Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Francis Collins and Theistic Evolution
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
Francis S. Collins
Free Press, 2006
280 pp., pb.
Dr. Francis S. Collins is one of the most distinguished scientists of our time. He is the head of the Human Genome Project as well as the director of the National Institutes of Health here in the U.S. He also happens to be a devout Christian, and it is this combination of circumstances that helped make his book a New York Times bestseller.
Dr. Collins gives us a fascinating account of his own personal journey from atheism to Christ, and then discusses, in the middle of the narrative, the current controversy between science and religion. In Dr. Collins' view the two are quite compatible, and what he offers as a solution is his version of theistic evolution. Unfortunately, his proposed solution has some serious difficulties.
The first of these difficulties is a theological problem. In discussing evolution Dr. Collins sounds very much like his secular counterparts such as Prof. Jerry A. Coyne. He believes that all living creatures, including human beings, share a common ancestry, with single cell organisms appearing some 550 million years ago and anatomically modern humans appearing 195,000 years ago. And yet Dr. Collins wants to say that humans are somehow different – that we have a "spiritual nature" that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom, a spiritual nature that defies evolutionary explanation.
There are, however, several difficulties with this scenario. For one thing, in order to accommodate evolution Dr. Collins has to adopt an allegorical interpretation of Genesis chapters 1 and 2. He argues that a "day" is not necessarily a literal 24 hour day. But the problem here is that the word "day" is defined within the text itself: "God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day:" (Gen. 1:5; NKJV). It is hard to see how the human author could have intended anything other than something close to a literal 24 hour day, and virtually no one else would have interpreted it any other way prior to the 19th Century. (Dr. Collins does note that St. Augustine raised some questions about how literally to take the six "days" of creation).
By the same token Dr. Collins denies that there was a literal Adam and Eve. Yet the whole theology of original sin rests on the assumption of a common ancestor whose actions affected the entire race. Thus it is hard to see how the biblical narrative can be reconciled with Darwinian evolution.
It should be noted that Dr. Collins arrived at his Christian faith largely through the philosophical arguments of C.S. Lewis. Lewis argued for the philosophical necessity of a Moral Law, which, in turn, implies both the existence of God as its author and a special capacity in human beings to discern this Law. To support the idea of evolution Dr. Collins relies heavily on comparative genetics and the presence of "junk DNA," both updated versions of the older arguments drawn from comparative anatomy and vestigial organs. Thus Dr. Collins begins with a philosophical presupposition, combines that with the standard scientific understanding of evolution, and then makes his interpretation of Scripture conform to the resulting conclusion. The result is that his theology is biblically weak, and this is a problem for the Christian believer who takes seriously the authority of Scripture as a divine revelation.
Next: the philosophical problem.