A Review of The Language of God by Francis Collins
In his book, The Language of God, Francis Collins sets out to explain the work of the National Human Genome Research Institute, of which, at the time of writing, he was the director. Collins’ chief goal in writing this book, it seems, is to bridge the perceived gap between religion and science. In this task, he succeeds at making the case to a religious audience, that good theology incorporates new evidence; in particular, the evidence in support of evolution. Collins’ argument falls short when he draws a line between religion and science, saying they have mutually exclusive domains of inquiry. This arbitrary line he draws leads him to make some tenuous conclusions about the origin of the universe, and the emergence of morality in humans. Ultimately, the book serves as a Christian, or more broadly, a religious lens through which to parse the insights gained from the mapping of the human genome. To this end, the book has mixed success with its theology, but provides excellent insights into the promise of biology.
Science and religion: bridging the gap
As director of the Human Genome Project, Collins and his team were working on mapping out all the nucleotide base pairs in the the human genome. This massive undertaking lasted from 1990 to 2003, and opened up a window into human nature. Writing this book for Collins, is an attempt to explain the significance of this publicly funded project. And while I have several disagreements with Collins on theological grounds, I appreciate what appears to be the overarching goal of his book: to bridge discord between science and religion. Collins makes the case to his target audience--largely proponents of young Earth creationism, and intelligent design--that good theology takes account of new information. “Science can be a form of worship,” Collins argues. And “beware zeal without knowledge.” Collins suggests that believers go astray when they discredit new evidence that threatens their understanding of God.
Collins outlines his own version of theology, which he calls BioLogos, where life represents the will of God. This falls into the theological school of thought called Theistic Evolution, distinct from intelligent design and young Earth creationism. In theistic evolution, God initiated the Big Bang, which set the universe in motion, but follows the laws of nature. Humans arose from the great apes, but God intervened to give humans consciousness and innate moral knowledge, separating us from the animal kingdom. And although God could foresee the end result, humans have free will.
What I like about Collins’ approach is that he is giving many theists new grounds to stand on. He brings theology into the Twenty First Century. No, I do not agree with him when he concludes “atheism is the least rational of all worldviews.” But Collins stakes out a middle ground between fundamentalist religion and science, where theists can come to the table and evaluate the benefits of stem cell therapy and its promise to treat diseases like juvenile onset type 1 diabetes, or to fix a damaged liver. He also walks the reader through a discussion of the effect of the genome on personality. One genetic variable, he points out, makes you 16 times more likely to end up in prison. He is referring to the Y-chromosome, which results in the physical expression of maleness.1
With the flurry of new evidence that science keeps churning out, that invariably informs our worldview and ethical framework, I can appreciate Collins’ defense of tradition, as embodied in religion. He illustrates a spectrum with two extremes. On one hand, you could “abandon science because it threatens our understanding of God.” In the process, you abandon the alleviation of suffering science may confer. Alternatively, Collins writes, we could “turn our backs on faith. Science has rendered the spiritual life unnecessary. Traditional symbols of faith can now be replaced by the image of the double helix on our altars?”
Collins is right to express concern about abandoning ancient belief systems. It is difficult to determine the full role religion plays in our society. Religion has gone through many cultural iterations of editing, and represents continuity with the past. Places of worship serve as critical community hubs, and offer direction to their followers. Religion means many things to many people, and for some it is even a source of ecstasy, wonder, transcendental experience and shared love. Before replacing traditional symbols of faith with symbols of science, it is worth unpacking the full role of those traditional symbols.
I wish Collins would apply the same critical rigour to religion that he applies to his scientific theories. If religion is like a snowball that has accumulated many kernels of wisdom, it has also accumulated many outdated theories, some of which are pernicious. It is not in bad faith to speak doubt to prevailing religious doctrines. I admire Collins when he talks about his own theories in the lab collapsing in the face of new data. It would serve the broader conversation about religion versus science well, if Collins would discuss the fallible nature of religion. Instead, he couches updates to religion as revelations from God.
Arbitrary distinctions: the harmful division between science and religion
Collins’ attempt to update theology to cohere with our current understanding of evolutionary biology is praiseworthy, because it attempts to stake out a mutually respectful working relation between science and religion, and it offers an updated Twenty First Century lens through which to parse mostly Christian ethics. In an era where many religious fundamentalists oppose stem cell therapy and vaccinations, his book can do much good.
While Collins’ overarching mission with his book is a noble one, he builds much of his case around a false dichotomy. Namely, that religion and science have mutually exclusive domains of interest. Collins places God “outside the natural world,” and reasons “the tools of science must not be the right ones to learn about [God].” He concludes that “the ultimate decision must be made on faith, not proof.”
Collins commits what Steven Pinker argues in Enlightenment Now is a “logical error, confusing propositions with academic disciplines.” Paraphrasing Pinker’s argument further, science makes empirical claims and logical claims, and these are distinct from normative or moral claims. But that does not mean scientists are forbidden from discussing moral or conceptual issues. In the same way, philosophers and theologians are not forbidden from discussing the physical world.
Collins does not always observe the line he draws between the disciplines of religion and science. In a discussion directed at young Earth creationists, he discusses the importance of incorporating new information into our world views. Science, he suggests, “can be a form of worship,” because we are studying God’s creation. Essentially, when the physical world speaks, we should listen. This is at odds with statements Collins makes elsewhere, like where he argues that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions humanity faces.” In particular, he argues science cannot answer: “how did the universe come into being? What is the meaning of human existence? [And] what happens when we die?”
Metaphysical or obscure questions may have answers, and just because we may have no means of answering them at present does not mean we cannot speculate, using reason. The role of science, in discussing such questions, is to restrict the range of possible answers. It keeps us honest when we cover unknown territory.
Collins is not the first to confuse propositions with academic disciplines. Stephen J. Gould famously made the case that religion and science occupy non-overlapping magisteria, as a sort of truce. As attractive as that position might appear to be, it is a dangerous one to make. Religion should not stay hermetically sealed off from new insights in philosophy or the physical world, and science does itself no favors when it dismisses the entire enterprise of religion. When throwing out the bathwater, science should be careful not to throw the baby out with it.
Collins discounts scientific explanations in favor of God
After making religion and science two separate domains of inquiry and declaring they answer fundamentally different questions, Collins asserts that questions regarding the origin of the universe fall squarely within the domain of religion. Collins writes “the Big Bang cries out for divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a divine beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force outside space and time could have done that.”
As mentioned earlier, it is arbitrary to partition propositions into various disciplines. Many questions need a unified approach for answering them. We need to draw on insights from various fields for a more circumspect approach to resolving challenges. Knowledge is distributed across many fields of inquiry, and throughout the world. So, it only shackles the mind to say the origin of the universe is a question of theology alone.
It is not within the scope of this review to try to answer how the universe came into being. But when Collins argues that “only a supernatural force outside space and time could have done that,” I am not the first to point out this theory raises more questions than it answers. Collins takes one unknown (the origin of the universe), and explains it with another far more complicated unknown (God). Making God a metaphysical entity outside of space and time still raises more questions than it answers.
And perhaps it is wrong to assume the universe came into existence with the Big Bang. In The Beginning of Infinite, physicist and philosopher David Deutsch points out that humans have long thought the extent of the known world was the extent of space itself. Aristotle famously thought that the stars in the sky made up a sphere surrounding earth. As our tools of observation improve, our scope of awareness expands. Perhaps one day we will find, Deutsch argues, that the Big Bang was not, in fact, the beginning of space and time.
Collins also makes the case that science cannot explain why moral laws (altruistic instincts) are innate in all humans. This is another example, he argues, of a question science cannot answer, because “evolutionary pressures operate on the level of the individual, not the population." Therefore, Collins states, “selfless love cannot be accounted for by the selfish gene theory.” Furthermore, he argues, the moral law is a “uniquely human attribute,” and points to a God who is “infinitely good and holy.”
Here, Collins is applying a selective reading of then-current biology. A cursory glance at kin selection theory will turn up J.B.S. Haldane’s famous remark: "I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins." The point Haldane was illustrating is that biological siblings are on average 50% genetically identical, nephews 25%, and cousins 12.5%. If the purpose of evolution is for genes to self-replicate, it would make sense genetically, for individuals to protect the largely identical genetic code of their nearest relatives. Therefore, the presence of an altruistic instinct makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, as there is a selective advantage in such a trait. And since, as Steven Pinker restates in Enlightenment Now, we have recursive brains, we can extend kinship to individuals outside our local genetic tribe, effectively extending our circle of empathy indefinitely.
One of Collins’ most misleading errors is to call the moral law a “uniquely human attribute.” There are innumerable cases of animals exhibiting altruism to their next of kin, or even to other species. There are hundreds if not thousands of videos on the internet of animals caring for other species, in their own ways. Do a google search for: “dog runs into burning building to save baby” and pages and pages of stories come up of animal altruism. Furthermore, by separating humans from the animal kingdom so categorically, and putting us on a pedestal, it sets an honest viewer up for disappointment. Reviewing our brief span of time on earth, humanity has not been an exemplar of moral goodness. While it is true that we have altruistic instincts, much of the good we do is despite our human nature. Internecine warfare used to be the norm, and by historical standards, we are now living in unusual times, where interstate warfare is increasingly rare. If the moral law is innate, so is xenophobia.
Collins has a confirmation bias, and reads God into too many phenomena that beg for mundane explanations. The clearest case is where Collins addresses the problem of evil. He makes the case that humans cause much of the evil in the world because God gave us free will, but does not account for naturally occurring evil, except by saying God’s will is mysterious, and “a complete absence of suffering is not in the best interest of our spiritual growth.”
While challenges are certainly necessary for character growth, certain natural disasters are completely ruinous and are routinely inflicted upon populations. By arguing for the utility of evil, Collins overextends the role of God, and does a great disservice to religion. If God is, as Collins believes, all good, and all powerful, it does not follow that God allows atrocious acts for instructive purposes.
Conclusion: coming to the table
Towards the end of the book, Collins illustrates some ethical queries that demand our attention. He makes the case that “scientists cannot be the only ones at the table for parsing ethical queries on the frontier of biology.” Here, I agree. If you want to maintain trust in public institutions, such institutions need not perfectly reflect public opinion, but they should take account of and respond to public opinion. There should be a semblance of conversation. Collins helps open up a dialogue that attempts to bridge the divide between religion and science.
My favorite part of the book is where Collins describes the promise of stem cell therapy. “Over the last decade,” Collins writes, “discovery after discovery is showing the complete plasticity of mammalian cell types.” And “stem cells have magnificent pluripotency.” This is promising because, Collins explains in simple prose, “many diseases arise because a certain cell-type dies prematurely. If your daughter has juvenile onset type 1 diabetes, it is because cells in her pancreas that usually secrete insulin underwent an immune attack by the body and died off.”
Collins makes the case for the tremendous promise of regenerative medicine, and addresses the largely religious opposition to stem cell therapy. “Opposition to stem cell therapy is by definition opposed to in vitro fertilization because the vast majority of frozen embryos won’t be implanted and therefore will eventually be discarded.” If you are still opposed to obtaining stem cells from embryos, he points out you can “derive adult stem cells from an individual who is already living.” So you could use bone marrow stem cells to repair a damaged liver. Collins concludes “it is hard for an objective observer to argue [regenerative medicine] won’t be beneficial for a long list of debilitating and fatal diseases.”
Ultimately, I appreciate that Collins carves out his own unique version of theology, that incorporates all the findings his research team uncovered while mapping out the human genome over many years. I have disagreements, but disagreement is normal. I appreciate his curiosity, his sober analysis, and sincerity.
1While the XY chromosome results in the physical expression of maleness, cultural and scientific conversations continue to evolve, and a growing consensus acknowledges that gender identity can exist separate from sexual identity, as is the case with transgender people.
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