Noted scientist tackles question of religious faith

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, at a Pepperdine University conference recently argued that science and faith are compatible. Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins disagreed in an e-mail to The Malibu Times.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

How does one reconcile the scientific proof of evolution with the Biblical creation narrative, in which the earth was created a few thousand years ago, and still remain a believer?

That question was the subject of a lecture given by Dr. Francis Collins recently at the Pepperdine University Christian Scholars’ Conference. The annual conference brings together Christian academics from various fields of study to reflect on their scholarship and their faith.

Collins is uniquely qualified to discuss the question: he is the former director of the Human Genome Project, which in 2003 finished mapping human DNA, and the current director of the National Institutes of Health. He is also a devout Christian who has coauthored the book, “The Language of God,” which argues that scientific knowledge and faith are not incompatible. Collins stressed that he was speaking at the conference as a private citizen, and not as a representative of the U.S. government.

In a wide-ranging lecture, Collins challenged both Christians who question the concept of evolution, which includes, he said, 45 percent of Americans, as well as scientists who believe that evolution disproves the possibility of a higher being.

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Using his background in DNA research, Collins took to task Christians who deny the scientific evidence for evolution. The mapping of genomes for animals other than humans, Collins said, revealed “a remarkable documentation of Darwin’s theory of common ancestry.” The most important animal genome to be mapped in terms of proving evolution was the chimpanzee, he said, which is 95 percent genetically identical to human beings.

Meanwhile, Collins questioned the literal explanation put forth in the Bible that Adam and Eve were the sole parents of the human race. Collins explained that the variation of human DNA allowed for 12 million potential differences between people.

“There is no way you can develop this level of variation between us from one or two ancestors,” Collins said.

Instead, Collins identified the most likely scenario of human origin as an ancestral pool of approximately 10,000 individuals in Africa who gave rise to the modern human race.

Like many scientists, Collins said he believes the universe was created 13.7 billion years ago. Unlike most scientists, Collins argued that God created the universe, bestowing it with evolution as the mechanism that would shape its eventual form. From evolution, man was gifted with free will, consciousness and morality. Thus man was made “in God’s image,” Collins said.

Challenging scientists who say evolution disproves the existence of a higher being, Collins honed in on two points that he said atheistic scholars had yet to adequately answer. The first was humans’ persistence in behaving altruistically, showing an unselfish regard for others.

“As a scientist, how do you explain random acts of kindness from an evolutionary perspective?” Collins asked.

Collins pointed to the case of Wesley Autrey, a black man who jumped from a subway platform in New York City in 2007 to cover a white man who had fallen onto the tracks after having a seizure. Incredibly, neither was hurt as an onrushing subway train passed over them.

Collins said there was no reason, evolutionarily speaking, for Autrey to put himself in danger to help a total stranger who on the surface was different from him. Rather, he should have been thinking about self-preservation.

“Evolution, in its simplest form, would say ‘Wesley, you got it all wrong here. That’s not what you were supposed to be thinking about,’” Collins said. “But when you look at that, are you not moved by it? Are you not taken with the sense that this is human nobility in the form that we’re called to do? So what’s this about?”

In an e-mail to The Malibu Times, prominent atheist Richard Dawkins referred to passages in his book, “The God Delusion,” for his response to Collins’ assertions that a benign creator could only explain human altruism.

While natural selection may endow humans with certain inherent tendencies through genetics, Dawkins wrote in his book that it would be wrong to assume it also bestows “a cognitive awareness of what is good for your genes.”

In other words, humans are not consciously aware of the advice their genes are giving them, and as a result do not always follow it.

Dawkins characterizes random acts of altruism as “blessed, precious mistakes.”

In earlier civilizations, humans rarely encountered people outside of their community, which would make acts of unselfish bravery productive for the survival of that community, Dawkins wrote. In modern metropolises like New York City, that altruistic instinct could motivate one person to risk his or her life for a complete stranger.

Regarding evolution, Collins said it could not explain why certain laws of physics that determine the behavior of matter and energy, such as the strong and weak nuclear forces, the speed of light and gravitational constants, were so perfect for the creation of human life.

“If [those constants] were set at a value that was just a tiny bit different, one part in a million, the whole thing wouldn’t work any more, because after the Big Bang it would have just the right balance of forces to enable matter to come together,” Collins said. “If you are an atheist, either it’s just a lucky break [and the odds are enormous], or you have to go to this multiverse hypothesis, which says that there must be an infinite number of parallel universes that have different values of those constants. And of course we are here, so me must have won the lottery, we must be in the one where everything worked.?”

“And there are serious scientists who believe that, and sort of are forced to, because the alternative is you have to see the hand of a creator who set the parameters to be just so,” Collins concluded.

Collins said he had asked Dawkins which arguments by believers in a higher being troubled him the most. Dawkins’ response, Collins said, was “None of them trouble me very much, but that fine-tuning thing, that’s problematic.”

While the multiverse hypothesis Collins referred to is complicated, Dawkins wrote in “The God Delusion,” “it is not nearly so complicated as the hypothesis of a god who created everything.

“I would now only add that the physicist Victor Stenger denies that the universe is fine-tuned,” Dawkins wrote to The Malibu Times.

Also, he added, “What natural selection favours is rules of thumb, which work in practice to promote the genes that built them,” Dawkins wrote. “Rules of thumb, by their nature, sometimes misfire.”

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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