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Op- Ed: The So-Called God Gene or VMAT2



Christmas is almost upon us, and soon Christians throughout the world will be honoring the birth of a God-child and seeking a connection to the divine on bended knee. But in parts of Maryland, God is being sought with powerful electron microscopes and through a potent but still illegal drug.

At Bethesda’s National Cancer Institute, molecular geneticist Dean Hamer announced that he had isolated the so-called God gene. He dubbed it VMAT2 and claimed to have found it in those people who were spiritual and had a belief in a higher being. This gene regulates the flow of those mood-altering chemicals to the brain that trigger feelings beyond words, feelings that appear to give us a link to all of humankind and to some greater power in the universe. Hamer alleged that the presence of this gene had more to do with one’s spirituality than being raised in a religious environment.

In a clinic at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, LSD is making a comeback, but this time it is in the interest of palliative care for cancer patients. Facing slow but imminent death may well be the most difficult task any of us will ever encounter, and it rightly fills terminally ill patients with existential levels of anxiety and dread. Neuroscientists and therapists are countering these fears by administering psilocybin, a psychedelic compound derived from certain species of mushrooms. The drug appears to inhibit activity in the cerebral cortex, the brain’s control center, and link it to deeper structures, such as the hippocampus which controls memory and spatial navigation. This new brain chemistry causes patients to report mystical experiences that include a “sense of peace” and the feeling that “God is everywhere.” Such epiphanies help them surmount any fears of dying and last until the end finally comes.

Since our species first existed humans have nurtured a belief in the ineffable, an inexpressible feeling that there is a power out there much greater than ourselves. For primitive peoples, this power spoke through thunder and lightning. For the ancient Greeks, the divine could be found in the glittering patterns of the stars above that came to represent gods and goddesses. Eventually holy men and then one claiming to be a God-man walked the earth and were instrumental in explaining the mysteries of our existence. They gave us universal rules to govern our relationships with ourselves and others, and explained how we should regard the divine, this mystical presence that was greater than the sum of all of the parts of humanity.

That should have been enough. That was enough, until the dawn of the scientific age, an age in which we began to seek rational and provable explanations for everything, and to ask bold questions. Is there a God? What is God? Might science be able to explain away faith in the divine by studying certain genetic material in our DNA or the chemical processes of particular regions of the brain? Or are there some subjects that, by their nature, will always elude easy explanation and be beyond the grasp of those in lab coats?

Perhaps it is up to us to ask the bigger questions that reside outside our sanitized and rightly agnostic laboratories. Why are we so needy as a species, and why does nothing is this life ever really satisfy us? For proof of this, just consider the really rich who continue to grasp for more and more. And why are we constantly on a quest for the next best thing, whether it’s the iPhone 6 or a 55-inch TV?  And why is our species programmed from almost the moment of conception to pine for more than we have, to seek a connectedness, an at-oneness, with something greater than ourselves?

Might the VMAT2 gene and the vivid imaginings of a stimulated hippocampus simply be akin to the trademark a medieval metal worker used to mark his creation as his own? If your response to this is a simple but resounding “OMG,” you may have answered your own question. Have a blessed Christmas.

032e2e7Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ.  He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.

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