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Friday, November 24, 2006

Book review: The Language of God and the language of men - genome mapper Francis Collins on his faith

A review of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins (Free Press (Simon and Schuster), New York, 2006).


Part One:How genome mapper Collins became a Christian
Collins owes his conversion to C.S. Lewis, but he typifies the petering out of Lewis' legacy. Too many people have relied on Lewis and too few have followed in his path of rigorous argument.

Part Two: Does it matter that genome mapper Francis Collins became a Christian?
Now, if Collins did not claim to be a Christian, none of that would be any problem at all. He could safely dismiss it all as rot. But he is claiming to be one, and therein lies the difficulty with all these acres of moral squishiness.

Part Three: The key weaknesses, as spotted by reviewers
The country that Collins would like to roam with Lewis no longer exists.

Part Four: The scribbling tribe of reviewers divides into several parts
Collins' book was very widely reviewed, as might be expected, and reactions fell into three broad predictable camps - but also one quite interesting fourth one.

Part Five: But, in the end, what choice did Collins really have?
In the event, here is what he did: He avoided courting the disaster that would ensue if he found design in life forms. He did not find it there, where he works. He says he found it in outer space, where he does not work and will not really be expected to defend the proposition seriously. He is a loyal follower and deserves well of the people who will find no legitimate reason to attack him for anything he has said.

Next: Part One: How genome mapper Collins became a Christian
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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Part One: How genome mapper Collins became a Christian

James Watson, co-discoverer of the spiral ladder of the double helix of our DNA plus the founding head of the Human Genome Project, had little time for religion. Indeed, he and his fellow helix discoverer Francis Crick seized the opportunity of the 50th anniversary celebration of their historic discovery to dump on religion. Watson told the media that he stopped attending Mass at the onset of World War II, because "I came to the conclusion that the church was just a bunch of fascists that supported Franco." Besides, he opined, "Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely." (Telegraph, March 22, 2003)

In 1992, Watson left that post because of concerns over commercialization of the human genome. He was succeeded by American medic Francis Collins. Collins reversed Watson's religious trajectory. He started as an agnostic, but became a Christian. And he has now written The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), explaining how that happened.

Collins' parents were well-educated, but somehow, after World War II, they ended up living frugally on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Life was creative and fun there, but he remembers, "faith was not an important part of my childhood."

He found much to support his agnosticism in university, especially because he probably wasn't much interested in what must have seemed purely philosophical questions at the time. But then he entered medicine. Of course, in medicine, life, death, and suffering were shoved in his face daily. Like any intelligent person, he had to ask, "What do I really believe?"

Asa medical student, he tended patients who were strong Christians, and he recalls, "I witnessed numerous cases of individuals whose faith provided them with a strong reassurance of ultimate peace, be it in this world or the next, despite terrible suffering that in most instances they had done nothing to bring on themselves."

Then, a dying old woman asked him the deplorable question: What did he, the doctor, believe—but he really did not know.

He thought he should try to find out what he believed, so he tried reading Cliff's Notes on world religions. But that wasn't really much use. It told him what a lot of people, living and dead, have believed. But he had already seen living examples. A local Methodist minister suggested he read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

Collins was not the first person to grasp the significance of Lewis' account of the Moral Law: that sense we all have of right and wrong, despite the fact that we often do the wrong rather than the right. Collins determined that the Moral Law is a sign of God. Eventually, he became a Christian, and one can hope that his faith stood him in good stead amid the ferocious politics of a science awaiting commercialization.

That Collins is in many ways an exemplary Christian cannot be doubted. The January/February 2007 edition of the American Scientific Affiliation' s newsletter is expected to provide an account of his medical relief work in Nigeria, "Life and God in West Africa."

And yet, his well-written account of his conversion is troubling. Collins owes his conversion to C.S. Lewis, but he typifies the petering out of Lewis' legacy. Too many people have relied on Lewis and too few have followed in his path of rigorous argument.

Next: Part Two Does it matter that genome mapper Francis Collins became a Christian?
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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Part Two Does it matter that genome mapper Francis Collins became a Christian?

People become Christians every day. People also cease to be Christians every day. On any given day, some people walk toward the cross and others away from it.

Does it matter more if one person becomes a Christian than another? The premise of so many favorable reviews of Collins' book is, what it is a marvellous thing it is that a scientist can still be a Christian!

Really? What special insight does a successful career in science provide? Collins thinks clearly, but so do many who have never set foot in a lab. Questions such as whether belief in God is a form of wish fulfilment or why some religious people are hypocritical or violent have occurred to many. One can learn clear thinking about them in a law office or a machine shop, or at the night news desk of a metro daily.

The cross itself requires no illumination from science or from any other worldly source. It is not a landmark likely to be mistaken for some other one.

Collins endured his daughter's sexual assault. Though he reveals few details, we must suppose that his faith helped him cope. This is one of the stronger points of his book. Accounts of a religious conversion that do not describe any really serious suffering tend to fall flat. People do not discover the key truths about life until they have come to the end of their illusions. Only serious suffering stops the cascade of illusions.

Collins has seen in science a way of worshipping God . His comment on the completion of the Human Genome Project are almost a mirror image of Watson’s anniversary remarks: “For me, as a believer, the uncovering of the human genome sequence held additional significance. This book was written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being. I felt an overwhelming sense of awe in surveying this most significant of all biological texts.”

The trouble is, when we get beyond that, Collins' case is confused and insubstantial. One problem is that he relies so heavily on CS Lewis. That is a good thing in itself and it is also a good thing that he graciously acknowledges the debt. But Lewis died on November 22, 1963, famously on the same day as John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley. There has been a lot of water under the bridge.

For example, reviewers were quick to point out that Darwin's bastard children, the evolutionary psychologists, have claimed to discern Lewis' Moral Law in the natural selection by which one cave man became our ancestor and not another. These evolutionary psychologists were hardly children when Lewis died, and given the substantial number of trees that have been slain to produce their works, Collins' dismissal of them is much too cursory. Especially considering the trouble he goes to, in order to defend Darwin's theory of evolution in his own discipline. But more on that later.

Speaking the unspeakable

And then there is something else: Before he went on to genome fame, Collins headed up a team at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto to find the gene that causes cystic fibrosis. (A commenter has noted, correctly, that Collins was himself based at the University of Michigan.)

A singer/songwriter as well as medic and research scientist, Collins wrote a lyric about his team's achievement, dedicated to families coping with "rare diseases in themselves or their children" (p. 123):
"This is a song for those who are suffering,
Your strength and your spirit have touched
one and all
It's your dedication that's our inspiration,
Because of your courage, you help us stand tall."

as well as one for children with CF:
Dare to dream, dare to dream,
All our brothers and sisters breathing free.
Unafraid, our hearts unswayed,
Till the story of CF is history. (p. 93)

Wonderful, touching. Only one problem. What exactly is the relationship between Collins' team's work and the chances of a child with cystic fibrosis living to draw a single, troubled breath?

Well, Collins' team's work enabled such children to be aborted. (The only other potentially available technique is test tube fertilization, accompanied by discarding the embryo humans who carry the gene.)

Collins notes that management of the symptoms had actually progressed to the point where CF children were "surviving to attend college, marry, and enter the workforce" (p. 112) when his team found a way to detect and abort them. Thus making the disease history. End of story.

But who really wants to think about this? The Christian book-buying crowd? Oh, why couldn't they just buy their loved ones flaming loud ties, and let victims die in peace?

The incredible shrinking human embryo

Francis Collins seems to be exploring support for the use of human embryos, abandoned at fertility clinics, in research. He told Salon,
Stem cells have been discussed for 10 years, and yet I fear that much of that discussion has been more heat than light. First of all, I believe that the product of a sperm and an egg, which is the first cell that goes on to develop a human being, deserves considerable moral consequences. This is an entity that ultimately becomes a human. So I would be opposed to the idea of creating embryos by mixing sperm and eggs together and then experimenting on the outcome of that, purely to understand research questions. On the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of such embryos in freezers at in vitro fertilization clinics. In the process of in vitro fertilization, you almost invariably end up with more embryos than you can reimplant safely. The plausibility of those ever being reimplanted in the future -- more than a few of them -- is extremely low. Is it more ethical to leave them in those freezers forever or throw them away? Or is it more ethical to come up with some sort of use for those embryos that could help people? I think that's not been widely discussed.

This is an interesting moral stance, for several reasons: It's wrong to experiment on human embryos unless someone else has created them anyway, in which case why waste them? So the wrong becomes right when someone else can be assigned part of the responsibility?. Centuries ago, one might have argued in the same way for buying slaves. Someone else enslaved them and it is legal. And besides, it is no longer economical to run a farm on free labour. And they don't know any different.

In any event, the actual ethics discussion has long since passed the point where anyone questions the humanity of the embryo, as in "ultimately becomes a human." Rather, the argument is theat the embryo is nothing compared to a "legal person." Serious Christians do not, of course, accept this judgement, a fact which kindles the ire of many of Collins' materialist colleagues, who chafe at any constraints. In fairness, he offers so few constraints, that they would be most unreasonable to attack him merely for wringing his hands at the difficulties.

On pages 245-57 of The Language of God, Collins says many similar things. It becomes clear that, just as it is hard for him to believe in a non-materialist account of the origin and development of life, it is hard for him to accept the traditional Christian view that an individual human life begins at conception (fertilization). Reading his tentative, uncertain account of these questions (pp. 249-52), one is tempted to wonder just what he thinks happened at the conception of Jesus Christ. The accounts in the New Testament are written for those who assume that a new human being originates at conception.

Now, if Collins did not claim to be a Christian, none of that would be any problem at all. He could safely dismiss it all as rot. But he is claiming to be one, and therein lies the difficulty with all these acres of moral squishiness.

So what have other reviewers said?

Next: Part Three: The key weaknesses, as spotted by reviewers
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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Part Three: The key weaknesses, as spotted by reviewers

In discussions I have monitored, some readers have asked whether Collins is - as he is widely regarded - a theistic evolutionist or a deistic evolutionist, as some suggest. A theist typically argues that God holds the universe in being. A deist believes that God wound up the universe and let it go.

For example, to use an illustration from J.P. Moreland, assume that the universe is a clock: In a theistic universe, the clock is electric and is powered by God. In a deistic universe, the clock is mechanical. God made it, wound it up and walked away. Maybe he rewinds it now and then to keep it going.

Collins calls his own view BioLogos (pp. 203-11), to avoid making "theistic" an adjective and thus inadvertently diminishing the role of God (p. 203). Overall, philosophers chew this sort of thing over best. I was uneasy with Collins' ready willingness to suppose that if a detailed pathway for a given event, such as the origin of life, can be discovered, that means that life is not an argument for the existence of God ("this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith.", p. 93). That sounds more like a deist's problem than a theist's problem to me.

Why does Collins insist on intelligent design for the moral life but deny it for life in general?

Collins spends a fair bit of his book attacking intelligent design theory (especially pp. 181-95). It's quite clear that he does not understand what the ID guys are saying, as Discovery fellow Jonathan Witt notes in Touchstone:
Design theorists in biology do offer an extensive critique of Darwinian theory, but they also offer positive evidence for intelligent design. They argue from our growing knowledge of the natural world, including the cellular realm with which Collins deals, and from our knowledge of the only kind of cause ever shown to produce information or irreducibly complex machines (both found at the cellular level): intelligent agents.

Whether the flagellum (outboard motor) of the bacterium is irreducibly complex might be a harmless enough difference of opinion among specialists, but trouble looms just ahead. As Witt observes, Collins' denial of design in life drastically undercuts his other arguments, for which he relies heavily, disastrously, and anachronistically, on Lewis:
Collins critiques the other leading explanation for the moral law—that what we think of as the moral law is only an aggregation of survival instincts instilled by Darwinian evolution—and argues that a better explanation is that we are not just matter but also spirit.

To this, the thoroughly consistent methodological materialist could respond, "But Dr. Collins, just because we're ignorant of a detailed Darwinian pathway to things like human altruism doesn’t mean we won't ever find the pathway. You're arguing from ignorance to design, and you can’t do that."

Essentially, here is the problem: Having placed his faith in a yet-to-be-found detailed Darwinian pathway that shows that there is no design in life, Collins cannot then just walk away from the demand that he also place his faith in a similar yet-to-be-found detailed Darwinian pathway for the moral law that he values so highly as evidence for God, in a way that he thinks nature is not. The Darwinist demands that of him and his only response is to gesture at the works of a man who died long before evolutionary psychology waddled onto centre stage.

As noted earlier, Collins cursorily dismisses evolutionary psychology - much too cursorily considering how much literature has been written on it. It's all nonsense, yes, of course, but Collins does not give us anything like a clear account of how and why it is nonsense, as agnostic philosopher David Stove admirably does.

The decline of mainline Protestantism is poignant when we see an avowed Christian performing so poorly at a task that a clear-thinking agnostic who is not in such heavy debt to materialism performed with ease. This is part of the decline of the legacy of C.S. Lewis. Had Lewis lived, he would have minced evo psycho and served it up cold*. But he alas! is not alive, and many of his heirs have spent his legacy feeling good about themselves; they have not renewed it.

(*Note: Lewis does address evo psycho to some extent in The Abolition of Man, but most of today's key concepts (kin selection, selfish genes, memes) were undeveloped then. Stove, who died in 1995, does address them.)

Overall, Collins' denial of design in life would far better suit a thinker disposed to argue for a no-design pathway to morality (such as evolutionary psychology) than against such a pathway, as he genuinely wishes to do.

From an agnostic position, Roger K. Eberle makes points strikingly similar to Witt's:
Collins’ deduction that evolution cannot account for the Moral Law is just another gap. He reviews some of the modern evolutionary explanations for the evolution of the moral sentiments, but he dismisses them as inadequate, and then draws his conclusion. This is the fallacy of personal incredulity — "I can't think of how X can be explained naturally, ergo X must have a supernatural explanation."

Collins then compounds the problem with his arguments by asserting, without foundation, that altruism is unquestionably good, and that it can only be explained by the existence of the Moral Law. The fact that the goodness of altruism is a subjective judgment and open to considerable debate is ignored. Furthermore, he never addresses the studies that have shown that altruism is not unique to the human species, and he never explains why the altruistic behavior of a member of the group could not be something that evolved, initially, simply as a necessity for the survival of the group.
A similar point is made in David Klinghoffer's review.

The confluence of these objections from theists and a non-theist underlines the fact that Collins fails to address the problem of the origin of the Moral Law adequately in a contemporary way.

Why not universal Darwinism - for all the universes?!

A related problem is that, both in his book and elsewhere, Collins speaks against the "multiverses" hypothesis. According to multiverses theory - which is taken quite seriously by many cosmologists as an alternative to the apparent fine tuning of our universe for life - our universe is a random survivor of Darwinian evolution among a zillion flopped universes.

Collins argues that multiverses defy Occam's Razor (scientists should prefer the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts). But he does not explain why the Darwinism he believes in so strongly should not be subjected to the same critique, as applied to life forms. If Darwinian pathways look increasingly like an unlikely explanation today, we are simply urged to put our faith in the idea that Darwinism will explain everything some day in the unspecified future.

The same roadblock looms in Collins' musing on the origin of life. He thinks that tomorrow may bring a materialist explanation of the origin of life (p. 93). And that's one less job for God. Therefore, we should not trust that the origin of life provides evidence for God.

These arguments sound straight from the 1960s, and they fail to meet today's central challenge: The problem is not with what we don't know; it is with what we do know. For any fact of the universe whatever, we might conceive of some materialist account. But the question is, is our account plausible? At what point of implausibility should we actively investigate non-materialist accounts?

Yes, it is quite likely that the origin of life will be much better understood in the future. But what if better understanding makes the non-Darwinian or non-materialist origin of life increasingly obvious? Has science failed? Is science at an end? Yes, if science's only purpose is to prove Darwinism or materialism. Otherwise, well maybe the journey is just beginning. But one gets no sense that Collins even acknowledges these difficulties, because his thinking has largely been shaped by the state of the questions when Lewis was alive and writing.

Only a materialist needs to defend an implausible materialist account, a fact that Collins clearly understands for the origin of the universe. Then why does he hold out hope for such an account of the origin of life? His work reads as though it is risky enough for him to admit to being a religious believer (his predecessor Watson, as we have seen, was a vociferous atheist). He dare not go as far as to seriously consider the case for design where it would actually matter, in his own work.

The country that Collins would like to roam with Lewis no longer exists

In "Through a Glass Darkly," David Opderbeck summarizes the overall problem:
It's difficult to understand the distinction Collins makes between cosmological/moral and biological design argments. On the one hand, he says the appearance of fine tuning, the emergence of mind and reason in humans, and the human moral sense are not explainable only by naturalistic causes, and support belief in a creator-God. On the other hand, he says that arguments from the appearance in design in biology are merely worthless God-of-the-gaps arguments.

I can't see the principled distinction here. In fact, the argument from human mind, reason and the moral sense is a type of biological gap argument.

Opderbeck points out that even if we understood completely how these processes worked, "the extraordinarily low probability of how they played out suggests an intelligent purpose beyond mere chance," and adds, "But the same could be said of biological design arguments such as the argument from irreducible complexity."

Collins has argued at various points that apparent imperfections in nature point to an inept designer, but, as Opderbeck cautions, that is an argument against God as a supreme creator in general, not against intelligent design theory in particular. (Design could, of course, be intelligent without being perfect and a supreme creator might never have intended a design to achieve goals identified by other intelligences as "perfect." So it is not clear how such an argument is even as relevant to intelligent design theory as such.)

My sense is that Collins' type of theistic/deistic evolution has fallen on hard times. It started out as a protest by thoughtful scientists against the view that knowing how something happens in nature means that "God never dun it." But it has devolved into a sort of opposition to intelligent design theory, even though intelligent design theory - or similar ideas - are really the only game in town if you think that there is actual meaning, purpose or design in the universe. That is why one evolutionary biologist recently advanced a proposal to flunk all ID-friendly students. He did not bother to consider the case of students who say they believe in God but assure everyone that there is no evidence of God's work in the design of life. One does not, after all, blow up the house to kill a mouse.

The main difficulty is that Collins writes as if he does not understand that the territory he wishes to occupy no longer exists, as it did in Lewis's day. Darwinists and other materialists have annexed it. Witt and Eberle, speaking from opposite sides, at least know what today's map looks like.

Collins is said to be concerned that intelligent design theory may provoke a war between science and religion. As an alternative to what , exactly? When a materialist textbook author argues that students who are sympathetic to the intelligent design of life should be flunked, we must ask, does Collins agree with him? Whatever he answers, he is in a war over disputed territory whether he likes it or not. He can only avoid the war by remaining safely irrelevant.

Next: Part Four: The scribbling tribe of reviewers divides into several parts
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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Part Four: The scribbling tribe of reviewers divides into several parts

Collins' book was very widely reviewed, as might be expected, and reactions fell into three broad predictable camps - but also one quite interesting fourth one.

My, my, Irma, isn't that something! A scientist who is a Christian!

Many forgettable reviews simply praise Collins effusively for being a scientist who speaks about his faith:
So what are we talking about when we talk about God? The geneticist Francis S. Collins bravely sets out to answer this question in light of his scientific knowledge and his Christian faith. Having found for himself "a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews," he seeks to persuade others that "belief in God can be an entirely rational choice, and that the principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science."

As a researcher who helped discover the genetic basis for cystic fibrosis and other diseases and as the director of the Human Genome Project, Collins brings strong credentials to the scientific side of his argument. For the spiritual side, he draws on Christian authorities such as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis. His aim is to address "extremists on both sides of the science/faith divide." On one extreme are those scientists who insist that the universe is purely and exclusively matter, and on the other are literal interpreters of the Book of Genesis who reject the last two centuries of scientific discovery. Although Collins's purpose is grand, his manner is modest and his prose clear, as befits a man more concerned with sharing his views on the nature of things than with displaying his ego.

- "Reason to Believe" by Scott Russell Sanders, Washington Post, July 9, 2006

Another, somewhat more ham-handed example - that is possibly more revealing as a consequence - is "I’ve found God, says man who cracked the genome" by Steven Swinford, which offers:
Among Collins’s most controversial beliefs is that of “theistic evolution”, which claims natural selection is the tool that God chose to create man. In his version of the theory, he argues that man will not evolve further.

“I see God’s hand at work through the mechanism of evolution. If God chose to create human beings in his image and decided that the mechanism of evolution was an elegant way to accomplish that goal, who are we to say that is not the way,” he says.

The American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of something like 2000 Christian scientists, whose annual meeting Collins recently addressed, would certainly be surprised to learn that "theistic evolution" is a controversial belief. Indeed, the usual rap one hears is that it is a cop-out.

All right ... he can have his noxious little hobby, but it had better be irrelevant!

A second major strand sniffs tolerantly at Collins' religious beliefs, like this editorial in Nature, as long as he comes out against intelligent design theory and otherwise seeks to educate the unwashed who impede science research - by opposing experimentation on human embryos, for example.
In response, some scientists are tempted either to publicly dismiss religious belief, or else to argue stridently against it. The latter approach is valuable in that it exposes religious dogmas to rational consideration and leads to their abandonment where they conflict with reality. But it is damaging if it fails to acknowledge the inability of science to deal with many of the issues that people face in their everyday lives.

Collins, we are reassured, is a good one for talking up the suckers; he can "engage with people of faith to explore how science — both in its mode of thought and its results — is consistent with their religious beliefs." Suckers? Oh yes, because Nature makes very clear that any time people of faith oppose for ethical reasons something that a scientist wants to do, they are in the wrong and should move - and that Collins' value is that he softens them up to do it.

Now, there are many problems with Collins' approach, and various reviewers have attempted to address some of them here and in Section 2, but does he really deserve Nature's foul, back-handed compliment? I got no sense from reading Collins' book that he would willingly participate in softening people up to abandon their ethical standards in order to be better thought of by, for example, the baby dissectors. Even when musing about how killing the embryos might not be so bad after all, he strikes me as merely a shallow thinker who is behind the times and desperately confused. But not nearly bad enough to occupy the role Nature has in mind for him. One hopes not.

He can't be both a scientist and a Christian

Nor need we bother much with a third broad stream, those who simply attack Collins for being a Christian. But here's an interesting review from the atheist bench, just for the record:

Victor Stenger in Physics World’s Physics Web:
"The Language of God is Collins's personal attempt to explain how he reconciles his science and his faith. Early on, he affirms what has become the disingenuous position of many scientists in the US and of organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences – that science has nothing to say about God and the supernatural. This flies in the face of the facts. Many reputable scientists are doing research that could, in principle, demonstrate the existence of the supernatural."
Stenger's own forthcoming book, God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist will be published by Prometheus Books in 2007, so he can hardly be considered a disinterested observer, and it's hard to imagine any likely evidence that he would consider relevant.

Reviews that address troubling issues

Reviewers who identify troubling issues are much more interesting than the camps above:

■ George Johnson insists in Scientific American:
... what sounds like a harmless metaphor can restrict the intellectual bravado that is essential to science. "In my view," Collins goes on to say, "DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God." Evolutionary explanations have been proffered for both these phenomena. Whether they are right or wrong is not a matter of belief but a question to be approached scientifically. The idea of an apartheid of two separate but equal metaphysics may work as a psychological coping mechanism, a way for a believer to get through a day at the lab. But theism and materialism don't stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science.
Well, is the assumption of materialism fundamental to science, as Johnson insists? Collins seems to think it is fundamental in biology, the discipline that he knows, but that it isn't in the disciplines he does not know. How so?

■ Robert Pollack writes more sympathetically in Science, but he notes a difficulty with Collins' view regarding the Moral Law. When Collins calls the genome the "language of God," does he mean that the Moral Law is encoded in our genome? But Pollack thinks he must know better than that. The human genome, Pollack writes,
"... encodes the instructions for the assembly of what is after all a learning organism, not for what it then learns. Mental states are the product of social interaction from birth; in principle, any brain can have any thought. The Moral Law may well be God's presence among us--I do not know how to disprove this nor why one would try--but if so, it cannot be reduced to a DNA sequence, not even to the whole human genome.

But if the Moral Law were not written in DNA, then why would DNA be the "language of God" at all?
Pollack also wonders why Collins has so little to say about the departure from the human genome mapping project of DNA co-discoverer James Watson (whom Collins replaced). Watson left because he did not want the genome to be patented, clearly an issue about which the Moral Law might be expected to have something to say.

In any event, Pollack considers the Moral Law to be purely subjective, whereas C.S. Lewis, Collins' mentor in the matter, did not. As we have seen, Collins occupies a wobbly middle ground, wanting to affirm that a moral law somehow exists but he does not bother to give it the legitimacy of offering evidence against the rambling just-so stories of evolutionary psychology.

■ In New Scientist, sociologist Steve Fuller looks at Collins'cultural position,
Collins's mission is to deny any real conflict between God and Darwin. He wants to square things for scientists who don't want intelligent design on their doorstep but who also don't want to examine their own beliefs too closely. Collins's comprehensive but exclusive training in the hard sciences may explain his belief in a God who communicates plainly through natural sciences but who refuses to cooperate with social sciences, and such biologically inflected fields as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. These latter fields, Collins asserts, would reduce "the existence of the moral laws and the universal longing for God" to culturally specific or deeply genetic survival strategies.

In trying to accommodate too many camps, Collins ends up mired in confusion. Ironically, rather like Richard Dawkins, he treats religions equally, thereby homogenising them. Collins promotes "theistic evolution," a philosophy sufficiently devoid of controversy, if not content, to be "espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians, including Pope John Paul II." It amounts to a treaty with God, whereby science does the "how" and religion the "why" of reality.

(Note: Steve Fuller is professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, U.K. his book, Dissent Over Descent: Evolution's 500 year war on intelligent design, may be expected in 2007. He gave evidence for the defense at the famous Dover trial.)

Perhaps this is where "theistic evolution" was bound to end. There is actually a review at Orthodoxy Today that claims that Darwinist Theodosius Dobzhansky "remains a believer in God", which is so far off the mark that one pauses on reading it to realize how much many Christians today need their illusions.

Next: Part Five: But, in the end, what choice did Collins really have?

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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Part Five: But, in the end, what choice did Collins really have?

Overall, Collins' book is the sort that is greeted by an enormous fanfare, is much bought over Christmas - mainly so that others might read it and be properly advised - but makes very little difference in the long run. Collins himself comes across as a likeable guy, probably good at getting fractious people to work together, but certainly no deep thinker.

He reminds me of the avuncular types who reassured me, years ago, that there was no real conflict between science and faith. Unfortunately, by science they meant materialism and by faith they meant fantasy. They gave up on me after I started researching the intelligent design controversy. Once I realized that the conflict is actually between materialist and non-materialist views of the universe - it's either bottom up or top down, I was a lost cause for them.

In fairness, what could Collins have done? I don't mean here, what could any man have done. Different men do different things, and some men, convinced that things are amiss, precipitate a huge conflict in which they themselves risk everything. But what could a man like Collins - at least as he comes across in the book - have done? He wants to get along with people and to get them to work together, and he wants to commend the Christian faith while he is doing it.

Yet we live in times when it is dangerous to take any "top down" view of the universe seriously. It is still safe to gabble niceties about faith, as long as you don't really mean anything much where your own discipline is concerned. So what is a Francis Collins, in particular, to do?

In the event, here is what he did: He avoided courting the disaster that would ensue if he found design in life forms. No, he did not find it there, where he works. He says he found it in outer space, where he does not work and will not really be expected to defend the proposition seriously. He is a loyal follower and deserves well of the people who will find no legitimate reason to attack him for anything he has said.

The passages in which he obsesses over abandoned embryos awaiting destruction in medical research make a striking comparison with the passages in which he attacks ID arguments. Put simply, he could not have come out simply and forthrightly against the destruction of human embryos in whatever medical venture can be devised for them any more than he could have said that there is design in life as there is in the universe itself. Or refused to identify the cystic fibrosis gene simply because he must reasonably have known the fate of so many children who are found to have it at whatever age at which they can be legally "terminated." (The advance of childhood euthanasia in Europe may well stretch that age far, far into the post-partum zone.) That is not the way one maintains a role as an apparent peacemaker in a large and powerful enterprise.

In the end, however, acting as though it is still 1960 is not peacemaking, it is irrelevance.

Other resources of interest:

■ In a recent dustup over social Darwinism, Collins insists that Coral Ridge Ministries misrepresented its intentions when it invited him to be part of a TV special, but Coral Ridgedenies this. Reading both sides, I don't think that Coral Ridge misrepresented anything; Collins simply did not realize that attacking social Darwinism entails considering the real historical legacy of Darwinism. For once, he could not just come down safely in the middle.

■ Collins' recent talk at the American Scientific Affiliation conference, is available in audio or video and an article, "Faith and the Human Genome," is available as a .pdf in ASA's journal, Proceedings.

■ The Salon interview with Collins by Steve Paulson.

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