Is There a Biological Basis for Belief?
There may be no such thing as a dumb question, but some inquiries do prove more thought-provoking than others. For example, the other day I received this question from one of our supporters:
Is it possible for beliefs to get passed onto offspring biologically, i.e., through DNA? Or, IOW [in other words], when we learn something and hold it as a belief, does that belief become somehow mapped in our bio-structure such that it gets passed to our offspring?
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to answer these questions in a definitive way, but recent scientific advances now provide a framework for response. Though it is important to exercise caution about drawing hard and fast conclusions, the answer to both questions seems to be yes.
Genetic Basis for Belief?
In 2005, human geneticist Dean Hamer created quite a stir when he published The God Gene. In this book, he claims to have discovered an association between the VMAT2 gene and self-transcendence, a composite of three psychological attributes that presumably reflect an individual’s propensity toward spirituality.
As a result of his research, Hamer dubbed VMAT2 “the god gene.” (The VMAT2 gene encodes a membrane-embedded protein that transports monoamines, such as serotonin and dopamine, from the cytosol of nerve cells into synaptic vesicles.) Hamer claims this discovery helps explain why spirituality is heritable and suggests there is a genetic, and hence strictly biological basis, for why some people believe in God and why others don’t. In other words, our spirituality is biologically determined.
Hamer’s study has been roundly criticized by a number of scientists, including apologists for the evolutionary paradigm, like Carl Zimmer. Still, the intriguing possibility remains for genetically decided belief in God. After all, Hamer did detect an association between the VMAT2 gene and spirituality. But is a genetic basis for spirituality incompatible with the Christian faith? Hardly.
The fact that the human brain appears to be hardwired to support belief in God harmonizes with biblical teaching. The genetic correlation Hamer uncovered could be taken as evidence that humans were created with a sense of the Divine (Romans 1:20).
What about the idea that some people have a greater disposition toward belief than others? Though unpopular with some people, variation in the capacity for belief may provide support for the doctrine of election, the notion that God chooses some and rejects others.
Ultimately, if there is a genetic basis for belief, then such a tendency would be heritable.
Biologists now recognize that inheritance involves not only the transmission of genetic information (in the form of DNA sequences) from one generation to the next, but also the transmission of chemical modifications to the DNA (called epigenetic programming.)1
These modifications impact gene expression. (Gene expression refers to the overall gene activity of the cells making up a specific tissue, organ, etc. Gene expression can be thought of as an inventory of the genes that are “turned on”—directing the production of proteins—and the genes that are “turned off.” Gene expression also describes the quantity of different proteins produced as a result of gene activity.)
Environmental factors can alter the epigenetic modifications to DNA, and hence, influence gene expression pattern. Some recent work indicates that the behavior of parents also has an effect on the epigenetic modifications of offspring. One interesting study in rats demonstrated this phenomenon. The amount of pup licking/grooming and arched-back nursing by the mother during the first week of her pups’ lives correlated with the epigenetic patterning and expression of a glucocorticoid receptor gene in the hippocampus of the pups.2 This epigenetic profile in the baby rats persisted into adulthood. The researchers also observed that these effects could be reversed if the pups were fostered by a mother that either licked the pups to a greater or lesser extent.
These results are intriguing in light of the question, “Do beliefs somehow become mapped into our bio-structure and then passed on to our children?” Although there is no indication of this yet, could it be that what we are taught as children is so profound it alters epigenetic profiles in the brain, that are then, in turn, passed along to offspring? It seems such a genetic inheritance is at least possible based on the rat studies.
Could these provocative implications provide a biological explanation for passages like Exodus 20:5? Epigenetic patterning may well be the means by which God punishes several generations of children for the sins of their fathers and blesses thousands of generations of children for parental faithfulness.
The reversibility of epigenetic patterning could also provide the biological rationale for passages like Ezekiel 18:14–17:
But suppose this son has a son who sees all the sins his father commits, and though he sees them, he does not do such things:
He does not eat at the mountain shrines or look to the idols of the house of Israel.
He does not defile his neighbor’s wife.
He does not oppress anyone or require a pledge for a loan.
He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked.
He withholds his hand from sin and takes no usury or excessive interest.
He keeps my laws and follows my decrees.
He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live.
1. Eva Jablonka and Gal Raz, “Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance: Prevalence, Mechanisms, and Implications for Heredity and Evolution,” Quarterly Review of Biology 84 (2009): 131–76.
2. Ian C. G. Weaver, “Epigenetic Programming by Maternal Behavior and Pharmacological Intervention,” Epigenetics 2 (2007): 22–28; Moshe Szyf et al., “Maternal Programming of Steroid Receptor Expression and Phenotype through DNA Methylation in the Rat,” Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 26 (2005): 139–62.