The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
by Francis S. Collins
Free Press (New York)
304 pp., $26.00 cloth, 2006
Few things cause more excitement among American evangelicals than the discovery that a well-known actor, athlete, or entertainer is a believing Christian and is willing to attest publicly to his faith. The excitement grows even more intense when the celebrity in question turns out to be a central figure in a profession or arena (politics, the media, the academy) that has tended to be strongly critical and even dismissive of the Christian worldview. How wonderful then that Francis S. Collins, the highly respected head of the Human Genome Project, should publish a book in which he not only clearly professes his faith but insists that his faith is not incompatible with his role as a geneticist who believes in evolution. He has shown great courage in writing The Language of God, and it is hoped that his book will help foster meaningful dialogue between scientists skeptical about faith and believers skeptical about science.
What makes Collins’s book unique—almost sui generis—is that, in keeping with its provocative subtitle (“A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”), it weaves together scientific speculation and Christian apologetics. And it does so via the medium of Collins himself. His intensely readable book is really an extended testimony of how a former atheist became a Christian and was led by God to use his prodigious gifts for research to head the Human Genome Project.
Collins was converted, in part, by C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and, in constructing his apologetical framework, Collins relies heavily both on Lewis’s specific arguments and his more general approach. Thus, like Lewis, Collins spends considerable time arguing for simple Theism before moving on to defend the uniquely Christian claim that Jesus Christ was the Incarnate Word of God whose death on the Cross atoned for our sins. Like Lewis as well, Collins grounds his argument for Theism in the existence of the Moral Law, but then goes on to find evidence for a supernatural Creator in what science has taught us about the Big Bang and about the finely-tuned nature of our universe (the Anthropic Principle).
In his defense of Christianity, Collins once again borrows from Mere Christianity, particularly Lewis’s argument that Jesus’ claims leave us with only three options: that he was a liar, a madman, or, in fact, the Son of God. However, here too Collins adds something of his own that makes his apologetic unique and timely. Rather than move directly from Theism to Christianity, Collins devotes the long middle section of his book to detailing his work on the Human Genome Project and assuring his reader that his faith in God has empowered rather than impeded his work as a research scientist. Only after he has set forth the evidence of his credentials as a “serious” scientist does he conclude his book by chronicling his own personal move from a belief in God to a belief in the Incarnate Christ, from an intellectual acceptance of the supernatural origin of the Moral Law to a spiritual understanding that he has willfully broken that Law and can only be reconciled with God through Christ’s atonement.
As an apologist for the faith and a mediator between science and religion Collins succeeds brilliantly, but his reluctance to question the reigning orthodoxies of Darwinian evolution limits the potential impact of his book. Although eager to see the hand of God in the Big Bang and the Anthropic Principle, Collins quickly loses his eagerness when the focus shifts from physics and cosmology to biology and chemistry. Like an old school Dispensationalist, who accepts without question the signs and wonders recorded in Acts but then refuses to allow such miraculous activity to leak out of the container of the first century Church, Collins will only allow direct divine intervention to occur in the initial stages of the creation of the universe. For Collins, to allow God to intervene after that point (to create, say, the DNA blueprints for each species) would be to embrace a scientific version of charismatic chaos.
Along with Theistic Evolutionists like Howard Van Till and Kenneth Miller, Collins fears that if we allow God to “interfere”in the workings of biological evolution, we will end up with a “God of the Gaps” theory that “portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of his own initial plan for generating the complexity of life.” The argument is a familiar one, and yet it is an argument that Collins seems to abandon when he moves from the scientific sphere to the moral.
In his book, Collins (like Lewis) makes clear his belief that God implanted the Moral Law within our conscience. But if that is so, why did God need to come down to Mt. Sinai to “hand deliver” the Ten Commandments to Moses? God, Collins would certainly agree, planned that the Messiah would be born out of the bloodline of Israel. But if that was his foreordained plan, then why does he spend most of the Old Testament miraculously rescuing that bloodline from destruction? Do not both of these examples point to a “God of the Gaps”?
Collins implores Young Earth Creationists to open their eyes to the overwhelming evidence that our earth has existed for over 4 billion years. Yet, he will not do the same in the face of overwhelming evidence for design. Collins explains in clear and thrilling detail the complexity of our DNA and the even more complex process by which it replicates itself, but he stops short of saying that God fashioned our DNA. The logic of his argument moves him in that direction, but he won’t follow that logic to its logical end. Rather, he counsels his readers to give the scientists more time to discover a naturalistic process by which DNA could have evolved.
Though Collins treats the proponents of Intelligent Design (Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski) with far more respect and cordiality than either Van Till or Miller, his book reveals that he has not devoted much real thought to the claims of ID. Had he done so, he would have discovered that some of what ID is saying complements powerfully his own work on the Human Genome Project. ID scholars have offered a compelling argument that our world consists of more than mere matter and energy. Woven into the fabric of life on our planet is a third thing that could not have arisen out of the other two: information. Our DNA, as Collins himself explains, is a veritable storehouse of information. Where did that information come from? Yes, perhaps the physical components of the DNA strand could have evolved, but who “programmed” it with its information? Despite his path-breaking work on the Human Genome Project, Collins offers no answer to this conundrum. He seems, oddly, to think it a non-issue, at least not one worth raising in his book.
But the greatest disappointment of The Language of God is Collins’s curt dismissal of the vital distinction that ID scholars, and other critics of Darwin, have made between microevolution (adaptation within species) and macroevolution (the transformation from one species to another). For the last century, Darwinians have continued to get away with a semantic game: (macro) evolution must be true, they argue, for we see (micro) evolution happening all around us everyday. Of course, those who make such arguments conveniently leave out the parenthetical words that I have added.
What does Collins offer to rebut the micro/macro distinction (a distinction that he claims “is increasingly seen to be artificial [and] rather arbitrary”)? First, he describes a mutation found both in stickleback fish and humans that does not come close to proving the viability of macroevolution (it merely suggests that we share an adaptation strategy with fish). Second, he speaks, with great urgency, about the “rapid variations in certain disease-causing viruses, bacteria, and parasites that can cause major public health outbreaks” (a pure example of microevolution). Third, in a move that is beneath the otherwise honest and straightforward Dr. Collins, he concludes his two-page “refutation” ofthe micro/macro distinction by claiming that “not only biology but medicine would be impossible to understand without the theory of evolution.” This claim is true if by evolution he means microevolution, but if he means macroevolution (and that is what he seems to mean) then his claim borders on fear-mongering. Aside from evolutionary biology, neither biology nor medicine nor the Human Genome Project rests on the Darwinian belief that one species, given enough time, can morph into another.
Ironically, although Collins dismisses out of hand the micro/macro distinction, in his chapter on “BioLogos” (his preferred designation for Theistic Evolution), he seems to accept just such a distinction when it comes to the origin of the human soul. While arguing for a non-literal reading of Genesis 2 (the creation of Adam and Eve), Collins quotes a passage from The Problem of Pain in which C. S. Lewis fashions a myth in which God uses evolutionary forces to shape our physical body and then implants into this evolved hominid the gift of consciousness. Or, to use Collins’s own words, perhaps Genesis 2 is “a poetic and powerful allegory of God’s plan for the entrance of the spiritual nature (the soul) and the Moral Law into humanity.”
Collins is no doubt aware that the sociological/psychological/linguistic wing of the Darwinian “establishment” with which he identifies has been eagerly seeking a purely naturalistic process by which human consciousness and language might have evolved. Surely, he is also aware that such Darwinians would dismiss the notion that the soul might have been created rather than evolved as a crude form of the “God of the Gaps” theory. Yet, Collins here seems to embrace the possibility that the soul was ceded to man by a divine act of special creation. He does not specify why he allows for divine intervention in this arena, but I would suggest that it is because he understands that the difference between physical evolution and “spiritual” evolution is not a quantitative but a qualitative one. If I am right here, then it is unfortunate that he does not also consider the possibility that the difference between micro and macroevolution is also qualitative, and not the simple, quantitative product of a number of micro changes (or adaptations) within a species.
Again, as a work of apologetics, The Language of God is a success, and Collins is to be highly commended for attempting to mediate between Young Earth Creationists on the one side and atheistic scientists on the other. Still, an opportunity has been missed to assess fully and objectively the synergistic interplay between divine creation and naturalistic evolution that our universe displays in every facet of its being, from the mighty Big Bang to the smallest string of DNA.
Louis Markos is a professor in English at Houston Baptist University. He is the author, most recently, of From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (IVP) and Pressing Forward: Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Victorian Age (Sapientia).