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In his book, The God Gene, Hamer describes how he uncovered the VMAT2-spirituality connection. While working with the National Cancer Institute on a smoking study, he realized he could utilize some of the acquired survey data to investigate this personal interest. The study included a survey that measured "self transcendence," which he believed accurately quantified the degree to which an individual felt spiritual. The scale addressed questions such as one’s ability to feel connected to a higher power and to dissociate one’s self identity. While this test was originally administered with the aim of understanding the participants’ underlying neurochemistry, Hamer decided to use it as a springboard for locating a gene that might be associated with spiritual inclinations.
Hamer describes in detail his study, including the rationale behind who he chose (approximately 1,000 individuals of both genders and a variety of ages and ethnic backgrounds) and which genes he decided to investigate. In particular, he honed his search to various genes associated with monoamine transmission because some have postulated these transmitters influence mystic experiences, and drugs that alter monoaminergic pathways have been shown to enhance such feelings.
Hamer also describes how he located VMAT2, including using fluorescent primers corresponding to different alleles for PCR amplification and subsequent reading by a fluorescent scanner. In doing so, he noticed that participants who scored higher on his test tended to have a single base pair change in their SLC18A2 sequence. Namely, Hamer reported that a single base change to cytosine (from adenine or thymine) at this locus—in either one or both alleles—significantly correlated with higher self-transcendence scores. This finding compelled Hamer to dub the VMAT2 variant the “spiritual allele”… and publish a book.
The connection Hamer made regarding the relationship between gene sequence and "self transcendence" scores wasn't necessarily itself the issue (albeit his study still lacks the support of a peer-reviewed journal); rather, it was his extrapolation of this observation. While he concedes in his book that spirituality is not likely dictated solely by one gene, he still chose to publish his book with the title THE God gene, and decision that led the popular press to latch onto his story with more fervor than might have been mustered with an article change (to "A"). Whether you want to define it as a trait, a feeling, or something else entirely, most of us can agree that an inclination for spirituality likely results from a multitude of genetic and environmental factors, not merely the swap of one base pair.
How does TIME, a reputable news source, depict Hamer’s God gene?
Kua et al. (2004) assert that the popular press has a duty to its reader to present scientific findings from three different perspectives: the “intermediary,” the “watchdog,” and the “tool-giver.” The intermediary helps translate scientific jargon into layman’s terms, thereby providing a foundation for understanding the reported finding. They describe the watchdog as one who looks out for social and ethical implications of the work, as well as to view the findings from a wider lens and predict what future research on the issue might yield. Lastly, the tool-giver role equips the reader for critical thinking and the formulation of personal opinions based on the information presented. Providing context and the long-term significance of scientific stories are two important components of this element.
In the article Religion: Is God in Our Genes?, authors Kluger, Chu, Liston, Sieger, and Williams set the scene by addressing a very different debate: whether God or the need for God arose first. While Kua et al. (2004) promote the benefits of providing a broad context, this causes the reader to infer that findings related to VMAT2 somehow help to answer this question, an implication that is never addressed in their article.
Moreover, the authors also address the philosophical debate as to whether having a spiritual life is advantageous, despite being founded in potentially untruthful, fictitious information. This notion is addressed as a basis for evolution affording a “need for God,” thus setting the scene for Hamer’s claims. Such issues would not likely be so brazenly stated in scientific literature. Furthermore, the paper raises the question of whether science and religion will be able to find a compromise in the midst of Hamer’s findings, and by discussing such severe implications of these "findings," the article compels the reader to assume the validity of the findings without ever questioning the methodology behind them. While such matters are attended to later in the article, beginning the story by raising these questions already fills the reader with expectations that VMAT2 will resolve them, and thus his or her perspective is instantly shaped. If the role of popular press is to be a tool-giver as Kua et al. (2004) suggest, TIME has handed its reader an incomplete set.
The TIME article does provide some background into Hamer’s findings; however, the article’s description leaves much to the reader’s imagination. Whereas scientific publications include a section specifically for describing in detail the materials and methods used, the article describes the process Hamer used very rudimentarily, including phrases such as “he went poking around in their genes,” and “spelunking the human genome,” neither of which help inform the reader as to how he found VMAT2. Furthermore, the vagueness of such phrases is juxtaposed by more specific descriptions, including mentioning the nucleic acids cytosine and adenine without explaining what these molecules do or how they affect genotypes, let alone phenotypic changes. The TIME article seems to have a mixed interpretation of what background context is important to provide, which brings their role as the intermediary into question. Finding a balance between providing too much methodological detail and too little explanatory background is an issue for news stories, but the TIME article should at least frame the "micro" picture--this finding--in terms of the larger genomic dogma and facts (i.e., traits are usually not the product of one single gene).
That said, the TIME article does raise the distinction between spirituality and religion, explaining the difference in the two terms and helping to guide the reader away from making a potentially polemic deduction that our genes directly dictate religion. In addition, the article does help put Hamer’s conclusions into the broader context of spiritualiy studies, including mentioning work by neuroscientists to link religious experience with specific regions of the brain. They also discuss the evolutionary benefits of religion, including its potential role as a community “glue,” and the overt downsides, citing the Crusades and the Holocaust. That said, these connections are provided without ever calling into question the verifiability of Hamer’s claims. Furthermore, the article fails to discuss the parts of the puzzle that still need to be pieced together, a consideration Kua et al. (2004) assert is of great importance when serving as the “watchdog” for the general public. Lastly, associations between Hamer’s conception of VMAT2 and what is currently substantiated in the scientific literature are not made, and therefore the reader has no idea that similar mutations in this gene may have very different consequences, a consideration that may affect the reader’s perspective on this gene’s role.
In conclusion, the focus of this article diverges from the actual science to a general discussion of religion within the realms of science and society. While such concepts are not taboo in a news story, misrepresentation of the related findings should never be allowed. Furthermore, discussion on the implications of the findings caused the science behind the story to be watered down—if not obscured—by the more controversial concepts; however, Hamer’s unpublished study doesn’t quite provide a concrete scientific foundation from which to work, and therefore skimming and skipping details in order to jump to the conclusions may have been more crucial for the survival of this story. Hamer misrepresented his findings, which in turn led both the press and many of his readers to get too excited before stopping to question the science underlying the sensation.
So what does the scientific literature say about VMAT2? The Scientific Community's Perspective
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