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?

Francis Collins.
Francis S. Collins 

Whenever scientists get around to hunting for the Boy Scout gene, they should start with the genome of Francis Collins. President Obama's nominee for director of the National Institutes of Health has a folk résumé a mile long: He plays his acoustic guitar during commencement addresses and national prayer breakfasts, likes to talk about his motorcycle, and grew up on a 95-acre farm in Staunton, Va., where his parents ran a summer theater production among the oak trees. One summer, there were so many actors staying with the family that he and his brother Fletcher had to sleep in the farm's corn crib.

Collins is also a decorated scientist with a Yale Ph.D. in physical chemistry that he finished on weekends after he'd half-quit graduate school to get a medical degree instead. His composite public image—as a brilliant, eminently likable polymath—allows him to get away with talking openly in scientific circles about another quirk of his personality: Since age 27, he has been an evangelical Christian.

Collins' efforts to defuse some of the tension between believers and scientists—that is, to insist that they are not mutually exclusive and that their values are compatible—has received a lot of buzz over the years. He is a firm believer in evolution, an opponent of "intelligent design," and dubious of the idea that life begins at the very moment of conception. He is also unequivocal in his belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. His 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief was a best-seller, and he's a go-to guy for debates with Richard Dawkins, et al., over whether religion can coexist with a scientific ethos. Nearly every news story about the appointment mentioned his faith. (Many mentioned his guitar as well.) In many ways, his values are reminiscent of Obama's: He displays no queasiness about discussing his faith in public but advocates the unfettered pursuit of scientific inquiry.

His passionate defense of religion has earned some harsh criticism. When rumors of the appointment began to circulate in May, University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne blogged, "I'd be much more comfortable with someone whose only agenda was science," saying he was worried "about how this will affect things like stem-cell research and its funding." (In fact, Collins is clear on his support of stem-cell research.) Sam Harris was predictably unimpressed with Collins' ideas. "Most reviewers of The Language of God seem quite overawed by its author's scientific credentials," Harris wrote shortly after it was published. "His book, however, reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind."

Harris does not make a genuine attempt to consider the book's ideas, but he is correct that the philosophy espoused by Collins, which he calls "theistic evolution," has so far managed to evade sustained and careful scrutiny. Now that he has been chosen as the most important scientific administrator in the country, overseeing $40 billion of grants and programs, the scientific community can be forgiven for a few jitters over exactly where Collins comes down on the inevitable, often glaring contradictions between science and Scripture.

Most of the time, Collins starts with the science and then reconciles the religion with it. He argues, for example, that the early chapters of Genesis ought to be read figuratively and in total agreement with the astronomical explanation of the universe. But there are some times when Collins' refereeing of the scientific issues makes me a little uneasy. I got to spend some time with him two years ago, in the course of researching a profile for the Washingtonian, and our interviews at several points returned to the difference between the "unsolved" and the "unsolvable," in his words. This is his criticism of intelligent design: By presenting gaps in evolutionary theory as evidence of its insufficiency, I.D. proponents are setting themselves up for defeat when those holes are inevitably filled by new discoveries.

This formula offers a convenient litmus test for where Collins falls on a variety of questions: If a given problem appears to be merely unsolved, then he'll leave it to the realm of science; if, on the other hand, Collins deems a question to be unsolvable, it's fair game for inclusion in a spiritual interpretation of the universe.

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.

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.

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