The journal Medical Hypotheses is a weird creature: it has no peer review and publishes, to put it generously, ‘speculative’ papers. At least it’s entertaining in an “OMG they say what?” sort of way. A fun blog called NCBI ROFL, which highlights some of the weirdness that pops up in scientific abstracts, has made this Bruce G Charlton week — Charlton is not only the editor of Medical Hypotheses, he’s a frequent contributor (which makes one wonder…since the journal has no peer review, and the only gatekeeper is the editor, Bruce G Charlton, has Dr Charlton ever received a rejection from the journal?). They have tapped into a rich vein of weirdness.
The Monday entry is this recent paper.
Genospirituality: genetic engineering for spiritual and religious enhancement
The most frequently discussed role for genetic engineering is in relation to medicine, and a second area which provokes discussion is the use of genetic engineering as an enhancement technology. But one neglected area is the potential use of genetic engineering to increase human spiritual and religious experience – or genospirituality. If technologies are devised which can conveniently and safely engineer genes causal of spiritual and religious behaviours, then people may become able to choose their degree of religiosity or spiritual sensitivity. For instance, it may become possible to increase the likelihood of direct religious experience – i.e. ‘revelation': the subjective experience of communication from the deity. Or, people may be able to engineer ‘animistic’ thinking, a mode of cognition in which the significant features of the world – such as large animals, trees, distinctive landscape features – are regarded as sentient and intentional beings; so that the individual experiences a personal relationship with the world. Another potentially popular spiritual ability would probably be shamanism; in which states of altered consciousness (e.g. trances, delirium or dreams) are induced and the shaman may undergo the experience of transformations, ‘soul journeys’ and contact with a spirit realm. Ideally, shamanistic consciousness could be modulated such that trances were self-induced only when wanted and when it was safe and convenient; and then switched-off again completely when full alertness and concentration are necessary. It seems likely that there will be trade-offs for increased spirituality; such as people becoming less ‘driven’ to seek status and monetary rewards – as a result of being more spiritually fulfilled people might work less hard and take more leisure. On the other hand, it is also possible that highly moral, altruistic, peaceable and principled behaviours might become more prevalent; and the energy and joyousness of the best churches might spread and be strengthened. Overall, genospirituality would probably be used by people who were unable to have the kind of spiritual or religious experiences which they wanted (or perhaps even needed) in order to lead the kind of life to which they aspired.
So…he thinks spirituality is a biological phenomenon, which he naively believes can be switched on and off by tinkering with genes. And he thinks this would be desirable.
He’s a very strange fellow: that rather cynical abstract was written by a Christian. He’s also a Christian who thinks that religion is adaptive and atheists are delusional. That article is so full of targets for derision it left me bewildered and confused — I could do a whole week of paragraph-by-paragraph mockery of that one piece of absurdity (don’t worry, I don’t think I will, too much serious work to do right now.)
For example, I couldn’t read this bit by Charlton without marveling at its self-referential nature, and the apparent obliviousness of the author to it all.
However, there must be a deeper psychological reason than short-termist hedonism why so many intelligent people have chosen the maladaptive trait of Atheism. I have recently published a theory trying to explain the phenomenon of ‘Clever Sillies’. Clever Sillies are people whose professional and expert attainments may be at the highest level, while their psychological and social beliefs and behaviours are just silly – I was thinking in particular of the prevalent lunacies of Political Correctness among the ruling elites. In essence, I argue that the root of the problem is that high intelligence often brings with it a tendency to overuse intelligence – even when ‘instinct’ is a better guide to reality.
What can I say? Bruce Charlton is an educated MD, a professor of theoretical medicine (OK, that title is ripe for a joke in itself), and is a journal editor. He’s definitely a very clever fellow.