Review of Public Lecture by Francis Collins
Point Loma Nazarene College
Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the Genome Project and author of “The Language of God,” gave a public lecture at Point Loma Nazarene College in San Diego on 4/11/2008. The talk was titled “The Language of God: A Believer Looks at the Human Genome.”
I was privileged to attend a dinner and discussion before the event, as well as to get some one-on-one time to talk with Dr. Collins about his work. The overall theme of both the comments at dinner and of Collins’ public lecture is that there is no inherent conflict between what we are learning from scientific investigation and the Christian view of God. The intense battle between the conservative evangelical right and the scientific/materialist establishment is a relatively recent phenomenon, found principally in the United States (as opposed in Europe). It is caused chiefly by a commitment on the part of certain believers to the literal interpretation of the Genesis account of creation, not by recent scientific discovery.
I will describe in some detail Collins’ arguments and his conclusions, but first let me comment on the general impression I was given of Collins as a scientist, as a human being and as a Christian believer. Both from his public lecture and from my own personal interaction, the first impression which comes through of Collins is his genuine humility and self-effacement. We chatted about the likelihood of a conservative Christian backlash. When we considered the possibility of picketing at the event, Collins innocently commented that that would be kind of interesting, as he had never been picketed before. Having known only a few truly famous scientists personally, my experience is limited, but I get the sense that the public persona of humble peacemaker between the faith and the scientific communities comes from the heart. Collins becomes quite animated when discussing the theological implications of scientific discovery. This is exceeded only by his intense enthusiasm for the scientific discoveries brought about through the Genome Project.
The talk began with a brief synopsis of the work of the Genome Project. Of course, Collins was the head of this project during its most crucial phases. Now that the human genome (and that of several other animals and plants as well) has been analyzed completely, Francis is especially excited about the profound implications and possibilities for relieving human suffering through an understanding of the genetic basis for such killers as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. He gave a hint of some of the ethical minefields humanity will have to negotiate as we gain the ability to manipulate genetic material. Some of these new technologies will yield tremendous gains in overcoming human suffering, while others will have disturbing ethical implications. Collins insisted that non-scientists need to be intimately involved in plotting the ethical path toward using the power of detailed genetic information.
At this point, the talk shifted toward the religious implications of genetic discoveries. Collins insisted, using Biblical passages to support his thesis, that God communicates with us both through specific revelation (ie. in the Bible) and through general revelation (through his creation). This is when Collins got down to where the rubber meets the road. He presented findings on the human genome which seem to imply without any ambiguity at all that humans came about physically through common descent from lower creatures. For example, he used the parallels between human chromosome #2 and chimpanzee chromosomes 2a and 2b to show that it is virtually impossible to deny that the human chromosome #2 came about in the past by a combination of the two smaller chromosomes which are still held by chimpanzees. Human chromosome #2 has a remnant (and useless) piece of telomere material in its middle at the exact place where the parallel chromosome #2a and #2b in chimps would be joined. Collins pointed out, and it is hard to deny his logic, that either there is a common ancestor or when God created humans by special creation, it almost appears that he was trying to trick us by putting information which would seem to lead unambiguously to the conclusion of common descent.
Collins gave another example of a finding from the human genome which implies human descent. This is a remnant but useless former gene found in all human DNA. This gene is found in exactly the same sequence in almost all mammals, but in a functional state. The gene in question is the one which makes vitamin C. It seems to defy reason to conclude otherwise than that humans have a remnant gene which we inherited from common descent with all mammals, but a copy which no longer works (which is why humans must have vitamin C in their diet, unlike almost all mammals).
Collins cautioned Christians that we must refuse the temptation to have a theology which includes a God-of-the-gaps. He pointed out that at this time we have no conceivable mechanism for how life itself came about by a “natural” process, yet he cautioned believers ought not to stake their faith in God on the assumption that even life itself was created by God through supernatural power rather than by random natural processes.
Having given this caution, Collins reminded his audience that there is plenty of evidence from general revelation so that belief in God—indeed in the Christian God is the only reasonable conclusion. He mentioned the fantastically fine-tuned nature of the fundamental constants of the universe, as well as the absolutely inescapable moral laws that even the atheists cannot force themselves to deny.
Collins is obviously aware of the theological implications of these discoveries. He is also cognizant that some Christians will be very uncomfortable with the implications for the history of human beings. He proposed that at some point in the past God took an evolved proto-human and put a soul, a spirit and a moral sense and freedom of will; creating human beings. This possession of a soul—of a spiritual nature, along with consciousness and the ability to make free moral choices—this is what makes us humans in the image of God.
Collins then moved on to list some of the evidence from science which strongly implies the existence of a creator/designer. This includes;
1. The fact that something exists rather than nothing.
2. The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics to describe nature
. 3. The apparent fact that the Big Bang happened. Something came from nothing.
4. The fine tuning of the constants which govern nature; all of which are required to have a very specific value in order for us to be here to observe the universe.
5. Ockham’s Razor: The most reasonable and simplest explanation of all this is an intelligent designer.
6. The existence of a common moral law. Even those scientific materialists who deny the existence of moral law behave as if they believe in one.
At this point, Collins described his theory of BioLogos. He said that he believes God, in his great wisdom and creative power, created a universe which naturally, over time, creates order. It was God’s plan to use this natural proclivity of nature to create information to ultimately produce the creatures for whom he created the universe—creatures whom he could love and who could respond to his love—human beings. He is of the opinion that if God were to step in occasionally to “correct” or to redirect the natural process he created, that would be evidence, not of God’s greatness, but that God is somehow not as wise as he might be.
Collins ended with an emotional appeal to all believers to do their very best to come to terms with science. He believes it is time for believers to reclaim their natural territory, which is to join special and general revelation to the glory of God. We should not resist the implications of science, nor should we try to find room for God in the gaps of scientific knowledge. If Christian intellectuals can accept the implications of the discoveries coming from the Genome Project, his vision is that the acrimonious fight between believers and atheists can come to a natural end.
This author really enjoyed every aspect of the presentation of Dr. Collins. It is inspiring to hear one of the greatest scientists of our time publicly sharing both his zeal for scientific discovery which can be used to relieve human suffering and his faith in a loving God who created us to be able to know and understand this wonderful creation. I applaud the courage of Collins to stand up for what is true in the face of opposition, both from those of an adamant atheistic/scientific materialist perspective, and from sincere but reactionary believers in the creationist camp.
I only have one criticism to offer. I bring this criticism in a spirit of respect and great appreciation for what Dr. Collins is doing in his public work. It is my opinion that Collins concedes more than he needs to with regard to the place of the supernatural in natural history. The BioLogos theory of Collins can be described as a theory of God-of-no-gaps. I simply do not agree that God is necessarily glorified more if he established a set of laws and then sat back and watched it proceed completely by random, natural processes. What principle can we apply to conclude that it is does dishonor for God to supernaturally intervene in the natural processes which led to producing his highest creation—human beings? Collins is happy to concede that life may well have been created from non-life by a natural process. I am not willing to make such a concession. I believe that nature does not create information by spontaneous process. The tens of millions of bits of information required to build the simplest conceivable living thing could only have been the result of a separate intelligence.
Similarly, although I will certainly concede that the evidence from genetics for common descent of all life is very strong, this does not mean that God has not influenced or directed evolution. Personally, I am extremely skeptical that random mutations could have created life as we see it. While on the one hand, I certainly cannot prove supernatural intervention in the course of evolution, on the other hand, I am far from conceding to the naturalist.
It seems in the nature of God to let his highest creation—human beings—act freely. God is not in the habit of interceding supernaturally in our lives on a regular basis. However, God is not above intervening both in human history and in individual lives in order to bring about his will, which is that we come into a loving relationship with him. God intervened in history to bring Israel out of Egypt. He stepped into history to judge his people during the time of Nebuchadnezzar and to save his people through Cyrus. Most significantly, God supernaturally turned the course of history by sending Jesus to this world. These God-directed supernatural interventions in history are very rare, but they have had a profound impact on the course of human events!
Similarly, God leaves us free to act on a daily basis, but he is not against stepping in on occasion—especially when we pray. If God has a totally hands-off policy, then what is the point of praying?
What about natural history? It seems that God has let it proceed on its own most of the time. Does he intervene at times? He certainly did when he created the universe in the first place. Almost without doubt he did when he created life. Has God poked his finger into the process of evolution? Was he behind the Cambrian explosion of life? Does he intervene in subtle ways all the time to direct the course of evolution? We cannot settle this question from science either way, but should we concede to the scientific materialist that evolution has occurred entirely by random process? For myself, I say no.
Is Collins right with his theory of a God-of-no-gaps? In all humility, I will have to say I do not know. The theological distinction between a God who created the universe so that it proceeds entirely naturally by chance toward physical creation of human beings and a God who has intervened supernaturally as part of the process is perhaps smaller than it appears. If we can follow Francis Collins’ appeal to treat one another with respect and humility, surely we can live with some ambiguity on this point. I say thank you very much to Francis Collins for a wonderful presentation and for boldly standing up against the assumption in academia that there is no God.
The lecture described in this review is available on line (click here)