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OfflinemotamanM
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Do you have the God gene?
    #3538536 - 12/24/04 11:12 AM (11 years, 11 months ago)

http://news.scotsman.com/features.cfm?id=1463022004

Do you have the God gene?

Susceptibility to the Christmas spirit may be genetic, writes MARGARET COOK

MARGARET COOK


IAM A CRAZY mixed-up person at Christmas because I loathe the commercial kitsch as much as any Christian, yet I am an atheist. What?s in it for me, then? Vastly more than a family feast and nostalgia for childhood memories. There is an esoteric element that goes way beyond those things, and of course the feast is immeasurably ancient, a superimposing of a Christian gloss on a pagan fest in days of yore, in order to render it more acceptable to the rebellious masses.

I love the pagan element; all that mistletoe, ivy and holly, angst of the winter solstice, figgy pudding, bells, wassail, yule-logs, garlanded boar?s head, Twelfth Night. Christmas music has the power to stop me in my tracks, and I have often dragged unwilling members of the family to watch-night services to listen and sing and simply absorb, brushing off their accusations of hypocrisy and inconsistency.

I?ve always argued religion has inspired the best of art and music, which may yet be admired with purely secular senses. And now I have been altogether vindicated because there is solid science to prove spirituality is a psychogenic trait, selectively conserved through aeons for its beneficial effects. An American geneticist even claims to have found a gene for it, which he calls, controversially, "the God-gene".

It is not at all the same thing as religiosity, and it seems that my ambivalent emotions over Christmas are all part of that mystical make-up.

Now this concept may be hard to swallow, for the sacred and the scientific occupy separate modules in the mind and seem to be mutually incompatible. I asked the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Dr Alison Eliot, for her reaction and she raised her eyebrows at the idea, but did not dismiss it altogether. Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, was also inclined to be sceptical. He thought that the infinitely varied mysteries of human nature could not be reduced to a mere chemical: "We?ve had the gay gene, the God gene, whatever next, a mountain-climbing gene?"

Yet he did accept that it was wholly human to ask big questions and seek answers, implying we did not always have the humility to accept there was something beyond our human capacity to know and understand.

Dean Hamer, the geneticist-author of The God Gene; How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, wanted to explore, in a scientific way, our human need to believe in something larger than ourselves. His first task was to pin down the elusive quality of spirituality to a definition that could be measured. He used a "self-transcendence scale" invented by a psychiatrist, which recognises three attributes: self forgetfulness, transpersonal identification and mysticism.

There is a quiz - of the type so beloved of magazines - in which you can test yourself in all three areas on a scale from natural guru to complete sceptic. Self-forgetfulness involves, among other things, a capacity for total absorption in an activity, or an ability to love someone to the extent of losing a sense of boundary between yourself and them. Transpersonal identification is expressed in a sense of oneness with the natural world, a need to conserve and protect animals and plants, a veneration for things beyond oneself. Mysticism is all about being moved profoundly by beauty, believing in the supernatural, anticipating an event with "sixth sense", experiencing extra-sensory perception, believing in miracles.

The quiz was tried on 1,001 people picked as randomly as possible and the answers checked for coherence and consistency. The conclusion reached was that spirituality/self-transcendence is indeed a valid psychological trait with no overlap with other measurable traits in established personality inventories, such as neuroticism, extroversion and others. There was no bias for age or race, but there was for gender - women scoring 18 per cent higher than men. The lack of variation with age hinted it might not be a learned characteristic. This leads on to the next question: whether the trait is acquired or inherited, or both.

Anyone who has kept up with current thinking will know that the nature-nurture debate no longer exists. Human minds and behaviour are propelled by a labyrinthine interaction of both, in the sense of prevailing circumstances unlocking certain responses. "If this happens, you should respond thus," says the wired-in instruction, and there is often a cascade of chemical reactions promoting responses, mostly at subconscious level.

One way of disentangling this, to improve our understanding of how inherited elements contribute to behaviour, is by the comparative studies of twins (identical and fraternal) and of siblings. Twenty years ago in the University of Minnesota, a team explored by this method the origin of religious fervour, and showed consistently that at least half of the motivation was genetic. This study enquired into orthodox beliefs, church attendance and other practices. They were asking questions about religion rather than spirituality, an important distinction. Yet it means the concept of an instinct for the metaphysical is not new. Later studies have teased these two features apart, and shown that a spiritual leaning as gauged by the self-transcendence scale is significantly innate or instinctive, not learned from parents, teachers or priests, whereas the customs, creeds and general baggage of an established religion are more culturally acquired. Indeed, it is what you would expect.

Hamer?s next quest, to find a genetic determinant for a sense of mysticism, was much harder, involving a certain amount of inspired guesswork.

He reasoned that altered states of consciousness induced, for instance, when certain psychoactive plants have been ingested, resemble mystical trances and visions. These plants have been used for centuries past in sacred tribal rituals: psilocybin from mushrooms, mescaline from the peyote cactus and others. Now these mind-bending plants act on brain chemicals called monoamines, the most important of which are serotonin and dopamine.

Genes affecting the function and transport of these chemicals were analysed, using material from the 1,001 volunteer candidates. And, to cut a long research story short, after trial and error, one gene showed variations (called polymorphisms) which tied in with the gene-owners? levels of assessed self-transcendence. It is the VMAT2 gene (or vesicular monoamine transporter), dubbed the "spiritual allele".

And of course it is a gross oversimplification to label it thus. It is almost certainly but one small star in the galaxy of interacting genes. It must be emphasised that the received wisdom of a hard-wired circuit for spirituality in no way proves or disproves anything about God. Orthodox believers do not need to be defensive. A deity might reasonably insert some positive discriminatory material, I suppose.

A conserved trait, in evolutionary terms, must have conveyed a selective survival/reproductive advantage, or else it would not be there. Why and how it does so is another question altogether. I think that the need for a capacity for faith beyond the rational became essential in prehistory, when human brains got sufficiently perceptive to understand that death would come to everyone; that the centre of the universe - I - shall some day die. It is a thought not to be borne, which is why religions, without exception, promise eternal life in some shape or form.

For the rest of us non-believers, who seem to be in the majority in the UK, those who can counteract the depressing thought with an ebullient if irrational optimism will both survive better and are more likely to live life as if oblivious of our own mortality; which serves evolution?s purpose (metaphorically speaking) well.

At a molecular level, dopamine - the happy, confident, feel-good chemical - plays a part in partner diversity and novelty-seeking. That is to say, in philandering, which is good for seed dispersal. Serotonin likewise influences sexual frequency. The VMA2 gene facilitates this wanton activity, entirely detached from emotional or moral dimensions.

It may or may not be a surprise to find such a sensual link between sacred and secular. But the benefits of a spiritual life should perhaps be left to the faith of the individual, as well as an acceptance of the scientific basis of otherworldliness. I personally have received a distinct lift from being able to recognise and acknowledge my spiritual side, without having to bend the knee to any dogma or discipline. I shall enjoy Christmas all the more for that revelation.

HOW SPIRITUAL ARE YOU?

1 I often feel so connected to the people around me, that it is like there is no separation between us. TRUE/FALSE

2 I often do things to help protect animals and plants from extinction. TRUE/FALSE

3 I am fascinated by the things in life that cannot be scientifically explained. TRUE/FALSE

4 Often I have unexpected flashes of insight or understanding while relaxing. TRUE/FALSE

5 I sometimes feel so conneted to nature that everything seems to be part of one living organism. TRUE/FALSE

6 I seem to have a "sixth sense" that sometimes allows me to know what?s going to happen. TRUE/FALSE

7 Sometimes, I have felt like I was part of something with no limits or boundaries in time and space. TRUE/FALSE

8 I am often called "absent-minded" because I get so wrapped up in what I am doing that I lose track of everything else. TRUE/FALSE

9 I often feel a strong sense of unity with all the things around me. TRUE/FALSE

10 Even after thinking about something for a long time, I have learned to trust my feelings more than my logical reasons. TRUE/FALSE

11 I often feel a strong spiritual or emotional connection with all the people around me. TRUE/FALSE

12 Often when I am concentrating on something, I lose awareness of the passage of time. TRUE/FALSE

13 I have made real personal sacrifices in order to make the world a better place TRUE/FALSE

14 I have had experiences that made my role in life so clear to me that I felt very happy and excited. TRUE/FALSE

15I believe that I have experienced extrasensory perception. TRUE/FALSE

16 I feel a sense of oneness with all that exists. TRUE/FALSE

17 Often when I look at an ordinary thing, something wonderful happens. I get the feeling that I am seeing it fresh for the first time. TRUE/FALSE

18 I love the blooming of flowers in the spring as much as seeing an old friend. TRUE/FALSE

19 It often seems to other people like I am in another world because I am so completely unaware of things going on around me. TRUE/FALSE

20 I believe that miracles happen. TRUE/FALSE

SCORING: Give yourself one point for each TRUE answer and 0 points for each FALSE answer.

14 and above: highly spiritual, a real mystic

12-13: spiritually aware, easily lost in the moment

8-1: spiritually average, could develop more spiritual life if desired

6-7: a practical empiricist lacking self-transcendence

1-5: highly sceptical, resistant to developing spiritual awareness

? This test is an adaptation of the personality inventory devised by Robert Cloninger, Washington University psychiatrist and author of Feeling Good; the Science of Well-being.


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http://heffter.org


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OfflineSeussA
Error: divide byzero

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Re: Do you have the God gene? [Re: motaman]
    #3539097 - 12/24/04 01:53 PM (11 years, 11 months ago)

I scored around a 17 or so, but many of the questions seemed to be asking the same thing over and over.


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OfflineEkstaza
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Re: Do you have the God gene? [Re: Seuss]
    #3544581 - 12/26/04 06:00 PM (11 years, 11 months ago)

I actually scored a "0". It's just as I thought, there is no such thing as a soul in me. WooHoo :thumbup:


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YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH ANY GIVEN DRUG ISN'T THE DEFINITIVE MEASURE OF THE DRUGS EFFECTS.


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OfflineSeussA
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Re: Do you have the God gene? [Re: Ekstaza]
    #3546786 - 12/27/04 05:10 AM (11 years, 11 months ago)

> I actually scored a "0".

Kind of my point... seems that you either score all or nothing on the thing. The questions are all the same.


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OfflineEkstaza
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Re: Do you have the God gene? [Re: Seuss]
    #3549212 - 12/27/04 07:35 PM (11 years, 11 months ago)

Plus some of the Q's ask "Do you often" or "Do you sometimes". I've never had the opportunity to do some of these things.


--------------------
YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH ANY GIVEN DRUG ISN'T THE DEFINITIVE MEASURE OF THE DRUGS EFFECTS.


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