A Physician-Geneticist Seeks to Foster Both Faith and Science
KEY WEST, Fla. -- If only William Jennings Bryan had known Francis Collins.
Maybe Bryan, who died just five days after leading the prosecution in the Scopes monkey trial, might have lived longer if he had. Although he won the case, his sudden death suggests the proceedings, during which he was savaged by the press, may have taken a toll.
And, who knows? We might never have argued at all about whether evolution should be taught in public schools had Collins been around. Timing.
If Collins is not familiar, he should be. He is the physician-geneticist who led the Human Genome Project for the National Institutes of Health and is noted for his discoveries of disease genes. Alas, he came along about eight decades too late for Bryan. But he may have entered the zeitgeist just in time for thousands (millions?) of others who have trouble embracing both Darwin and God without, as Collins puts it, their brains exploding.
Collins, an evangelical Christian who was home-schooled until sixth grade, wants to raise the level of discourse about science and faith, and to help fundamentalists -- both in science and religion -- see that the two can coexist. To that end, he created the BioLogos Foundation and last month launched a Web site -- BioLogos.org -- to advance an alternative to the extreme views that tend to dominate the debate.
Yes, he asserted to a room full of journalists gathered here, one can believe in both God and science. In fact, says Collins, the latter does more to prove the existence of a creator than not.
This doesn't mean that Collins falls in line with those promoting creation science or, more recently, intelligent design. He merely insists that belief in God doesn't preclude acceptance of evolution.
Though his own beliefs are firm, Collins understands doubt, skepticism and even atheism. He was once an atheist himself, believing only in what science could prove. As a medical student, however, he stumbled on questions for which science had no answers. In treating dying patients, he also began to wonder how he would approach his own death. Not with as much peace as his patients of faith did, he supposed.
Having earned a PhD and a medical degree, Collins is nonetheless a scientist with little patience for those who insist that evolution is just a theory that one may take or leave. Most human genes, he points out, are similar to genes in other mammals, "which indicates a common ancestry."
Even so, a Gallup Poll found last year that 44 percent of Americans believe God created human beings in their present form within the past 10,000 years.
"You can't arrive at that conclusion without throwing out all the evidence of the sciences," says Collins.
The problem of not believing in evolution as one might not believe in, say, goblins or flying pigs has repercussions beyond the obvious -- that the United States will continue to fall behind other nations in science education. Collins says that many creationist-trained young people suffer an intense identity crisis when they leave home for college, only to discover that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Talk about messing with your mind.