The God Gene Theory
We are told that we have been created as spiritual beings in a human body, and at first thought this may seem to be an uneasy association of opposites. But it can be seen to manifest itself in the search for faith in God and a divine plan, which is something that has occupied human minds in every civilisation and culture since the dawn of time – even without full understanding of what is being sought. The fact that the word ‘God’ is said to be the most Googled word on the Internet shows that this search for God as a concept is still universal today. This search is so widespread because it seems that knowledge of God is something of which we humans still have a dim memory; perhaps we once possessed it in a forgotten pre-existence. Rumi describes this memory very beautifully as celestial music, “the song of angels,” in his poem “Remembered Music”:
We, who are parts of Adam, heard with him
The song of angels and of seraphim.
Our memory, though dull and sad, retains
Some echo still of those unearthly strains
R.A. Nicholson, Rumi: Poet and Mystic
This spiritual inclination indicates that mankind believes that our all-knowing, all-loving Creator has not abandoned us and has surely provided us with some pathway, however obscure, to find him again. In his divine design he may have created the physical body just to be the vehicle required in which knowledge of him can be activated. In other words, spirituality may be wired into the physical neural circuitry of the whole human race so strongly that the gene for it has been favoured by natural selection to survive down the generations.
So is this distant memory of the knowledge of God hidden in our DNA? Does science have an answer to the mystery of the salvation of the soul? In his book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, geneticist Dean Hamer says yes – he has been able to locate a genetic root for spirituality. In 1998, during the course of a personality trait survey for addiction, he measured a trait known as “self-transcendence,” which consisted of three other traits: self-forgetfulness or the ability to get lost in an experience; transpersonal identification or a feeling of connectedness to a larger universe, a feeling of oneness; and mysticism or openness to things not provable. All together they summed up a scale from feeling most to least spiritually inclined. Then, examining the genes of his subjects, he narrowed the field to nine specific genes and located a variation in one gene known as VMAT2, which directly related to the ability to feel self-transcendence, predisposing them towards spirituality and mystic experiences. He says that the God gene refers to the idea that human spirituality has an innate genetic component to it. It doesn’t mean that there’s one gene that makes people believe in God, but it refers to the fact that humans inherit a predisposition to be spiritual – to reach out and look for a higher being.
Dr Hamer asks: “What are the selective advantages of having God genes? Are they simply a side effect of the evolution of the mind, or do they offer us a more direct evolutionary advantage?” As well as regulating brain activity associated with mystic beliefs, one of the important roles that God genes play in natural selection is to provide human beings with an innate sense of optimism and well-being. Studies show that optimism seems to promote better health and quicker recovery from disease, prolonging life. He goes on to say: “There is now reasonable evidence that spirituality is in fact beneficial to our physical as well as mental health.” In other words, the fact that spirituality offers a physical advantage to the species ensures that the gene survives according to natural law.
Dr Hamer makes a strong distinction between spirituality and religion. The self-transcendence measure is heritable, maybe from past births, whereas religious beliefs have no genetic basis – observing rituals such as attending services are cultural and environmental and transferred by non-genetic means, as by imitation. Spirituality, on the other hand, is a state of mind; it is “innate – it comes from within, not from without”. Religions have tried to harness this innate spirituality in humans for institutional purposes but, in fact, God cannot be taught as part of religious dogma; he has to be experienced. This would seem to be Dr Hamer’s meaning when he writes: “We do not know God; we feel him.” That is, we do not know him intellectually, we experience him.
When the mind is focused, with love and devotion, in simran and bhajan, we are in meditation. But what is happening physically? Imaging systems have disclosed the chemical activity and blood flow in the brain connected with feelings during meditation. It is interesting to know that the technique used for concentration and self-forgetfulness activates the regions of the brain that are seen to light up in deep meditation. The deeper the meditation, the more active the frontal lobes of the brain become. These are the seat of concentration and attention. And as these light up, so another important region of the brain, the parietal lobe at the back, starts to dim. It is this lobe that orients us in time and space – boundaries of the self fall away creating the feeling of being at one with the universe. “The result is a radical shift in the communication between the front and the back of the brain – a shift that … brings a profound sense of joy, fulfilment and peace.”
The Creator may have hidden this spiritual gene in everyone’s DNA because his grace is available to all his children. He has programmed this God gene as a predisposition to spirituality, giving us all an open door. But the spiritual journey in the human body is more meaningful if it is left up to the individual’s effort to take that step to walk through the door into the unknown. For some it is not urgent and they are not ready to be interested, but for others there is a powerful pull to go through the open door. This is the spiritual being in us being drawn irresistibly by the exquisite sweetness of that remembered music of the spheres. Andrew Harvey quotes Rumi further in The Way of Passion:
How could the soul not take flight
When from the glorious presence
A soft call flows as sweet as honey, comes right up to her
And whispers, ‘Rise up now, come away.’
Dr Hamer says: “The existence of God genes is one more sign of the Creator’s ingenuity – a clever way to help us humans acknowledge and embrace his presence.” Embracing the divine presence is to hear and recognize the sound current, the creative force, that soft call as sweet as honey for the soul to return to its true home in the highest region. Rumi, in the same poem, uses an apt metaphor for the soul as a caged bird being irresistibly drawn to the freedom of the sky. He is saying that our Creator has not abandoned us here but is asking us to:
Fly away, fly away bird to your native home
You have leapt free of the cage
Your wings are flung back in the wind of God
Leave behind the stagnant and marshy waters
Hurry, hurry, hurry, O Bird, to the source of life.