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Friday, November 24, 2006

Part Four: The scribbling tribe of reviewers divides into several parts

Collins' book was very widely reviewed, as might be expected, and reactions fell into three broad predictable camps - but also one quite interesting fourth one.

My, my, Irma, isn't that something! A scientist who is a Christian!

Many forgettable reviews simply praise Collins effusively for being a scientist who speaks about his faith:
So what are we talking about when we talk about God? The geneticist Francis S. Collins bravely sets out to answer this question in light of his scientific knowledge and his Christian faith. Having found for himself "a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews," he seeks to persuade others that "belief in God can be an entirely rational choice, and that the principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science."

As a researcher who helped discover the genetic basis for cystic fibrosis and other diseases and as the director of the Human Genome Project, Collins brings strong credentials to the scientific side of his argument. For the spiritual side, he draws on Christian authorities such as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis. His aim is to address "extremists on both sides of the science/faith divide." On one extreme are those scientists who insist that the universe is purely and exclusively matter, and on the other are literal interpreters of the Book of Genesis who reject the last two centuries of scientific discovery. Although Collins's purpose is grand, his manner is modest and his prose clear, as befits a man more concerned with sharing his views on the nature of things than with displaying his ego.

- "Reason to Believe" by Scott Russell Sanders, Washington Post, July 9, 2006

Another, somewhat more ham-handed example - that is possibly more revealing as a consequence - is "I’ve found God, says man who cracked the genome" by Steven Swinford, which offers:
Among Collins’s most controversial beliefs is that of “theistic evolution”, which claims natural selection is the tool that God chose to create man. In his version of the theory, he argues that man will not evolve further.

“I see God’s hand at work through the mechanism of evolution. If God chose to create human beings in his image and decided that the mechanism of evolution was an elegant way to accomplish that goal, who are we to say that is not the way,” he says.

The American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of something like 2000 Christian scientists, whose annual meeting Collins recently addressed, would certainly be surprised to learn that "theistic evolution" is a controversial belief. Indeed, the usual rap one hears is that it is a cop-out.

All right ... he can have his noxious little hobby, but it had better be irrelevant!

A second major strand sniffs tolerantly at Collins' religious beliefs, like this editorial in Nature, as long as he comes out against intelligent design theory and otherwise seeks to educate the unwashed who impede science research - by opposing experimentation on human embryos, for example.
In response, some scientists are tempted either to publicly dismiss religious belief, or else to argue stridently against it. The latter approach is valuable in that it exposes religious dogmas to rational consideration and leads to their abandonment where they conflict with reality. But it is damaging if it fails to acknowledge the inability of science to deal with many of the issues that people face in their everyday lives.

Collins, we are reassured, is a good one for talking up the suckers; he can "engage with people of faith to explore how science — both in its mode of thought and its results — is consistent with their religious beliefs." Suckers? Oh yes, because Nature makes very clear that any time people of faith oppose for ethical reasons something that a scientist wants to do, they are in the wrong and should move - and that Collins' value is that he softens them up to do it.

Now, there are many problems with Collins' approach, and various reviewers have attempted to address some of them here and in Section 2, but does he really deserve Nature's foul, back-handed compliment? I got no sense from reading Collins' book that he would willingly participate in softening people up to abandon their ethical standards in order to be better thought of by, for example, the baby dissectors. Even when musing about how killing the embryos might not be so bad after all, he strikes me as merely a shallow thinker who is behind the times and desperately confused. But not nearly bad enough to occupy the role Nature has in mind for him. One hopes not.

He can't be both a scientist and a Christian

Nor need we bother much with a third broad stream, those who simply attack Collins for being a Christian. But here's an interesting review from the atheist bench, just for the record:

Victor Stenger in Physics World’s Physics Web:
"The Language of God is Collins's personal attempt to explain how he reconciles his science and his faith. Early on, he affirms what has become the disingenuous position of many scientists in the US and of organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences – that science has nothing to say about God and the supernatural. This flies in the face of the facts. Many reputable scientists are doing research that could, in principle, demonstrate the existence of the supernatural."
Stenger's own forthcoming book, God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist will be published by Prometheus Books in 2007, so he can hardly be considered a disinterested observer, and it's hard to imagine any likely evidence that he would consider relevant.

Reviews that address troubling issues

Reviewers who identify troubling issues are much more interesting than the camps above:

■ George Johnson insists in Scientific American:
... what sounds like a harmless metaphor can restrict the intellectual bravado that is essential to science. "In my view," Collins goes on to say, "DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God." Evolutionary explanations have been proffered for both these phenomena. Whether they are right or wrong is not a matter of belief but a question to be approached scientifically. The idea of an apartheid of two separate but equal metaphysics may work as a psychological coping mechanism, a way for a believer to get through a day at the lab. But theism and materialism don't stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science.
Well, is the assumption of materialism fundamental to science, as Johnson insists? Collins seems to think it is fundamental in biology, the discipline that he knows, but that it isn't in the disciplines he does not know. How so?

■ Robert Pollack writes more sympathetically in Science, but he notes a difficulty with Collins' view regarding the Moral Law. When Collins calls the genome the "language of God," does he mean that the Moral Law is encoded in our genome? But Pollack thinks he must know better than that. The human genome, Pollack writes,
"... encodes the instructions for the assembly of what is after all a learning organism, not for what it then learns. Mental states are the product of social interaction from birth; in principle, any brain can have any thought. The Moral Law may well be God's presence among us--I do not know how to disprove this nor why one would try--but if so, it cannot be reduced to a DNA sequence, not even to the whole human genome.

But if the Moral Law were not written in DNA, then why would DNA be the "language of God" at all?
Pollack also wonders why Collins has so little to say about the departure from the human genome mapping project of DNA co-discoverer James Watson (whom Collins replaced). Watson left because he did not want the genome to be patented, clearly an issue about which the Moral Law might be expected to have something to say.

In any event, Pollack considers the Moral Law to be purely subjective, whereas C.S. Lewis, Collins' mentor in the matter, did not. As we have seen, Collins occupies a wobbly middle ground, wanting to affirm that a moral law somehow exists but he does not bother to give it the legitimacy of offering evidence against the rambling just-so stories of evolutionary psychology.

■ In New Scientist, sociologist Steve Fuller looks at Collins'cultural position,
Collins's mission is to deny any real conflict between God and Darwin. He wants to square things for scientists who don't want intelligent design on their doorstep but who also don't want to examine their own beliefs too closely. Collins's comprehensive but exclusive training in the hard sciences may explain his belief in a God who communicates plainly through natural sciences but who refuses to cooperate with social sciences, and such biologically inflected fields as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. These latter fields, Collins asserts, would reduce "the existence of the moral laws and the universal longing for God" to culturally specific or deeply genetic survival strategies.

In trying to accommodate too many camps, Collins ends up mired in confusion. Ironically, rather like Richard Dawkins, he treats religions equally, thereby homogenising them. Collins promotes "theistic evolution," a philosophy sufficiently devoid of controversy, if not content, to be "espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians, including Pope John Paul II." It amounts to a treaty with God, whereby science does the "how" and religion the "why" of reality.

(Note: Steve Fuller is professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, U.K. his book, Dissent Over Descent: Evolution's 500 year war on intelligent design, may be expected in 2007. He gave evidence for the defense at the famous Dover trial.)

Perhaps this is where "theistic evolution" was bound to end. There is actually a review at Orthodoxy Today that claims that Darwinist Theodosius Dobzhansky "remains a believer in God", which is so far off the mark that one pauses on reading it to realize how much many Christians today need their illusions.

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

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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