Category Archives: Philosophy

Is religion a natural phenomenon?

I do not want to discuss the rather polemic view of Daniel Dennetts “Breaking the spell” or promote other books of the new secularism. The Guardian digital edition writes on 29th Oct 2006

Secularism is suddenly hip, at least in the publishing world. A glut of popular science books making a trenchant case against religion have soared up the bestseller lists both here and in America. The phenomenon represents a backlash against a perceived rise in religious fundamentalism and recent crazes for ‘spirituality’ by way of books such as The Da Vinci Code. Secularists are now eager to show that the empiricism of science can debunk the claims of believers.

More interesting is the question if human morality is an inborn trait or not. Nicholas Wade has a nice essay in the NYT:

Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, has built on this idea to propose that people are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. In a new book, “Moral Minds” (HarperCollins 2006), he argues that the grammar generates instant moral judgments which, in part because of the quick decisions that must be made in life-or-death situations, are inaccessible to the conscious mind. People are generally unaware of this process because the mind is adept at coming up with plausible rationalizations for why it arrived at a decision generated subconsciously. Dr. Hauser presents his argument as a hypothesis to be proved, not as an established fact. But it is an idea that he roots in solid ground, including his own and others’ work with primates and in empirical results derived by moral philosophers.

I renember also an article by Roger Higfield in the Washington Times (24th March 2003) than unfortunately vanished from the internet:

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 developeing brain.

Higfield is refering to an empirical twin study:

To investigate the heritability of religiousness and possible age changes in this estimate, both current and retrospective religiousness were assessed by self-report in a sample of adult male twins (169 MZ pairs and 104 DZ pairs, mean age of 33 years). Retrospective reports of religiousness showed little correlation difference between MZ (r=.69) and DZ (r=.59) twins. Reports of current religiousness, however, did show larger MZ (r=.62) than DZ (r=.42) similarity. Biometric analysis of the two religiousness ratings revealed that genetic factors were significantly weaker (12% vs. 44%) and shared environmental factors were significantly stronger (56% vs. 18%) in adolescence compared to adulthood. Analysis of internal and external religiousness subscales of the total score revealed similar results. These findings support the hypothesis that the heritability of religiousness increases from adolescence to adulthood.

Time on Oct 17, 2004 referred to a book of Dean Hamer “The God Gene”

Chief of gene structure at the National Cancer Institute, Hamer not only claims that human spirituality is an adaptive trait, but he also says he has located one of the genes responsible, a gene that just happens to also code for production of the neurotransmitters that regulate our moods. Our most profound feelings of spirituality, according to a literal reading of Hamer’s work, may be due to little more than an occasional shot of intoxicating brain chemicals governed by our DNA. “I’m a believer that every thought we think and every feeling we feel is the result of activity in the brain,” Hamer says.

This looks very much like a completely physical view of spiritual affairs (Hamer became famous for his failure of the “gay gene” before abandoning science).

So we may better turn to the question if there is any theological background? I renember a famous guest lecture in Marburg 1980 about the Epistle to the Romans by Herbert Braun (Braun is a Bultmann scholar. Ernst Fuchs was in Marburg too; together with Ernst Käsemann and Günther Bornkamm they are all famous scholars of Rudolf Bultmann. Käsemann and Fuchs both wrote a “Commentary on Romans”).

Fuchs highlighted Rom 2:14 in King James translation saying:

13 For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:
15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;

Science and theology are not far away here. Maybe it is even common sense that most humans have an inherited deep feeling of religiousness.

Genetic code and God’s language -cont’d-

There is a new book by Francis Collins “The language of God“, one of the leading persons in human genome sequencing. As the commentary says:
Continue reading Genetic code and God’s language -cont’d-

Who goes first?

A recent example of self-experimentation is the famous trial where Dr. Barry Marshall swallowed a tube full with Helicobacter pylori which led him to develop gastritis. Lawrence K. Altman, M.D. has written the story of self-experimentation in medicine covering the many facets of these heroic experiments. Published already in 1987, I discovered this book only now. Highly recommended, yea, yea.

For some, the system is working well

Just received an email – the fall 2006 desk-to-desk message from Dr. Zerhouni, “Making it Work for our Emerging Scientists” It says “For some, the system is working well. The best and brightest are reaching their full potential in solid, research careers. We have the evidence in the number of competitive grant applications being submitted. For others, the queue is backing up… Between 1980 and 2004 the average age of Ph.D. scientists earning their first R01 award went from 37 to 42 years… The problem appears to be largely the result of the ever-increasing age at which a researcher receives his or her appointment as an assistant professor.”
I would like to add that the average life expectancy also increased between 1980 and 2004, so the relative age remains the same. Yea, yea.


Science magazine has different data on salaries of postdocs: academic salaries rose from $74,000 to $78,000 and industry salaries of $106,000 to $116,000 between 2005 and 2006.


German salaries in biotech lab, research and marketing increased at the same time by 3.7% to €99,000 (for leading positions) and 3.3% to €74.000 (for specialists) according Laborwelt 1/2006 page 45.

Truth in science (and religion)

A recent interview of Jane Glitschier in PLoS genetics with Tom Cech nicely shows the relationship of truth and research: “There is a search for absolute truth in research. You never get there—but there are criteria by which you judge how close you are. You’re always criticizing yourself and criticizing your colleagues, and they’re criticizing you. And there is a test, very often, that you can do to decide who’s right.”


Here is a difference between science and religion — Jesus told his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Yea, yea.

On display – the masterclass

During my professional career I have never been told how to make good graphics although extracting essential information from datasets is an advanced (and necessary skill). Fortunately, however, there are some excellent books that cover graphical display. The first one I came across was Michael J Campbell and David Machins’ “Medical Statistics – A commonsense approach” (see pages 44ff and 58 for “increasing data ink”) that gives a lot of useful advices how to improve figures. The next book that I found influential was Bill Cleveland’s 1993 book “Visualizing Data” who introduced into R and S multidimensional lattice graphics (also covered 2005 in “R Graphics” of Paul Murrell published by Chapman & Hall/CRC). I used this technique extensively in my 2005 PLoS paper on the worldwide distribution of allergy. At the moment I am reading the new book “Graphics of large datasets” by Antony Unwin, Martin Theus, Heike Hofmann which seems to be finally the masterclass of displaying data. Yea, yea.

Addendum 1

An examples how to improve a barchart (yes – I resisted to start with a 3D barchart but the cluttering colors and grids are hopefully good to see).


Addendum 2

A new Nature Nascent entry: “The way we present genomic and proteomic data on the web sucks

Foucault pendulum

I visited the Deutsche Museum yesterday, where one of best attractions is the Foucault pendulum a 30 kg weight at a 60 m rope (the original at the Panthéon was 67 meter long and weights 28 kg). We could see, that the pendulum swings on a an elliptic course, hitting the conses always from the back. As we were told, the deviation of the pendulum is a function of latitude. The horizontal axis is the latitude from 90 degrees to 0 degrees latitude. The vertical axis shows the rate of precession in degrees per hour; positive for clockwise precession, negative for counterclockwise precession (the Coriolis effect seems to have a minor role). I wondered what might be the reason for the spin or chirality seen so often in nature. Most DNA has a right-hand screw (nevertheless there are hundreds of images on the net and many scientific papers) that show left-handed DNAs). Yea, yea.

Ethnographic studies at Oktoberfest

Having many years of experience with ethnographic studies at Oktoberfest München, I am fascinated by a new Cell paper that shows distinct behavioral responses to ethanol. This is something that I alread assumed (although I did not known about this particular RhoGAP18B isoform only about ADH deficiency). Will the knowledge of more and more mutations in the lifestyle area raise ethical problems? Yea, yea.

False Memory

The German magazine Spiegel has a nice paper about the false memory debate and the “implanted” memory of events that never happened. They cite Hans Markowitsch from Bielefeld that the autobiographical memory is not very good in recalling past events, being much much more adapted to orientation of current and future events. Has anyone examined blogs and if their content can be recalled by the author? Nai, nai.

Once again genetic testing

I have argued earlier that the free decision of an individual to allow genetic testing, will also reveal data on genetic relatives that have never consented to that procedure.
A new review by Bruce Weir now confirms that “it is reasonably straightforward to find the probability of the genotypes of individuals when their relationship is known…” My current work lets me also assume that with 500,000 SNP data at hand, much individual characteristics of the donor can be reconstructed – there are no anonymous DNAs datasets as some people still believe.
I even fear that genetic testing will increase for example in “homeless” (in vitro fertilized) individuals as these people will want to prevent sibling marriage – see for example the a-China DNA project. Other people may be curious about their genealogy, others about drug side effect prediction, lifestyle, assurance questions…
With every new dataset, available datasets will gradually decrease their anonymity level. I fear that anonymity is not so much a dichotomous property, it is much more a likelihood ratio to stay unknown under the probability to be known. Yea, yea.


Time online of Dec 17, 2006 reports that the British police is holding the DNA records of more than 1m innocent people — eight times more than ministers have previously admitted. I wonder if this will affect participation rate of the UK Biobank that targets health of lifestyle, environment and genes in 500,000 people.

Sleep well

Just came to my attention that there is research of sleep related genes, the usual stuff of protein kinases, dopaminergic receptor, and serotonine transporter. Also this research community seem to have the common difficulty of the complex disease gene mappers – to understand a phenomenon (not a trait) as systemic function, an intrinsic property of a multicellular and multiwired brain, yea, yea.


More strange phenotypes orgasm frequency, pain, human memory performance.


Read also the what-we-could-have-learned-from-linkage-studies.