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Geneticist Dr. Francis S. Collins Shares Personal Journey of Science and Faith at AAAS
Dr. Francis S. Collins and Andrew Kurtz
In a packed AAAS Auditorium, geneticist Dr. Francis S. Collins challenged AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows during a 30 May presentation to recognize the potential of science for stimulating an interest in faith, and vice versa. "We must find a way to recover the middle ground," he said, referencing current challenges to the scientific theory of evolution.
"What I want to do is first to give you a snapshot of some of the new discoveries that for me as a physician-scientist studying the human genome are enormously exciting and provide a real glimpse into how life works," Collins said. "I'm also going to make the argument that, for me also as a believer, research in genetics is an occasion not just of scientific enjoyment, but an opportunity to appreciate the grandeur of God's creation, and in effect, to worship."
B-DNA, seen end-on, compared with the rose window of York Minster
[DNA image courtesy of Robert Langridge; Rose window courtesy of Ben and Rachel Apps]
Collins showed two images—a stained-glass rose window often seen in Christian churches, and an eerily similar graphic that he described as "looking down the barrel" of DNA's double helix.
"I'm not trying to say that there's something inherently religious" in the DNA image, Collins emphasized. "But, I think it is emblematic of the potential here of the topic to both interest people and to make them unsettled. Can you, in fact, admire both of these [images]? Can you do it at the same time? Is there an inherent problem in having both a scientific world view and a spiritual world view?"
Collins' own conclusion—that both world views can be appreciated in learning about the natural world—is described in his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
Although Collins serves as the Director of the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute, he stressed that he was addressing hundreds of AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows and other attendees in his role as a private citizen.
Further, he said, making a point that he emphasized repeatedly: "I don't want to imply that my path should be yours."
The event was planned by Andrew Kurtz, a second-year AAAS S&T Policy Fellow at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, with support from AAAS Fellowships staff. The historic programs, established in 1973, annually place some 150 scientists and engineers into key positions at more than a dozen U.S. federal agencies and in Congressional offices. (See http://fellowships.aaas.org/.)
A physician-scientist, Collins provided a quick review of advances in genomics research. Then, he shared his personal experiences in becoming a Christian, and finally, he outlined the evidence that he said leads him to believe in a God outside of space and time who "loves mathematics and complexity" and created human beings with a strong sense of altruism as a clue to divine values.
Ever since James Watson and Francis Crick described DNA, life's genetic blueprint, on 25 April 1953, researchers have continued to make rapid advances, Collins noted. Just 50 years later, for instance, in April 2003, researchers directed by Collins reported that they had sequenced the human genome, encompassing 3.1 billion letters, or rungs on the DNA ladder inside each cell in the human body.
Now, genomics research has advanced still further, so that researchers can conduct whole-genome associations, and thus they are no longer limited to searching under a single lamppost for individual keys to disease. Rather, he said, "We have opportunities to find the keys by lighting up the whole street—the whole human genome."
Most recently, Collins said, genome-wide association studies related to prostate cancer and diabetics have underscored the potential for genomics research to alleviate human suffering through better diagnostics, pharmaceuticals tailored to work most effectively with individual patients' DNA, and new gene or drug therapies.
Meanwhile, a much-awaited piece of federal legislation (S.358 / H.R. 493) that would safeguard personal genetic information from misuse has been approved by lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives, he said, and now it awaits a vote in the Senate, and signature by the President.
Today, Collins said, he has no trouble combining his religious beliefs with his scientific pursuits. He drew laughter, though, when he recounted how someone once asked him: "So, you're a believer and a geneticist—doesn't your head explode?"
In recounting his personal journey toward Christianity, Collins explained that he grew up as one of four brothers on a farm in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. Because his father was a drama professor and his mother was a Yale-educated playwright, he said, he enjoyed a "remarkably stimulating childhood," although faith was not a topic of discussion at home.
As an undergraduate, Collins said, he considered himself an agnostic; as a graduate student in chemistry, he was an atheist. But as he began to appreciate biology as "beautiful stuff that made sense," and later, genomics, he also began to struggle with questions of faith. Then, in his third year of medical school, as he visited with an elderly patient who was facing death, Collins said, he experienced a crisis of faith as she asked him, "What do you believe, doctor?"
In searching for answers, Collins approached a Methodist minister who directed him to the book, Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, a renowned Oxford scholar who had set out to defend atheism, but reached a different conclusion. "In the first three pages of the first chapter," Collins recalled, "my major arguments against the plausibility of faith lay in utter ruins."
Now, Collins has written his own book on what he calls "pointers to God," or evidence from nature that he says suggests an original creator.
Specifically, Collins said, "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" is, for him, one piece of evidence in support of a religious view because "there's no particular reason why all the events in the universe should follow simple mathematical equations."
The improbability of events such as the Big Bang, and the precise value of certain physical constants also put Collins in mind of a God who loves complexity, he said. For example, he said, imagine if the gravitational constant had been just one part in 100 million-million weaker than it is: Matter hurtling through space following the Big Bang could never have coalesced into stars and galaxies and eventually into planets. Yet, if gravity had been slightly stronger, he said, stars might have coalesced, but then collided together in a Big Crunch.
"We live on this knife edge of improbability," he said.
As another form of evidence for his belief in God, Collins pointed to "the uniquely human moral law." Evolutionary principles suggest that altruism is related to survival instincts. But, Collins argued that the noblest human acts of altruism, such as Mother Theresa helping the poor, for instance, are completely unrelated to any familial ties or to the promise of a reciprocal payback.
In a final portion of his presentation, Collins also confronted the escalating tensions between fundamentalist "young-Earth" Christians—who believe that the Earth and all its inhabitants were created at the same time some 6,000 years ago, literally as described in Genesis—and those who support the teaching of evolution.
Collins firmly emphasized the reality of evolution as a core principle of modern biology, as robust as the theory of gravity, and under-girded by well-documented scientific evidence. But, he also cautioned that "fundamentalists" exist on both sides of the discussion, and he added that, in his view, those at both ends of the spectrum are helping to aggravate the conflict, by failing to listen to each other.
He noted that his own views could likely be described as "theistic evolution," which explains a world that emerged as a result of evolution, but guided by God's hand.
Collins offered praise for AAAS, which has consistently sought to avoid pitting science against religion, yet while upholding the importance of teaching evolution and the need to stick with science in science classrooms. (See the AAAS Evolution Resources page.)
"We must find a way to recover the middle ground," Collins concluded, shortly before playing a television clip in which interviewer Stephen Colbert jokingly asked him, "Are you going to be the only Christian in Hell?" In fact, Collins said, he estimates that 40 percent of all scientists do believe in a God who answers prayer.
14 June 2007