Monday, December 13, 2004

The Religious Response

After writing the previous post, I found this article from the British newspaper The Telegraph. I think this is the article Limbaugh was reading from, since I recognize some of the quotes.

The article gets off to a very bad start with:

Religious belief is determined by a person's genetic make-up according to a study by a leading scientist.

As I pointed out before, that is precisely what “a leading scientist” is not saying.

Happily, after this overly provocative opening the article makes it clear that we are not talking about genetic determinism here. What I found most interesting about the article, however, were the two quotes it includes from prominent British clerics.

The first comes from Rev. John Polkinghorne:

The Rev Dr John Polkinghorne, a fellow of the Royal Society and a Canon Theologian at Liverpool Cathedral, said: “The idea of a god gene goes against all my personal theological convictions. You can't cut faith down to the lowest common denominator of genetic survival. It shows the poverty of reductionist thinking.”

Oh, well, if it goes against his theological convictions then I guess it's all a lot of eyewash. Obviously there's something wrong with Hamer to even think in such terms. Of course, Polkinghorne doesn't explain why, exactly, a predilection for faith can't be related to the evolutionary history of the species. Nor does he explain what it is about Hamer's work that shows the poverty of reductionist thinking. It offends his religious sensibilities, so he dismisses it.

The second quote comes from the Rev. Walter Houston:

The Rev Dr Walter Houston, the chaplain of Mansfield College, Oxford, and a fellow in theology, said: “Religious belief is not just related to a person's constitution; it's related to society, tradition, character - everything's involved. Having a gene that could do all that seems pretty unlikely to me.”

Seems pretty unlikely to me also, and I'm sure it seems unlikely to Hamer too. So it is a good thing he claimed no such thing. Here we see Houston making the same silly error that Limbaugh made. It is evident from this that Houston understands nothing about what Hamer is actually claiming or the evidence upon which he bases his conclusion. Yet the newspaper felt it terribly important to include his opinion in the article.

It's funny. If you tell people that their genes can increase their chances of getting heart disease they take it in stride. No one says, “Golly! Scientists are saying that whether or not I get heart disease is determined solely by my genes. I might as well not exercise and eat lot's of high cholesterol foods, since my fate is already sealed.” In that context everyone seems to understand that your genes might make certain maladies more or less likely, but that you can mitigate that risk by living a healthy lifestyle.

But as soon as you suggest that your genes make certain beliefs or attitudes more or less likely, suddenly you are a genetic determinist or a moral releativist or something equally unpleasant. When you think about it, however, it's hard to imagine how it's even possible for your genes to have no influence at all on what you believe. As Steven Pinker would put it, you are not born with a blank slate.

That does not mean that you should blindly accept the latest pronouncement from anyone claiming to speak on behalf of evolutionary psychology. But it does mean that such claims should not be dismissed out of hand.


At 6:31 PM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

I would be interested to hear if you have a leaning on this issue. I've always been one to believe people are more psychologically pre-disposed to various behaviours and beliefs based on inheritance than most people are willing to admit.

We do live in a post-genomic era, and exactly where inherited information resides is no longer as clean-cut as formerly believed. I do believe the tendency toward religous belief has a lot to do with inheritance, but more data would be helpful.....

Oddly enough, I would suspect the capacity for abstract thought, such as that found in those with capacity to comprehend math, physics, and musical structure, is very similar to the capacity for contemplative thought such as that found in some religious individauls.

A crude indicator (and this not very scientific) is that the percentage of Mathematicians (15%) in the NAS who believe in God are triple the percentage of biologists (5%) who believe in God.

Barrow said it so amusingly:

"If a `religion' is defined to be a system of ideas that contains unprovable statements, then Godel taught us that mathematics is not only a religion, it is the only religion that can prove itself to be one. "

John Barrow, cosmologist

At 5:05 PM, Blogger PajamaHadin said...

Here is yet another attempt at explaining behavior or perhaps reducing behavior to genetics. I first became aware of this news via a column by David Limbaugh (see Hat tip below). Much work remains to be done to verify Dr. Hamer's hypothesis. Nevertheless, its implications are such that much buzz in various communities is inevitable. I can see how many might not only use Hamer's thesis to explain religious belief, but to explain it away. More of comments on the God Gene are here.


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