Free State

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Virtuous Circle – by Greg Michaelson

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The Chairman stood.

Before we begin,” he said to the group around the conference table, “let us reflect in silent prayer.”

The assembly rose to their feet.

Dr Lyon remained seated, scanning the bowed beards.

Won’t you join us?” asked the Chairman.

Thank you, but no,” said Dr Lyon.

There was muttering from the clerics.

Not only female but an atheist to boot,” said the Vicar.

Man and woman he created them equally,” replied the Imam. “Let us trust that our faith is stronger than her science.”

After a respectful pause, the Chairman sat and turned to Dr Lyon.

Well,” he said. “What have you got for us?”

Before I begin,” said Dr Lyon, when the clerics were all seated, “I’d like to thank the Centre for Anthropic Intelligence for engaging my laboratory’s services. Despite our fundamental differences…”

If we were fundamentalists,” said the Chairman, smiling, “you wouldn’t be here.”

Dr Lyon laughed politely.

Not all of us know the full details of your study,” continued the Chairman, “so perhaps you could give us some background.”

Well,” said Dr Lyon, “to put it simply, you asked us to explore the possibility of a gene for faith.”

Not that God gene nonsense,” said the Rabbi. “I thought that had been thoroughly debunked.”

No, no, faith not belief,” said Dr Lyon quickly. “And not VMAT2. Our experiments have suggested quite different loci.”

Plural?” said the Priest. “How disappointing. Faith is the simplest thing. I would have expected at most one gene.”

At most?” said Dr Lyon, incredulously.

Indeed,” said the Pastor. “Like my colleague, I still can’t accept that there is any genetic component at all to my faith. Surely our whole being is suffused with holiness.”

Gentleman, please,” said the Chairman. “We agreed to fund this research. So let us at least listen to what it claims to show.”

I’ll try to be brief,” said Dr Lyon. “We carried out detailed studies of genetic commonalities in substantial populations of uniform ethnicity for which we could establish longstanding monotheistic religious continuity. To that end, we explored Coptic Christians in Egypt, Beta Israelis from Ethiopia and Bedouin in Mauritanea.”

Beta Israelis?” asked the Vicar.

Jews,” said the Rabbi. “They used to be known as Falasha.”

Perhaps we could leave further questions until after Dr Lyon’s finished,” said the Chairman. “Please continue.”

Thank you,” said Dr Lyon. “There was considerable resistance at first to what was seen as outside meddling in relatively closed communities. So, with help from the CAI…”

The Chairman smiled appreciatively.

“…we approached their religious leaders, and asked that their congregations simply keep diaries of their observances. That gave us a base line for a measure of faith. We also requested a lock of hair from each subject. In some cases that proved culturally problematic but eventually we acquired satisfactory samples from combs and hair brushes.”

Acquired?” asked the Imam.

Perfectly ethically I can assure you,” said Dr Lyon, hurriedly. “We then extracted, amplified and sequenced DNA from the hair follicles.”

So what did you find?” asked the Chairman.

First of all,“ said Dr Lyon, “we have strong evidence that any genetic component of religious observance is determined by three clusters of genes we’ve called the Virtues, or Faith, Hope and Charity. These genes are all found in a previously poorly interpreted region of the X chromosome…”

The X chromosome?” said the Priest, unable to contain himself. “The female chromosome? Not the male?”

Well no,” said Dr Lyon. “And it’s really not so surprising. Both men and women have the X chromosome. And they both have faith”

But men have far stronger belief than women!” said the Priest. “At heart, all the religions represented here recognise that. The very possibility of allowing women to conduct any of our sacred rites is a most recent notion.”

The Rabbi and Imam nodded agreement.

Well, I don’t know about belief,” said Dr Lyon. “You asked me to explore faith. They’re really not the same. I think faith is about accepting things one can’t necessarily explain, whereas belief is about the properties of the things one has faith in. You all have faith in, I understand, a monotheistic deity. But you have quite different beliefs.”

That’s a highly debatable distinction!” said the Vicar. “But we’re not here to chop logic. What do your findings tell us about the connection between genes and religion?”

Yes,” said the Pastor. “Which religion has got which genes, then, eh? Have Christians got more faith than Jews?”

It’s just not like that,” said Dr Lyon. “The names are just a playful aide memoire. They could equally well have been Protein, Carbohydrate and Fat or some other themed triple. Of course we called the largest cluster Charity.”

1st Corinthians 13,” said Chairman, tetchily. “Please go on.”

But your question about which religion has which genes is not entirely misplaced,” said Dr Lyon. “I’ll come back to that. But first let’s note that every human being has all three genes. Their significance lies both in their relative sizes and their associations with other attributes. Remember, though, that gene boundaries are imprecise and so it might be more accurate to say we’ve identified regions. Also, we’re not talking about individuals but about statistical correlations in large populations.”

So you’re going to tell us something about an imaginary average person?” asked the Imam.

That’s a very good way to put it,” said Dr Lyon. “And our average people have a very interesting story to tell us. First of all, the three groups have highly homogenous genetic characteristics. There is remarkably little evidence of the introduction of genetic material from outside each ethnicity, far less than in a general North European population, say.”

Indicating high degrees of marital and group fidelity!” said the Vicar.

That would be one interpretation,” said Dr Lyon. “It might also be that people who bore children with partners from outside the group weren’t able to stay in the group. We can’t tell, but it doesn’t matter here. The key point is that we have a very solid base line from which to seek variations.”

Secondly?” said the Chairman, looking at his watch.

Secondly,” echoed Dr Lyon. “We’ve found that the configuration of the gene clusters correlates strongly with people’s declared religious practices. Those who worshiped or conducted private observances most often were clearly distinguishable from their most lax brethren.”

Are you saying that by looking at their genes you can tell how religious people are?” said the Pastor.

Well, not exactly,” said Dr Lyon.

Are you telling us that you can tell what religions people adhere to from their genes?” asked the Imam.

Again not exactly,” said Dr Lyon. “It’s important to remember that this is about populations not individuals. But if the members of a population have similar configurations of the Virtue clusters then there’s a very good chance that they share the same religion.”

Hang on,” said the Imam. “It’s all very well finding these statistical correlations but what do the genes actually do?”

That’s another good question,” said Dr Lyon, relieved, “and to be honest we don’t yet know the full answer. However, evidence is growing that belief is related to activity in particular regions of the cortex from studies, again involving practising Christians, Jews and Muslims.”

How is this relevant to your work?” asked the Rabbi. “That study was about what happens when people pray, not why they pray.”

Well,” said Dr Lyon. “It’s already known that cortex activity in general is determined by neurotransmitter activity, and that neurotransmitter activity depends on gene expression. So we’re very confident that the different Virtues gene clusters will prove to be major sites of differential monoamine control.”

This is all getting a bit too technical,” said the Pastor. “Not to worry. Can you tell us anything about why the clusters came to be like that?”

Well,” said Dr Lyon, “I certainly can’t tell you that I’ve found a divine finger print for faith, if that’s what you want. But clearly they convey some evolutionary advantage…”

The assembly shuddered as one.

“…perhaps in maintaining group solidarity which differentially aided support for young children of more observant members.”

So you’re saying that genes related to faith are strongly associated with family values?” asked the Priest.

I suppose that’s one interpretation,” said Dr Lyon, “However…”

Thank you Dr Lyon,” said the Chairman, standing up. “That’s been most interesting. We will now need to discuss how best to interpret your findings.”

But I haven’t finished!” said Dr Lyon.

Ah,” said the Chairman resignedly, sitting down again. “Perhaps we could first quickly talk amongst ourselves?”

Of course!” said Dr Lyon. “I’ll wait outside.”

She got up and left the board room.

This seems far more promising than we’d expected,” said the Chairman, once the door had closed. “It looks like we’ll have a good story to tell here.”

Yes,” said the Priest. “Not only are we sympathetic to science, but science has demonstrated that human physiology is attuned to religious practices. Of course the good Doctor couldn’t ever bring herself to say so, but this really does look like strong evidence of anthropic intelligence in action.”

Indeed,” said the Rabbi. “It clearly reinforces our core message that religion is not only wholly natural rather than some superstitious construct, but a necessary consequence of human development.”

Let’s get her back in,” said the Chairman. “She has asked for further funding. I’m inclined to agree.”
“Here here!” said the clerics.

The Chairman ushered Dr Lyon back to her seat.

We’re very pleased with your work,” said the Chairman. “And we’re eager to hear the rest of your findings. Though frankly I am rather pushed for time. I’ve a funeral in twenty minutes on the other side of the city.”

This shouldn’t take long,” said Dr Lyon. “But it’s important for you all to understand that we also found a strong association between the Virtue cluster and diet. In particular, kosher or halal observance was again closely correlated with cluster configuration.”

Are you saying that the Jews and Muslims were more observant than the Christians?” asked the Imam, beaming.

Not exactly,” said Dr Lyon. “There was also a strong correlation with the regularity of Christians taking communion.”

But communion requires the consumption of alcohol!” said the Imam.

Consecrated wine!” said the Priest.

This correlation is hardly surprising,” said the Rabbi. “Strong religious observance would necessitate strong dietary observance.”

Again it’s not that simple,” said Dr Lyon. “You need to remember that genes don’t always code for single characteristics. The Virtue gene clusters have very similar structures to those that determine specific aspects of digestive system development during gestation, in particular enzyme production for processing particular proteins and alcohol…”

You’ve lost me again,” interrupted the Pastor.

Sorry,” said Dr Lyon. “Put simply, our results suggest that pregnant women who adhere closely to their religious precepts raise children whose guts are likely to react negatively to proscribed food stuffs. Children whose mothers don’t eat pork may have difficulty digesting pork. Children whose mothers drink alcohol may have greater alcohol tolerance.”

What are you saying?” asked the Chairman.

The whole process is self-reinforcing,” said Dr Lyon. “People raised in a particular dietary context will quite literally feel most comfortable in that context and be highly reluctant to change their diets. There is no need to invoke any external agency for faith. We are what we eat.”

There was a shocked silence.

Well,” said the Chairman eventually, looking round. “Is that all?”

Just two more matters,” said Dr Lyon. “You’ll have my full report in the morning. And we’d like permission to publish our results.”

Absolutely not!” said the Chairman.

The clerics nodded vigorously.

But you can’t suppress the truth!” said Dr Lyon.

We commissioned this research,” said the Chairman. “And I think you’ll find that the contract stipulates that we have full control of any findings.”

That’s outrageous!” said Dr Lyon.

You can always return the funds,” said the Chairman. “Good day.”


Author – Greg Michaelson

Journal editors Richard W. Strachan and Martin MacInnes

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