Reconciling God and Science
Monday, Jul. 10, 2006
By DAVID VAN BIEMA
Lab coat in the pews: Collins, at the National Cathedral, has been a Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian congregant
DAVID BURNETT / CONTACT FOR TIME
The pious young scientist had a question about human origins and the attention of one of the foremost geneticists in the world. Standing up in a crowded Hilton-hotel conference room in Alexandria, Va., the inquisitive Ph.D.-M.D. candidate asked Francis Collins, who mapped the human genome, about an attempt to reconcile science and faith: Did Collins think it possible that all species are products of evolution--except for humanity, which God created separately? "Based on everything we know," the young man asked, "would that tie together evolution and [a literal reading of the Bible] and make room for God to intervene?"
Collins showed no surprise that a star scholar poised to contribute to the future of medicine should entertain the idea that evolution might not apply to humans. Indeed, the question was almost predictable, since the room was filled with Harvey Fellows, high-performing young academics devoted to bringing a Christian presence to fields where Evangelicals are underrepresented. And Collins, that rarest of raritiesa superstar evangelical biologistand author of the new book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press; 304 pages), was perfectly qualified to answer. He did. That notion "gets you into a series of real problems," he replied. He sketched one out: the human genome contains nonfunctional elements in the precise spot where they can be found on the chromosomes of lower animals. If God was creating humans afresh, Collins asked, "why would he insert a pseudo-gene that has lost its ability to do anything in the same place that it appears in a chimp?" Barring evolution, "you're forced to the conclusion that God was trying to mislead us and test our faith--and I have trouble with that kind of conjecture."
In America's ongoing and sometimes rancorous discussion about science and God, some stock characters have evolved. There are the vocal proponents of creationism and intelligent design who storm school boards in hopes that either science or local government will conform to their beliefs. Then there are academic atheists who claim increasingly aggressively that science is in the process of proving religion a delusion. But few of the polemicists have the authority to preach beyond their own choirs. Most believers don't care to listen to an atheistic scientist calling the idea of God a mythology created to explain what humans don't understand, and academic atheists are just as uninterested in scientific lectures from Bible literalists.
Collins, however, has both the standing and the desire to promote a third way. At 56, he is an unassuming 6-ft. 4-in. stork with a reedy voice, a techie's el cheapo digital Timex and--his one touch of flash--a wide silver ring emblazoned with a cross. "I think the majority of people in the U.S. probably occupy a middle ground but feel under attack by the bombs thrown from either side," he says. "We haven't heard very much about the way these views can be rendered into a very satisfying harmony. And I do hope that both camps are a potential audience for what I have to say."
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To some, the mere fact that he is effectively outing himself to the secular world as a man of faith warrants celebration. "Just that he's written the book is important," says Randy Isaac, head of American Scientific Affiliation, a professional group for conservative Christians. "It will help convince Christian young people that science is a viable career, and scientists to recognize that Christian faith is a relevant option."
But Collins has more in mind than being a role model. The last celebrity scientist to suggest a middle path in the creation wars was Stephen Jay Gould, who argued that science and faith could coexist because they are "nonoverlapping" domains with no common ground on which to clash. Yet Collins insists on overlaying and intertwining them. He starts from a very Gouldian premise--"Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world [but] is powerless to answer questions such as 'what is the meaning of human existence'"--but he tracks it to a different conclusion. "We need to bring all the power of both scientific and spiritual perspectives to bear on understanding what is both seen and unseen," he writes, maintaining that those perspectives "not only can coexist within one person, but can do so in a fashion that enriches and enlightens the human experience." And without seeming particularly immodest, he offers his own experience as Exhibit A.
Collins' life, although told many times in the press during the genome race, remains appealingly weird and inspiring. He was born on an outhouse-equipped Virginia "dirt farm"--but his Yale-educated parents had earlier returned to the land as part of a rural-community experiment under Eleanor Roosevelt's patronage. Home-schooled and solitary, their brilliant fourth son pursued his inclinations through a Yale dissertation on quantum mechanics--but then swerved, first to an M.D. and next to the field of genetics, whose astonishing precision and lifesaving potential were becoming manifest.
In 1993, Collins' trailblazing work identifying genetic defects that predispose to cystic fibrosis and other diseases led to his succeeding double-helix discoverer James Watson as head of a 2,400-scientist, multination project to map all 3.1 billion biochemical letters that constitute the human blueprint. In 2000, Bill Clinton honored Collins and his private-sector competitor Craig Venter in the White House, crediting their complementary genome work with uncovering "the language in which God created life."
That statement reflected Collins' input. In 1976, during his medical residency, the serene faith of some of his mortally ill patients shocked the self-described "obnoxious atheist" into consulting a local minister, who handed him the book Mere Christianity by the great Christian popularizer and Narnia creator, C.S. Lewis. Struck by Lewis' nuts-and-bolts approach, Collins investigated faith on his own methodical terms. Finally, one morning in 1978, while hiking in the Pacific Cascades, he came upon a massive, frozen, three-stream waterfall. To him it recalled the Trinity. He writes, "I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."
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Reconciling his belief with his service to genetics proved easier for him than for many of his colleagues. Upon discovering the fibrosis flaw, he remembers feeling that "God had rained down his blessing." But in a profession only 8% of whose élite admit to believing in a God who answers prayer, he found that God talk could be something of a taboo. "Bring up faith and there's always a little sense of, Didn't you get the memo?" At least once a month he receives an e-mail from some lonely post-doc asking advice on being an evangelical scientist. As his renown grew, he moved from sharing his Christian conversion with groups of fellow believers to sitting on public panels where, he says, "I've found myself the sole person saying faith was relevant" to science. Thus, he adds, "I've kind of been writing this book for 25 years."
The story of Collins' journey to faith, a description of his evangelical belief and a wrenching examination of God and suffering through the story of his daughter's rape constitute a significant part of his book, resembling in some ways evangelical testimony more than previous scientific arguments for belief. But he also explains why, although he does not believe God is rationally provable, he thinks that natural phenomena--such as the development of conditions favoring life on earth in the face of incredible odds--point toward the divine.
And he provides a pocket description of his preferred synthesis of evolution with Christianity, which he calls BioLogos but which has a previous history under the name theistic evolution. Collins' version sees God as having preplanned the process of mutation and selection at time's beginning, knowing it would produce humanity. It differs from Deism, the "divine clockmaker" theology of Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, in that many Deists think God signed off once the clock was wound. Collins, on the other hand, thinks the whole point was for God to create a being with whom he could develop an ongoing relationship through prayer, Scripture and what the scientist cheerfully acknowledges as a scientifically inexplicable "divine invasion of the natural world" in the saving person of Jesus Christ.
The Language of God is enlightening but not always convincing. Collins writes at a pace better suited to statements of position than to sustained argument, and he sometimes falls back on familiar polemics by pros like Lewis. His insights on the nature of a God-science overlap, while fresh, are celebratory rather than investigative, budgeting relatively little space to wrestle with instances when the conjunction of the two can induce the philosophical bends (such as faith's understanding of God's place outside human time).
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The book seems liveliest when Collins turns his guns from atheists on the left to creationists and intelligent designers on the right, urging the abandonment of what he feels are overliteral misreadings of Scripture. "I don't think God intended Genesis to teach science," he says, arguing that "the evidence in favor of evolution is utterly compelling." He has little patience with those who say evolution is just a theory, noting that in his scientific world the word theory "is not intended to convey uncertainty; for that purpose a scientist would use the word hypothesis." The book is hard on intelligent design, heaping scientific doubt on its key notion of "irreducible complexity" in phenomena like blood clotting, and theological scorn on its ultimate implications ("I.D. portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan ... this is a very unsatisfactory image").
That is not the argument his publisher has chosen to emphasize, or his book's subtitle would be flipped to read A Believer Presents the Evidence for Science. But it may be the one with the best prospects. Students of the debate note that atheists are more dogmatically opposed to God than Evangelicals are to evolution, if only because aggressive creationism is neither a long-standing evangelical position nor a unanimous one. According to Edward Larson, a Pulitzer- prizewinning historian of the evolution debate at the University of Georgia, American support for it, now near 50%, hovered around 30% as recently as 1960. Today, Larson says, "it's a dynamic situation, with no unanimity." Evolution is taught at some Christian colleges.
Even before he wrote The Language of God, Collins was a player in this potentially consequential debate. He has an ongoing dialogue with Chuck Colson, the former Nixon aide who heads the successful Prison Fellowship and influences a significant conservative Christian audience through a daily radio show and a magazine column. Thus far Collins has failed to convince Colson, who says, "I think he's giving away more than he needs to, and he thinks I'm denying science." But Colson adds, "He's a guy I like, admire and appreciate. We're going to have dinner together and get some folks around a table and talk it through."
Evangelist Tony Campolo, whose position on the spectrum is somewhat closer to Collins', offers encouragement of his own. "It's one thing for a scientist to debunk creationism," he says. "It's another when a believer does it." A scientific believer with a serious book may stand the best chance of all
25 January 2008