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High Profile

God's translator

Interview by Denis Alexander

Dr Francis Collins led the international team that in 2003 finally spelt out the genetic recipe from which our bodies are 'fearfully and wonderfully made'. Third Way got him to the phone.


How did you first become interested in science?

I was raised in a home where learning was valued - my father was a drama professor, my mother a playwright - but science was not really part of my experience. It became real to me at the hands of a wonderful chemistry teacher in the 10th grade,1 who taught his students the joys of using the tools of science to discover things that you didn't already know. I really caught that fever, and I've still got it.

You embarked on a scientific career very early, I believe.

I did. In part because my mother had taught me at home until sixth grade, I ended up two years younger than my peer group and so I went to university at 16 and pretty much took every course in chemistry, phys?ics and mathematics that was available. I guess I was 20 years old when my first scientific paper was published.

I don't think you were raised as a Christian, were you?

I was not really raised in any particular spiritual world?view. My parents did not denigrate faith, but nor did they consider it particularly relevant. It was not something we talked about at the dinner table. I was sent to the local church, which had a wonderful choirmaster, but my father made it pretty clear that I need not pay attention to the sermons: 'You should be there for one reason, and that is to learn the joys of harmony.'

Did you drift into atheism, then?

I guess I would have called myself an agnostic if I had known the word. When I got to university, there were - for the first time in my experience - conversations in the dorm about whether God existed or not, and there were some strong atheists who were, I thought, rather effective in their arguments.

After I got my degree, I decided I would do a PhD in physical chemistry and went to Yale to pursue that; and my life there was all second-order differential equations and quantum mechanics and I got more and more into a deterministic mindset. It seemed quite natural to assume that there really wasn't anything outside of physics, chemistry and mathematics, and I slipped into a much more atheistic worldview. I think I left the door slightly open to the idea there might be something outside of what science could teach you, but only slightly.

You then changed direction and went into medicine. Did studying biology incline you more towards atheism?

In the first two years of medical school, which is mostly spent in the classroom, I pretty much sustained my atheistic worldview. I was aware there were believers in my class, and some of them would even try to talk to me about their faith, but I wanted nothing to do with that.

But that changed in my third year. I was spending afternoons and oftentimes all night long on the hospital wards trying to care for people with illnesses that often were threatening to end their lives, and that made all these questions of life and death much more real. And that was a real eye-opening experience. It was a growing-up to the realisation that life is short and precious and people are facing terrible challenges every day.

And I was impressed by how many of these people relied on their faith as a rock of support. They talked quite openly about the fact that it brought them a sense of peace and they were not afraid of what was coming - and I imagined myself in their position and thought I would probably be afraid, and maybe even angry. And that got me a bit curious about this thing called 'faith'.

I assumed it was a psychological crutch, but it clearly was a powerful one.


How did curiosity lead to Christianity?

Eventually, one of my patients, a woman with really advanced heart disease, told me about her faith in a very personal way and, after she had done so, she looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I've explained to you ab?out my faith and you haven't said anything. What do you be?lieve, Doctor?' Nobody had ever asked me that question so directly, and I found myself suddenly in?tensely uncomfortable. I stammered something like 'I don't really know' and left the room, feeling very disquieted - and wondering why.

I realised after a bit what the problem was. Her simple question had caused me to admit at some level that I didn't really have a good answer that was based on a consideration of the evidence. I knew people who seemed pretty substantive, including some of my professors, who said that their faith was an important rock for them. So, clearly there must be something there, and I was aware that I had intentionally avoided pursuing it. Suddenly it was apparent to me that I had ex?ercised what Lewis would call 'wilful blindness', and that didn't seem like a good thing.

And so began a two-year effort to try to understand what the world religions have to say, and what God must be like if God exists. And ultimately that resulted - to my great surprise, and with a good deal of resistance on my part - in my becoming a Christian at age 27.

What kind of research did you do?

Well, it was not a particularly well-designed search strategy. I started by looking at some of the documents that world religions used as their foundation, including the Bible, and I found it very frustrating and confusing. I had no idea mostly what I was reading.

I did know that down the street from me lived a Methodist minister who seemed like a reasonable fellow, and so I went and asked him a bunch of probably blasphemous questions. He gave me Mere Christianity2 to read, and in the first hour or two reading it I realised that my arguments against faith were really those of a schoolboy. It was uncanny how Lewis addressed my objections to faith one after another. It was as though he was inside my head. I guess I began to realise, 'Gosh, this is territory that others have travelled, and there's a lot here that is actually pretty compelling.'

It probably took me three or four months to get all the way through that little book because it was so unsettling to see the foundations of my atheistic worldview falling apart page by page.

A lot of people think that faith means a leap in the dark.

Well, I assumed that faith was the opposite of reason and that there would be no evidence to undergird it - it would have to be a blind leap in the absence of evidence, or in spite of it. It surprised me when I found the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1: 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.' It was astounding for me to realise that word 'evidence' was in the very definition of faith.

What I began to realise is that faith and reason are, in fact, linked together, but faith has the additional element of revelation. At the same time, I began to appreciate that there were pointers to God's existence in the study of nature, some of which I had spent time on without really thinking about it, and that was actually fairly compelling.

Now, don't get me wrong: you cannot prove God's existence, but you can get to the point - and I did - of concluding, based on the evidence, that God's existence is a lot more plausible than the denial of God's existence. That was a great surprise to me.

Based on what sort of evidence?

Things like the Big Bang, like the fact that mathematics actually works to describe the universe, things like the fine-tuning of the universe - and, particularly for me, Lewis's argument about the moral law, a distinct characteristic of humanity that defies an easy explanation from evolution.

All of those brought me to the precipice, but then I had to learn what the world's religions had to say about the nature of God. And it was encountering the person of Jesus, who was different than all other figures in all other religions - and who also solved the problem for me of feeling increasingly like there was an unbridgeable gulf between me and God - that led me to decide to give my life to Christ.

How did your colleagues react?

They were generally supportive, albeit a bit puzzled; but a few of them, knowing that I was already on a pathway towards spending my professional career in the field of genetics, suggested that if I allowed this new faith in Jesus and an exploration of genetics and evolution to come together, my brain was in danger of exploding. That never happened. I think that's one of the reasons I've written The Language of God,3 to try to explain why it need not happen to anybody.

Some people think that the more science understands, the less need we have to believe in God.

Well, if one has used God to explain areas that currently science has no answer for, that does put you in a difficult spot when some of these areas suddenly are ex?plained by natural processes. But that's not, I think, the view of many mature believers, who see God as really much too big to be boxed in like that. If you consider, as I do, that God is the Creator of everything and has a plan that goes far beyond anything our puny minds can grasp, and has used these processes, such as evolution, to achieve amazing goals without having to step in and do magical things, then every new scientific discovery becomes not a threat to God's omnipotence but an opportunity to appreciate and be in awe of that creation.

That's very much how I feel. The opportunity to do science as a believer is an opportunity to peek into God's mind, and science therefore becomes not just a purely naturalistic exercise but an opportunity for worship.

Have you found any particular models of the relationship between science and religion to be especially helpful?

Obviously, an area that many people see as a battleground between science and faith is the whole question of how it is that this diversity of living things on the planet came to be. The scientific evidence for evolution is now overwhelming - from the study of DNA in particular, where we have a record of what has been happening down through hundreds of millions of years. One can look at that evidence and come away with no other conclusion than that we are descended from a common ancestor.

So, I arrived, early on after becoming a believer, at a perspective that is called by many 'theistic evolution' - the notion that God, in God's awesome intention to create a universe that would support life, and most es?pecially life in God's image that would seek out fellowship with God, used the process of evolution to achieve those goals. An amazing process, an elegant process, a process that to our minds may seem slow and even random, but for God could have been achieved in the blink of an eye and in a way that wasn't random at all.

When you've put that all together, you've achieved what I had hoped to find: a harmony between science and faith that is completely satisfying. I cannot see any major objections to that synthesis - which is, after all, the one that most biologists who are believers have arrived at, many of them without realising that others have travelled that same path.


Evolution requires a vast amount of both suffering and wastage. Ninety-nine per cent of all the species that have ever lived on this planet have died out. How do you reconcile that with the idea of a God of love?

I don't know that there's an easy answer to that. Certainly it's difficult to deny that death is part of the evolutionary process - if it was not, an ever-increasing number of creatures would enter and remain in the world, resulting in an unsustainable model of life. The ugliness of death, you could say, is in a way part of the freedom that God granted to nature. Polking?horne has argued quite compellingly, I think, that the evolutionary universe is a creation allowed to make it?self, and the consequence of that is a creation that contains both beautiful and wonderful things and some things that we are troubled by.

Do you think Christians sometimes tend to pick out the beautiful bits and ignore the bits that aren't so nice?

I think that's probably true, and I think it has to be said that God's purposes are not always served by having everything be completely rosy. And that applies to our own daily experience: if we lived in a world that lacked any evidence of suffering, including our own experience every day, would we in fact learn very much about who we are and who God is? Is suffering, even death, an important part of the way the universe is put togeth?er to help us focus on the fact that we're here for a blink of an eye and that the little time we have here ought not to be spent just on 'having a good time'?

The Intelligent Design movement has focused on parts of nature that seem to be especially complex and used them to argue that there must be a Designer. What is your take on that?

I think it was an interesting development. Unfortunately, I think it's turning out not to be a positive one. It's important to note that the movement did not arise out of the scientific community: it really came from a small group of believers who were troubled that the increasing dominance of evolution in scientific discourse was threatening the idea that God is the Author of all.

There are some interesting ideas there that should cause anybody who figures that evolution has solved all its problems to step back and scratch their head a bit; but ultimately their arguments have shown increasingly severe cracks. The idea that, for example, nano-machines like the bacterial flagellum (which is the poster child of Intelligent Design) could not have come about by gradual small changes supported by natural selection is not really defensible. And therefore ID falls into this unfortunate category of 'God of the gaps' - and now knowledge is advancing very rapidly and ID is in deep trouble scientifically. It's also, I think, fair to criticise it for having no real agenda to test its theory. It's a scientific dead-end.

Unfortunately, many believers see ID as a way to fight off what they perceive as an onslaught of atheistic evolution and are reluctant to give it up. In the United States, there are still battles to try to teach it in schools, battles that I think ultimately will not bring credit to the church but will actually cause people to shake their heads and wonder why it is that believers can't accept such clear data. It almost seems to suggest that they are afraid that science is a threat to God - and for me, as a scientist who's a believer, that's rather hard to imagine. God gave us the great gift of the intelligence to try to understand how the universe was put together, and the idea we might discover something that would threaten [belief in] God's existence makes no sense at all.

Do you think that the aggressively atheistic agenda of evolutionists such as Richard Dawkins has actually stimulated ID - and, indeed, creationism?

Absolutely. [The Darwinian philosopher] Michael Ruse - who's not exactly himself a great defender of belief - famously pointed out to Dawkins and Dennett that their position is probably the greatest gift that the ID community has had. So, we see, as we often do in human discourse, a polarisation of perspectives, where those who take a fairly extreme view seem to have the microphone and we see an escalation of fundamentalism on both sides. And I think it's fair to call atheism a form of fundamentalism: it doesn't seem able to look carefully at the opposing view in a fashion that allows much discourse.

Of course, there's fundamentalism in the church as well, and over the course of the last couple of decades the fundamentalists of both types have been railing at each other increasingly loudly. Most people don't really identify with those extremes, but if that's all you're hearing, it may seem as if those are the only choices. And that, I think, is one of the great tragedies of the current era, that it has been polarised in such a way.

You took over from Jim Watson as head of the Human Genome Project, to lead what some people would say is the major scientific project of the last century. Did you jump at the challenge?

I resisted it at first. I was very happy at the University of Michigan, running a research lab, taking care of patients and teaching medical students. But the idea of leading this project, which was only going to happen once in all of human history, ultimately became irresistible. I took it on at a very early stage, when a lot of the scientific community was opposed to the effort and there was great scepticism about whether we could ever live up to this promise to read out all three billion letters of the human DNA instruction book within 15 years.

But it was exhilarating, too. It was one of the more interdisciplinary kinds of science that had ever happened in biology, because it needed automation experts and chemists and physicists and bioethicists as well as physicians and biologists - everybody had to get together on this and put their shoulders to the wheel.

And there were opportunities to really change the way in which this kind of science was done, not least by making the decision to give the data away, which we did early in the project in a fashion that was truly unprecedented, not even waiting for publication but basically saying, 'This is a common inheritance of the whole world's humanity and we should not be sitting on it for even 24 hours. All of this should be immediately posted in a place where anybody with an internet connection can start working with it.'

You have some strong views about patenting genes.

Well, indeed. I don't know that it is a moral issue, although some people try to make it so. I think it is really a practical, legal issue of what you can do with a discovery that is going to most benefit the public. That's the point. Patents were invented to try to increase public benefit by providing an incentive for people who had discovered or invented something to turn that into a useful product.

But the gold rush that went on in the 1990s to try to patent genes didn't really fit that ethic. Basically, people were grabbing any old piece of DNA and saying, 'That one's mine' without any clear idea of what it did or how it might turn into a useful product - and as a result those patents became more disincentives for further research than incentives, turning the whole thing on its head.

The media sometimes call this sort of science 'playing God', and some people fear that we are guilty of hubris. What do you say to that as a Christian?

I do think that hubris is always the risk for us humans - we've been over the centuries pretty reliably capable of demonstrating that kind of arrogance and I'm sure there are good opportunities to do that here as well. But as a physician I have to say that the idea that we would slow down the study of genetics and DNA doesn't ap?peal to me either. I deal every day with people whose lives are devastated by illnesses that we could potentially understand and prevent treat if we moved this research forward quickly.

But with that comes a responsibility to determine what the boundaries ought to be for applications of this new-found knowledge. One of the things I'm proudest of with the Human Genome Project was the decision early on to invest a substantial fraction of the budget into studying the ethical, legal and social implications of this research. That had never really been done before - scientific revolutions in the past had sort of happened and then one day somebody would say, 'Wait a minute! Why didn't we think about the negative implications this might have?'

What applications are you most enthusiastic about?

Well, we now have the tools to go in and search through those three billion letters of the human genome and find the rare glitches that play a role in risk of heart disease and diabetes and cancer and high blood pressure and mental illness and a very long list of conditions that had previously been poorly understood and therefore poorly managed. In the last 12 to 18 months there have been a hundred of these discoveries made, which point in a very surprising and interesting way towards pathways that apparently are involved in these diseases that we've never previously suspected. Our understanding of most common diseases is undergoing a complete revolution as a result.

The clinical applications will not come overnight but they will come, and these revelations will put us in a position to practise prevention in a much more effective, individualised way if we can identify for each person what their most significant risks of illness are and help them to focus on lifestyle and diet and medical surveillance, to focus on staying well.

In the longer term - maybe 10 or 15 years if we stick to our guns - these same discoveries will lead us to treatments for disease that are much more precisely targeted to the fundamental molecular problem instead of treating some secondary effect that ultimately doesn't provide all that much benefit. As a physician, I can tell you it's fairly rare to be able to treat a disease and be absolutely sure that the treatment you're offering is optimal, and the study of the genome gives us a new window into developing those treatments in a way that is likely to be much more effective and less toxic. I'm enormously excited about that.


Some people are worried that genetic research might be used to fuel racism. There is, after all, a bad history here.

There is a bad history, that's absolutely true, and the last thing one would want would be for this science to provide ammunition for prejudice - which is a part of human nature, although it's one of the uglier parts, to be sure. We currently have a project just getting underway to determine the DNA sequence of a thousand people from 12 different populations around the world. The motivation is to try to understand why it is that some diseases occur more frequently in some groups than others - for instance, in some Native American tribes more than half the adults have diabetes, and you feel some urgency to try to sort that out. But of course there is a risk that people may use that information in other ways.

I think that [this science] is actually a strong antidote for prejudice, though, in that we learn just how similar we all are at the genetic level - more than 99 per cent of each person's DNA is identical to any other person, and that is true regardless of where you look in the world. We are all one family, descended from a common set of quite recent ancestors. Our science shows us just how similar we are, more similar to each other than most other species on this planet could claim to be. And we need to keep saying that.

What difference does it make to you as a scientist that you are a Christian?

Well, I'm a believer in the notion that the moral law, the knowledge of right and wrong, is a free gift to all of humanity, and it is in fact the case that when we get into some of these ethical dilemmas, believers and non-believers often come to similar conclusions. I be?lieve that's because we have all been given this remarkable knowledge - which I cannot completely explain on nat?uralistic grounds - and a desire to do the right thing. But, for me as a believer, all of that has a foundation that it would not have if I were an atheist, and I find that quite reassuring.

I think it has been a great gift to have the chance as a scientist to see God's hand at work in the things we're discovering. And one of the things that I've found most gratifying, especially since the publication of The Lan?guage of God, has been the chance to talk to others who are struggling with how to put this together, particularly young people, seeking answers to the question of whether God exists or not. I've recently spoken on the topic of science and faith at Stanford University and some 2,300 students turned up to discuss it. At Berkeley the night before, there were 1,600; at MIT a few months earlier, there were 1,500 students. This is clearly an issue that is coming to the forefront, particularly on uni?versity campuses, and I think that's wonderful.

Maybe the ferment about whether science and faith can be compatible - and maybe it is being whipped up by the voices at the extremes - will ultimately lead to a good thing, as people think about these issues instead of setting them aside.

--

1 In British terms, Year 11 or S5
2 First published in 1952
3 The Language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief (Simon & Schuster, 2006)

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BIOGRAPHY

Francis Collins was born in 1950 and grew up on a small farm in Virginia. He was home-schooled until the sixth grade and then attended Robert E Lee High School in Staunton.

He studied chemistry at the University of Virginia, before gaining a PhD in physical chemistry at Yale in 1974. He then changed disciplines to earn an MD at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in?1977.

From 1978 to 1981, he served a residency and chief residency in internal medicine at North Carolina Memorial Hospital. He then returned to Yale, where he was named a fellow in human genetics at its medical school.

In 1984, he joined the medical school at the University of Michigan as assistant professor of internal medicine and human genetics. In 1987-88, he was assistant investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ann Arbor.

In 1988, he was promoted to head of the university's medical genetics division. From 1991 to 1993, he was professor of internal medicine and human genetics, and investigator at the medical institute.

In 1989, his team, together with Lap-Chee Tsui and Jack Riordan of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, identified the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis - the first of many such successes.

In 1993, he was invited to succeed James Watson as director of the National Center for Human Genome Research (since 1997, the National Human Genome Research Institute). He oversaw the Human Genome Project, which in April 2003 published an all but complete 'map' of the human genome.

In 2007, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honour, 'for his efforts to decode human DNA and improve human health'. He has been elected to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences in the US, among many other distinctions.

He is the co-author with Thomas D Gelehrter of Principles of Medical Genetics (1990) and author of The Language of God (2006).

He has twice married and has two daughters.

This interview was conducted on March 17, 2008.