Report: Francis Collins presentation

From: Freeman, Louise Margaret <>
Date: Mon Oct 24 2005 - 16:56:43 EDT

At Ted's request, I am posting an account of the Francis Collins
presentation yesterday in Staunton VA.

Francis Collins Presentation on Christianity and Evolution: 10/23/05
Part 2 of the “Science and Christianity” Sunday School series organized by
Dr. Lundy Pentz (biology) and Dr. Jim Gilman (religion/philosophy) of Mary
Baldwin College.
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA. Tal kwas given in the church
sanctuary, which was filled to capacity. There were probably 700-800 in
attendance, most of which were not regular Trinity attenders.
(Background: Dr. Collins grew up in Staunton and attended Trinity as a
child, where he was confirmed and sang in the choir. Although, during his
talk he said that he didn’t really become a Christian until age 27, after
considerable exploration, inclduing reading CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity.)
Dr. Collins began his presentation stating that when scientists start
talking about God, colleagues tend to think they are either crazy or over
the hill. However, he emphasized that for him, science and Christianity are
not in conflict, but instead complement each other. He then listed three
gifts God has given humanity. 1) the hunger to know Him, 2) the moral law as
contained in scripture and 3) intelligent minds capable of interpreting
data. His talk would focus evidence of evolution derived from the study of
DNA and what that means for the believer. He described his role as the
director of the human genome project and stated that we have now “read” the
book of the human genome (in the sense that we know what all the letters
are) though we are part from understanding what all the words mean.
Understanding this book will lead to much improved methods for treating
human diseases such as cancer. He added that an announcement of the major
medical breakthrough on this front will be made this Wednesday (10/26/05).
DNA shows that human beings are 99.9% alike as far as their genetic makeup
goes. Understanding the 0.1% difference is critical to understanding why
some people are more vulnerable to certain diseases than others.
Furthermore, the chimpanzee genome has also recently been sequenced and
shows 98.8% homology to humans. Some of the differences between humans and
chimps are very interesting, particularly differences in genes responsible
for control of brain size. DNA analysis also shows a picture of human
origins different from a literal reading of Genesis: namely, modern humans
come from a common ancestor pool of about 10,000 individuals (not 2) that
lived in Africa about 100,000 years ago.
Collins went on to explain what Darwin’s theory of evolution stated: 1)
species change over time 2) variations appear spontaneously; most are
harmful and are weeded out 3) some are beneficial to survival and therefore
get passed to offspring, resulting in a net change and adaptation over time.
He emphasized that the term theory is not used by scientists the same way it
is used colloquially (as an unsupported hunch or hypothesis) but is instead
a unifying principle that explains a whole host of observations. Darwin’s
theory is accepted by virtually all mainstream scientists, is not on the
brink of collapse (despite what some Christians may say) but is instead
supported by “rock solid” evidence from both the fossil record and DNA.
Collins did not address the fossil record (that was apparently covered in
the previous week’s session, which I did not attend) but focused instead on
DNA, particularly homologies as evidence for common descent..
One reason intelligent design is an appealing alternative, according to
Collins, is that it is also a plausible explanation for genetic
similarities. The Designer works up a DNA template for a turtle, for
instance, and with some minor changes can create an alligator. This may in
fact seem more plausible to the believer than evolution, given the
difficulty we have visualizing the process from single-celled organism to
complex beings like humans. Part of this difficulty lies in the problems
people have in conceiving of the enormity of the timescale; Collins
illustrated this with the familiar model of condensing the history if earth
into 24 hours. Collins then went on to explain why DNA evidence poses
problems for ID.
He showed a hypothetical stretch of human DNA three genes (A, B, & C) and
spacer regions between them, then the same three genes in the mouse. First,
the genes are in the same order, as you would predict if they had a common
ancestor. But, that is also consistent with design: perhaps those three
genes work best together, so the designer put them there, Second, the
coding regions (genes) are more homologous than the non-coding regions:
exactly what evolution predicts, since the genes would be expected to be
more resistant to change than non-coding regions. But again, that poses no
special problem for design. Third, there is evidence “jumping genes” (or
transposable elements); genes which jump and “land” and “get stuck” in the
non-coding areas, often damaging themselves in the process, so they
apparently are not coding for anything. Human and mouse also share these
elements. This is harder to explain with design, but not impossible; perhaps
this gene has a purpose not understood yet and therefore the designer had a
reason for putting it there. Finally, however, Collins pointed to a
transposable element that was “hopelessly damaged” and therefore could not
possibly code for anything due to a lost (or truncated) element. The exact
same letter was truncated in human and mouse. It is hard to see any design
for this type of genetic evidence. It is, however, the exact thing a
designer would put in the genome if he wanted to plant false evidence for
common descent, perhaps to test the faith of the scientist. But Collins
expressed doubts about a “charlatan” God that intentionally seeks to confuse
us. A more reasonable explanation is that the mutation occurred in a common
ancestor to mice and humans, some 80 million years ago. If so, you would
expect to see this same element in many other mammals, and you do.
It is dangerous for Christians to maintain that evolution is a hoax in the
face of such evidence; they are telling a “noble lie” and the damage will
ultimately be to faith, not science.
Collins described five possible “solutions” to the problem of science-faith
controversies. The first option is to reject religion entirely in favor of
atheism, and even use evolution as scientific proof that there is no God.
This, in Collins’ view is logically unjustified, since, unless you’re a
pantheist, God exists outside of nature. Scientists like Dawkins and Wilson
are part of the problem here and are contributing to the polarization of our

The second route, which Collins admits he took as a young man, is
agnosticism, or throwing up your hands and saying “I don’t know” after
considering the evidence for God’s existence. This differs from simply not
considering the evidence, which Collins feels is the case for many
self-proclaimed agnostics. He joked that any agnostics in the audience be
cautious in carefully examining such questions, lest they “accidently covert
themselves” as Collins did.
The third option is creationism, which Collins defined as young earth
creationism. People with this viewpoint adopt the Bible as their science
text and reject anything that conflicts with it. This extreme view,
according to Collins, was fairly uncommon until 100 years ago and arose as a
reaction to Darwin’s theory. He cited Augustine as an example of a great
theologian who did not read Genesis as science and who concluded that
exactly what God meant by the days in Genesis is difficult or impossible to
conceive. Viewing God as existing outside of time helps those troubled by
the apparent random or undirectedness of evolution, because, in that view,
God would know how it would turn out.
Intelligent design, a recent (< 15 year old) view that has “taken the US by
storm” and been “embraced by evangelicals.” is option #4. Collins
presented the Behe/Dembski view of ID (old earth, common descent): life
proceeding more or less by “natural” mechanisms but with the Designer
occasionally stepping in to “fix things.” This view is certainly appealing
to believers as an alternative to evolution; the problem, Collins feels, is
that it’s likely wrong. He cited the exampled of ID’s “poster child,” the
bacterial flagellum as described by Behe. As we study more and more
bacteria, it becomes more and more obvious that many of the 32 proteins that
make up this “irreducibly complex” motor were recruited from other cellular
components. Collins is concerned about the ID movement for a number of
reasons: First, it falsely insists that evolution is wrong. Collins instead
predicts that ID will be discredited within a fairly short time, as
scientists come up with more and more evolutionary mechanisms to explain the
existence of “irreducibly complex” structures. In that event, Christianity,
not science, is what will look stupid. Second, ID strikes him as a “defense”
of God from Darwin’s theory, something Collins doesn’t think God needs.
The fifth, and clearly Collins’ preferred alternative is theistic evolution:
the position that God could have used evolution as his tool of creation.
This is certainly compatible with what Collins called “lower case”
intelligent design: the idea that God had a plan for his creation but
differs from Intelligent Design the Theory, which states that evidence of
supernatural action is found in science. Collins rejects the latter but
accepts the former. Theistic evolution does not have to conflict with
Genesis 1-2 if one takes an Augustinian, non-literal view of it.
Collins reported the 2004 Gallup poll that showed that 38% of Americans
believed humans came into existence long ago, with God guiding the process
(a view consistent with either ID or theistic evolution) 13% believing they
came into existence without God’s influence (atheism or possibly deism) and
45% believing they appeared in their present form 10,000 years ago
(creationism). Collins stated that churches who insist on the latter view
are forcing young people into the “terrible choice” of rejecting either God
or their faith. He described his own exhilaration and sense of worship he
gets from making scientific discoveries and called upon Christians to stop
presenting science and faith as conflicting views. He closed by playing the
guitar and leading the crowd in Thomas Troeger’s hymn “Praise the Source of
Faith and Learning” (sung to the tune of “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.”)
Lyrics available here:
There was a brief question/answer session after the talk. The most
interesting question came from a young person who asked “How much of the
story of Adam and Eve do you believe?” Collins responded that he believed
the story was meant to teach us the nature of our relationship to the
creator God and the fall indicates the sinful nature of humanity and points
us to the need for a redeemer in the form of Jesus. He did not think it was
meant to teach that Adam and Eve were the literal genetic ancestors of all
people and pointed out that there were other people inhabiting the world
when Cain was sent away from home and that he and Seth found wives without
any mention of inbreeding. I don't remember him stating explicitly whether
he considered Adam and Eve historical or allegorical figures.
Judging from the standing ovation at the end, the talk was well-received.
The talk was covered fairly accurately in the Staunton News Leader
although please note the extremely misleading headline: the thesis of the
talk was that evolution and Christianity are compatible, not evolution and
intelligent design. Collins made it clear that evolution was good scientific
theory, while ID was not.

Louise M. Freeman, PhD
Psychology Dept
Mary Baldwin College
Staunton, VA 24401
FAX 540-887-7121
Received on Mon Oct 24 17:00:06 2005

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