Francis Collins and the God of the Gaps

It is by now no secret that Francis Collins, the president’s nominee for director of the National Institutes of Health, is an evangelical Christian [Science, 325 (5938), 250-251 (17 July 2009)]. Collins was until recently the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and I have no doubt that he will be a good administrator. Nor do I think his religious views should have in any way affected his appointment; the people I would worry about are those who could not compartmentalize religion from science as effectively as Collins.

Collins’s religious views may nevertheless be of some interest. The primary argument in his book The Language of God is what he calls the Moral Law (his capitalization). In Collins’s view, morality could not have evolved; therefore God exists. Specifically, Collins argues that morality can be found only among humans. The moral code transcends culture, he says, and therefore must be inborn. He notes that humans are often altruistic, by which he means truly altruistic in the sense of never expecting return on their altruistic investment. He briefly notes the arguments of sociobiologists to the effect that altruism can provide indirect benefit to the altruist and uses infanticide among monkeys to demonstrate that monkeys are not altruistic. He observes that worker ants are altruistic (maybe that should have been in quotation marks) because they have the same genes as the queen but dismisses the possibility that altruism among humans could have a genetic basis.

Now Collins may be right, but telling us that monkeys commit infanticide and neglecting to tell us that humans also commit infanticide is cherry-picking data in the worst way.

In short, the case that altruism or morality could have evolved is strong, and Collins makes no serious effort to refute it. He goes on to tell us that the “Moral Law shone its bright white light into the recesses of [his] childish atheism” and concludes, with no logical or convincing argument, that his God must be a theist god as opposed to a deist god. Collins drew his conclusions, according to his own testimony, after having read Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis, when he was 27.

In a subsequent chapter, Collins describes the joy he got from discovering something not previously known, from discovering a little bit of truth. He longs, however, for a greater Truth and conflates the presumed existence of that Truth with “something much grander than ourselves.” He presents no real evidence for the existence of such a Truth, but at least he doesn’t like Freud.

To say that Collins read a single book, was snowed, and converted from atheism to Christianity would be an exaggeration, but possibly not an outrageous exaggeration. Indeed, in his discussions of religion, he comes across as credulous, at best. Happily, Richard B. Hoppe says, in a report on a presentation in 2007, “According to Collins, naturalistic science can’t account for human Moral Law (Collins’ capitalization) or the origin of the universe and its (alleged) fine-tuning, and therefore belief in a God is at least partly justified. To his credit, Collins answered that he wasn’t claiming ‘proofs’ (his word) but rather only indications or pointers,” not dispositive evidence. Hoppe added privately that Collins had said that his faith would not be affected if it turned out that morality could be an evolved trait. Collins is evidently flexible in his thinking, and possibly he is reevaluating his position on the relation between morality and theism.

Here is a handful of references that help make the case for the existence of morality or altruism among nonhuman animals or for the evolution of morality. Some of them appeared after Collins’s book.

Bekoff, Marc, and Jessica Pierce. 2009. Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Choi, Jung-Kyoo, and Samuel Bowles. 2007. “The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War.” Science 318, 636-640.

De Waal, Frans. 1996. Good-Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong In Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Shermer, Michael. 2004. The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule. New York: Henry Holt.

Strassmann, Joan E., and David C. Queller. 2007. “Altruism among Amoebas.” Natural History. Vol. 116, No. 7, pp. 24-29.

Young, Matt. 2001. No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe. Bloomington, Indiana: 1stBooks Library.

Young, Matt, and Paul K. Strode. 2009. Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails). New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.