Re: Report: Francis Collins presentation

From: Michael Roberts <>
Date: Mon Oct 24 2005 - 17:35:30 EDT

I find it difficult to see how any Christian could disagree substantively on anything Collins said. It needs to be published in tract form and on the web in as many places as possible.

I do think he is over-optimistic on the demise of ID as that and YEC has too much support from the church community to go defunct that quickly. However it may lead to some Dark Age for orthodox/evangelical Christianity as many will see both YEC and ID to be intellectual nonsense.

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Freeman, Louise Margaret
  Sent: Monday, October 24, 2005 9:56 PM
  Subject: Report: Francis Collins presentation

  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 society.

  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 17:44:33 2005

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