Francis Collins: A Biography

By: David Klinghoffer
Discovery Institute
May 1, 2009

Francis Collins 

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Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950, in Staunton, Virginia) is a physician and geneticist known for leading the Human Genome Project to its completion. In the debate about faith and evolution, he achieved prominence as a self-identified Evangelical Christian who finds evidence in science for God’s existence but rejects intelligent-design theory and embraces Darwinism. He has designated his version of theistic evolution “BioLogos” and has started a foundation and a website to promote his views on evolution.  Outside of the evolution issue, Collins has defended so-called “therapeutic” human cloning and raised doubts about the view of the pro-life movement that human life begins at conception.

Collins stepped down as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute on August 1, 2008, to pursue other interests. In the month before the 2008 national election, he endorsed Democratic candidate Barack Obama in a newspaper op-ed piece (Virginian-Pilot, October 8, 2008) and subsequently was much talked about as a candidate to run the National Institutes of Health under the Obama Administration.

In his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006) and other writings and interviews, Collins has described the paths that led him from atheism to religious belief and from an impatience with “messy” biology and a preference for the pristine realms of physics and chemistry to a fascination with DNA, RNA, and “gene-hunting.”

Following college at the University of Virginia, he earned a Ph.D. at Yale in physical chemistry in 1974 where a course in biochemistry sparked his interest. He subsequently obtained a medical degree at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1977. Collins taught medicine and genetics at the University of Michigan, where he developed the gene-hunting method called “positional cloning,” until being selected to direct the Human Genome Project in 1993.

In the course of medical work, conversations with dying and other severely ill patients prompted him to explore faith, as did his reading of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. He tells of a conversion experience upon viewing a particularly spectacular frozen waterfall when he was on a hike in the Cascade Mountains of western Washington State. He describes himself as kneeling in “dewy grass” at sunrise as he “surrendered to Jesus Christ.”

In The Language of God, Collins argues strongly for scientific evidence of intelligent design (though he doesn’t call it that) in cosmology and human psychology. He adduces the fine-tuning of the universe’s physical constants at the Big Bang, and human moral instincts, as features of physical existence that defy purely material explanations. “I cannot see how nature could have created itself,” he writes. And “In my view, DNA sequence alone…will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God.”

However, turning to biology and the evolution of life in its countless forms, he dismisses intelligent design as an “argument from personal incredulity.” He writes that a religious believer may coherently believe in life as having been “specified” by God, and in genetic language as a kind of communication from God, even though, as per Darwinian theory, the evolutionary process was entirely unguided. Collins reconciles the seeming contradiction of a “specified” yet unguided history of life by observing that God stands outside time and so is unlimited by the human temporal perspective.

From his writing, it seems unclear whether by “specified” he means that God actively determined life’s shapes and forms—a supposition incompatible with Darwinism—or whether he merely means that God foresaw the path life would take. If the latter, one might ask how God qualifies as life’s creator.

Reviewers of his book who are sympathetic to intelligent design have questioned Collins’s exception of certain fields from the strictures he applies in line with methodological materialism in other fields.

“He invokes certain methodological principles to rule intelligent design out of court in biology, he has already violated those rules in his design arguments in cosmology and physics,” writes Logan Gage in the American Spectator. “Collins cannot consistently employ design logic in physics and cosmology and then say that such logic is invalid in the biological realm. In biology, Collins should have retained the sound logic and high standards of critical judgment he used to skewer the cosmological prophets of scientific materialism. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

While frequently expressing impatience with intelligent design, his writing and other comments suggest that Collins probably is not familiar with the variety of detailed arguments for ID. Thus he criticizes biochemist Michael Behe’s argument for intelligent design from the “irreducible complexity” of cellular features like the bacterial flagellum. Collins addresses his criticism to Behe’s 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box, but ignores responses Behe has offered since then to the precise objections that Collins makes.

Collins criticizes intelligent design for placing “God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world.” But intelligent design advocates respond that ID focuses entirely on positive scientific evidence of a designer’s creative activity in nature.

More to the point, these critics note that Collins himself (and Darwinists in general) resort to an “of the gaps” argument—what biologist Jonathan Wells calls “Darwin of the gaps.” Much of Collins’s case for Darwinian evolution is based on so-called “junk DNA.” This is the part of the genome that does not appear to code for the production of proteins. In mammals, the vast majority of DNA has been dismissed as “junk.”

Junk DNA, according to Darwinists like Collins, gives evidence of common descent—the idea that all life, including human life, branches off from a common evolutionary tree. As life evolved, according to this view, garbled, useless genetic information accumulated and has remained fixed—like dirt swept under a carpet—even as mammals, for example, diversified from a common ancestor.

But the argument from junk DNA—also called “ancient repetitive elements” (AREs)— depends on the premise that no function will ever be discovered for AREs. Collins’s faith in Darwinian theory would be severely hamstrung if the premise were shown to be wrong. It is a faith based on gaps in scientific knowledge. Hence, “Darwin of the gaps.”

In fact, functionality has repeatedly been discovered for AREs previously assumed to be “junk.” This genetic information does not code for proteins but it does do other useful things, like gene regulation. Since 2006, such discoveries have been coming regularly from researchers in the United States, Australia, Japan and elsewhere.

In his defense of Darwinian evolution and common descent, Collins also lays great stress on evolutionary trees developed from the computer analysis of DNA data. Critics note, however, that he leaves out of his case the fact that such analyses have produced greatly varying results, contradicting one another and also contradicting phylogenies developed from other sources of data, notably morphology—information about the shape and structure of organisms. In the case of whales, for instance, DNA and morphological analysis by different evolutionary scientists have seemed to show the creature is descended from a hyena-like animal, or something like a hippopotamus, or maybe an animal more like a raccoon.

Collins presents other evidence for Darwinian evolution, but critics point out this evidence supports only non-controversial and relatively trivial microevolution rather than evolution that is assumed to have produced the diversity of species—macroevolution. As an example of evolution at work, Collins offers the stickleback fish. This tiny creature comes in marine (saltwater) and freshwater varieties. The marine fish are furnished with a kind of armor-plating which their freshwater relations lack.

But the stickleback fish is all one species, whether armored or not, and therefore a classic instance of microevolution—evolution within a species. Collins assumes, as Darwin did, that scientists may reasonably extrapolate from micro- to macroevolution. But critics note that the assumption takes for granted exactly what Darwinian theorists wish to prove in the first place.

In any event, since Collins’s book was published, researchers at the University of British Columbia have shown that the stickleback’s armor or lack thereof illustrates not the gain but the loss of a function. The freshwater fish is afflicted by a mutant gene that inhibits production of the armor. The gene is much more common among the freshwater variety, who apparently get by more easily with it, and therefore without the armor, than the marine variety could do. So the stickleback story represents a case not of macroevolution, not even of microevolution, but more accurately of micro-devolution—a far cry from the Darwinian evolution that is actually at issue.

Collins writes: “It is not hard to see how the difference between freshwater and saltwater sticklebacks could be extended to generate all kinds of fish.” But in light of the above, his critics from the ID side argue that it is harder to see how this fish provides any support for the major claims of Darwinian theory at all.

Collins’s view has stirred applause from some evolution advocates, who wish to present theistic faith and Darwinian faith as compatible, but scorn from others. The biologist and popular Darwinist blogger PZ Myers mocks Collins’s position as, “I believe because I believe, and because I’m a famous scientist, my faith must be scientific!” Writes Myers, “Collins is in the pseudo-rationalist branch of liberal Christianity,” possessing “no credibility and no greater rational foundation than the raving mad branches of fundamentalism.”

Biologist and Darwinian atheist bestseller Richard Dawkins has criticized Collins’s position, for stopping short of full materialism, as “the mother and father of all cop-outs.”

Collins has received less attention for his views on various bioethical issues. In an appendix to The Language of God, he raises doubts about “the insistence that the spiritual nature of a person is uniquely defined at the very moment of conception.” He also defends so-called “therapeutic” human cloning, which places him at odds with the pro-life community as well as the United Nations’ policy on human cloning.

Resources for Further Information:

Websites
Biologos.org
Biography at the National Human Genome Research Institute
Reviews of The Language of God

Articles
Jonathan Wells, “Darwin of the Gaps: A Review of The Language of God.”
Jonathan Witt, “Random Acts of Design: Francis Collins Sees Evidence That God Made the Cosmos—But Life Is Another Matter.”
Logan Gage, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.”
Casey Luskin and Logan Gage, “A Reply to Francis Collins’s Darwinian Arguments for Common Ancestry of Apes and Humans.”

Debates
Debate Between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins in Time


 

 



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