Register Monday | June 24 | 2019

Evolving Into Worship

Does a “God Gene” explain the universality of religion?

Before becoming the grizzled father of modern science who stares out from British ten-pound notes, Charles Darwin was a God-fearing man, a terrible student and a plucky young naturalist who would take time off from observing his beloved giant Galapagos tortoises to surf upon their rock-hard backs.

This is the Darwin depicted in an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which runs through May 2006. The curators intend to appeal to children, especially those for whom school is a bane or a bore (or both), by focusing on the scientist's reputation for ignoring his teachers, collecting bugs and poking at things on his own. The exhibition also illustrates Darwin's transformation from the devoted to the doubtful in the face of undeniable evidence that the world was not created in seven days, but rather that it had evolved over eons through a process of natural selection. He struggled with this insight and hesitated to publish his findings for twenty years until someone else beat him to the punch and forced him out of the closet.

Before becoming the grizzled father of modern science who stares out from British ten-pound notes, Charles Darwin was a God-fearing man, a terrible student and a plucky young naturalist who would take time off from observing his beloved giant Galapagos tortoises to surf upon their rock-hard backs. This is the Darwin depicted in an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which runs through May 2006. The curators intend to appeal to children, especially those for whom school is a bane or a bore (or both), by focusing on the scientist's reputation for ignoring his teachers, collecting bugs and poking at things on his own. The exhibition also illustrates Darwin's transformation from the devoted to the doubtful in the face of undeniable evidence that the world was not created in seven days, but rather that it had evolved over eons through a process of natural selection. He struggled with this insight and hesitated to publish his findings for twenty years until someone else beat him to the punch and forced him out of the closet. You might be inclined to believe that the timing for such an exhibition is a little too perfect: its opening coincided with the end of the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, in which a group of parents successfully took action against their local school board over it's demands that biology classes teach "intelligent design" (ID) alongside Darwin's evolution theories, and with "equal weight." (In fact, exhibitions take years to plan and the timing was, indeed, purely coincidental.) "As the first federal trial, this case could create a precedent," said Dr. Brian Alters before the proceedings had begun. Dr. Alters is founder and director of McGill University's Evolution Education Research Centre (EERC), and was the only Canadian amongst the six expert witnesses to testify in Dover. "The plaintiffs claim it's religion that's being taught, which goes against the constitutional separation of church and state." Comprised of professors from Harvard and McGill, the EERC's mission is to examine how evolution is being taught in North America and to educate those who are teaching it incorrectly or not at all. The biggest problem facing teachers, says Alters, is fear. People believe evolution disproves the existence of God. In North America, the theory of evolution is rejected amongst 50 percent of polled subjects (these numbers are slightly lower in Canada than they are south of the border). An estimated 30 percent of people in Islamic countries don't accept evolution, and in Europe, Alters puts that figure around 5 percent. Christianity is thriving in the US, a trend Christian sociologists attribute to America's free religious market which allows new evangelical parishes to compete with each other-and with the old models of Christianity, such as Catholicism and Anglicanism-like a corporation trying to attract new customers. Meanwhile, in much of Europe, where churches are largely static institutions, the number of practicing Christians has declined significantly in recent years. North American Christians-and, to a lesser degree, Jews and Muslims-who reject evolution are subscribing in large numbers to the concept of "intelligent design." As a buzzword, ID is relatively new but its principles don't differ much from early-nineteenth-century philosopher William Paley's watchmaker model. Paley argued that, just as the inner workings of a watch are evidence of the watchmaker's design, so too are complex organisms evidence of an intelligent designer. According to John Calvert and William Harris, managing directors of the Intelligent Design Network, "ID proposes nothing more than that life and its diversity were the product of an intelligence with power to manipulate matter and energy." The idea is not an unpopular one. A Globe and Mail poll found that 26 percent of Canadians want ID taught in schools, and on the day that Dover voters-having won their case-ousted eight of the nine school-board members who had supported the ID plan (the ninth wasn't up for re-election), the Kansas school board adopted state-wide educational standards to cast doubt on evolution. "The main problem [with Darwinism] is that, considering the age of the earth and the time it might take for even an eye to evolve... statistics show that there wouldn't have been time for humans to evolve," says Aimee Hill, a biology teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, one of the city's "specialist" high schools (like Fame's LaGuardia Arts High School, only for science geeks). She also mentions the "fossil gap," which refers to the lack of transitional fossil forms (e.g. we've dug up woolly mammoths and now have elephants, so where are the in-between versions?). Hill makes a point of introducing these issues to her ninth-graders. "I want my students to know the gaps in the theory of evolution. It doesn't mean I'm a creationist. That's part of the science of it." Perhaps. But IDers have been accused of using these gaps to push a religious agenda. While many supporters claim to have no religious affiliation, it's difficult to imagine who, other than an "omniscient omnipotent being," could have been the earth's "sole designer." (Extraterrestrials have not been excluded from the list of suspects, however-X-File-types, like those clone-happy orgy-mongering Raelians, also subscribe to its principles.) Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Montreal-born Steven Pinker turn the tables on creationists who seek to explain our origins supernaturally by attempting to connect religion to biology. Pinker has said, "Many kinds of evidence show that the mind is an entity in the physical world, part of a causal chain of physical events. If a part of the brain dies... the entire personality may change." If what we think of as ourselves-what some would call our "souls"-is nothing more than the sum of synapses in our brains, then it would seem that our spiritual beliefs may simply be a result of our neurological makeup. Geneticist Dean Hamer takes it even further. Hamer, who first gave us the concept of the "gay gene," most recently came up with the "God gene." While researching genetic roots to cigarette addiction, he came across evidence of a gene that may predispose us to spirituality. While his results are unconfirmed, the study points to the gene VMAT2 as, among other things, a primary influence as to how we see ourselves and the world. Throughout his book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, Hamer emphasizes how difficult it is to associate our behaviour to the genes that influence it and also clarifies that VMAT2 is only one of the genes that could potentially lend itself to personal spirituality. He then goes on to expand on his findings by incorporating an evolutionary benefit-namely, that we evolved to be religious in order to promote collectiveness, thus improving our chances of survival against enemies whose individual goals and values were scattered willy-nilly. He also claims that spirituality makes us more optimistic, which incites us to procreate. Belief in a god or gods can be found in every culture in the history of the world, so it's easy to conclude that such beliefs may be innate; it is the claim that religion is actually a factor in the process of natural selection that is controversial, and one that requires that we ask what reproductive advantages religious people possess. Religious leaders, aside from being sanctioned to collect concubines and Sunday offerings, are imbued with the ability to define the values of an entire society. Depending on how closely church and state are tied in a particular culture, a religious leader may control every aspect of daily life, including taxes, who is permitted to marry, and when-and with whom-citizens should battle. The notion of a divine authority could have rallied men in times of war more resolutely than a king or mere prime minister would have been capable of, especially when a thousand virgins waiting for the slain in heaven are tossed into the mix. Dawkins, a strict Darwinist and atheist, has proposed that there is evidence of "religious evolution," even in recent history. "I imagine that there's been some Darwinian benefit in the move from poly-minds to a mono-mind," he said at a debate in London, referring to the general trend of replacing older polytheistic traditions, like Greek and Roman mythology, with monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Judaism. He suggested that an "illusion of unitarianess" might be a product of natural selection because the single-minded are more successful survivors than those who have multiple-and possibly opposing-sources of moral and religious guidance. Although this hypothesis doesn't account for the polytheistic aspects of the Catholic church, the main reason it and Hamer's theories may not hold a great deal of water is that there are simply too many other factors at play. The proliferation of big monotheistic religions likely has more to do with the wealth and empirical aspirations of the countries in which they took root and, while a glance at the planet's more religious nations does reveal a higher birth rate than in secularised countries-which could lend support to Hamer's claim that spirituality makes us more hopeful and happy to make babies-poverty and lack of access to effective birth control are more probable (and plausible) causes. It is also likely that, as a number of Hamer's critics have pointed out, the VMAT2 gene was naturally selected during evolution due to a function that has nothing to do with the spiritual. The gene is said to repel neurotoxins. "Some people think science can explain away religion," says Alters. "But you can't pit one against the other." Nevertheless, to say the two are separate entities that exist independently of each other is equally misleading. After all, the first scientific question was also a religious one: Why are we here? It's the question that the whole world has tried to answer via our own respective beliefs, doctrines, ideologies, and mythologies. It's also the question that prompted Darwin's work and, in turn, virtually every scientific discovery since.

Chantal Martineau is a Montreal and New York-based writer. She evolved from a breed of intelligent, relatively attractive apes. You might be inclined to believe that the timing for such an exhibition is a little too perfect: its opening coincided with the end of the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, in which a group of parents successfully took action against their local school board over it's demands that biology classes teach "intelligent design" (ID) alongside Darwin's evolution theories, and with "equal weight." (In fact, exhibitions take years to plan and the timing was, indeed, purely coincidental.)

"As the first federal trial, this case could create a precedent," said Dr. Brian Alters before the proceedings had begun. Dr. Alters is founder and director of McGill University's Evolution Education Research Centre (EERC), and was the only Canadian amongst the six expert witnesses to testify in Dover. "The plaintiffs claim it's religion that's being taught, which goes against the constitutional separation of church and state."

Comprised of professors from Harvard and McGill, the EERC's mission is to examine how evolution is being taught in North America and to educate those who are teaching it incorrectly or not at all. The biggest problem facing teachers, says Alters, is fear. People believe evolution disproves the existence of God.

In North America, the theory of evolution is rejected amongst 50 percent of polled subjects (these numbers are slightly lower in Canada than they are south of the border). An estimated 30 percent of people in Islamic countries don't accept evolution, and in Europe, Alters puts that figure around 5 percent.

Christianity is thriving in the US, a trend Christian sociologists attribute to America's free religious market which allows new evangelical parishes to compete with each other-and with the old models of Christianity, such as Catholicism and Anglicanism-like a corporation trying to attract new customers. Meanwhile, in much of Europe, where churches are largely static institutions, the number of practicing Christians has declined significantly in recent years. North American Christians-and, to a lesser degree, Jews and Muslims-who reject evolution are subscribing in large numbers to the concept of "intelligent design."

As a buzzword, ID is relatively new but its principles don't differ much from early-nineteenth-century philosopher William Paley's watchmaker model. Paley argued that, just as the inner workings of a watch are evidence of the watchmaker's design, so too are complex organisms evidence of an intelligent designer. According to John Calvert and William Harris, managing directors of the Intelligent Design Network, "ID proposes nothing more than that life and its diversity were the product of an intelligence with power to manipulate matter and energy."

The idea is not an unpopular one. A Globe and Mail poll found that 26 percent of Canadians want ID taught in schools, and on the day that Dover voters-having won their case-ousted eight of the nine school-board members who had supported the ID plan (the ninth wasn't up for re-election), the Kansas school board adopted state-wide educational standards to cast doubt on evolution.

"The main problem [with Darwinism] is that, considering the age of the earth and the time it might take for even an eye to evolve... statistics show that there wouldn't have been time for humans to evolve," says Aimee Hill, a biology teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, one of the city's "specialist" high schools (like Fame's LaGuardia Arts High School, only for science geeks). She also mentions the "fossil gap," which refers to the lack of transitional fossil forms (e.g. we've dug up woolly mammoths and now have elephants, so where are the in-between versions?). Hill makes a point of introducing these issues to her ninth-graders. "I want my students to know the gaps in the theory of evolution. It doesn't mean I'm a creationist. That's part of the science of it."

Perhaps. But IDers have been accused of using these gaps to push a religious agenda. While many supporters claim to have no religious affiliation, it's difficult to imagine who, other than an "omniscient omnipotent being," could have been the earth's "sole designer." (Extraterrestrials have not been excluded from the list of suspects, however-X-File-types, like those clone-happy orgy-mongering Raelians, also subscribe to its principles.)

Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Montreal-born Steven Pinker turn the tables on creationists who seek to explain our origins supernaturally by attempting to connect religion to biology. Pinker has said, "Many kinds of evidence show that the mind is an entity in the physical world, part of a causal chain of physical events. If a part of the brain dies... the entire personality may change." If what we think of as ourselves-what some would call our "souls"-is nothing more than the sum of synapses in our brains, then it would seem that our spiritual beliefs may simply be a result of our neurological makeup.

Geneticist Dean Hamer takes it even further. Hamer, who first gave us the concept of the "gay gene," most recently came up with the "God gene." While researching genetic roots to cigarette addiction, he came across evidence of a gene that may predispose us to spirituality. While his results are unconfirmed, the study points to the gene VMAT2 as, among other things, a primary influence as to how we see ourselves and the world. Throughout his book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, Hamer emphasizes how difficult it is to associate our behaviour to the genes that influence it and also clarifies that VMAT2 is only one of the genes that could potentially lend itself to personal spirituality. He then goes on to expand on his findings by incorporating an evolutionary benefit-namely, that we evolved to be religious in order to promote collectiveness, thus improving our chances of survival against enemies whose individual goals and values were scattered willy-nilly. He also claims that spirituality makes us more optimistic, which incites us to procreate.

Belief in a god or gods can be found in every culture in the history of the world, so it's easy to conclude that such beliefs may be innate; it is the claim that religion is actually a factor in the process of natural selection that is controversial, and one that requires that we ask what reproductive advantages religious people possess. Religious leaders, aside from being sanctioned to collect concubines and Sunday offerings, are imbued with the ability to define the values of an entire society. Depending on how closely church and state are tied in a particular culture, a religious leader may control every aspect of daily life, including taxes, who is permitted to marry, and when-and with whom-citizens should battle. The notion of a divine authority could have rallied men in times of war more resolutely than a king or mere prime minister would have been capable of, especially when a thousand virgins waiting for the slain in heaven are tossed into the mix.

Dawkins, a strict Darwinist and atheist, has proposed that there is evidence of "religious evolution," even in recent history. "I imagine that there's been some Darwinian benefit in the move from poly-minds to a mono-mind," he said at a debate in London, referring to the general trend of replacing older polytheistic traditions, like Greek and Roman mythology, with monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Judaism. He suggested that an "illusion of unitarianess" might be a product of natural selection because the single-minded are more successful survivors than those who have multiple-and possibly opposing-sources of moral and religious guidance.

Although this hypothesis doesn't account for the polytheistic aspects of the Catholic church, the main reason it and Hamer's theories may not hold a great deal of water is that there are simply too many other factors at play. The proliferation of big monotheistic religions likely has more to do with the wealth and empirical aspirations of the countries in which they took root and, while a glance at the planet's more religious nations does reveal a higher birth rate than in secularised countries-which could lend support to Hamer's claim that spirituality makes us more hopeful and happy to make babies-poverty and lack of access to effective birth control are more probable (and plausible) causes. It is also likely that, as a number of Hamer's critics have pointed out, the VMAT2 gene was naturally selected during evolution due to a function that has nothing to do with the spiritual. The gene is said to repel neurotoxins.

"Some people think science can explain away religion," says Alters. "But you can't pit one against the other." Nevertheless, to say the two are separate entities that exist independently of each other is equally misleading. After all, the first scientific question was also a religious one: Why are we here? It's the question that the whole world has tried to answer via our own respective beliefs, doctrines, ideologies, and mythologies. It's also the question that prompted Darwin's work and, in turn, virtually every scientific discovery since.

Chantal Martineau is a Montreal and New York-based writer. She evolved from a breed of intelligent, relatively attractive apes.

 

Before becoming the grizzled father of modern science who stares out from British ten-pound notes, Charles Darwin was a God-fearing man, a terrible student and a plucky young naturalist who would take time off from observing his beloved giant Galapagos tortoises to surf upon their rock-hard backs.

This is the Darwin depicted in an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which runs through May 2006. The curators intend to appeal to children, especially those for whom school is a bane or a bore (or both), by focusing on the scientist's reputation for ignoring his teachers, collecting bugs and poking at things on his own. The exhibition also illustrates Darwin's transformation from the devoted to the doubtful in the face of undeniable evidence that the world was not created in seven days, but rather that it had evolved over eons through a process of natural selection. He struggled with this insight and hesitated to publish his findings for twenty years until someone else beat him to the punch and forced him out of the closet.

You might be inclined to believe that the timing for such an exhibition is a little too perfect: its opening coincided with the end of the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, in which a group of parents successfully took action against their local school board over it's demands that biology classes teach "intelligent design" (ID) alongside Darwin's evolution theories, and with "equal weight." (In fact, exhibitions take years to plan and the timing was, indeed, purely coincidental.)

"As the first federal trial, this case could create a precedent," said Dr. Brian Alters before the proceedings had begun. Dr. Alters is founder and director of McGill University's Evolution Education Research Centre (EERC), and was the only Canadian amongst the six expert witnesses to testify in Dover. "The plaintiffs claim it's religion that's being taught, which goes against the constitutional separation of church and state."

Comprised of professors from Harvard and McGill, the EERC's mission is to examine how evolution is being taught in North America and to educate those who are teaching it incorrectly or not at all. The biggest problem facing teachers, says Alters, is fear. People believe evolution disproves the existence of God.

In North America, the theory of evolution is rejected amongst 50 percent of polled subjects (these numbers are slightly lower in Canada than they are south of the border). An estimated 30 percent of people in Islamic countries don't accept evolution, and in Europe, Alters puts that figure around 5 percent.

Christianity is thriving in the US, a trend Christian sociologists attribute to America's free religious market which allows new evangelical parishes to compete with each other-and with the old models of Christianity, such as Catholicism and Anglicanism-like a corporation trying to attract new customers. Meanwhile, in much of Europe, where churches are largely static institutions, the number of practicing Christians has declined significantly in recent years. North American Christians-and, to a lesser degree, Jews and Muslims-who reject evolution are subscribing in large numbers to the concept of "intelligent design."

As a buzzword, ID is relatively new but its principles don't differ much from early-nineteenth-century philosopher William Paley's watchmaker model. Paley argued that, just as the inner workings of a watch are evidence of the watchmaker's design, so too are complex organisms evidence of an intelligent designer. According to John Calvert and William Harris, managing directors of the Intelligent Design Network, "ID proposes nothing more than that life and its diversity were the product of an intelligence with power to manipulate matter and energy."

The idea is not an unpopular one. A Globe and Mail poll found that 26 percent of Canadians want ID taught in schools, and on the day that Dover voters-having won their case-ousted eight of the nine school-board members who had supported the ID plan (the ninth wasn't up for re-election), the Kansas school board adopted state-wide educational standards to cast doubt on evolution.

"The main problem [with Darwinism] is that, considering the age of the earth and the time it might take for even an eye to evolve... statistics show that there wouldn't have been time for humans to evolve," says Aimee Hill, a biology teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, one of the city's "specialist" high schools (like Fame's LaGuardia Arts High School, only for science geeks). She also mentions the "fossil gap," which refers to the lack of transitional fossil forms (e.g. we've dug up woolly mammoths and now have elephants, so where are the in-between versions?). Hill makes a point of introducing these issues to her ninth-graders. "I want my students to know the gaps in the theory of evolution. It doesn't mean I'm a creationist. That's part of the science of it."

Perhaps. But IDers have been accused of using these gaps to push a religious agenda. While many supporters claim to have no religious affiliation, it's difficult to imagine who, other than an "omniscient omnipotent being," could have been the earth's "sole designer." (Extraterrestrials have not been excluded from the list of suspects, however-X-File-types, like those clone-happy orgy-mongering Raelians, also subscribe to its principles.)

Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Montreal-born Steven Pinker turn the tables on creationists who seek to explain our origins supernaturally by attempting to connect religion to biology. Pinker has said, "Many kinds of evidence show that the mind is an entity in the physical world, part of a causal chain of physical events. If a part of the brain dies... the entire personality may change." If what we think of as ourselves-what some would call our "souls"-is nothing more than the sum of synapses in our brains, then it would seem that our spiritual beliefs may simply be a result of our neurological makeup.

Geneticist Dean Hamer takes it even further. Hamer, who first gave us the concept of the "gay gene," most recently came up with the "God gene." While researching genetic roots to cigarette addiction, he came across evidence of a gene that may predispose us to spirituality. While his results are unconfirmed, the study points to the gene VMAT2 as, among other things, a primary influence as to how we see ourselves and the world. Throughout his book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, Hamer emphasizes how difficult it is to associate our behaviour to the genes that influence it and also clarifies that VMAT2 is only one of the genes that could potentially lend itself to personal spirituality. He then goes on to expand on his findings by incorporating an evolutionary benefit-namely, that we evolved to be religious in order to promote collectiveness, thus improving our chances of survival against enemies whose individual goals and values were scattered willy-nilly. He also claims that spirituality makes us more optimistic, which incites us to procreate.

Belief in a god or gods can be found in every culture in the history of the world, so it's easy to conclude that such beliefs may be innate; it is the claim that religion is actually a factor in the process of natural selection that is controversial, and one that requires that we ask what reproductive advantages religious people possess. Religious leaders, aside from being sanctioned to collect concubines and Sunday offerings, are imbued with the ability to define the values of an entire society. Depending on how closely church and state are tied in a particular culture, a religious leader may control every aspect of daily life, including taxes, who is permitted to marry, and when-and with whom-citizens should battle. The notion of a divine authority could have rallied men in times of war more resolutely than a king or mere prime minister would have been capable of, especially when a thousand virgins waiting for the slain in heaven are tossed into the mix.

Dawkins, a strict Darwinist and atheist, has proposed that there is evidence of "religious evolution," even in recent history. "I imagine that there's been some Darwinian benefit in the move from poly-minds to a mono-mind," he said at a debate in London, referring to the general trend of replacing older polytheistic traditions, like Greek and Roman mythology, with monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Judaism. He suggested that an "illusion of unitarianess" might be a product of natural selection because the single-minded are more successful survivors than those who have multiple-and possibly opposing-sources of moral and religious guidance.

Although this hypothesis doesn't account for the polytheistic aspects of the Catholic church, the main reason it and Hamer's theories may not hold a great deal of water is that there are simply too many other factors at play. The proliferation of big monotheistic religions likely has more to do with the wealth and empirical aspirations of the countries in which they took root and, while a glance at the planet's more religious nations does reveal a higher birth rate than in secularised countries-which could lend support to Hamer's claim that spirituality makes us more hopeful and happy to make babies-poverty and lack of access to effective birth control are more probable (and plausible) causes. It is also likely that, as a number of Hamer's critics have pointed out, the VMAT2 gene was naturally selected during evolution due to a function that has nothing to do with the spiritual. The gene is said to repel neurotoxins.

"Some people think science can explain away religion," says Alters. "But you can't pit one against the other." Nevertheless, to say the two are separate entities that exist independently of each other is equally misleading. After all, the first scientific question was also a religious one: Why are we here? It's the question that the whole world has tried to answer via our own respective beliefs, doctrines, ideologies, and mythologies. It's also the question that prompted Darwin's work and, in turn, virtually every scientific discovery since.

Chantal Martineau is a Montreal and New York-based writer. She evolved from a breed of intelligent, relatively attractive apes.