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Francis Collins Appointed as Director of NIH: Science is Attacked Under
the Banner of "the compatibility of science and religion"
“After evolution had
sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted
humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with
free will, and with an immortal soul.” Francis Collins, 2008 slide
show on science and belief, Berkeley, CA.
"The NIH director needs
focus on science," Dr. Francis Collins told The Associated Press
on Monday. "I have no religious agenda for the NIH." Associated Press,
Collins, nominated by Barack Obama on July 8, 2009, was confirmed on
August 7, 2009 as the director of the National Institutes of Health
(NIH) by a unanimous vote of the Senate. Collins’ scientific
credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical
geneticist and the former head of the Human Genome Project.
for some time, he has been on a very public crusade to proselytize
his particular view about the “compatibility between science and
religion”. As noted in the AP quote above, Collins denies having
any religious agenda for the NIH, but in the same AP interview,
Collins again makes a point about harmonizing “extreme voices” –
explicitly in connection with how he views his responsibilities at
"I do think the current
that's going on in our culture between extreme voices is not a
productive one," he said. "The chance to play some kind of
useful role in that conversation by pointing out the potential
harmony was something that seemed to be making some inroads.”
Associated Press, 8/17/09
“harmony” is not good for science.
Collins' crusade for harmonizing science and religion
wrote “The Language of God”
in 2006, arguing for the harmony of science and his version of
evangelical Christianity. In April of this year, Collins
founded the BioLogos Foundation to demonstrate “... the
compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about
the origins of the universe and life.” BioLogos is funded by the
Templeton Foundation which for years has used its large wealth (e.g.
$1 million 'Templeton Prizes') to buy the complicity of many
scientists into its mission of reconciling and blurring the
distinction between science and religious approaches to science.
resigned as head of the BioLogos Foundation when he was nominated to
the NIH but made a statement on the BioLogos website expressing his
confidence that its work will continue.)
Sam Harris, in a significant
op-ed piece in the New York Times, pointed to several dimensions of his
views of the problems with Collins' views, including in relation to
philosophical and moral questions which are beyond the scope of this
we do need to examine this “harmony” between religion and
science, in particular where it comes into conflict with science for
Collins, and to examine the political implications of his
appointment. A revealing insight into this conflict comes in
relation to evolution, a touchstone of science and the scientific
method. Collins presented a talk in Berkeley, CA in 2008 on
science and belief:
for the video of the Berkeley talk)
1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created
a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned
to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”
2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create
the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most
especially, that creative plan included human beings.”
3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced
‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge
of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an
slides reveal that despite his protests, Collins’ view is in direct
contradiction to core evolutionary principles, and to the degree that
they influence science and the public understanding of science in
this country, his views are very harmful. (footnote 1)
further glimpse of the real agenda and content of these claims to be
showing “compatibility” and to be “building bridges” between
science and religion is revealed in this quote from Collins' book
'The Language of God':
believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as
Creator; you are right to
hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to
the conclusion that science
offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence;
and you are
right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic
materialism must be steadfastly
resisted…. “ (Collins, 2006, p.178)
reference to “atheistic materialism” serves to delegitimize core
principles of the scientific method and to legitimize the
introduction of god as a hypothesis in science. Collins argues that
it is foundational to understanding reality that there is a God and
that God had, and has, a plan for humanity and that this plan
operates in and through God’s intervention into evolution. This
argument for so-called “theistic evolution” is explicitly applied
by Collins to the universe as a whole. (see footnote 2)
clear, our own views on these questions are that everyone, of all
religious and political views, is welcomed into the on-going struggle
to defend science. The Defend Science statement from 2005 spoke to
what for most scientists is a core part of our understanding of what
constitutes science and distinguishes science from various forms of
non-scientific and anti-scientific methods and approaches to science
thing the overwhelming majority of scientists have in common is their
understanding that, when conducting scientific investigation and
applying the scientific method, it is essential to use as a starting
point previously accumulated scientific knowledge -- the storehouse
of well-established scientific evidence about reality which has
previously been arrived at through concrete and systematic scientific
observation and experiment and has been subjected to rigorous
scientific review and testing. This is what we scientists stand on as
our foundation when we set out to further investigate reality and
make new discoveries. This is how science has been done and how it
has advanced for hundreds of years now, and this has allowed science
to benefit humanity in countless ways.
science never proceeds from, or uses as its starting point, any set
of subjective "beliefs," "opinions" or
"faith-based edicts" handed down by religious or secular
authorities and proclaimed to be beyond human questioning, testing
and investigation. To bring into the scientific process assumptions,
religious or otherwise, which were not arrived at by scientific
methods, and which by definition cannot be tested by
scientific methods, would destroy science as science."
is not just promoting a general philosophical and religious view. From
these views he draws, and invites others to draw, purported
scientific conclusions that conflict with a scientific view of
evolution. And Collins has made clear that he is seeking political
allies on the religious right. At the Berkeley forum, Collins spoke
of how he is having “good conversations” with people like Rick
Warren, right-wing Christian Fundamentalist, who he says is
supportive of Collins’ project. Warren is a young-earth
creationist and opposes both evolution and Collins' variant of
theistic evolution. Although Collins denies it, it is very difficult
to see how his passionate and deeply held views will not impact his
role as head of NIH, particularly when he sees promoting his view of
“harmony” as part of his mission there, as in the AP interview
has repeatedly stated his allegiance to restoring scientific
integrity. Recall these words from his Memorandum on Scientific
let’s be clear: promoting science isn’t just about providing
resources – it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It
is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free
from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us,
even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s
inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never
distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we
make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”
the face of it, this sounds good. But the rub is, for Obama these
principles are neither determining nor inviolable, they may be and
are sacrificed for other perceived needs or political expediencies.
Obama has upheld his own version of the harmony between religion and
science and he has sought to unite antagonistic elements under one
big tent; and that includes extending an embrace and welcome to
powerful Christian Fundamentalist currents.
this has set Obama and his administration in opposition to
consistently upholding core principles of science. In
the context we find ourselves in the aftermath of Bush, Obama has
embraced hard-core enemies of science, and acted as if there is no
problem. He has set Christian fundamentalist moral principles as the
guide for what kinds of stem cell research can and cannot be done
(though in a different way than Bush.) (See Footnote 3) He has not
spoken out against the on-going assault on the teaching of evolution
in the schools.
regard to Collins, the issue is not centrally whether he can (or has
been able to) set aside his personal beliefs and “do good science”. The
position of Director of NIH involves most crucially representing
science and the scientific method in the political arena, including
to the broad public as well as in matters of policy. Placing Collins
in the position of authority as Director of NIH will have harmful
effects on science itself, and beyond that, will only embolden
opponents of science from the Discovery Institute to their many
right-wing Christian Fundamentalist backers. They will interpret
Collins’ injection of his brand of creationism into the heart of
the federal government's medical and health research establishment as
an opening to them injecting their brand of anti-scientific poison
into the science classroom.
all these reasons, this appointment represents a significant and
dangerous attack on science and points to the bigger problem for
science and scientific thinking represented by the Obama
aspect of “theistic evolution” is a muddle which is in open and
sharp contradiction to evolutionary theory. A key point of
evolutionary theory since Darwin has been that no plan or direction
outside of life on earth itself was required to explain the
development of life from single cells to human beings. Stephen Jay
Gould and other evolutionary biologists have further emphasized that
the evolutionary process does not follow any pre-determined course,
(let alone one who's 'purpose' is to create homo sapiens or any other
particular species). Rather it is a process full of contingency –
the evolution of human beings might not have occurred, for example,
if a meteor had not struck the earth about 65 million years ago
causing the extinction of most dinosaurs and opening up ecological
niches for what were up to that point very small early mammals.
Collins runs into problems like this, he falls back to (paraphrasing)
it really comes down to the question do you believe in God. If you
do then God can do whatever he wants.
Here is Collins'
description of theistic evolution from his book:
are many subtle variants of theistic evolution, but a typical version
rests upon the following premises:
into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.
the precise mechanism of the origin of
life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of
evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological
diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.
evolution got under way, no special
supernatural intervention was required.
are part of this process, sharing a
common ancestor with the great apes.
But humans are also
unique in ways that defy
evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This
includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and
wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures
are differences between Collins and his views and those of the
most extreme creationists: he accepts evolution (while conceptually
enclosing it in a creationist framework and disconnecting humans from
the rest of the evolved living creatures, considering them special
products of God), he supports stem cell research, including the
still-not-approved somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). He has
criticized and opposed opponents of evolution including those
promoting “intelligent design” and urged them to accept and
reconcile facts of science into their religious views.
more details on stem cell policy, see the full Defend Science
commentary “Obama's Stem Cell Research Policy: Needed Science
Remains Banned and Constrained by Christian Fundamentalist Ideology”
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