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Sunday, February 13, 2005

No god, and no "god gene", either

John Quiggin is picking on those poor evolutionary psychologists, as represented by Kristof's laughable opinion piece on the "God Gene". Quiggin hits on the usual deficits of EP: the evidence-free just-so stories, the unrealistic time-scales, the reduction of the complex to the simple, the superficial and endlessly flexible definitions of the phenomena they are addressing, etc. I agree completely with him, these are flaws in the evolutionary psychology research program. I have another gripe to add to the list, my main reason I reject evolutionary psychology and that whole line of tripe about genes "for" various things.

sperm homunculus

It's nothing but modern molecular preformationism. Palmistry for the genome. We've been fighting against this simplistic notion of the whole of the organism prefigured in a plan or in toto in the embryo since Socrates, and it keeps coming back. We've moved from imagining a little homunculus lurking in the sperm to one hiding in the genome. It's just not there. You can't point to a spot on a chromosome and say, "there's the little guy's finger!", nor can you point to a spot and say, "there's his fondness for football!".

Kristof, for instance, points to a particular gene as the source of piety. Piffle. Here's his shining locus of sacredness, VMAT2:

The vesicular monoamine transporter acts to accumulate cytosolic monoamines into synaptic vesicles, using the proton gradient maintained across the synaptic vesicular membrane. Its proper function is essential to the correct activity of the monoaminergic systems that have been implicated in several human neuropsychiatric disorders. The transporter is a site of action of important drugs, including reserpine and tetrabenazine. Liu et al. (1992) and Erickson et al. (1992) investigated cDNAs encoding the synaptic vesicular monoamine transporter in rat brain. Using sequences from rat brain SVMT, Surratt et al. (1993) identified the human homolog. Human SVMT shares 92% amino acid identity with the rat sequence, but displays one less consensus site for asparagine N-linked glycosylation and one more consensus site for phosphorylation by protein kinase C. By Southern blotting analysis of human/rodent hybrid cell lines and fluorescence in situ hybridization, Surratt et al. (1993) mapped the human SVMT gene to 10q25. They also demonstrated a TaqI polymorphism that may prove useful in assessing the gene's involvement in neuropsychiatric disorders involving monoaminergic brain systems. Peter et al. (1993) likewise assigned the brain synaptic vesicle amine transporter gene to 10q25 using a panel of mouse/human hybrids and in situ hybridization.

It's a pump. A teeny-tiny pump responsible for packaging a neurotransmitter for export during brain activity. Yes, it's important, and it may even be active and necessary during higher order processing, like religious thought. But one thing it isn't is a "god gene."

The whole genome is like that. Browse VMAT2's neighborhood, for instance, and you won't find "philoprogenetiveness," "benevolence," and "chastity" marked out on the long arm of chromosome 10. This is what you see:

Location Symbol Title
10q25 SLC18A2, VAT2, SVMT Solute carrier family 18 (vesicular monoamine), member 2
10q25-q26 ACADSB Acyl-Coenzyme A dehydrogenase, short/branched chain
10q25-q26 PRDX3, AOP1 Peroxiredoxin 3 (antioxidant protein 1)
10q25-qter MKI67 Proliferation-related Ki-67 antigen
10q25.1 NEURL Neuralized, Drosophila, homolog-like
10q25.1-q25.2 CASP7, MCH3 Caspase 7, apoptosis-related cysteine protease
10q25.1-q25.2 FACL5, ACS5 Fatty acid CoA ligase, long-chain 5
10q25.2-q26 DPYSL4, CRMP3, ULIP4 Dihydropyrimidinase-like 4
10q25.2-q26.3 HMX2 Homeo box (H6 family) 2
10q25.2-q26.3 UROS Uroporphyrinogen III synthase
10q25.3 PGAM1 Phosphoglycerate mutase A, nonmuscle form
10q25.3 TCF7L2, TCF4 Transcription factor 7-like 2
10q25.3 XPNPEP1, SAMP, XPNPEPL X-prolyl aminopeptidase P1
10q25.3-q26 GPR10 G protein-coupled receptor-10

It's like browsing through a Mouser electronics catalog—lots and lots of parts and pieces, but thin on the interesting bits about how you put them together to create a useful apparatus. That information is all buried in the regulatory sequences that surround each gene, in the affinities for transcription factors for particular sequences of DNA, in the molecular interactions between proteins, in the pattern of environmental input to embryo and adult, and in the whole unmapped history of the organism. VMAT2 isn't the answer, it's one among many parameters. And I think it's damaging to our understanding of real biology when we have facile scryers like Kristof and Hamer and Pinker coming along and telling us silly stories rather than focusing our attention on the real and fascinating complexity of the process…although it's probably good for their careers. There'll always be a market for easy explanations, even if they are wrong.

For those readers whose eyes glaze over at biology, here's a simpler analogy. Imagine you want to format a paragraph in Microsoft Word, and the helpful tech guy comes over, pops the top on your computer, and tells you that that yellow wire over in the corner is responsible for paragraph formatting. Would you believe him? Has he helped you solve your problem? Has he even touched on your software issues? Would you even believe him if he yanked out the wire and MS Word instantly crashed? That's how I feel about evolutionary psychology: it's a field asking the wrong questions, using the wrong methods, propagating misleading myths, and doing more harm than good.

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#15945: — 02/13  at  11:31 AM
One of the justifications for religiosity Cristof cites is that people with beliefs live longer than those without these feelings. On the other hand, there's evidence to suggest that people who floss their teeth live seven years longer than those who don't floss. I believe in flossing. Oh, I do, I do. Hail the floss!

#15946: coturnix — 02/13  at  11:55 AM
Exactly - preformationism! You have read my WWDD series so you know I agree with that statement.

#15947: — 02/13  at  12:09 PM
We’ve moved from imagining a little homunculus lurking in the sperm to one hiding in the genome.
I now think that it is popular (for the religious right) to believe that a little homunculus is "alive" inside each zygote, and that it is a fully conscious, fully functionable example of a human being.

Didn't they see your post on the "subtle" differences between a blastula and a human child?

Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.

-Jerry Garcia

#15948: — 02/13  at  12:09 PM
"That’s how I feel about evolutionary psychology: it’s a field asking the wrong questions, using the wrong methods, propagating misleading myths, and doing more harm than good."

It may be doing more harm than good, but I think you're being a bit rejecting it out of hand. Surely they -could- do some good work. Do you have a go at your fellow biologists when they use similar just-so reasoning in animal sociobiology, or talk in adaptationist terms about optimality?

#15953: — 02/13  at  01:02 PM
Thank you PZ! I've never read such a clear and concise take-down of the pseudoscientific flim-flammery that masquerades as science under the label 'evolutionary psychology.' What is especially aggravating, at least to me as a careful outside observer of the field, is that people who do solid research on the evolution of complex facultative behavior cannot even use the apt descriptive phrase 'evolutionary psychology' for what they do because of the bad odor generated by jerks like Dean Hamer and (arch-fiend in my pantheon of bad science) Randy Thornhill.

Perhaps we can organize a sneaky protest: Let's all agree to go to bookstores that stock Hamer's book, find David Sloan Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral in that same bookstore, and re-shelve a couple copies of the latter amongst the copies of Hamer's book so that browsers might have a chance at comparing them and picking up Wilson's altogether superior book instead.

#15955: — 02/13  at  02:18 PM
Oh yeah, human cognition, the ultimate bastion of human uniqueness in the vast universe. It's ok to speak molecules, crows and squid tentacles, it's a duty to fight and mock creationists ans spiritualists of all kind, but don't you ever dare to touch cognition. I'm always surprized by that anti-darwinian stance that appears in otherwise intelligent people as soon as they have to discuss cognitive psychology/neuroscience. What's so wrong, misleading and harmful in conceiving the human mind as a complex computational machinery of adapted sub-components, instantiated in neural networks and ultimately coopted by selected genes? What are the alternatives? Psychoanalysis, behaviourism, dualism, "complexity theories"? Talking of Pinker, go take a look at the last issue of Mind and Language, and decide which of Pinker or Fodor is the most convincing on "how the mind works". It's saddening to see that Gould's incredible dishonesty and incoherence on the matter survived his otherwise admirable career.

's avatar #15956: PZ Myers — 02/13  at  02:26 PM
I think cognition is rather important myself. I'd just prefer it were studied seriously, rather than by hacks who reduce it to a cartoon.

PZ Myers
Division of Science and Math
University of Minnesota, Morris

#15957: — 02/13  at  02:29 PM
What’s so wrong, misleading and harmful in conceiving the human mind as a complex computational machinery of adapted sub-components, instantiated in neural networks and ultimately coopted by selected genes?

It makes the same faulty assumption that gene selectionism everywhere does. If small units (genes, neurons, whatever) added together in a linear fashion, then there'd be no problem breaking down complex organisms or behaviors into simple parts. But there are emergent properties at the organismal level that cannot be reduced in that way.


#15961: — 02/13  at  03:20 PM
But there are emergent properties at the organismal level that cannot be reduced in that way.

Exactly. Kristof is guilty of the sort that greedy reductionism that attention-seeking pundits find impossible to resist. However that doesn't mean that evolutionary processes don't shape an organism's behavior. If I was forced to choose between Margaret Mead's take on human culture and E.O. Wilson's, I'd first say Wilson's adds more to our understanding of human behavior, and hope that got me off the hook... ;=)

#15962: — 02/13  at  03:26 PM
There we go: "emergent properties", "hacks", "cartoon"... So you don't like evolutionary psychology, fine. I myself I'm not a huge fan of some of its representants (racist pigs and rabid libertarians, a minority) and ok, Pinker sucks on art, use of straw men, etc. Yep, there are just-so stories aplenty, convoluted rhetorics, bizarre stuff on sexuality etc. But how can self-entitled materialists be so dogmatic in their rejection of evo-psycho basic tenet, that is the synthesis of the cognitive revolution in psychology and modern evolutionary biology? What is wrong with that? Even if the idea of a "god gene" is ludicrous indeed, what better approach than a psychology viewed from an evolutionary standpoint can you provide to explain that quasi universal belief in a supernatural entity? Please, evolutionary psychology really is a non-issue for atheists, materialists and evolutionists. Or do you reject intelligent design only for molecules, cells and eyes, but not for emotions, desires, memory, belief formation, categorical perception, concept manipulation, language etc. Are all these irreducibly complex properties that emerge by fiat? Mmmh?

's avatar #15963: PZ Myers — 02/13  at  03:31 PM
You've learned how to erect strawmen from Pinker, right?

PZ Myers
Division of Science and Math
University of Minnesota, Morris

#15964: — 02/13  at  03:32 PM
Although I don't particularly care for the way Kristof wrote about this research, and have not read Hamer's book, I object to PZ Myers' wider attack on evolutionary psychology (EP):

[...] my main reason I reject evolutionary psychology and that whole line of tripe about genes “for” various things.

I believe this argument (which has been around since the days of EP's predecessor, sociobiology) misses the point. Talking of "genes for X" is merely shorthand for "X has a genetic basis": a pre-requisite for any selective argument. It is neither preformationism nor determinism: it's simply a reflection of our ignorance of how X comes about. As soon as developmental biology fills the gaps, EPists will be able to write about "genes P, Q and R that interact so spectacularly with environmental factors S and T to generate X with probability p(X)".

Of course, I accept that biologists need to be careful when they speak of "a gene for X", because most people do not understand that this is a statistical statement (in the same way as "smoking causes cancer"). When speaking of this particular gene, isn't there a modified statement that would satisfy your developmental sensibility? Does it make a difference? Remember that developmental genetics often began with similarly naive statements about how genes caused phenotypes (e.g., homeosis), but that didn't prevent the emergence of a more nuanced view.

In conclusion, I would not dismiss the whole of EP merely because certain instances of it are flawed. (And don't get me started on that one. As Maynard Smith once remarked: evolutionary psychology is asking college students in California how many times they had sex last night and believing the answer.)

#15965: Chris — 02/13  at  04:26 PM
Comment I left at CT:

I am no fan of evolutionary psychology, but it's interesting to note that there is a burgeoning literature on the evolution of religion, and the vast majority of that literature treats religion not as a special adaptation, with its own gene (a claim for which there is no evidence whatsoever), but as a cultural development that utilizes ordinary cognitive mechanisms, such as memory (religious beliefs tend to be minimally counterintuitive, allowing them to be more memorable while utilizing intuitive ontological knowledge), and social dynamics, such as the need for hard-to-fake demonstrations of commitment to the group.

Scott Atran has what is probably the most detailed description of this perspective, but there are several other researchers who have come to a similar conclusion.

#15966: — 02/13  at  04:50 PM
"You’ve learned how to erect strawmen from Pinker, right?"

Well, as I said I'm not his biggest fan, but he surely stands as a convenient strawman himself to many people. When you write that EP is a field "asking wrong questions, using the wrong methods, propagating misleading myths, and doing more harm than good", one would expect that you thoroughly pondered that, since after all you brillantly debunk ID proponents that make similar claims regarding evolutionary theory. Maybe one day you could expand on your personal views on the matter (if you haven't already). All I'm saying, is that I'm rather surprised by your harsh dismissal of EP. In my opinion, this is an old leftist knee-jerk reaction. Chomsky's insistance that evolution has not much to do with the "language organ" comes to mind. It's like the pope finally acknowledging the importance of evolution for everything EXCEPT the human mind.
In 1983 Fodor wrote "The Modularity of Mind", a ground-breaking essay on how the mind works. Now in 2005, after trying to debunk Pinker in his bizarre "The mind doesn't work that way", all he can offer as an alternative to EP about how the mind works is: "I don't know. You don't know. Pinker doesn't know" (Mind & Language, 20(1), p.31). So I wonder if you have something better to answer than the MIT cog-philosophy professor. Otherwise just keep trashing EP and keep the pandora's box closed. By the way, Hamer stuff is really Behavioral Genetics, not EP.

#15967: — 02/13  at  04:54 PM
Pascal Boyer's "Religion explained" is excellent too.

#15968: — 02/13  at  05:13 PM
This "irreduceably complex" thing is getting old. Seems very much like what the creationists say. Just because something is not as simple as it seems at first blush (such as more dopamine=greater spirituality, or psychosis=way too much dopamine), does not mean it is so complex that it cannot be discussed.

[Below is also posted on Crooked Timber]
[CT commentator]:HUH? More dopamine = more spirituality. Wait, I’m sorry, more dopamine = more openness to spirituality on a broad level.

Well, it is more complicated than that, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a biochemical or even genetic origin to it. There is a class of drugs called ‘dissociatives’ that can induce spiritual experiences; these drugs include PCP, ketamine (“special K”) and dextromethorphan (over the counter cough medicine, sometimes known as Robo, Dex, and Skittles when abused). All these drugs can cause a considerable release of dopamine, but they are far more complex than that—they mainly exert there dopaminergic effects through NMDA receptor blockade; though they also block dopamine reuptake at the PCP2 receptor. Ritalin (methylphenidate), the anti-ADD drug, also targets the PCP2 receptor. Additionally, there are internal dissociative chemicals (“angeldustin” or “endopsychosins”) that also exert the effects of dissociative drugs (including near-death experiences).

More info here:


(Neuropharmacology of DXM; much of the info also applies to other dissociatives and endopsychosins)

#15969: Chris — 02/13  at  05:13 PM
Boyer is one of the researchers I would include on the list of the people contributing to that "burgeoning literature." He's done some interesting research. Note that Boyer doesn't believe in a silly "God gene," either.

On evolutionary psych in general, the criticisms aren't coming from lefist, as leftists, but from scientists, as scientists. Biologists tend to note that the evolutionary models that EPers use are antiquated, and cognitive scientists note that thusfar, most of the hypotheses evolutionary psychologists have come up with have either been disconfirmed, or were already present in the literature without bringing evolutionary stories into play. The problem with evolutionary psychology is that it's more like ID than evolutionary biology. The evolutionary components of its theories are pretty much untestable (hence the "just-so story" criticism). We don't even need to consider Pinker, who's done very little evolutionary research himself, but instead talk about the people who aren't just writing trade books and theory papers (which are usually driven by the theories of others, e.g. Ray Jackendoff)like Cosmides, Tooby, and Buss. We should probably exclude even Buss, because his research can hardly be considered experimental(it's mostly survey research or pseudo-experiments). That leaves us with one influential theory in evolutionary psychology, the social exchange theory, which has been pretty much falsified (largely through demonstrating that its primary evidence, results on the Wason selecion task, were misinterpreted) by empirical research. Of course, the Wason experiments say nothing about evolution, so once again, while the social exchange theory has been falsified, the evolutionary components have not, because they're not testable.

's avatar #15970: Bill Ware — 02/13  at  05:28 PM
PZ et al,

As you suggest, gene controlled processes are a lot more complex the the author would suggest.

I understand that determining gene functioning through the "knock out" method and others is important, but it seems to me that it is also important to determine which genes or gene complexes (gcs) are left on or turned off (methylated.)

I know that the process of differentiation turns many genes and gcs off so that those that are unique to liver cell functioning, for example, are turned off in cells elsewhere in the body.

In this regard, I am particularly interested in the genes and gcs on the X chromosome and how these might be influenced (left on or turned off) after fertilization by signals which occur due to the presence of a Y chromosome for males or a second X chromosome for females.

Could females be more "nurturing" because the gc influencing this is left on due to the second X (or absence of the Y) in females? Could males be more "aggressive" due to certain gcs selected on the X rather than the presence of certain gcs left on on the Y itself? How would one test for these effects?

So, there's a lot more to it than just which genes are present, than is accounted for in the author's philosophy.

's avatar #15972: Ben — 02/13  at  05:45 PM
Out of all the pseudoscience which has sprung from the development of genetics, I think the "God gene" notion will always remain one of the most ridiculous. Nothing like rationalising the irrational via pleading of involuntary predetermination. Try taking some personal responsibility for your silly beliefs.

"The great trouble is that the preachers get the children from six to seven years of age and then it is almost impossible to do anything with them." --Thomas Edison.

#15974: Pete — 02/13  at  08:34 PM
To me this looks like another case where the criticisms go too far. What's wrong with just pointing out the (many) places where Kristof gets it wrong, rather than issuing a sweeping condemnation of the entire idea of EP?

I wouldn't be so quick to point to the discussion at CT as a good place to get insight on this matter. How does Quiggin go from:
"People with one variant of that gene tend to be more spiritual, he found, and those with another variant to be less so." (Kristof)
"Where to begin on the problems of all this? The obvious one is that a large proportion of the US population, and a much larger proportion of the population in other developed countries, appears to lack the necessary gene." (Quiggin)

But neither Hamer nor Kristof nor anyone else has said that an atheist would "lack the necessary gene"! I am a 'strong atheist' myself but I sure as hell hope I have two functioning copies of VMAT2.

Next Quiggin tries to assert that Hamer must be committed to the view that the millions of atheists today must have directly descended from the paltry number that existed a few centuries ago. After reading this, I had to look up Quiggin's background - thankfully, he's an economist, not a biologist. Quiggin's 'argument' works just fine against the straw man theory "All people with isoform X are going to turn out to be religious, and all people with isoform Y are going to turn out to be atheists". But no one has ever advocated this theory.

Look, all that Hamer et al. are claiming is that they've found a bit of genetic variation that significantly co-varies with some specified behavior. That is really all a geneticist is saying when they say something is a gene "for" a behavior. That is all that evolutionary psychology is trying to say. It is not preformationism. The nice background image on this site suggests a parallel with developmental biology - we know of lots of genes that affect things like limb length, muscle development, eye formation, and so on, and they all work in subtle ways like VMAT2. Would anyone accuse Walter Gehring of being a preformationist, of claiming to have discovered the "little eyes in the genome" for his work on Eyeless?

I will turn the tables here - if you think there's something wrong with this entire line of study, then what positive account can you give for why there should be statistically significant correlation between religious behavior and the isoform of VMAT2?

I do think Kristof's article was terrible and reflects a total lack of understanding on his part. That's why it irks me to see poor argumentation used against him.

#15975: — 02/13  at  08:59 PM
My little philosophical disquisition on these matters got lost in the spam filter mechanism. What's up with that?

Suffice it to say, much of what we are pleased or loathe to call human nature is meta-biological, that is, a cultural structuration that, while responding to underlying biological pressures and potentials, is neither steered, nor predetermined by them. While I think that research into the biological constraints on human properties and capacities is a potentially legitimate line of inquiry, care must be taken, on pain of dogmatically mistaking that specific line of questions for the whole phenomenal field. Equally legitimate, I think, is inquiring into the ideological or metaphysical compulsions that attempt to stuff such matters into the predetermined or automatic, on pain of forsaking the responsibilities that accrue to human knowledge.

#15977: Yael Dragwyla — 02/13  at  10:10 PM
You're right. Phenotype isn't genotype. Instead, it's one-third genotype, one-third life-history, and (maybe) one-third something which, for want of a better term for it, might be called "free will," though I'm not introducing anybody's theology here. Traits -- including psychological and behavioral ones -- are phenotypical, not genotypical, a marriage of countless different factors interacting with one another in countless ways. The genotype is a condensed and, to some extent, distorted map of the universe all the organism's ancestors lived in and which the organism may have to deal with during its life, not the universe itself, and not phenomena external to the nucleus of the cell or viral particle. Kristoff is essentially confusing the map with the territory. Genes "look" at what's out there and try to adjust the organism to it in an optimal way, sometimes succeeding (Yay!), sometimes failing (Darwin Award!). *If* there are a set of genes that prompt us to look for a God or Gods, then there was something in the environment of some of the ancestors of that organism that was important for their survival, looking around for which and adopting certain behaviors with respect to which promoted their survival and ability to reproduce, which could be called "God" or "the Gods," whatever it or they might be. But a God *gene*? Gimme a break! Psychologists often consider their subject to exist independently of the organism's environment, with no reference to it whatsoever -- a really, really stupid assumption which, however, has never been challenged enough in psychology, psychodynamic theory, psychotherapy, or psychiatry. Challenged, yes. Challenged *enough*? No. From Freud onward, always the patient/subject is made responsible for everything that goes wrong with his/her/its mind, even (and, in Freud's case, especially) when the subject is a child who has become badly psychospiritually damaged as a result of having to endure chronic, egregious, ongoing terrorization and various assaults from the adults that have owned it. That assumption is at play here: "God is in the genes," "God *is* a gene," but not "God is something which the genes, under certain environmental circumstances, may prompt us to think about, look for, and adopt certain attitudes and behaviors toward, because doing so in many cases promoted the survival, bodily and genetic, of some of its ancestors or its evolutionary lineage in general." That last is probably something that can be tested -- in fact, populations of rats kept in habitats from which they can't escape, subjected to random-reward feedings, begin to develop "superstitious" behavior patterns in attempts to get the food to appear, and some of them become specialist "priests" who, having learned what they apparently consider to be the most successful rituals for getting the food to appear, teach those rituals to other rats in exchange for food, bright objects the rats have found in the habitat, or other attractive and (to rats) valuable things. It isn't just human beings who have spiritual lives. But why organisms have spiritual lives, theologies, and other "God-related" things is something nobody really knows. Maybe it's time to set up some paradigms and falsifiable theories about these things and start testing them objectively.

#15980: Hookflash — 02/13  at  10:39 PM
What are us lowly plebs supposed to do when we've got renowned intellectuals on boths sides of the fence, vehemently slinging shit at one another? Who am I suppose to believe? Those who oppose EP make a strong case, and those who support it seem make an equally strong case. *sigh* I guess I'll just suspend judgement until the dust settles...

#15981: — 02/13  at  11:03 PM
And I might add, from my lost-in-cyberspace post, that the idea that religion might be biologically determined is a faintly absurd reification. Religion is fairly obviously a cultural, i.e. language based, affair. Why? Because only with symbolic language is there a world qua surrounding set of structured meaning horizons rather than just an environment to be more or less immediately adapted to; only with language can there be an orientation to counterfactual possibilities, which render such things as, e.g., imagination possible; only with language is there a quest/drive for meaning; and only with language is there an other, that is, a source of intentionality that is not itself manifested.

#15982: — 02/13  at  11:38 PM
Forgive my confusion, but what is the difference between evo psych and cognitive neuroscience? What do you think of the work of Pascal Boyer of "Religion Explained"?

I don't want to be deceived by any pseudo-science; are there any online FAQS about this topic I should look up? I love looking into evolutionary explanations for things, such as how being a heterozygous carrier of one of the genes associated with cystic fibrosis may provide some protection against cholera. Are you saying that looking for genes and brain regions that are associated with parts of our cognition is pseudoscience?

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