Friday, March 04, 2005

God Gene - Part 2

According to Dr. Hammer, "The best interpretation
is that the monoamines are affecting higher
consciousness. By higher consciousness, I mean
the way that we perceive the world around us
and our connection to it."

"Affecting higher consciousness" is not the same
thing as causing higher consciousness. One can,
if one wishes, permit VMAT2 to have a modulating
role without, in any way, supposing that it plays
a central or causal role with respect to spirituality.

Eating too much, or sleeping too much, or being with
people too much, or being too self-involved can all
affect higher consciousness. This is why there is
something called "suluk" (spiritual journeying)
which encompasses, among other things, a discipline
for trying to suppress the problematic modulating
effects on higher consciousness which such activities
have. However, trying to reduce this all down to
the activities of the VMAT2 gene seems ultra-
reductionistic and with limited heuristic value as
far as coming to understand the essential nature of
spirituality is concerned.

According to Dr. Hammer, a second component of the
'self-transcendence" index is suppose to involve a
psychic element known as "transpersonal identification."
This is said to refer to having a sense of unity with
the rest of the universe.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of why
one should refer to this sense of oneness with the
universe as a psychic element - thereby confusing
the occult with the mystical - let us assume that
I have such a feeling. Or, let us suppose that I
answer all the items on the 'self- transcendence'
index which suggests that I have a sense of being
one with the rest of the universe.

Let's ask a question about this. What is the reality
of my sense of things?

By this, I am not asking whether, or not, we are at
one with the rest of the universe because the basic
truth is that there is only Divinity and, therefore,
it is impossible to be other than one with the universe.
Instead, the aforementioned question is about whether
or not I have realized the spiritual station of oneness
with the rest of the universe and, as a result, I am
in a position to draw upon the knowledge, insights,
wisdom, discipline, stations, and behaviors which
are made possible by such a realization.

I am willing to wager that if one were to have a
billion people undergo the self-transcendence index
talked about by Dr. Hammer, then, at best, not more
than a very few might actually be able to walk the
walk and not just talk the talk. Furthermore, it
strikes me that someone who was actually realized
would not be much interested in taking such a test
in the first place.

People tend to be very poor judges of where they
are - in reality - spiritually speaking. This is
one of the reasons why authentic guides are necessary
since, among other reasons, as Hazrat 'Ali (may Allah
be pleased with him) has indicated, the one who would
step onto the mystical path without an authentic guide
has Iblis for a guide - and, undoubtedly, Iblis counsels
many people to interpret the results of an index like
the self-transcendence to mean that when they feel or
believe they are one with the universe, then, they
should assume that they have actually realized this

Dr. Hammer also speaks about a third sub-scale of
the self-transcendence index which is known as
“mysticism” or “spiritual acceptance”. According
to Dr. Hammer, this sub-scale touches upon such
things as one’s belief about whether, or not,
everything can be explained by science, or whether
one is open to the idea of phenomena such as ESP,
or whether one feels that one’s life has been
changed by mysticism.

Again, one might ask the question of what, if
anything, such a sub-scale has to do with either
spirituality or mysticism - as a reality and not
just a belief system.

One doesn’t even have to touch upon the issue
of mysticism in order to be able to agree that
there are all kinds of things which science
cannot explain. For instance, science can’t
explain consciousness, or intelligence, or
creativity. In fact, science can’t explain
the very processes which are used by human
beings to do science ... how do ideas come
into being? From where do insights come?
What is the source of logic? What makes
talents such as art, music, writing, and
invention possible? How is langauge

Science is often very good with setting
up linear systems of mathematical description
which are capable of reflecting some of the
facets of experience to an extent where certain
kinds of limited problems can be solved.
Unfortunately, most of the physical universe
is non-linear in nature, not linear, and, as
a result, much of science - despite all of
its accomplishments - is, for the most part
looking at reality from the outside, in a
rather limited fashion.

Once one throws spirituality and mystical issues
into the fray, things get really confusing and
problematic ... Very quickly. Science can’t
proceed unless one accepts its assumptions that
spirituality is a physical phenomenon and that
material instruments (whether physical or
mathematical) can be devised which are capable
of accurately probing the realm of spirituality.

If spirituality is not a physical phenomenon,
then, what good is a discipline which demands
that everything be reducible to physical
phenomena before one proceeds. One cannot
assume one’s conclusions, and if spirituality
is a non-material set of phenomena, then,
there is absolutely nothing which modern
science, as presently conceived, has anything
of value to say about such matters - and, of
course, this explains why so many scientists
are so insistent on either reducing spirituality
down to material/physical phenomena, or
dismissing all things spiritual as being

This sort of dismissal of spirituality is
supposed to have import. After all, if something
is not scientific, then, it’s reality is not
worth pursuing, and the ‘substantive’ nature of
such phenomena does not belong in the realm of
the important discourse of the sciences.

How self-serving of scientists - they discover a
phenomenon which is entirely beyond their capacity
to understand or even study with their methods and
instruments, and, so, they relegate such phenomena
to the dust bin of the trivial, uninteresting,
unreal, and/or unimportant.

Or, they do a condescending two-step dance in which
they say that although spirituality is not unimportant
but just not scientific, and, therefore, not of much
value when it comes to trying to understand fundamental
things about real issues. Many scientists are like the
drunk who was seen crawling around beneath a street
lamp looking for his keys and when asked if that is
where he lost them, he replies: “No, but this is the
only place where there is light.”

Dr. Hammer indicates that scientists rounded up a
bunch of people and had them take the self-transcendence
measure. These researchers, then, scoured the genes of
such individuals looking for differences, and they found
that the gene VMAT2 was correlated with people who also
scored high on the aforementioned self-transcendence
index. The monoamines which are synthesized through the
activation of this gene have, according to Dr. Hammer
“a lot to do with emotional sensitivity.”

Now, apparently, spirituality is to be defined as
being a function of “emotional sensitivity.”In fact,
the neurotransmitters which are synthesized through
the activation of the VMAT2 gene (and, remember,
nothing has been said about what causes a VMAT2 gene
to become synthesized in the first place, and, so, at,
best, VMAT2 activation is a result of something else,
and not a cause of anything in and of itself) are
implicated in a lot of different functions - not
just emotional sensitivity.

For example, dopamine is involved in the regulation
of muscle movement. That is, in order for muscles
to be used in a controlled fashion, there must be
adequate supplies of dopamine available.

Tardive dyskinesia is an affliction which is
caused by the way in which certain drugs - for
example, chlorpromazine, a 1st-generation
neuroleptic given to schizophrenics - depletes
the supply of dopamine in the brain. So, while
the depletion of dopamine does seem to help
reduce certain symptoms of schizophrenia (such
as auditory hallucinations), unfortunately, in
the process it also may interfere with normal
muscle functioning, and, consequently, in some
patients who are given such dopamine-depleting
drugs, they develop uncontrollable tics and

This is an irreversible process. Once the damage
is done, its results remain even if the person
discontinues taking the drug.

To oversimplify mysticism and spirituality as
merely variations on a condition of emotional
sensitivity - as Dr. Hammer does - is one problem
- a huge one. To oversimplify neurochemistry and
to say that monoamines only function as mood
tabilizers - as Dr. Hammer does - is another big
problem. To fail to say anything about whether the
group of people who were rounded up for the
self-transcendence/VMAT2 gene correlational study
was a randomly selected group and, therefore,
capable of, possibly, reflecting something about
populations in general is a third problem. To
fail to note - as Dr. Hammer failed to do in
the article - that correlation is not necessarily
an index of causation is a forth problem. And,
to try to claim that the self-transcendence
index is an accurate measure of spirituality
or mysticism is a fifth problem - also very

Toward the end of the interview with Dr.
Hammer, the person conducting the interview
asks why the doctor does not wish to use the
VMAT2/self-transcendence study as a basis for
saying anything about the existence of God.
Dr. Hammer replies that he feels that such
research is really agnostic with respect to
the question of whether spirituality is all
in the mind or due to the presence of some
higher power. He goes on to point out that
the research concerning the so-called God
gene is really only about the way in which
the mind operates and, as a result, perceives

I remember when I was going through an oral
defense of my honors thesis when I was
undergraduate. One of my examiners was Robert
Rosenthall known for, among other things, the
Pygmalion Effect phenomenon (roughly, and
over-simplistically, the expectations of
teachers concerning students influences both
student performance as well as the evaluation
of such performance) who, at one point, in
response to something I said in conjunction
with the issue of proving God’s existence,
said words to the effect of: “To prove the
existence of God, all one has to do is take
a group of people and ask them whether they
believe in God.” I replied that this didn’t
prove the existence of God, it only
proved what people believed about the
idea of the existence of God.

Similarly, the whole idea of the ‘God-gene’
really has not much to do with anything. At
best, it reflects the beliefs of some researchers,
such as Dr. Hammer, about their interpretation
of that research concerning the correlation of
the VMAT2 gene and how people score on a
self-transcendence scale.

The short version of their understanding
is this: there is a gene (VMAT2) which, when
called upon to do so by some other dimension
of the human being, synthesizes monoamines that,
under some circumstances, have been implicated in
affecting mood, and, possibly, emotional reactivity.
In addition, there are certain people who score
highly on one, or more, of the sub-scales of a
self-transcendence index and that, statistically,
these two pieces of data (the presence of VMAT2
and scores on the test) have been shown to be
correlated (and no indication was given in the
interview of just what the strength of this
correlation was, so we have no way of knowing
where that correlation fits in between 0 and +1)
with people who also have the VMAT2 gene.

It is only the worst kind of loose use of
language, scientific methodology, and extrapolation
which results in calling VMAT2, the ‘God gene’.
The gene really has not been shown to have anything
to do with spirituality, mysticism, transcendence,
or anything similar unless one accepts the
assumptions underlying the self-transcendence scale
as being accurately reflective of what spirituality,
mysticism, and transcendence involve - and that scale
is just not a good, reliable, reflective instrument
in any of these respects.

What is the meaning of the correlation between
the presence of the VMAT2 gene and spirituality/
mysticism/transcendence? The truth of the matter
is we don’t know.

Bad science leads to problematic conclusions,
and that is precisely where Dr. Hammer has brought
us with his talk of a ‘God-gene’. Furthermore,
contrary to his contention that all his research
shows is the way the mind perceives things, the
fact of the matter is, he really hasn’t even
demonstrated this.

He has shown, possibly, that there may be some
connection between the synthesizing activity of
VMAT2 and some of the beliefs, ideas, and emotions
which are entangled in the self-transcendence
scale. Given that VMAT2 is responsible for the
production of neurotransmitters which have the
potential to modulate mood and lend (when directed
to do so by an unknown prior element within the
etiological picture) a certain kind of color to
emotional experiences, really, this is not saying
very much except that, now, Dr. Hammer, if he wishes,
can add the interview in, as well as the
publication of his book on the God gene to his CV
and enjoy whatever perks may ensue from this - but
what he says in either instance seems to have limited
relevance to issues of spirituality, mysticism,
transcendence, or realizations thereof.

Anab Whitehouse

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