The Magazine

The Human Factor

A man of science face Darwin and the Deity.

Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By DAVID KLINGHOFFER
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The Language of God

A Scientist Presents

Evidence for Belief

by Francis S. Collins

Free Press, 304 pp., $26

Head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins is among the country's foremost author ities on genetics, a staunch Darwinist, and a prominent critic of Intelligent Design. He's also an evangelical Christian who dramatically describes the moment he accepted Jesus as his personal savior. If that sounds like it might be a paradox, read on.

Collins was hiking in the Cascade Mountains of western Washington when, as he writes, he found that "the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."

Anyone who doubts that Darwinism may coherently be embraced alongside a faith in biblical religion will be intrigued and challenged by The Language of God. Besides offering a lovely, impassioned, and transparently sincere defense of his own Christian faith, Collins argues that one need not choose between Darwin and God. Indeed, he says, embracing both is the most profound and compelling way of penetrating "that mystery of mysteries," as Darwin called it, the puzzle of the origin of species.

He makes a strong and moving case for religious belief with the part of the book that is a memoir. Collins grew up an agnostic. After medical school, he treated a woman with crippling heart disease who relied on her faith for support. She asked him what he believed about God, and he was disturbed to find that he had no thoughtful reply. Another turning point came when, on a medical mission to Africa, he saved the life of a young farmer suffering from tuberculosis with a risky emergency surgery.

The man thanked Collins afterward and commented, "I get the sense you are wondering why you came here. I have an answer for you. You came here for one reason. You came here for me." The experience set Collins to thinking about the workings of Providence, God's oversight of our lives: "The tears of relief that blurred my vision as I digested his words stemmed from indescribable reassurance--reassurance that there in that strange place for just that one moment, I was in harmony with God's will, bonded together with this young man in a most unlikely but marvelous way."

His later, and historically significant, work on the Human Genome Project has mapped the genetic language, DNA, in which Collins believes God speaks His will for living creatures. Collins does a splendid job of clarifying for the layman what genetic information actually is. He explains how evidence for Darwin's understanding of the evolutionary mechanism may be observed in queer, vestigial features of the genetic code. However, if that mechanism was never at any point guided by a transcendent intelligence--as Darwin in The Origin of Species assumes it was not--this naturally raises the question of what need there was for a Deity as most believers understand Him. God has the right to command us because he created us.

Obviously in the background here, and the foreground too, is the Intelligent Design debate. Darwin and his followers advocate an unguided and purely material mechanism of natural selection operating on random genetic variation. Intelligent Design claims to find positive evidence that the mechanism was, indeed, guided--in short, that the software in the cell (DNA) did not write itself.

Collins's book rejects Intelligent Design as an "argument from personal incredulity." That argument, in his telling, would go this way: We don't understand exactly how the Darwinian mechanism could have produced certain aspects of biological information; therefore, a Designer must have done it. I believe Collins misrepresents Intelligent Design, and it appears that he hasn't followed the latest rounds in the scientific debate. But never mind. Let's assume he's right and ask: If Darwinism is the true resolution of the "mystery of mysteries," where does that leave God?

Something you'll often hear people say is, "Well, Darwinism doesn't mean God isn't the creator. Maybe evolution was programmed into the universe from the start. So He had no need to guide the process." The problem with such thinking is that it's directly contradicted by a major current in Darwinian evolutionary theory. In his book Wonderful Life (1989), the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated what he called the "contingency" of life's history. Gould explained what an incredibly lucky break it was that Earth ever cast up intelligent life forms.