- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

LONDON Scientists are hunting for a "God gene" that underpins our ability to believe.
The idea of genes linked with beliefs does not look far-fetched, given the influence of genetics on the developing brain.
Thomas Bouchard, a professor at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, conducted a study of twins reared apart and concluded that there was "a modest degree of genetic influence" in two measures of religiousness.
There are many suggestions as to why a "God gene" or a constellation of genes linked with belief may thrive.
John Burn, medical director of the Institute of Human Genetics at England's University of Newcastle, said: "Survival of our species has demanded a capacity to work together, to form societies. A willingness to live, and if necessary die, for a belief is a powerful selective advantage. I think there is a genetic propensity for us to believe."
Professor Edward O. Wilson, a sociobiologist at Harvard University, points out that religious leaders often help perpetuate their followers' genes by encouraging them to have big families and by including prohibitions against incest and other risky activities.
Those who were more inclined to believe also might have survived better than those who did not have such beliefs. A wide-ranging survey of scientific evidence of the "faith factor" in disease has been conducted by Mayo Clinic researchers. They concluded that a majority of 350 studies of physical health and 850 studies of mental health have found that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health.
Belief can help people to cope with stress, and religious people might be more compliant and less likely to overindulge, or they might be able to draw on a bigger support network, such as a congregation. If religious belief does boost an individual's chances of survival, any genes linked with a propensity to believe would survive in future generations.
Michel Raymond of the Institute of Evolutionary Science in Montpellier, France, and Dutch researcher Frans Roes have published research in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior that purports to show it is possible to predict how religious a society is, and the kind of religion to which it subscribes, by the evolutionary benefits.
For example, the survival of social groups in a desert would be promoted by a supreme deity's legitimization of moral codes that protect natural resources. When cultures around the world are compared, there is an association between belief in gods strong on such moral codes and societies where water is scarce.
They conclude that because larger societies tend to have more conflicts, they are more likely to have a belief in God, to provide "moral glue" and social cohesiveness. When there are recurring threats, moral rules should be imposed with authority. They conclude: "How better than by a moralizing god?"



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