References linking genes to complex human traits, such as personality type or disease susceptibility, abound in the news media and popular culture. In his book The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes, Dean Hamer argues that a variation in the VMAT2 gene plays a role in one’s openness to spiritual experiences. In a nonmajors class, we read and discussed The God Gene and conducted on a small scale an extension of the study it describes. Students used polymerase chain reaction to replicate a portion of their VMAT2 genes, and they analyzed three polymorphic sites in the sequence of these products. Associations between particular VMAT2 alleles and scores on a personality test were assessed by t test. The course, of which this project was a major part, stimulated student learning; scores on a test covering basic genetic concepts, causation/correlation, and laboratory methodology improved after completion of the course. In a survey, students reported the laboratory project aided their learning, especially in the areas of statistics and the linking of genes to behaviors. They reported high levels of engagement with the project, citing in particular its personal nature as motivating their interest.
Rapidly expanding knowledge about the human genome has increased the urgency of students’ appreciation of the roles that genes and the environment play in determining human characteristics. The popular press frequently discusses the influence of genes on diseases, such as cancer, or personality traits, such as risk taking or sexual orientation. In response to this barrage of information, students might take a variety of positions—at one extreme, they become adherents of genetic determinism; at the other extreme, they reject any role of genetics in human behavior as incompatible with free will. Some might simply be confused as to what is known about the roles of nature and nurture in human characteristics. Although details of their models vary, prominent scholars in the field see an interplay between heredity and environment, rather than a dichotomy (e.g., Collins et al., 2001 ; Cherney et al., 2004 ). Teaching students a more nuanced understanding of the interaction of genetics and environment and how the role of each is assessed should help them become more informed consumers of the “gene of the week” information that surrounds them.
Dean Hamer’s book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes, details a recent example of a purported link between a particular gene and human behavior (Hamer, 2004 ). The book was covered heavily by the popular press, including an article in Time magazine featured on the magazine’s cover (Kluger et al., 2004 ). In his book, Hamer contends that one’s predisposition toward spirituality is influenced by genetic factors. More controversially, he proposes that the VMAT2 gene is one of many potential genes that impinge on spirituality. Hamer identifies one particular variation, a change from an A to a C, present in 28% of the alleles in his data set, as a marker for the more “spiritual” version of this gene. This work has not been published in a scientific journal.
VMAT2 encodes a transporter protein that imports several monoamine neurotransmitters into vesicles in the brain (reviewed in Zheng et al., 2006 ). Thus, an alteration in the transporter could potentially affect the levels of multiple types of neurotransmitters, resulting in altered brain function. Changes in this monoamine transporter’s sequence or expression have been associated with substance abuse and Parkinson’s disease (Lin et al., 2005 ; Schwab et al., 2005 ; Glatt et al., 2006 ; Yamamoto et al., 2006 ).
I decided to use Hamer’s book as a focal point for an interdisciplinary nonmajors class in genetics and biotechnology. Because biotechnology has an impact on so many other fields of study, this area seemed appropriate for interdisciplinary focus while allowing significant scientific content. In addition to its high profile, The God Gene was likely to provoke discussion because it touches on an area of personal interest for many of the students and had substantial gray areas—the work had not been subjected to rigorous peer review, Hamer’s observed correlation of a particular VMAT2 allele with spirituality had not been reproduced in another population, and, as Hamer notes, VMAT2 is at best a small player in influencing spirituality. The book lends itself to a discussion of basic concepts underlying data interpretation, such as the distinction between correlation and causation and the role of statistical analysis, as well as such genetics essentials as homozygosity and heterozygosity, the relationship of genotype and phenotype, and mutation.
In addition to discussions about the book and the underlying science, we extended Hamer’s project by examining VMAT2 variations in the laboratory. Each of the students isolated genomic DNA from his or her cheek cells, amplified a region of the VMAT2 gene, and determined his or her genotype at three polymorphic sites. We also completed the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) (Cloninger et al., 1993 , 1994 ), a personality test that Hamer used to gauge spirituality. The self-transcendence portion of the score was used as a spirituality index. The class performed a simple statistical analysis on the class data set to look for correlations between VMAT2 genotype and spirituality phenotype. Even though significant results were not expected given the small size of our class, this provided an opportunity for the students to see how results could be assessed. Students extended the research question by looking for associations between VMAT2 genotype and another phenotype of their choosing.
Our structured inquiry laboratory project offered an opportunity for active learning (see Colburn, 2000 for a description of different types of inquiry laboratories). Although the problem and procedures are provided, this lab presents a research-like experience in that the outcome is truly unknown. It responds to Hamer’s statements in The God Gene that replication of his results in different populations is necessary to test the validity of his findings and that it is likely that many genetic variations contribute to differences in spirituality. Although our study may not directly replicate Hamer’s (it is not clear which A/C polymorphism he examined), students enter into this dialogue by testing whether they too see an association between VMAT2 variation and spirituality. Furthermore, because of the unsettled nature of the question being investigated, the larger meaning of any findings is open for debate. Inquiry labs are recommended as a strategy to increase scientific literacy in all students as they stimulate construction of knowledge and recognition of science as a process (Project 2061, 1989 ; National Research Council, 1999 ; Handelsman et al., 2004 ). Among the many strengths of active-learning methods in general are their ability to motivate by offering the sheer pleasure of solving a puzzle (Svinicki, 1998 ) and to increase students’ self-efficacy (Wilke, 2003 ). Self-efficacy, or a student’s belief in his ability to succeed at a particular task, is one predictor of achievement (Pajares, 1996 ). Because nonmajor students can come to science courses with little faith in their ability to perform tasks involving science, increasing self-efficacy is a key consideration in preparing students who may learn all their future science informally, outside of science courses.
Nonmajor students may also believe science is uninteresting or boring. Openness toward learning science is a crucial building block in preparing students to independently tackle the myriad and unpredictable science-related issues arising in their lives—a central goal of a nonmajors course. In meeting this need, it is helpful that the God Gene project is context-based. In context-based approaches, rather than beginning with scientific principles and applying them to a question, students begin with a question (typically with social, here with personal, implications), then learn the science needed to answer the question. In a systematic review Bennett et al. (2007) found that context-based approaches result in improved attitudes toward science. In the case of this project, relevancy of the contextual question to the students is high; students would not only be the investigators, but also serve as the subjects of this investigation. The combination of active student involvement in the development of their own understanding, clear relevance of the question to the students’ own experience, and the interdisciplinary nature of the question are components of the “lived curriculum” Hurd (1998) describes as promoting scientific literacy.
There were several goals for this project. First, as a result of the project students should master some basic scientific content, in this case about what genes are and do, and have an increased understanding of some approaches to studying genes. Second, I wanted students to become more informed and critical consumers of scientific studies as reported in the media. Our in-depth analysis of a particular news story could provide a model for such critical thinking. Because Hamer’s work involves concepts that are widely accepted (genes play a role in complex traits) and controversial (the VMAT2 gene contributes to spirituality) students have the opportunity to both master ideas and to draw their own conclusions. This goal builds on the first, as mastery of the underlying scientific concepts would enable students to draw more meaningful and considered personal conclusions. Finally, as many nonmajors have trepidation about learning science or find science boring or irrelevant, I wanted to intellectually and actively engage students in a scientific problem. Once students see that they can successfully think about and be interested in science, there is one less barrier to learning more about science when it affects their later lives. It was hoped that the personal and active nature of this investigation would literally bring home concepts that might otherwise fail to engage students.
The VMAT2 “God Gene” has been studied extensively throughout the years and disruptors are being used in CRISPR studies as well as vaccines where scientists can manipulate and “tightly experimentally tune” our level of spirituality. Read more HERE…
The VMAT2 gene affects the frontal lobe area of the brain that deals with your emotions and your spiritual connections. These vaccines are mRNA in nature, that is messenger ribonucleic acid. Ribonucleic acid is essential to various biological roles including encoding, decoding, regulation and expression. These vaccines are designed to change your DNA.
I want you to listen to this statement by a young man who participated in a clinical trial of a Covid vaccine, and whose mother stated, “Prior to the clinical trial my son was a very active young Christian man.” This young man made the following statement, “They have killed God. I can’t find God. My soul is dead.” That’s after participating in a Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial.