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Designer genes for God and gays?

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In a fascinating post last month, Randall Parker discussed scientific data showing a possible connection between “spirituality” and serotonin receptors in the brain:

Once it becomes possible to control what genetic variations people pass on to their offspring and once genetic variations are discovered that alter personality then at that point the average personality types born to people of different regions, countries, occupations, economic classes, and religious beliefs will diverge. People will make decisions to make their children more like what they want ideal children to be. Imagine religious believers choosing to make their children have personalities that are highly spiritual while at the same time scientists and engineers choose to have children who are highly rational and skeptical. This could lead to genetic religious wars.

If people in some regions of the world decide to make their children more spiritual and other regions make their children more rational and skeptical then one can imagine wars being fought as a result of conflicts of values that flow from fundamental differences in brain wiring. One can also imagine wars fought to stop the people or governments of opposing countries from creating offspring that are either seen as a security threat (e.g. a highly willing deeply spiritual suicide martyr personality type) or as a blasphemy against god.

Religious “freedom” may become an anachronism if the statisticians have their way.

I would like to know exactly how strong the correlation is.

I tend to distrust statistical correlations. There are always too many exceptions. I still haven’t gotten over that study which showed statistical correlations between homosexuality and eye blinking. (I’d be willing to bet that men who masturbate blink at a different rate than men who don’t — and that there are additional physical as well as emotional differences!)

Purportedly, the study showed that serotinin “binding potential” (an “index
for the density of available 5-HT1A receptors”)

correlated inversely with scores for self-transcendence, a personality trait covering religious behavior and attitudes

Self transcendance?

Here is the “scientific” definition:


Self-Transcendence quantifies the extent to which individuals conceive themselves as integral parts of the universe as a whole. Self-transcendent individuals are spiritual, unpretentious, humble, and fulfilled. These traits are adaptively advantageous when people are confronted with suffering, illness, or death, which is inevitable with advancing age. They are disadvantageous in most modern societies where idealism, modesty, and meditative search for meaning might interfere with the acquisition of wealth and power. People who are low in Self-Transcendence are described as practical, self-conscious, materialistic, and controlling. Such individuals are expected to be well adapted in most Western societies because of their rational objectivity and materialistic success. However, they consistently have difficulty accepting suffering, loss of control, personal and material losses, and death, which lead to adjustment problems particularly with advancing age.

This is scientific? This is supposed to be measurable on tests?

The authors of the religion-and-serotonin study seem to associate it with religion, but I would associate it with much more. But here is how the study authors describe it:

The spiritual acceptance scale measures a person’s apprehension of phenomena that cannot be explained by objective demonstration. Subjects with high scores tend to endorse extrasensory perception and ideation, whether named deities or a commonly unifying force. Low scorers, by contrast, tend to favor a reductionistic and empirical worldview.

Really? What happened to the “meditative search for meaning”? Instead, we get a bunch of fruitcakes looking for ESP and “unifying forces.”

And how about the “practical, self-conscious, materialistic, and controlling” people who “consistently have difficulty accepting suffering, loss of control, personal and material losses, and death, which lead to adjustment problems”? Now, in the serotonin study they have been transformed into people who favor “a reductionistic and empirical worldview.”

Like the test authors, perhaps?

Sorry folks, but this stuff ain’t science to me. It strikes me as highly judgmental.

And, while I don’t mean to defend spiritual people, I would wonder how they could even begin to define that. Why wouldn’t a believer in an imaginary Communist Utopia be considered “spiritual” for having transcended ordinary mortal feelings?

The ability to transcend the self is at the core of Utopian thinking. Subordination oneself to the state (and forgetting about oneself in the process) has led to enormous self-sacrifice, as well as to sacrifice of others.

QUERY: Might not “the Good” itself involve self transcendence?

(See my previous post on Communism and Christianity: “We are killing to build a world in which no one will ever kill. We accept criminality for ourselves in order that the earth may at last be full of innocent people”)

It occurs to me that “self-transcendence” is by no means synonymous with religious belief. Most of the religious people I know do not speak in terms of self-transcendance, out of body experiences, talking with God, or anything like that. People who’ve had LSD trips (and some of the Ecstacy crowd) sure. But religion is more a matter of belief than transcending the self. It’s a bit like the old saying, “If you talk to God, you’re religious. If God talks to you, you’re crazy.” I submit that very few of those who call themselves “religious” hear God talking to them, or leave their bodies.

I am deeply suspicious of the assumptions underlying the search for biological differences in the brain as an explanation of non-conforming thoughts, and I think it is entirely possible that these differences might beg the question as to whether they were caused by, and not a cause of, the self-transcendence under observation.

If I may illustrate by personal experience, I have noticed certain common patterns in the behavior of bad drivers. For example, I have seen that old men who wear hats often tend to drive much too slowly, and in the middle of the road. Might the wearing of hats have something to do with the behavior? Or does the bad driving cause the wearing of hats? Similarly, I have also noticed that drivers whose back window ledges are cluttered with stuffed animals are usually very unpredictable in their habits — and should be given wide berth. Again, did the stuffed animals cause the bad driving? Might there be differences in the brain which account for the bad driving? Are studies needed?

This is not a new idea, of course. Brain receptor chemical changes have been noted in relation to the “runners high”, the psychedelic drug high (receptors up!); and, of course, with the dream/religious/drug state. Are they all — one way or another — just naturally “turned on, tuned in, and dropped out”? Might daydreamers somehow be different too?

Wow. And how about PMS? (Or were these possibly religious PMS sufferers?)

Will science reach what Joseph Hertzlinger calls a “consensus”?

Mr. Hertzlinger also comments on Randall Parker’s religion and serotonin post as follows:

“There are different ways of being spiritual. I suspect adherents of most traditional religions will be wary of the sort of spirituality that causes one to join the Cult-of-the-Month Club.”

I don’t know — but I am suspicious of the endless search for scientific explanations of behaviors and people who are judged “different.”

This, of course, begs the question, WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY? Looking for designer genes for something so ill-defined strikes me as about on the level of the search for the Holy Grail of Designer Gay Genes.

But such things are certainly considered fair game for politicians.

And recent remarks by Howard Dean begged the question of whether there might be “designer genes” for both God and gays!

Let’s start with Dean’s remark (that homosexuals were born that way):

The overwhelming evidence is that there is very significant, substantial genetic component to it. From a religious point of view, if God had thought homosexuality is a sin, he would not have created gay people.

Naturally, this created quite a stir among religious Christian bloggers:

I will make a bold, inflammatory statement: Any Christian who thinks it is vital to affirm that homosexuals are not born that way is severely deficient in his or her understanding of a vital Christian doctrine: Original Sin.

Question for those who argue that homosexuals are never born that way: Do you presume they were born innocent? Do you know what original sin means? Do you know in paedobaptism what the water signifies?

Because of original sin, we all are natural born sinners. And each of us is responsible for the consequences of his own sins, in spite of the fact that we are predisposed to commit them. Tough rules, but this is the only game in town. Of course, the gospel is the good news that shows the way out of the pit into which we enter the world.

The scientific question is really just a secondary-cause issue. God uses gravity to move the planets around. No doubt He could use our genes to encode original sin.

Christians who argue, in the face of evidence, that no homosexual is born that way display exactly the same ignorance regarding this basic doctrine of the faith (original sin) as does Dr. Dean.

God, being just, would not punish homosexuals for being born that way.

Yes he would. And He would also punish adulterers, coveters, liars, thieves, idolaters—in fact everyone on the planet for being born a sinner. There is only one way out: a saving faith in Jesus Christ. (Via Josh Claybourn.)

For similar views, see this blog.

For what it’s worth, I don’t subscribe to the genetic theory per se. But even if it could be shown that every homosexual was “born that way” it would make no difference at all to matters of religious doctrine. This argument is a waste of time.

It comes down to whether or not people think a behavior is sinful. If that behavior is judged sinful by the human beings who claim to speak for God, then no amount of scientific evidence is relevant.

Let’s move to something a little less sexually inflammatory; something more people can relate to. How about masturbation? Let us assume that a gene is found which creates a propensity for men (and women, for that matter) to masturbate. No one makes anyone masturbate, but let’s face it; without a sex partner, most normal men will eventually yield to the temptation and BINGO! There goes their wad.

Let us further assume that masturbation is a sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that it is a sin. I don’t know what the Bible says, but I think I recall something about spilling one’s seed on a rock. Onanism or something like that. This would mean that God created the masturbatory gene just to tempt everyone into sin. You might say that this makes God an asshole, and then you might question the infinite wisdom of those who claim they know what’s in God’s mind. But the gene would change nothing.

Would the evidence that there is a gene for religion (or spirituality) make any difference? Might God have deliberately created people who are programmed from birth to be True Believers? Why not? It makes things easier, doesn’t it? I mean “predestination” and all that stuff. To establish the right “kingdom” here on earth, all we need to do is manage the genes so that only the “elect” are born!

At last, science and religion merge!

What a wonderful utopia!

The problem is that I believe in free will, and I am not buying the gene stuff. Not even if they find the proper “statistical correlations.”

Of course, I lied about masturbation being less inflammatory than homosexuality….

Yes, dear friends, yes! There is solid evidence that masturbation causes homosexuality. Almost 100% of homosexuals started with masturbation. I think if we can isolate the gene for that, we might be able to make some progress….

Might there be some correlation with tight genes?

NOTE: The above post is also posted at my website.

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About Eric Scheie

  • You say: “The ability to transcend the self is at the core of Utopian thinking.”

    Well, that is true of some utopians but by no means all. Look at Atlas Shrugged for a very non-self-transcending vision of a utopia. Or read libertarian L. Neil Smith science fiction novels for another.

    As for what is spiritual: Well, before launching into semantic debates to keep in mind that most words in the English language are overloaded with different meanings. Look up the word “set” in the Oxford English Dictionary some time. There are relational database theorists who get upset by those who use “incorrect” meanings of the word “set” when talking about databases. Some of these relational theorists are accused by others of being religious about their theory.

    In this research paper a difference in cognitive function was found between groups of people and the difference was linked to a genetic difference. Whether one labels that difference spiritual/rational or some other pair of words is really besides the point and the semantic debate about what is “spiritual” is besides the point. The definition used by the researchers is a defensible definition in my view and represents a reasonable use of the word. An OED dictionary editor would probably find it to be so.

  • Randall,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree that there are Randian utopias, scientific utopias, and probably other versions of utopian thinking which are not “self-transcendent.” But please note the psychologists’ definition — which is not mine: “the extent to which individuals conceive themselves as integral parts of the universe as a whole.” That’s pretty broad. And without getting into extended semantics, the word “Utopia” comes from the name of Thomas More’s imaginary republic — in which the inhabitants can quite honestly be said to epitomize self-transcendence. (“where no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the public….” etc.)

    While we may not agree on what is meant by the term “spiritual” my primary point is that it is not necessarily the same as “religious,” and I am concerned that people could be confused — and that too many people in the neuropsychologists’ camp will jump to conclusions.

    To chart such (self reported) behavioral data against brain chemistry data runs the risk of committing the error of post hoc ergo propter hoc. For example, serotonin levels decline with age, and, in the case of Highly Sensitive Personality, levels drop from stress or chronic overarousal. I am deeply suspicious about self-reported “spirituality” in the case of fifteen persons forming the basis of generalized pronouncements about religion.

    Regarding genetics, other than the mention of a study of adopted twins and “religiosity”, the paper offered no evidence to support a genetic theory other than speculation.

    Still, it is a fascinating study.

    (I would very much like to get hold of the “Self-transcendence” questions from the Temperament and Character Inventory test, too!)

  • My own attempt to google up the English language version of the “Temperament and Character Inventory” didn’t turn up anything useful. I’m guessing that by now some of the personality tests have been given to people who were also questioned about their church attendance and perhaps tests have been given to various kinds of church, synagogue, mosque, and other sorts of temple attenders and then compared to those who do not so attend or profess. So it is possible that the measure used in this study has been found to correlate with actual religious activity. But personality testing is certainly not my bailiwick and I don’t know anywhere near as much about it as I would like to.

  • Eric Olsen

    Fascinating and thought-provoking although it forced me to pay more attention than usual to follow along. (smile) Thanks to you both!