Planet Earth

The God Gene Meme

The LoomBy Carl ZimmerOct 21, 2004 10:25 PM


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Last month I blogged about my Scientific Americanreview of Dean Hamer's new book, The God Gene. I was not impressed. It's not that I was dismissing the possibility that there might be genetic influences on religious behavior. I just think that the time for writing pop-sci books about the discovery of a "God gene" is after scientists publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal, after the results are independently replicated, and after any hypotheses about the adaptive value of the gene (or genes) have been tested.

Apparently Time doesn't agree. In fact, juding from this week's issue, they think it's the stuff of cover stories. I should point out that the article itself contains some pretty good interviews with people other than Hamer about their own work--studies of spirituality in twins and the like. But Hamer's work gets the lion's share of space, without any mention that his results haven't been published in a journal (let alone that the last results that got Hamer this sort of press--about a "gay gene"--could not be replicated). Time even copied Hamer's title on their cover, despite the fact that in his book, Hamer backpedals furiously from it, saying that the gene he has identified must be one of many genes associated with spirituality. In fact, the Time article has to backpedal, too. It quotes John Burn, medical director of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Newcastle in England as saying:

“If someone comes to you and says, ‘We’ve found the gene for X, you can stop them before they get to the end of the sentence.”

You may be able to stop them from getting to the end of the sentence, but you can't stop the presses.

Update, 11/1: The Time story is no longer available for free. I've linked instead to a Time press release.

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