2.12.2005

Nicholas Kristof has written an editorial demonstrating, with scientific precision, why New York Times writers should just not write about science. Actually, I would tell the paper to just stop trying to write on science altogether, and that there is no good reason for them to, but their science page can sometimes have impressive photos of other galaxies and things...

Let's start here:
Genes that promote spirituality may do so in part by stimulating chemical messengers in the brain like dopamine, which can make people optimistic and sociable - and perhaps more likely to have children.
The sentence that follows it, however should really be read in the original print so that the full impact of its absurdity can be appreciated:
(Dopamine is very complex, but it appears linked to both spirituality and promiscuity, possibly explaining some church scandals.)
Let's forget the fact that priests, and nuns, swear an eternal marriage to God, and have no sexual outlets. Like maybe that explains it a little more easily.

Anyway, the suggestion of the article, it seems, is that spirituality may be genetically determined.
One bit of evidence supporting a genetic basis for spirituality is that twins
separated at birth tend to have similar levels of spirituality, despite
their
different upbringings. And identical twins, who have the same DNA, are
about
twice as likely to share similar levels of spirituality as fraternal
twins.

Let me just give a quick version of my take on theories which assert the
genetic determination of high-order social and psychological phenomena, and
while it may be too ambitious for a simple blog entry, take it or leave it as it
is.

Genes code for simple things. In particular, every gene codes for a
specific protein which, when the gene is activated, is constructed in accordance
with the rules in the genetic code. This is true for every gene, no matter
what it codes for, no matter how complicated.
Proteins have differing
target effects, and whatever their general effect on behavior is ascertained to
be, we ascribe that as the "function" of the gene. The key thing that must be
realized is that the things for which the manufactured protein has the most
direct effect, are the things for which we can say with most confidence that the
gene is "coding" for something. This is a simple matter of what we mean by
coding.

In popular parlance, it is said that such and such is a "gene
for autism" or a "gene for obesity." This is convenient usage, but it must not
be forgotten that what is really happening is that genes are coding for
proteins, which then have whatever effects they are going to have in the body.
It would be more correct to say that this gene codes for a protein which plays
as a factor in this bodily state. This may seem overly picky and unecessary,
when refering to things for which the route from the protein to the final bodily
effect observed is direct, such as simple physical traits. In many of these
cases, there can be isolated a single protein, and hence a single gene,
responsible for the observed phenomenon. For instance, blue eyes are the result
of a single pigment, whose production is moderated by a single gene (this result
is ficitious, but is provided for illustration). However, it is absolutely
essential to remember when dealing with complex and multifactorial traits the
true meaning of the process being refered to when one talks about this or that
gene.

Consider the factors that go into the creation of a complex
psychological and sociological phenomenon like spirituality. An astute response
to this challenge may be that the question is too broad, and that it only can be
answered in any partially satisfactory manner if some level of description is
specified. So consider the factors that go into the creation of this phenomenon
at the psychological or sociological level, the level most immediate to the
phenomenon of spirituality itself. For one, a person becomes spiritual if there
is a certain need in the person's life which can be fulfilled by spiritual
activity. A person may be seeking answers to large questions, may be seeking
comfort in some way, or may have the unfulfilled need for larger human
connections, all of which can be satisfied by spiritual life. Another factor is
the liking of the person for the spiritual experience in its worldly
incarnation. The person who is turned off by gatherings of large groups of
people which last for relatively long periods of time will tend not to gravitate
to going to church, and this may in turn influence their feelings towards
spirituality. Psychologically, you have many discrete, individually unrelated
factors which contribute to the making of spirituality. A person's ability for
abstract thought can predispose him to be able to understand the kind of
thinking that goes on in spiritual contexts, and conversely, a person who is not
able to grasp abstract thought can feel alienated from spiritual discourse, or
like it all appears meaningless so why bother. A person's sociability can
determine how willing he is to engage with large communities, which is a
prominent aspect of religious experience. Then on top of those you have social
factors, such as how able one is to get any of the aforementioned factors
fulfilled by activities other than religion. The need for meaning can be
fulfilled by finding an interesting field of study and engaging in that. The
need for social connection can be fulfilled by the presence of a close group of
good friends. If person finds fulfillment for a need via other outlets, that is
one less factor available to contribute to the development of spirituality.

In relating these first-order social and psychological factors, which
obviously are quite numerous by themselves, to the concept of the gene, the
chain of factors has to be continued into more and more basic levels of analysis
and causation. Hence, any given complex psychological factor such as, say,
sociability, can be reduced to its own set of more basic psychological factors,
such as disposition, extroversion, mood, conformism, etc. At some point,
presumably there is a threshold at which immaterial things such as psychological
and social considerations can begin to be reduced and attributed to material
things. Mood is reduced to the presence of certain neurotransmitters, activity
in certain parts of the brain, the presence of proper nutrient and energy
levels, the existence of certain hormones in the blood. The entire point of this
is to establish the role of causation of the genes. The chain continues for as
many levels as are necessary until the level of the encoded protein and its
function is reached, at which point it can be said meaningfully that a
particular gene takes is a factor.

The point is that for each additional
level in the chain of factors that can be attributed to a particular trait, the
causation becomes more indirect and more multifactorial, spread thinner over
more factors. For each additional level, the contribution of any given more
basic factor is less and less. This is not to say that all genes are not
determinative of behaviors. In theory, some may be. It is to say that, even though
they may be determinative in the development of certain behaviors or traits,
their determinative influence becomes increasingly indirect and manifold.

There is a certain philosophical issue that becomes relevant here. The
postulation of free will, depending on at which level of causation it is
posited, becomes a large and perhaps fatally complicating factor. Say that the
causal chain of factors, from protein up to prayer, is interupted by the fact
that so and so specifically wants to become a religious person. Maybe
it became a goal because that person read about a scientific study in which
religious people are purported to live longer and be healthier. There is no way
of accounting for this action, by the very definition of free will! It occured
independently of any kind of material cause. In fact, free will seems to mean
that it occured independently of any conceivable law. Therefore if you believe
in free will, it's hard to see that you should believe in genetic determinism
for any other than the most basic traits.

It should be obvious what therelation of this all to religion is. Religion is one of the most complex, higher-order things that exist. It's one of the most difficult things to relate directly to genetics. So, there comes a point when it's meaningless to say something is genetically caused.

However, this doesn't prevent it from making for a fascinating and important and
inspirational-sounding editorial... "It turns out that our DNA may predispose humans
toward religious faith" is a fascinating, but ultimately empty statement. Like
saying that DNA may predispose us to ride bicycles, or DNA predisposes us to
have friends. Of course DNA predisposes us to these things! In a sense, DNA predisposes us to do everything we do. But the farther away that thing is in causation from the actual activity of DNA, which is, basically encoding proteins, the less meaningful the statement becomes.

3 comments:

Nick said...

"Genes code for simple things. In particular, every gene codes for a specific protein which, when the gene is activated, is constructed in accordance with the rules in the genetic code."

not true. genes don't code for simple things. first of all, "one gene one protein" is violated with, for example, gene splicing and differential protein folding (see: proteomics).

more saliently, however, genes do not code for "simple things." genes can have rather subtle chemical effects that cause complex interactions (see Wolfram, "A New Kind of Science" which may be bullshit but has valuable things to say on how complexity arises from simple causes).

...in any case, none of this matters when it comes to religion. just because religion is a concious, complex choice doesn't make it exceptional or somehow extra-biological.

and it certainly doesn't make it any less a denial of the human condition.

in any case, hi. I don't know who you are. care introducing yourself, since you seem to take issue with practically everything I right?

Nick said...

do pardon the typo.

Adam Kraus said...

You make a good point bringing up Wolfram's ideas. I haven't gotten around to reading the book yet, because I figure it would be wiser to read it only after getting a full conventional science background (i.e. college). In order to apply, the basic idea has to be correct on its own(which doesn't seem to be that much of a stretch if you consider things like fractals). But also, it must be correct with respect to biological genesis, in particular gene-phenotype interactions. This seems like a harder thing to establish, and I'm not sure if he's trying to establish it as a causal genetic mechanism. Essentially it would amount to saying the genes code for algorithms, rather than proteins which interact according to the rules of molecular biology.

On the point of the biological basis of religion, I wasn't trying to aruge that religion is not a genetically derived phenomenon, "in our genes" so to speak. In fact I assume it is. I was trying to argue that trying to reduce it to a correspondence to transmissible particular genes seems like a dubious task.

I'm aware that I may have been missing the point, and that the editorial was only trying to say something like "the factors that go into making us spiritual are contained in directions in our genes." If this was the argument, then I wouldn't disagree. But it would be a little like saying, "we make friends because it is in our genes." One of the achievements of sociobiology in the last century was to assert pretty convincingly that the cultural and the biological cannot be separated.

How to reconcile this with the assumption of freewill? I'm not sure. The problem of free will is not uniquely problematic the genetic case for religion. We accept some other things as definitely genetic in origin, like for example personality traits or addictive personality, yet all the while personality and addiction are two things with a massive free will component. You could rule out free will altogether and say that, somehow, these things are all traceable to materialist causes, and hence genetic causes. But it seems easier to accept, from experience, that there is free will involved in these traits, and yet at the same time we know they are partially genetically determined. So the fact that religion is a conscious activity does not make it exempt from possibly being a biologically or genetically based activity, any more than a lot of other genetically-linked behavior traits.

If you care to know about me I'm a college student currently going to Amherst college. I have never taken a biology course, but I have taken some physics and psychology. So that's why I may have neglected some very basic things.