A review of:
The Language of God
A Scientist Presents
Evidence for Belief
by Francis S. Collins
Free Press, 304 pp., $26
Head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins is among the country's foremost author ities on genetics, a staunch Darwinist, and a prominent critic of Intelligent Design. He's also an evangelical Christian who dramatically describes the moment he accepted Jesus as his personal savior. If that sounds like it might be a paradox, read on.
Collins was hiking in the Cascade Mountains of western Washington when, as he writes, he found that "the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."
Anyone who doubts that Darwinism may coherently be embraced alongside a faith in biblical religion will be intrigued and challenged by The Language of God. Besides offering a lovely, impassioned, and transparently sincere defense of his own Christian faith, Collins argues that one need not choose between Darwin and God. Indeed, he says, embracing both is the most profound and compelling way of penetrating "that mystery of mysteries," as Darwin called it, the puzzle of the origin of species.
He makes a strong and moving case for religious belief with the part of the book that is a memoir. Collins grew up an agnostic. After medical school, he treated a woman with crippling heart disease who relied on her faith for support. She asked him what he believed about God, and he was disturbed to find that he had no thoughtful reply. Another turning point came when, on a medical mission to Africa, he saved the life of a young farmer suffering from tuberculosis with a risky emergency surgery.
The man thanked Collins afterward and commented, "I get the sense you are wondering why you came here. I have an answer for you. You came here for one reason. You came here for me." The experience set Collins to thinking about the workings of Providence, God's oversight of our lives: "The tears of relief that blurred my vision as I digested his words stemmed from indescribable reassurance--reassurance that there in that strange place for just that one moment, I was in harmony with God's will, bonded together with this young man in a most unlikely but marvelous way."
His later, and historically significant, work on the Human Genome Project has mapped the genetic language, DNA, in which Collins believes God speaks His will for living creatures. Collins does a splendid job of clarifying for the layman what genetic information actually is. He explains how evidence for Darwin's understanding of the evolutionary mechanism may be observed in queer, vestigial features of the genetic code. However, if that mechanism was never at any point guided by a transcendent intelligence--as Darwin in The Origin of Species assumes it was not--this naturally raises the question of what need there was for a Deity as most believers understand Him. God has the right to command us because he created us.
Obviously in the background here, and the foreground too, is the Intelligent Design debate. Darwin and his followers advocate an unguided and purely material mechanism of natural selection operating on random genetic variation. Intelligent Design claims to find positive evidence that the mechanism was, indeed, guided--in short, that the software in the cell (DNA) did not write itself.
Collins's book rejects Intelligent Design as an "argument from personal incredulity." That argument, in his telling, would go this way: We don't understand exactly how the Darwinian mechanism could have produced certain aspects of biological information; therefore, a Designer must have done it. I believe Collins misrepresents Intelligent Design, and it appears that he hasn't followed the latest rounds in the scientific debate. But never mind. Let's assume he's right and ask: If Darwinism is the true resolution of the "mystery of mysteries," where does that leave God?
Something you'll often hear people say is, "Well, Darwinism doesn't mean God isn't the creator. Maybe evolution was programmed into the universe from the start. So He had no need to guide the process." The problem with such thinking is that it's directly contradicted by a major current in Darwinian evolutionary theory. In his book Wonderful Life (1989), the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated what he called the "contingency" of life's history. Gould explained what an incredibly lucky break it was that Earth ever cast up intelligent life forms.
Wisely turning away from this doomed approach to showing God's hand here on Planet Darwin, Collins argues that we may discover evidence of His existence and love from looking to our own hearts, and to the heavens. In this he follows the lead of Immanuel Kant, who famously wrote, "Two things fill me with constantly increasing admiration and awe, the longer and more earnestly I reflect on them: the starry heavens without and the Moral Law within." The incredible fine-tuning of the universe's physical laws at the moment of the Big Bang, making existence possible against unimaginably high odds, must indicate that God had us in mind when He created the starry heavens. Collins quotes Stephen Hawking: "It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create us."
But doesn't this sound like an "argument from personal incredulity" of just the kind Collins would attribute to Intelligent Design? Here is Collins on the Big Bang: "I cannot see how nature could have created itself."
The same objection may be lodged against Collins's favorite demonstration of God's being and caring. This comes from the "Moral Law," the sense of right and wrong, of charity and altruism, which he believes to be inborn in the human heart. Where else could it come from, he asks, but from God? "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." Darwin, among others, would disagree. In The Descent of Man he advanced an evolutionary explanation of altruism.
In his most satisfying defense of belief, Collins brings forward a clever way of reconciling an unguided evolutionary process with God as the Creator. He points out that God resides beyond the limits of time. Hence, what appears to us as evolution's unpredictable course was, from God's perspective, entirely predictable. It's a neat perspective--except, perhaps, if we ask whether an unguided process of "creation" is still "creation" even if its results were foreseen.
I am surprised that Collins didn't try another approach to harmonizing God and Darwin, an approach I find more promising. This one is brought forward by an Orthodox Jewish scholar who deserves to be more widely known outside Jewish circles. In his own new book, The Challenge of Creation: Judaism's Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and Evolution, Rabbi Natan Slifkin also summarily dismisses Intelligent Design. On the other hand, he offers a sumptuous variety of theological and philosophical approaches to reconciling Darwinian evolution with religious faith. Slifkin's perspective, while endorsing Darwinism, holds that what may appear random and unguided in life's history may not be at all.
His writing is too fascinatingly rich to summarize here, but a hint of this line of thinking may be found in a citation from the book of Proverbs: "[When] the lot is cast in the lap, its entire verdict has been decided by God." Or as a cryptic verse of a famous Sabbath hymn, "L'chah Dodi," suggests, in Slifkin's paraphrase:
“The end of the deed is first in thought, which explains that the final result sheds light on the entire process. In this case, it clarifies that when a seemingly meaningless process results in a highly meaningful conclusion, one looks back and sees that the apparent meaninglessness was a mere disguise for the goal, which was actually envisaged at the start of the entire process.”
This turns Stephen Jay Gould's notion of contingency on its head. The unlikely course of evolutionary history with its ultimate product--us--actually becomes an argument for the emergence of humans having been intended all along. After all, the unlikely thing actually happened. But Slifkin's attempt at harmonizing would likely trouble Darwin, who assumed that the process not only seemed to be unguided but also was unguided.
Can we reconcile God and Darwin without changing the accustomed meaning of one or the other? I remain skeptical. Yet readers owe Francis Collins--and Rabbi Slifkin--a debt of gratitude for making us think more deeply about issues that often get swept away with trite, unexamined formulations designed to give us an excuse for not thinking. The theological and scientific paradoxes will not be resolved in a book review, nor perhaps in any book that has yet been written.
David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is the author, most recently, of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.