The Language of God: Francis Collins Speaks at Stanford

On Tuesday February 5, students and staff packed Memorial Auditorium to hear Dr. Francis Collins, the renowned head of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God, discuss his views on science, faith, and the ease with which the two can be reconciled.

Dr. Collins began the talk from the standpoint of his area of expertise: science. After completing a Bachelor of Science in chemistry, an MD and a medical residency, Collins began researching new methods of crossing stretches of DNA to identify genes that cause diseases, eventually leading to his appointment as head of the Human Genome Project. During his time on the Genome Project between 1990 and 2000, Collins headed a team of scientists who worked to sequence the 3 billion bases of the human genome, a project with medical applications such as the use of DNA analysis to discover gene sequences that cause particular diseases, or the development of targeted medicines for faulty DNA.

Collins’ delineation of his adult conversion to Christianity provided a novel facet to his scientific discussion as he described his difficulty reconciling faith in God with his understanding of science. When Collins started college, his beliefs were essentially agnostic, or even atheist; second order differential equations seemed to explain the world better than faith in God. It was his residency work in clinics where he came into daily contact with people with terminal illnesses that provoked deeper questions, such as “what happens after death?” that mathematics could not answer. When a dying patient, after having explained her serenity in the face of death by her faith, asked him what he believed, he began his quest for faith. A monumental influence on Collins’ path to Christianity was a book by another famous atheist-turned-Christian: Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Collins emphasized his logical searching for questions to answer his question about the existence of God, and eventually came to the conclusion that the existence of God was “intensely plausible,” based on arguments of nature and logic.

According to Collins, “naturalism has its limits,” and “science also requires faith.” For example, scientific laws require a certain faith that the world will behave in “certain predictable ways.” Collins emphasized, however, that science does not provide us with the right instruments to prove the existence of God because God is outside of nature, contrasting his argument to that of atheist-biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the book The God Delusion. He went so far as to say that such thinking is a “logical pothole,” which Dawkins, who is scheduled to speak at Stanford in the near future, has fallen into. Collins cited pointers to God in nature such as the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,” and the precise tuning of physical constants during the Big Bang: if the level of gravity had been one part in 1014 weaker, matter would never have come together again to form the Earth. Examples of such improbability suggest that there is a creator God. To justify a creator God that actually cares about humans, though, requires more than just science. Although he cited examples from C.S. Lewis such as the moral law that is innate to humans and defines what is right and wrong in all cultures, and the inability of evolution to explain selfless acts, Collins reiterated several times that a spiritual act of faith in God transcends logical justifications.

The most controversial part of his speech came, however, when he began to challenge each religious perspective of evolution in an attempt to demonstrate the ability to simultaneously appreciate God and science. To begin, Collins made a surprisingly strong scientific case for the existence of evolution. Showing a chart of the chromosomes of humans and chimpanzees, he made it visually clear that the only difference was the very long human chromosome two, compared to that of the chimpanzee. Each chromosome has a very specific sequence at the tip called a telomere; Collins showed that the human chromosome two has a telomere embedded in the middle, evidence that somewhere in the evolutionary process, there had been a fusion. So how can we reconcile faith with this undeniable evolution? Atheism, Collins argued, “takes a position of knowledge we don’t really have.” If we admit that we know such a tiny amount about the world, how can we know for sure that God doesn’t exist? Creationism, on the other hand, should be thought of as St. Augustine explained it: “we shouldn’t insist on a particular interpretation because if we find out it is wrong, then we fall with it.” Believing the Bible’s creation story literally then, according to Collins, is incorrect. When questioned later about the existence of Adam and Eve, he even hesitatingly offered the view that perhaps they were more representative of something that happened across species, since our genetic gene pool suggests that we are actually descended from a group of 10,000 people in Africa.

Collins’ attack on Intelligent Design was one of the most thought provoking, calling it “interesting but ultimately flawed.” One of his main critiques was with the theory of “irreducible complexity,” which argues that cerain structures cannot have evolved piece by piece because a removal of any part of the structure causes the functioning of the entire structure to collapse. Implicit in the theory is the belief that such “irreducibly complex” systems could not have evolved sequentially but must have been created as a unit, a challenge to evolution. To counter this argument, Collins cited renowned proponent of intelligent design William Dembski’s example of the bacterial flagellum, which is made of a number of proteins; if one B2 protein is knocked out, the whole stops working. And yet, he claimed, evolution works in steps, and it is possible that each of the proteins in the flagellum is descended from a different form in other organisms. If the exact mechanism of this evolution seems a little vague, Dembski justified his own position in an interview with The Stanford Review, “[advocates of the evolution of the flagellum] imagine possible precursors to the flagellum (such as the type-III secretory system), but neither specify how many intermediate systems with different functions would have had to intervene in evolving from one to the other, nor do they quantify the number of genetic changes that would have been needed, nor do they show that such changes would have provided selective advantage, as required by Darwinian theory.”

Ultimately, Collins offered his own way to reconcile faith and science: Theistic Evolution. In this vein, God created the universe 13.7 billion years ago with its “parameters tuned to allow the development of complexity over time,” meaning that God planned to include evolution, including the evolution of human beings. After evolution had “prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’” in the human being (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of free will, good and evil, and a soul. God used DNA as an information molecule; thus DNA is the language of God.

There is an obvious way to reconcile the two, Collins shows, through a rejection of extremes, and an embrace of “harmony in the middle.” Appealing as this may sound, it remains to be seen whether believers in the Bible as the Word of God can reject the idea of Adam and Eve in lieu of a mutated chimpanzee who, one day, received the extraordinary gift of human intelligence.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review