, and while it has almost none to offer in its defense (despite folks like Lee Strobel who are good at playing fast and loose with science and history), the religious sentiment is far too strong and pervasive to come under any sort of mainstream attack here.

  7. Personally I think the “gene” thing is over sold. We only have 25,000 of them – the exons in the genome are smaller than Windows 98 in information terms – hence to make a multi-billion neuronal/glial mass like a brain involves a lot of repetition-in-parallel. A brain can only be rough hewn by the genes, and surely must be sculpted by experience. If more of the public got that message then the genes->behaviour meme might wither away and die.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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