16 June 2011

Live Blogging Francis Collins Address at Christian Scholars' Conference

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

I really dug the live blogging thing this morning and am going to keep it going for this afternoon’s Francis Collins address. You probably know that Francis Collins was the director of the Human Genome Project and is now the director of NIH. He is also an Evangelical Christian and the founder of the BioLogos Foundation, about which there have been several sessions today here at the Christian Scholars Conference. Same two notes as with the Polkinhorne lecture: (1) Read from the bottom, obviously. (2) Forgive my EDT time stamp; the talk began at 4 p.m. PDT.


Just got a much more interesting question about continuing human evolution, and whether we should be a part of it. He gave a cool answer about recent human mutations (why pre-historical white people didn’t get rickets). As for whether we should be a part of it (genetic engineering), he had both scientific (what if we screw up the germ line?) and theological (playing God, etc.) answers.


Wow, someone just got up and asked a really hostile question about macro-evolution. Collins is giving a kind, careful answer about why we ought to expect the gaps in the fossil record. Now he’s moving on to the point about the genomics evidence, which the questioner obviously either doesn’t get or is choosing to ignore. This is a very classy answer, classier than my characterization of the questioner (who also said that lead would be gold but for “one electron”–a comment that evoked a meaningful look from a molecular biologist I met earlier today).


Final slide was Augustine: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” A nice note to end on given how this topic is usually treated.


Another interesting question: Even if you accept Nowak’s evolutionary altruism, “the fullest and noblest expression of altruism are a scandal to evolution.” Even if we can explain truly radical altruism in evolutionary terms, this won’t bother Collins, who thinks it’s conceivable that God brought it about via evolution like everything else. A final point: if the Moral Law is purely a consequence of purely blind evolution, then there is no absolute God and evil (this is the “Can we be good without God?” question).


He’s talking now about Adam and Eve with respect to Denis Alexander’s book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?


  • A literal Adam and Eve as sole founders of the race
  • An historical couple of Neolithic farmers chosen by God
  • An historical event where God intervened and created the species Homo divinus from Homo sapiens (suddenly? gradually?)
  • Everyman [which Collins is not at all comfortable with because it's hard to square with the rest of Scripture. This is the second time today (both of them Collins talks) where I've been made very aware that, as a mainliner rather than an evangelical, I'm in many ways an outsider at this conference.]


OK, now he’s back to fast-and-loose apologetics, dismissing giant arguments with single PowerPoint bullets. “Isn’t evolution a purely random process? Doesn’t that take God out of it?” is a considered objection that oughtn’t be dealt with in ~10 seconds. A careful reading of what Dawkins is rightly saying requires this, in my opinion.


He’s telling the story of founding BioLogos (bios = life, Logos = Word = Jesus), a foundation that creates a meeting place of people interested in these questions. In my opinion, his proposal that BioLogos replace “theistic evolution” is flawed. He explains why he did it (to appeal to evangelicals who don’t like the “theism” playing second fiddle to “evolution”), but I think it’s an inappropriate term because it’s replacing theistic evolution, not Christic evolution. We’re excluding the other theistic religions in our choice of a term that need not exclude them.


He’s doing a cosmic history now. First, God was an awesome mathematician, fine-tuning the universe to give rise to complexity. Here’s the crux of his argument: “After God’s plan for evolution, in the fullness of time, had prepared a … [sufficiently large brain]” [he changed the slide] we were endowed with rationality (created in God’s image) and eventually fell…


[Sorry, just lost my connection for a few minutes.] Now he’s doing the Adam and Eve question. We’re from a pool of about 10,000 ancestors (definitely not just one or two), and we definitely have a common ancestor with Neanderthal (then a bottleneck of one or two would be very strange).


He’s showing the computer-generated, genomics-based “tree of life” that coheres so well with Darwin’s own drawing (one of the neatest parts of his book), though he admits this won’t meet the creationist “special creation” argument.


[After the clip:] “If you think that was rehearsed, you’re wrong. All he said was, ‘You’re Collins? I’m gonna get you.’”


Collins is doing great, way funnier than most Colbert guests. Just the right level of pushing back and playing along.


“Evolution is your friend,” he said to Colbert. “Evolution is God’s plan for giving upgrades.” Opposable thumb? Upgrade! Bigger brain? Upgrade! Love it.


He’s showing a hilarious Bizarro cartoon about Goldfish Crackers. Another good laugh from the audience. Now we’re seeing “one of the scariest moments of his life”: when he was on The Colbert Report: “Sorry, God doesn’t speak DNA, he speaks English.” This clip is pretty funny.

  • Collins: How do you think we got the ability to do science?
  • Colbert: Uh, because we misused God’s gifts?


NIH is “Steward of Medical and Behavioral Research for the Nation,” according to slide. He’s talking with some laughs about a Sam Harris editorial that opposed his appointment: “Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?” He took this as an opportunity to point out the differences between science and scientism. He’s noting that this has not generally been his experience in this position. He says he’s treated very well by scientists, though some think he has a “weird streak.”


Talking about “The Cancer Genome Atlas,” looking at genomic changes in major types of cancers. Definitely feeling like I’m at a scientific conference. He’s got lots of touching anecdotes about individuals he’s worked with. New targeted gene therapies are “not carpet bombing but smart bombing.” “Beverly’s doing great,” though not everyone does (their genetic misspellings are different).


Interestingly, the cost of sequencing base pairs followed Moore’s Law for quite a while but is now getting cheaper faster. Within three years, it’s going to cost about ,000 to sequence an individual’s entire genome. “Not a bad cost curve” from 0 million (I think he said). While I’ve written this, he’s been talking about therapies for rare diseases with genetic risk factors. His job is to push such insights into “new diagnostics and new therapeutics as fast as we can.”


Talking about all the different genome projects that they did after the human. Showed a great picture of the Nature cover with the dog genome article. It’s a picture of dogs looking up at the famous picture of Crick and Watson pointing at their double helix model.


The big question, he says: “Isn’t evolution incompatible with faith?” He never had the knee-jerk Christian response to the world evolution because of not being brought up in a conservative Christian household.


Slide describing what he missed when he was “falling in love with second-order differential equations”:

Nature provides some interesting pointers to God

  • There is something instead of nothing
  • “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” [that's Wigner]
  • The Big Bang [need an Augustinian creator "outside of time," notice]
  • The precise tuning of physical constants in the universe
  • The Moral Law [he always capitalizes it]

He just said Dawkins admits that “that fine-tuning thing” is the argument from believers that bothers him the most (though “none of them bothers him very much”).

[By the way, this presentation is basically a chapter-by-chapter summary of Collins's book.]


Just got a chuckle that his anthology of writings on faith and belief covers writers “from Plato to Polkinghorne.” Giving his testimony: Jesus is the bridge to a God who is “good and holy” though he, Collins, was not. Another common Collins theme: “book of nature” to complement the book of faith.


As in his book, Collins is giving a very narrative presentation, talking about his move from atheism to Christian faith via his experiences in medical school. He was impressed by the power of the “psychological crutch” belief seemed to be for his calm, but very sick, patients.


He just gave an explanation of why the “all your mind” thing creeped into Matthew 22:36-37 when compared to Deuteronomy. I think he’s wrong. It’s not for emphasis, it’s because in Hebrew you think with your heart.


“Adam and Eve with no clothes on is a lot better than DNA,” he says, commenting on a Time Magazine cover. Anyway, “For me, this [genome science + religion] is a coherent whole,” he says.


Topic: “Reflections on the Current Tensions between Science and Faith.” Collins is very tall. One of Collins’ themes both earlier today and now is the worshipful nature of science as practiced by Christians. Apparently as a presidential appointee, Collins was very difficult to get here. They’re apparently not allowed to do all sorts of public speaking that may appear to be representing the government.


NIH budget is billion. I’m actually surprised it’s not larger. Introducer is now telling a personal story about Collins’s “bedside manner” when getting badgered by eager (and disturbed) students after a lecture Collins gave at the C.S. Lewis Society (Foundation?). “Dr. Collins is a consummate bridge-builder, healer and friend.” [Applause.]


Hehe, Collins at Yale (?) was “relentless gene hunter.” Stirring reminder that the genome is 3 billion letters long. Talking about Collins’s careful consideration of ethical and legal issues around genetics. Hehe, I believe he just said within like two sentences that Language of God was published in 1910 and was on bestseller list for 20 years.


Introducer is talking about the Human Genome Project, his coming to love molecular biology, and then his decision to go to medical school.

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