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.