There are sure to be many who read with trepidation this morning's news that researchers have completed the first "sequence" of human genetic material. Some will ask, isn't this playing God? Some will fear that the work is the effort of scientists determined to disprove the existence of a higher power. Interesting, then, that Francis Collins, a molecular biologist who is head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, the federal government part of the sequencing project, is a devout Christian and a leading member of the American Scientific Affiliation, the 3,000-member organization for scientists who are actively religious.
Collins once told me, "I find my appreciation of science is greatly enriched by religion. When I discover something about the human genome, I experience a sense of awe at the mystery of life, and say to myself, 'Wow, only God knew before.' It is a profoundly beautiful and moving sensation, which helps me appreciate God and makes science even more rewarding for me." Collins first became prominent when he led the team that discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis. As both an active Christian and a prominent biologist, he is perhaps today's leading exponent for the view that there is no conflict between evolutionary biology and the Bible. Collins winces on the word creationism, asserting that "Creationism has done more harm to serious notions of belief than anything in modern history." He maintains that the evidence for natural selection is overwhelming, but that this need not stop anyone from believing that a creator God set the process in motion.
Collins, who prays and attends church regularly, says that "In my field, biology, the standard assumption is that anyone with faith has gone soft in the head. But I don't check my brains at the door when I go to church." He finds that many scientists are biased against faith--"When a scientist describes himself as a believer, the first reaction among colleagues may be, 'How did this guy get tenure?'"--essentially for turf reasons. "Scientists are taught to believe that the data will eventually yield all answers," Collins says. "So if you tell them there are important aspects of life that cannot be understood through lab tests or data, that means their form of knowledge will always be limited, and some find that threatening."
Collins believes that the human genome sequence will add greatly to medical progress but cautions against reading too much into it. He says, "I especially worry about this galloping stampede to reductionism in my field, where the rush is on to attribute everything, even personality traits, to DNA. This is patently ridiculous. Reductionist explanations of human consciousness fly in the face of everything else we know about the subject." ("Reductionism" means attributing complex results, such as human self-awareness, exclusively to simple causes, such as DNA chemicals.)
Summing up his views of the boundary between science and faith, Collins says, "I would not expect religion to be the right tool for sequencing the human genome and by the same token would not expect science to be the means to approaching the supernatural. But on the really interesting larger questions, such as 'Why are we here?' or 'Why do human beings long for spirituality?,' I find science unsatisfactory. Many superstitions have come into existence and then faded away. Faith has not, which suggests it has reality."