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Friday, November 24, 2006

Part Five: But, in the end, what choice did Collins really have?

Overall, Collins' book is the sort that is greeted by an enormous fanfare, is much bought over Christmas - mainly so that others might read it and be properly advised - but makes very little difference in the long run. Collins himself comes across as a likeable guy, probably good at getting fractious people to work together, but certainly no deep thinker.

He reminds me of the avuncular types who reassured me, years ago, that there was no real conflict between science and faith. Unfortunately, by science they meant materialism and by faith they meant fantasy. They gave up on me after I started researching the intelligent design controversy. Once I realized that the conflict is actually between materialist and non-materialist views of the universe - it's either bottom up or top down, I was a lost cause for them.

In fairness, what could Collins have done? I don't mean here, what could any man have done. Different men do different things, and some men, convinced that things are amiss, precipitate a huge conflict in which they themselves risk everything. But what could a man like Collins - at least as he comes across in the book - have done? He wants to get along with people and to get them to work together, and he wants to commend the Christian faith while he is doing it.

Yet we live in times when it is dangerous to take any "top down" view of the universe seriously. It is still safe to gabble niceties about faith, as long as you don't really mean anything much where your own discipline is concerned. So what is a Francis Collins, in particular, to do?

In the event, here is what he did: He avoided courting the disaster that would ensue if he found design in life forms. No, he did not find it there, where he works. He says he found it in outer space, where he does not work and will not really be expected to defend the proposition seriously. He is a loyal follower and deserves well of the people who will find no legitimate reason to attack him for anything he has said.

The passages in which he obsesses over abandoned embryos awaiting destruction in medical research make a striking comparison with the passages in which he attacks ID arguments. Put simply, he could not have come out simply and forthrightly against the destruction of human embryos in whatever medical venture can be devised for them any more than he could have said that there is design in life as there is in the universe itself. Or refused to identify the cystic fibrosis gene simply because he must reasonably have known the fate of so many children who are found to have it at whatever age at which they can be legally "terminated." (The advance of childhood euthanasia in Europe may well stretch that age far, far into the post-partum zone.) That is not the way one maintains a role as an apparent peacemaker in a large and powerful enterprise.

In the end, however, acting as though it is still 1960 is not peacemaking, it is irrelevance.

Other resources of interest:

■ In a recent dustup over social Darwinism, Collins insists that Coral Ridge Ministries misrepresented its intentions when it invited him to be part of a TV special, but Coral Ridgedenies this. Reading both sides, I don't think that Coral Ridge misrepresented anything; Collins simply did not realize that attacking social Darwinism entails considering the real historical legacy of Darwinism. For once, he could not just come down safely in the middle.

■ Collins' recent talk at the American Scientific Affiliation conference, is available in audio or video and an article, "Faith and the Human Genome," is available as a .pdf in ASA's journal, Proceedings.

■ The Salon interview with Collins by Steve Paulson.

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If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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