Just how religious is Francis Collins, Obama's nominee for director of the NIH?

The state of the universe.
July 9 2009 7:28 PM

Jesus Goes to Bethesda

Just how religious is Obama's nominee for director of the NIH?

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In practice, Collins views almost every hole in evolutionary theory as one that can and will ultimately be filled by further investigation. But he does peg one aspect of human behavior as "unsolvable" by science: the tendency toward altruism, even at great personal risk and for the benefit of perfect strangers. (He calls this the "Moral Law.") In his book, Collins writes that "this Moral Law shone its bright white light into the recesses of my childish atheism, and demanded a serious consideration of its origin. Was this God looking back at me?" He decided that it was.

I asked Collins about this point in late 2006 and suggested that this could also be viewed as confusing the unsolved with the unsolvable, depending whether you think evolution and behavioral science can eventually explain these sorts of good deeds. He offered this nuance:

It's a fair question. And to some extent, it would not surprise me if some elements of the noble human impulses that we describe as altruism have some evolutionary roots. After all, you can see some more rudimentary forms of those impulses in other organisms, including our favorite pets. And certainly you can see in laboratory examples where chimpanzees, for instance, seem to show interest in the well-being of others than themselves. […] But to fully account for the full-blown version of altruism that we see in human beings is, I think, a fascinating and challenging and difficult problem for the evolutionary biologists. And I don't believe they've solved it. And I think it's unlikely that they will. If they do, would my faith be shaken? No.

Collins also sees evidence of Creation in what physicists called the "Goldilocks Engima"—the fact that many of the coefficients in physics equations seem to be uniquely tuned such that the universe is "just right" for life. (For example, if the value of the constant G in Newton's law of gravitation were just a tiny bit different, matter may never have formed in the universe.) There are a lot of interesting explanations for this that do not require a belief in God, such as the possibility that there are countless universes in existence and only those that are "just right" give birth to living things that can observe them.

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This is the area where Collins' religion is most in danger of intruding on his science. He believes that it's possible to see evidence of the divine in things like physics equations or patterns of human behavior. While Collins would never suggest that science could furnish any final proof for the existence of God, he's fond of mentioning that the Bible occasionally uses the wordevidence. That is to say, he thinks the presence of the divine can be directly observed, even if it cannot be measured and tested.

This is an audacious claim for any scientist to make, and Collins does not deserve a free pass on this from the scientific community. He is also undeserving of suspicions that he harbors a conservative Christian agenda. As it happens, the most salient point raised by his critics tends to work in his favor. Jerry Coyne rightly describes Collins as a talented administrator. After all, he led the public effort to sequence the human genome and loves to point out that he did it "ahead of schedule and under budget." That's the most important virtue for the job he is about to undertake. If Collins' faith mollifies even a few political conservatives who would otherwise continue to waste time and money fighting research efforts that violate their specific religious tenets, then the benefits of his faith should outweigh whatever qualms scientists might have.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.