Are we instinctively spiritual beings? Molecular geneticist Hamer (Living with Our Genes, 1998, etc.) ponders the question in an intriguing and demanding study.
The author makes it clear that this will not be an enwrapping explanation of spirituality, and that a consideration of the truth of beliefs must await future savants. Hamer is talking about spirituality, per se, as distinct from the precepts and organization of any particular religion. He suggests that spirituality is “a complex amalgamation in which certain genetically hardwired, biological patterns of response and states of consciousness are interwoven with social, cultural, and historical threads.” This mix links objects and experiences with emotions and values; it provides a sense of faith, enlightenment, and self-transcendence. Hamer brings factor analysis and statistical relevance into play; by analyzing and comparing the DNA structures in spiritual people, he argues, “we can identify any sequence variations that track along with the strength of their beliefs.” He discerns a critical role for the VMAT2 gene with a variant containing a C, or “spiritual allele.” This is vital stuff, especially as it pertains to consciousness, and monoamines appear intricately involved. But although Hamer aspires to a popular audience, he often loses the non–molecular biologist with sentences like: “One cluster of neurons is based in the ventral tegmental area and sends its axons mostly to the forebrain, prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and a special area called the nucleus acumbens.” At certain critical instances he confuses lay readers, as when he notes that serotonin “elevates mood, an aspect of the perception of sacredness,” then refers to it as “the brain’s ‘feel bad’ chemical.” Nonetheless, feelings, Hamer emphasizes, are instrumental to spirituality—and who would deny that monoamines might play the crucial part?
Notes toward an understanding of human spirituality: vigorous, fascinating, and open to interpretation, not least by Hamer himself.