Saturday, July 11, 2009

Francis Collins Chosen to Run NIH

Barack Obama has chosen Francis Collins to run the National Institutes of Health. Collins, if you remember, was the head of the Human Genome Project and has a reputation for being a devout Christian and an ardent supporter of modern science. The story in the Wall Street Journal, by Steve Waldman, has this to say:

Mr. Collins was mocked by Bill Maher in his movie Religulous, so perhaps Mr. Collins' appointment will generate suspicion among secularists. And because he's advocated "theistic evolution" -- the idea that God set in motion the laws of the universe, including natural selection -- there are some more fundamentalist Christians who may sniff at Mr. Collins.

But to me, Mr. Collins is not just a scientific leader, he's a Christian role model. He shows that being a believer doesn't mean checking your brain at the church door, that people of faith have just as much intellectual heft as seculars and, most important, how faith and science can happily co-exist.

Amen, brother. The appointment of Dr. Collins reminds me of the Doonesbury cartoon that ran few years back here. He may yet get some slings and arrows. Amanda Gefter of the New Scientist thinks that those might come from our reliable antagonists, the Discovery Institute. She writes:
I think it's interesting that the Discovery Institute – which has long argued that intelligent design qualifies as science – seems to have given up the game and acknowledged that their concerns are religious after all. It's equally interesting that the catalyst doesn't seem to be someone like Richard Dawkins pushing atheism, but Francis Collins pushing Christianity. Perhaps the Discovery folks realise that Dawkins's followers are never going to be swayed by intelligent design; Collins, however, might very well cut into their target audience of scientifically-curious evangelicals.
Lets hope he does. The DI had a nondescript posting on the matter by Bruce Chapman. He writes:
But when the confirmation hearings take place I would not be surprised to hear some sharp questions about Dr. Collins' less known views on subjects that have not come out on his pulpit tours. He is, for example, a strong supporter of President Obama's program on embryonic stem cell research. The head of NIH doesn't have a lot to say about evolution, but he does have a lot to say about research matters in science on key social issues. Stem cells is only one of them.
Doesn't have a lot to say about evolution? This is what he says about evolution:
"Suppose God chose to use the mechanism of evolution to create animals like us, knowing this process would lead to big-brained creatures with the capacity to think, ask questions about our own origins, discover the truth about the universe and discover pointers toward the One who provides meaning to life. Who are we to say that's not how we would have done it? If you believe that God is the creator, how could the truths about nature we discover through science be a threat to God? For many scientists who believe in God -- including me -- it's just the opposite. Everything we learn about the natural world only increases our awe of the God the creator....
He says that a bunch of places. As Sandwalk points out, in The Language of God, Dr. Collins is crytal clear about it:

1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.
3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.
4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.
5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.
6. But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout our history.
(page 200).
How could you come to the conclusion that he doesn't say much about evolution? Mr. Chapman either Hasn't read Collins or is simply trying to downplay his views on evolution to point out his views on other controversial issues like Stem cell research. Either way, to state that he doesn't say much about evolution is simply false.

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  1. I was so pleased to see this announcement. Francis Collins will be a great addition to the Obama Administration. I agree that the greater threat to DI and YEC comes from theistic evolutionists and not the ardent atheists like Dawkins et al. It'll be interesting to see how the confirmation hearings go when they get started. I wonder if any of our YEC Senators will grill him on evolution?

  2. I, too, am pleased. He is a very level-headed thinker with a firm grasp on many branches of biologically and genetically-related sciences and also has a firm grasp on his faith and how it plays out in how he lives his life. He will elevate that position immensely.

  3. Jerry Coyne has a long quote from Steven Pinker ( in which Pinker does a good job of explaining why the Collins appointment is not a good thing. His opposition is not because of Collins' beliefs, but because of his advocacy of these beliefs.

  4. Don, Steven Pinker has, in his critique of Francis Collins equated methodological naturalism with philosophical naturalism. He somehow thinks that because Collins is a Christian, he can't be a good scientist. There are many examples of scientists who practice science every day in a completely unbiased, academically and intellectually honest way and yet are still convinced that the visible world is not all that exists. They differ from their ID counterparts in that they do not attach cultural significance to the science that they practice (think DI's Wedge document)and are not content to rely on a supernatural answer to the unanswered questions of science. I did my graduate work and have written papers on the human fossil record. In no place did I betray a lack of intellectual honesty or integrity (I suspect that if I had, the Journal of Human Evolution wouldn't have published our work) and yet, I am a practicing Christian. Collins isn't out trying to convert people to Christianity. He is trying to show non-scientists that you can be a practicing scientist and a practicing Christian at the same time.

  5. When I first heard the news, I had just tuned in to NPR in the middle of the story. At first, I did not know who they were talking about. The NPR reporter was talking about this strange creature: a hybrid credible scientist and evangelical. They seemed completely nonplussed about this person Obama had just appointed to head the NIH. I immediately thought, Collins! And when I heard it was true, I whooped and laughed. What a witness he can be.

    Now Jim, I do think you misinterpreted the Bruce Chapman quote. He is talking about what the head of the NIH does, which is having the final say about the research priorities funded by the NIH. He doesn't have a lot to say about what kind of science is taught in science classes (or at least not traditionally).

    In fact, I hope Chapman is wrong and that Collins' stature and visibility will provide a "bully pulpit" for his views. Let's pray that he catalyzes a movement to make it OK for evangelicals to consider evolution and to perceive science more favorably, maybe, and especially, in Christian schools.

  6. At any rate, I liked some of the NIH cartoons on VADLO search engine!

  7. Yes, I think that Francis Collins will do a great job running the NIH. I just thought that what Chapman said was wrong. I am not sure why he wrote it. My experience in reading the DI is that they really hate evolution and will seize on other topics (stem cell research, for example) just to get at that one, because they think it is the key. I am not sure how Collins' views will come out as head of NIH. I, like you, would like to seem them front and center.

  8. Thanks, Sarah. Those are funny. I live with that here at ORNL.