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The Language of GodReview - The Language of God
A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
by Francis S. Collins
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2006
Review by Dónal P. O'Mathúna, Ph.D.
Dec 5th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 49)

Francis S Collins, MD, PhD, headed up the Human Genome Project from 1993 until its completion in 2003. This international project officially began in 1990 to determine the sequence of chemical instructions in human DNA and to identify all human genes. Collins continues as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In The Language of God, Collins explains how a scientist of his renown is also firmly committed to belief in the God of Christianity. He takes his listeners (this review is based on the audio-book) on a fascinating journey that is technically, philosophically and personally interesting. His subjects are broad and his arguments articulate. His voice makes clear his passion for science and for faith, and his concern for patients. His concern for scientific evidence is clear, but the audio-book includes songs he has written that reveal his compassion for people and their suffering.

The book begins with Collins standing in the White House with President Bill Clinton on June 26, 2000. They, with two other scientists and Prime Minister Tony Blair linked by satellite, announced that the biochemical instruction book of human life, the human genome, had been cracked. The press conference signaled that the Human Genome Project was almost completed. (The book gives some insight into the political machinations behind the press conference, part of a truce between those wanting to keep the Project's data private and those, including Collins, arguing it should be publicly available to anyone. Collins's view prevailed.)

President Clinton gave Collins the idea for his book title when he said that, "Today we are learning the language in which God created life." Collins wondered if many might have assumed that he, as a scientist, would have bristled at these words. He whole-heartedly affirmed them. He then describes his personal journey to faith. Raised in a free-thinking home with little religious ideology, he loved mathematical elegance. Completion of a PhD in physical chemistry left him yearning to impact people's lives practically. He enrolled in medical school and found himself challenged by patients' spirituality, especially when they faced suffering and death. In spite of his emphasis on evidence, Collins soon realized, "I had never really seriously considered the evidence for and against belief" in God.

The writings of C S Lewis contained the intellectual rigor and scholarship Collins sought in answering his questions. The existence of a moral code within humans convinced Collins there was more to life than physical matter. Although people disagree about what is right on any issue, everyone agrees there is right and wrong. He found post-modern relativism as unsatisfying in its explanations of morality as evolutionary naturalism and sociobiology. He admitted God might exist and sought further evidence to support his faith in God.

Collins spends the next few chapters giving a general audience succinct snapshots of how theologically orthodox Christianity has addressed issues like the existence of suffering, whether belief in God is wish fulfillment and miracles. Given that volumes have been written on all these topics, those seeking in-depth analysis will be disappointed. However, Collins is articulate in presenting reasons for belief in God.

Moving into the heart of the book, Collins makes his case for reconciling Christian teaching on creation with scientific findings regarding the origins of the universe, the origin of life and Darwinian evolution. He is especially interested in the contribution made by recent genetic findings, some of which arose from his personal involvement in research on the human genome. (Collins is excellent in bringing out the excitement of engaging in such research. While fascinating and highly significant, the relevance of these findings for evolutionary theory is unclear.)

Collins starts his discussion with an overview of the Anthropic Principle. This argument is based on observations that if any of several physical constants varied even slightly, the universe could not exist. A few controversial explanations for these values exist. Collins takes the improbability of these constants being randomly generated as evidence of God's involvement in the creation of the universe. The Big Bang is taken as further confirmation that a force beyond the universe stepped in at its creation. Quotes from other eminent scientists are given which acknowledge the limitations of science and hint at the possibility of divine involvement in the origin of the universe.

The origin of life is examined with uncertainty acknowledged by Collins. He notes that many scientists hold that the Earth is billions of years old, with life somehow arising spontaneously (and naturally). Collins then gives an overview of Darwinian evolution, concluding with as firm a defense of evolution as any: "No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life. In fact, the relatedness of all species through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology that it is difficult to imagine how one would study life without it."

William Paley's classic argument from design has been important in defending theism. Collins describes the argument in syllogistic form and dismisses it by comparing it with another syllogism. The comparison is inappropriate. Paley's argument is based on the assumption that the sort of complexity visible in a watch is normally taken to imply an intelligent designer. Collins' parallel argument would require accepting that lightening has the sort of flow of electrons that normally originates in power companies. The latter is highly doubtful. Collins then briefly surveys the classic categories of evidence used to support Darwinian evolution: the Miller-Urey experiments, the fossil record, and the prediction of some hereditary factor. Unfortunately, Collins gives little detail and makes sweeping claims. For example, he claims that gaps in the fossil record "are now being filled by the discovery of extinct species." But a few sentences later he adds that the majority of species have left no trace of their existence and that the fossil record is "woefully incomplete." He gives neither examples of important transitional species, nor references to new findings. In his enthusiasm to support evolution, he fails to provide the evidence that might convince those who disagree with him. Later on he questions the legitimacy of distinguishing between macroevolution and microevolution. Yet he gives the example of saltwater sticklebacks evolving into freshwater sticklebacks with fewer armor plates. This is hardly a convincing example for someone looking for evidence of fish evolving into reptiles or mammals. Collins is much stronger in explaining how genetic developments, his own specialty, provide evidence to support evolution. The remarkable similarities between the human genome and that of other species is challenging for believers in creation.

Collins' main argument is that the appearance of design in living creatures does not require acceptance of a designer who was actively involved in the development of different species. It will be of little surprise that Collins disagrees with the Young Earth version of creation (that God created the universe in one literal week about 10,000 years ago). Collins also argues against a more recent interpretation of creation called Intelligent Design (ID). This view holds that some scientific developments point to molecular mechanisms that are 'irreducibly complex.' These have so many essential components interwoven, that it is more reasonable to accept that they have been designed by an intelligence than to accept that they evolved by random variations and natural selection. Collins argues that ID is only a more sophisticated version of Paley's argument from design and as such is another 'God of the gaps' theory. His concern is that all such theories eventually weaken people's faith. Once science fills in the gap, people see less need to give God any role or place in life. Collins claims that scientific evidence to counter claims of irreducible complexity is already at hand. The examples he cites are not convincing, such as the existence of light-sensitive cells in flatworms and cavities in the nautilus as evidence that the human eye could have evolved to its current complexity. Collins does not point out that proponents of ID are at pains to point out that theirs is not a 'God of the gaps' theory. In contrast, they claim their view is based on mounting evidence that is best explained by a designer, not by gaps in the evidence.

Collins then examines various ways people reconcile science and faith. He critiques those who always trump faith with science (atheism and agnosticism) and those who always trump science with faith (Young Earth creationism). He proposes instead "BioLogos," his term for theistic evolution. This view holds that the universe came into being about 14 billion years ago, tuned for life. Once life arose, it evolved by natural selection without divine intervention. Humans evolved naturally as part of this process, sharing common ancestry with the great apes. However, humanity's spiritual and moral nature cannot be explained by evolution, nor can the human search for God. Both require divine involvement. Collins finds this approach "by far the most scientifically consistent and spiritually satisfying of the alternatives." He believes it will not be overturned by future discoveries and "allows science and faith to fortify each other like two unshakeable pillars, holding up a building called Truth."

What Collins appears to be unaware of is how his own argument against a designer for living matter could be used against his own view that the universe was designed. Earlier he had argued that the amazing complexity and remarkable precision and interconnectivity of the universe pointed him towards belief in a creator God. Similarly, the moral law within humanity led him to conclude that a personal God placed a personal spirit within the human species. The evidence he accepts for an intelligent designer could be dismissed as just a gap in scientific knowledge. Some argue that human morality arose during human evolution and can be explained naturally, possibly as a function of various neurotransmitters and electrical emissions. Collins gave some criteria to show why fine tuning and morality are better explained by the existence of a designer, but then failed to apply those criteria to the biological evidence.

Collins is to be commended for writing elegantly and personally on a topic that frequently leads to divisive debate. He appeals for humility in biblical interpretation when passages are impacted by scientific findings, and cites important guidance from Augustine. He shows how Genesis could be interpreted in ways that are compatible with theistic evolution. Collins shows clearly the problems that arise when a prior commitment to one interpretation prevents some people (Young Earth creationists) from accepting clear scientific evidence. He also shows the problems when a prior commitment to materialistic atheism prevents some people (like Richard Dawkins) from admitting the possibility of anything existing other than the physical.

Collins calls on people to honestly go where the evidence takes them. The evidence regarding the universe's fine tuning and humanity's Moral Law convinces him that there is a designer who is the God of the Bible. He takes a different approach with biological evidence and reveals his prior commitment that he is unwilling to give up: "Evolution, as a mechanism, can be and must be true." He is willing to accept that a divine designer exists, yet he fails to explain why that designer might not have been involved within biology. Collins thus demonstrates how influential our prior commitments can be and how they shape the way we weigh the evidence.

Collins has boldly stepped out to make clear his commitment to belief in God. Since his view does not fit neatly into one of the approaches commonly raised in public debate on creation/evolution, it may help to foster more meaningful dialogue on issues of science and faith. As such, Collins is to be commended for exposing the personal side of a compassionate scientist who is also a committed believer.

 

© 2006 Dónal P O'Mathúna

 

Dónal P O'Mathúna, PhD is Lecturer in Health Care Ethics in the School of Nursing at Dublin City University, Ireland. He also teaches bioethics and sports ethics, and conducts evidence-based evaluations of complementary therapies. He co-authored the revised & updated Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook (Zondervan, 2006). donal.omathuna@dcu.ie


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