I first met Collins when he was basking in the afterglow of a historic scientific achievement, comparable to the Manhattan or Apollo projects. As leader of the NIH’s Human Genome Project, he had directed the team that sequenced the 3 billion DNA letters in the human blueprint. Collins gave me the tour of the equipment that had painstakingly lasered bits of genetic material to reveal their chemical signature. To me, as an extremely non-expert public official, his patience, kindness and quiet enthusiasm seemed as remarkable as the machinery. Over the years, we became friends.
Collins came to scientific prominence as one of the original gene hunters. He was part of the team that isolated the gene for cystic fibrosis in the late 1980s, which laid the foundation for the development of the dramatically effective gene therapy approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year. For many scientists, this would be the crowning achievement of a career. But Collins discovered a remarkable talent for managing complex scientific tasks — and corralling considerable scientific egos — in pursuit of momentous discoveries. It made him a natural choice to lead the Human Genome Project and to eventually lead the whole of the NIH. His ability to organize competing interests and bring out the best in people is now serving the country again as he coordinates the development of a vaccine for covid-19. The effort could not be in better hands.
All these reasons make Collins an obvious selection for the Templeton Prize. But it is the unobvious reasons that make the choice brilliant.
Collins has used his renown for two essential purposes. First, he has brought a message to the scientific community that science, for all its inexhaustible wonders, has limits. In books such as “The Language of God,” Collins has made the case that knowledge yielded by the scientific method is complemented by other types of knowledge, gained by moral reflection and religious faith. Science can describe human biology in fascinating detail, but it can’t provide human purpose.
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe,” said Immanuel Kant, “the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Collins finds the handiwork of God in both. The universe, he argues, seems finely tuned to allow the emergence of human minds capable of discerning such tuning. The moral law seems to have deeper roots than evolution alone can explain. While neither point proves the existence of God, Collins takes them as hints or signs of His craftsmanship. And it is notable that one of the greatest scientific minds of our time is also a Christian believer.
Second, Collins has brought a message to his fellow believers that scientific knowledge — particularly about the evolution of the universe and of humankind — is not inconsistent with a proper understanding of faith. He warns his coreligionists against a simplistic biblical literalism that leads to discrediting mental contortions. Both the book of nature and the book of religious belief, he argues, are valid within their own realms. And Collins founded an organization called BioLogos to advance a belief in the deep compatibility of science, including evolutionary science, and Christian theism.
Collins is an extraordinary man who evinces and exemplifies an impressive humility. A scientific humility that allows for other types of valid human knowledge. A religious humility that yields an honored place to the scientific method. A professional humility that allows him to manage people who sometimes lack that virtue. And a personal humility that leads him to bear the tiresome burdens of needy friends.
Some imagine that the enterprise of science is as cold and logical as the multiplication table. But especially in the field of medicine, this is not the case. People such as Collins are motivated to sacrificial decency by a vision of human worth. And that vision, in his case, comes from a set of values and principles that touch and change the world but cannot be measured or weighed.
Collins’s achievement — excellence in service to dignity — is rare, badly needed and worthy of honor.