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Friday, November 24, 2006

Part Two Does it matter that genome mapper Francis Collins became a Christian?

People become Christians every day. People also cease to be Christians every day. On any given day, some people walk toward the cross and others away from it.

Does it matter more if one person becomes a Christian than another? The premise of so many favorable reviews of Collins' book is, what it is a marvellous thing it is that a scientist can still be a Christian!

Really? What special insight does a successful career in science provide? Collins thinks clearly, but so do many who have never set foot in a lab. Questions such as whether belief in God is a form of wish fulfilment or why some religious people are hypocritical or violent have occurred to many. One can learn clear thinking about them in a law office or a machine shop, or at the night news desk of a metro daily.

The cross itself requires no illumination from science or from any other worldly source. It is not a landmark likely to be mistaken for some other one.

Collins endured his daughter's sexual assault. Though he reveals few details, we must suppose that his faith helped him cope. This is one of the stronger points of his book. Accounts of a religious conversion that do not describe any really serious suffering tend to fall flat. People do not discover the key truths about life until they have come to the end of their illusions. Only serious suffering stops the cascade of illusions.

Collins has seen in science a way of worshipping God . His comment on the completion of the Human Genome Project are almost a mirror image of Watson’s anniversary remarks: “For me, as a believer, the uncovering of the human genome sequence held additional significance. This book was written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being. I felt an overwhelming sense of awe in surveying this most significant of all biological texts.”

The trouble is, when we get beyond that, Collins' case is confused and insubstantial. One problem is that he relies so heavily on CS Lewis. That is a good thing in itself and it is also a good thing that he graciously acknowledges the debt. But Lewis died on November 22, 1963, famously on the same day as John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley. There has been a lot of water under the bridge.

For example, reviewers were quick to point out that Darwin's bastard children, the evolutionary psychologists, have claimed to discern Lewis' Moral Law in the natural selection by which one cave man became our ancestor and not another. These evolutionary psychologists were hardly children when Lewis died, and given the substantial number of trees that have been slain to produce their works, Collins' dismissal of them is much too cursory. Especially considering the trouble he goes to, in order to defend Darwin's theory of evolution in his own discipline. But more on that later.

Speaking the unspeakable

And then there is something else: Before he went on to genome fame, Collins headed up a team at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto to find the gene that causes cystic fibrosis. (A commenter has noted, correctly, that Collins was himself based at the University of Michigan.)

A singer/songwriter as well as medic and research scientist, Collins wrote a lyric about his team's achievement, dedicated to families coping with "rare diseases in themselves or their children" (p. 123):
"This is a song for those who are suffering,
Your strength and your spirit have touched
one and all
It's your dedication that's our inspiration,
Because of your courage, you help us stand tall."

as well as one for children with CF:
Dare to dream, dare to dream,
All our brothers and sisters breathing free.
Unafraid, our hearts unswayed,
Till the story of CF is history. (p. 93)

Wonderful, touching. Only one problem. What exactly is the relationship between Collins' team's work and the chances of a child with cystic fibrosis living to draw a single, troubled breath?

Well, Collins' team's work enabled such children to be aborted. (The only other potentially available technique is test tube fertilization, accompanied by discarding the embryo humans who carry the gene.)

Collins notes that management of the symptoms had actually progressed to the point where CF children were "surviving to attend college, marry, and enter the workforce" (p. 112) when his team found a way to detect and abort them. Thus making the disease history. End of story.

But who really wants to think about this? The Christian book-buying crowd? Oh, why couldn't they just buy their loved ones flaming loud ties, and let victims die in peace?

The incredible shrinking human embryo

Francis Collins seems to be exploring support for the use of human embryos, abandoned at fertility clinics, in research. He told Salon,
Stem cells have been discussed for 10 years, and yet I fear that much of that discussion has been more heat than light. First of all, I believe that the product of a sperm and an egg, which is the first cell that goes on to develop a human being, deserves considerable moral consequences. This is an entity that ultimately becomes a human. So I would be opposed to the idea of creating embryos by mixing sperm and eggs together and then experimenting on the outcome of that, purely to understand research questions. On the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of such embryos in freezers at in vitro fertilization clinics. In the process of in vitro fertilization, you almost invariably end up with more embryos than you can reimplant safely. The plausibility of those ever being reimplanted in the future -- more than a few of them -- is extremely low. Is it more ethical to leave them in those freezers forever or throw them away? Or is it more ethical to come up with some sort of use for those embryos that could help people? I think that's not been widely discussed.

This is an interesting moral stance, for several reasons: It's wrong to experiment on human embryos unless someone else has created them anyway, in which case why waste them? So the wrong becomes right when someone else can be assigned part of the responsibility?. Centuries ago, one might have argued in the same way for buying slaves. Someone else enslaved them and it is legal. And besides, it is no longer economical to run a farm on free labour. And they don't know any different.

In any event, the actual ethics discussion has long since passed the point where anyone questions the humanity of the embryo, as in "ultimately becomes a human." Rather, the argument is theat the embryo is nothing compared to a "legal person." Serious Christians do not, of course, accept this judgement, a fact which kindles the ire of many of Collins' materialist colleagues, who chafe at any constraints. In fairness, he offers so few constraints, that they would be most unreasonable to attack him merely for wringing his hands at the difficulties.

On pages 245-57 of The Language of God, Collins says many similar things. It becomes clear that, just as it is hard for him to believe in a non-materialist account of the origin and development of life, it is hard for him to accept the traditional Christian view that an individual human life begins at conception (fertilization). Reading his tentative, uncertain account of these questions (pp. 249-52), one is tempted to wonder just what he thinks happened at the conception of Jesus Christ. The accounts in the New Testament are written for those who assume that a new human being originates at conception.

Now, if Collins did not claim to be a Christian, none of that would be any problem at all. He could safely dismiss it all as rot. But he is claiming to be one, and therein lies the difficulty with all these acres of moral squishiness.

So what have other reviewers said?

Next: Part Three: The key weaknesses, as spotted by reviewers
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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