Quotes from Francis Collins

I selected a few salient quotes from Francis Collins‘ book on evolutionary development and faith, The Language of God, which I would recommend reading alongside the resources already suggested by Ayala, Venema, and Falk (though Falk is better). Collins is a Christian and was the leader of the legendary Human Genome Project. His book is an apologetic for both evolutionary development and the Christian faith.

On supposed micro/macro evolutionary distinctions:Language_of_god_francis_collins

The distinction between macroevolution and microevolution is therefore seen to be rather arbitrary; larger changes that result in new species are a result of a succession of smaller incremental steps.

On the connection between evolutionary theory and medicine:

Truly it can be said that not only biology but medicine would be impossible to understand without the theory of evolution.

On DNA relics that point unarguably toward common descent rather than discrete and separate species design:

Unless one is willing to take the position that God has placed these decapitated AREs (ancient repetitive elements) in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us, the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable.

On Genesis, a quote which happens to reflect precisely my conclusion regarding the state of church knowledge about the creation accounts. As I have cited in my thesis, we have no idea what it means, no consensus, and no intention of admitting that revelation too ambiguous to communicate to the reader is by definition not revelatory:

Diverse interpretations continue to be promoted about the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2… Despite twenty-five centuries of debate, it is fair to say that no human knows what the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2 was precisely intended to be. We should continue to explore that!

Regarding Intelligent Design, Collins was uncharacteristically decimating. In a single chapter (Ch. 9), he fairly decapitates the movement, both from a standpoint of science and a standpoint of faith. As a person who has read Stephen Meyer‘s tome, Signature in the Cell, and has since been thoroughly disenfranchised with the entire premise by better information, I seriously recommend this chapter as a concise and decapitating treatment of the subject (underlines mine):

On the surface, the objections to Darwinism put forward by the ID movement appear compelling, and it is not surprising that nonscientists, especially those looking for a role for God in the evolutionary process, have embraced these arguments warmly. But if the logic truly had merit on scientific grounds, one would expect that the rank and file of working biologists would also show interest in pursuing these ideas, especially since a significant number of biologists are also believers. This has not happened, however…

…(it) is a scientific dead end.

…it now seems likely that many examples of irreducible complexity are not irreducible after all, and that the primary scientific argument for ID is thus in the process of crumbling. In the short fifteen years since ID appeared on the scene, science has made substantial advances, particularly in the detailed study of the genomes of multiple organisms from multiple different parts of the evolutionary tree. Major cracks are beginning to appear, suggesting that ID proponents have made the mistake of confusing the unknown with the unknowable, or the unsolved with the unsolvable.

Concerning the Christian apologetic dimensions of the book, I can only observe that Collins should likely have kept himself to the scientific side of the discussion. There are too many fallacies, conflations, and poor assumptions in his arguments, many of which have been dismantled adeptly in the days since the excessively-quoted C.S. Lewis. He seems entirely unaware of the historical, textual, and authorship issues facing both Testaments; that is unless one is to charge him with more deliberate glossing over and overt denial of these dimensions. I personally think that ignorance is the better explanation (and the more charitable one). On the wider background of his statements in Religulous and his interview in The Believing Brain (Michael Shermer), it seems apparent that he simply suffers the same blanks in his knowledge base as most believers. And therein lies his optimism about the scientific dimensions of the conversation. Knowing not that one knows not, and cheerily.

Comments

  1. I agree with you about Francis Collins and evolution. But I feel you have been a little unfair to him when you say “it seems apparent that he simply suffers the same blanks in his knowledge base as most believers”.

    Have you considered the possibility that he is quite aware of the “historical, textual, and authorship issues facing both Testaments”? That is certainly true for me.

    I didn’t grow up in a christian home, but first believed in Jesus when I was in my mid to late teens. I was immediately interested in learning about my belief, and after I completed my engineering degree, I completed a theology degree from a fairly non-evangelical institution, in which I learnt quite a bit about “historical, textual, and authorship issues facing both Testaments”.

    My interest has continued through life, with a special interest in Jesus and history. Since I retired, I have made this a special area of reading, and now have read dozens of books on the subject, mostly not by christian apologists, but by recognised scholars of all viewpoints. I have found that this has enhanced my faith and understanding, not diminished or destroyed it, though of course it has at times given me much challenge and food for thought.

    This is not to suggest that you would agree with my conclusions, or Francis Collins’. But it does suggest that perhaps your comments about his ignorance may be mistaken.

    Best wishes.

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    • unkleE, good comment. I’ll respond a bit more tomorrow, as I’d like to assemble a few specifics from Collins to illustrate my admittedly compact comments in that post…

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  2. unkleE,

    I’ve had a chance to pull together a few examples from the text to expand my perhaps overly compressed observations. Collins makes a number of confident and unqualified statements affirming the eyewitness-record status of the Gospels and other NT texts. Given the broader knowledge about these texts today, and that signals something on the part of the author. A few examples:

    (1) “The concern about not accepting liberal interpretations of biblical texts is understandable. After all, there are clearly parts of the Bible that are written as eyewitness accounts of historical events, including much of the New Testament. For a believer, the events recorded in these sections ought to be taken as the writer intended— as descriptions of observed facts.” – Chapter 8, Page 175

    (2) “Many sacred texts do indeed carry the clear marks of eyewitness history, and as believers we must hold fast to those truths. Others, such as the stories of Job and Jonah, and of Adam and Eve, frankly do not carry that same historical ring.” – Chapter 10, page 109

    (3) “But as I read the actual account of His life for the first time in the four gospels, the eyewitness nature of the narratives and the enormity of Christ’s claims and their consequences gradually began to sink in.” – Chapter 11, page 221

    (4) “The other scandalous thing that the New Testament eyewitnesses said about Him, and that Christians seemed to take as a central tenet of their faith, is that this good man rose from the dead.” – Chapter 11, page 221

    (5) “But the more I read of biblical and non-biblical accounts of events in first-century Palestine, the more amazed I was at the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ. First of all, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were put down just a few decades after Christ’s death. Their style and content suggests strongly that they are intended to be the record of eyewitnesses (Matthew and John were among the twelve apostles).” – Chapter 11, page 223

    The issue of eyewitness testimony is raised often. Every time it is, it is unqualified. As I read it, I thought to myself, “this is like reading Lee Strobel.” And it turns out that there was a good reason for that. The notes section refers to the following authors/scholars: B.B. Warfield, John Paul II, C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, FF Bruce, J. Polkinghorne. Given this cross-section, I’m not surprised that he seems unwaveringly confident in his opinions. As I’ve pointed out in my Crayons section, he evidences complete insularity in terms of sources cited.

    No qualifiers. In fact, on the backdrop of what we know about these texts and the past claims of eyewitness authorship, this is (at best) fairly reckless.

    Christians have scholars who do far better than this. You will not catch Peter Enns making such lopsided assertions. Nor have I seen it from scientific peers like Dennis Alexander. Quite simply put, as a world-leading scholar, I expected far better from Collins. He is not approaching the questions of Biblical authenticity with the same balance and care that he does the scientific views. He is supporting and promulgating minority NT textual positions and passing them off with confidence and implicit legitimacy. He has been careful to note the minority positions elsewhere regarding scientific points, why not here?

    Lee Strobel is part of the problem, because he presents what certainly *not* a majority NT scholarly position and never informs his readers of it. But then, Mr. Strobel is a journalist – not a PhD. Collins has written a doctoral dissertation, completed a Ph.D., done world-leading research in genomics, etc. He knows how it is to be done. As someone that’s done research for the National Academy of Science and a variety of other government/military branches, so do I. (Though I do not claim anything like Collins’ professional achievements) We know better than to make the kind of assertions he is making, and we’re careful for two reasons: (1) your credibility as an honest reporter/researcher/source is at stake, and (2) you will be lampooned and skewered by other academics if you are reckless. He’s not manifesting these qualities regarding the biblical issues.

    He has done this elsewhere too. In what was left in the final cut of Religulous (admittedly, not a protracted talk), he tried to say the same thing to Bill Maher. Maher made fun of the claim (outcome 2 above), and he had the traction to do so. Collins’ response was a bit befuddled, and not impressive. He looked like a person unused to being questioned on this – otherwise he wouldn’t have walked into a door with someone like Maher.

    I do suggest reading the interview that he had with Michael Shermer in “The Believing Brain”, as well as Shermer’s analysis. It manifests the same happy-go-lucky attitude toward the bible and historicity, with a seeming un-appreciation of the other side of the historicity discussion.

    To draw to a close… He simply does not read (to me) like a person who is aware of the serious textual and historical problems. I say this because he simply is not *careful* about what he says on those issues, and I believe that a Ph.D. would be… certainly all the Ph.D.’s that I’ve worked with would be. I do not see carelessness as a good diagnosis. Researchers develop a gun-shy nature about overclaiming things that are shaky. If he had been broadly aware, I would expect him to simply not discuss things like the eyewitness point at all. In this book, he doesn’t need to. Its ancillary to the thesis of the book, and it is, even in optimistic terms, a heavily debatable point. More realistically, it is a losing point. But its certainly not a solid point. So I doubt he was careless here. That leaves two other options. (1) He is well informed, but dogmatic to a point of obscurantism. Or (2) He is relatively unaware. He struck on first reading as a Strobel/Lewis apologist, and I see nothing to this point that persuades me that he’s much broader than that. A lot of smart Christians aren’t. I was one of them. The believing Ph.D.’s I’ve worked with have been equally ignorant. He sounds like us.

    I think that, if you’re a Ph.D. and a Christian community leader, and if you’re going to take people’s money for a book, you ought to do better than what Collins has done in his book. Anyway, hopefully that puts some meat on the table for further discussion! Thanks again for the comment, and I like your blog and your spirit of honest dialogue.

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  3. One further quote that I mistakenly left out:

    “In fact, one scholar has written, “The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar.”” – Page 224

    The context was unfortunate. It makes it sound as though this quote is a corroboration of the gospel version of Jesus. The quote actually refers to simply the existence of the historical man. Nearly all Quest authors acknowledge this, but that is a very far cry indeed from either (1) agreeing that the gospels are accurate and reliable, or (2) supporting the claims that matter regarding Jesus’ identity, resurrection, etc. It simply says that such a person lived. The remainder is deeply embattled on all sides.

    So again, simply misleading, simplistic, and deserving of critique.

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  4. Hi, sorry to take a while to get back to this, I was away for a week and then I’ve been busy. I think there is a difference between being unaware of textual issues and not accepting the secular historians’ approach to textual issues. :Let’s start with a few things we can agree on, at least in part.

    Yes, there are historical issues about the accuracy of the NT gospels, and a wise range of opinion by competent scholars on what to conclude. And yes, Collins didn’t address these issues to any degree. But in his defence I would say:

    (1) His was a book on genetics and God, not NT criticism. He cannot write in detail about everything.

    (2) The consensus of secular scholarship on Jesus is not just that he existed, but that we can know quite a lot about him. See Is there really a consensus of scholars on historical facts about Jesus?, in which the quotes build from simply the conclusion of Jesus’ existence to a minimum set of facts about him.

    (3) These are minimum facts that atheists, christians and others should all be able to agree on. Many christian scholars can agree on these, but still believe that more can be confidently known (e.g. the arguments for the historical evidence for Jesus’ divinity and the resurrection). These are the scholars Strobel quotes, for example, and they are not representative of the views in #2, but they are representative of good christian scholarship, which Collins presumably subscribes to. (I note that he has been influenced by CS Lewis, not a Biblical scholar, but very familiar with ancient languages and writings, and very critical of “modern” Biblical scholars as being more radical than secular historians.)

    (4) If we follow the historical consensus on the gospels, that significant chunks of them have a good historical basis, they must be based on eye-witness accounts, otherwise how did people know what happened? The question is more: how much have they been edited since the historical reports? All we know about this amounts to theories. Some sceptics say they have been massively edited, but others think it is much less. For example, the atheist historian Maurice Casey, an expert in the Aramaic language which Jesus probably spoke, believes Mark is very early, contains many Aramaisms that indicate this genuine reporting, and preserves generally very accurate reports. Christian Richard Bauckham has shown that the eyewitness reports may be much closer and more well-preserved than many may think. Doubtless we will all be influenced by what we want to believe, you and me alike, Michael Shermer and Francis Collins alike, we are all human!

    So I understand where you are coming from, and I appreciate “your spirit of honest dialogue” also, but I think (i) you have asked too much of his small book, (ii) you have overstated the sceptical conclusions of the scholars, and (iii) you haven’t considered that he may have considered all this, and chosen to follow the more christian scholars.

    Thanks again.

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    • UnkleE,

      Concur with paragraph (1). I think NT reliability is outside the scope of his book. I maintain that he really shouldn’t have discussed that topic point on multiple occasions if he was not going to actually discuss it. That’s one of my objections. Multiple mentions (call them affirmations) without support.

      Concur with paragraph (2), and quite familiar with the minimum points. Sander’s points have been repeated in various places, and I don’t really take issue with them. However, the minimum points leave out a great deal for the creedal believer – particularly such things as any claims Jesus may have made about his divinity, any factuality to the resurrection, etc. Though he may be said to have considered himself messianic-ally, going beyond this is by no means a consensus among scholars.

      To paragraphs (3) & (4), Strobel has been criticized for selecting his panel of scholars from a notoriously narrow viewpoint. One gets not the slightest hint from his work of the actual diversity among Jesus historians. I think a few simple questions help flesh that out… Do a majority of Jesus historians consider the gospel of John to be largely historically reliable material? Do a majority of Jesus historians consider the remaining gospels to be eyewitness works, or to simply contain material that goes back to eyewitnesses? You certainly allude to questions like these, and you are aware of the complexities. As you say, “The question is more: how much have they been edited since the historical reports? All we know about this amounts to theories.” Concur, concur, concur. There is no scholarly consensus on the points that really matter to believers (essential textual integrity, divinity claims, conception claims, resurrection claims, etc). And this is precisely why a non-subject-matter-expert like Collins (not to mention Strobel) really ought not to be dispensing to the public, from a notable podium, a pabulum that veneers the problem(s). Most Christians simply do not know there are problems, and Collins is keeping the inertia up. He didn’t have to mention this subject at all, and he does so repeatedly.

      The honest position is that we do not have good cause for confidence in the gospels because they are shaky enough as texts to have created massive divides among the experts. Even the assertion that they were written by their namesakes becomes “an article of faith” or opinion. The reliable center is small. Contrast this with other areas of human knowledge… Regarding all of this, I tip my hat in saying that, in your brief four paragraphs, you have already been far more honest than Collins has been.

      This remains my problem. Collins is a Ph.D. that is not acting like one. Ph.D.’s are careful, they avoid making spurious statements – statements that could undermine their central points elsewhere. His friend Falk did better with his equal-length book. Ayala also wrote a faith-friendly book that did better as well. Christianity seems to be where Collins takes a sort of break from rigor. IMO, this shouldn’t be done in a commercial publication by a man of his office. So I remain with a three-way choice between thinking him reckless, veneering, or unknowing.

      Excellent feedback, BTW. Nice to interact with a gent that has read around the subject!

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  5. Hi, thanks for your kind words. I appreciate your approach too. I don’t think we are going to agree on this one, but since we are having a pleasant conversation, I will offer a few more ideas.

    I think my main problem here is that you seem to take a very unrealistic view of knowledge and its role in life. Let me start with an example. Let us consider freewill and ethics. Most neuroscientists I have read believe we have no genuine free will (i.e. the ability to make a choice different to what would have occurred from the flow of physical events) because they don’t believe there is anything other than the flow of physical events. Most scientific atheists seem to agree.

    As a result, they also have a problem with ethics, well two problems. (1) they have difficulty finding any objective basis for ethics and why we “should” obey them, and (2) it is difficult to see how the law should punish offenders if there is no objective basis and no ability to choose anyway.

    As an example, my reading of the outcomes of the Moving naturalism forwards workshop is that they came to these negative views on both ethics and free will. And yet few of these scientists would live consistently with those conclusions – I bet they all teach their children to be kind to others, they get angry if someone breaks into their house, and they want to see justice done in Syria. In these matters, they go way beyond what their science tells them, and even against what their science tells them, and they are better people because of it. After all, they are human beings and have to live a life in the real world, and life is much more than science, and often far less definite. We live in uncertainty and have to do the best we can.

    So as a christian, I feel quite comfortable with reviewing the historical evidence for the NT and deciding I trust the writers, I trust Jesus and I trust God. And so I am happy to believe even those things which the historians cannot pass judgment on. I am less willing to accept things they say cannot possibly be historical, but really there isn’t a lot of that in the gospels. And when I talk to others about christianity, I feel free to mention the historical dilemmas, or not, depending on the circumstances. But I believe I can justify my position if required. In this I am probably the same as an atheist might be if reporting a robbery to the police – I doubt they would bother then to encourage the police to consider that the criminal had no real choice about the matter!

    So I don’t know where Francis Collins sits, but I think it is quite reasonable for him, writing a book about his life and biology, to not go into all that other stuff you suggest. His having a PhD is not really germane here, I don’t think, any more than the police need to know that Richard Dawkins has a PhD before they accept his report on the robbery.

    I agree with you about one thing though – I think the failure of some christians (mainly pastors) to let people know there are issues here actually works against christianity in the long run, and I wish they were more forthcoming. And I agree these comments apply to Strobel’s books. I’m just not sure that Francis needed to do it in that book, and I fell quite sure that you cannot know how aware he is of these issues, any more than I can.

    Thanks and best wishes.

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    • So, this was a sort of sweeping statement:

      “I think my main problem here is that you seem to take a very unrealistic view of knowledge and its role in life.”

      Can you give some support to this judgment about my case in particular?

      You follow with an example regarding free will, but I’ve never spoken/written on any views there.

      As a counter-point, I’m an active applied researcher. This gives me very immediate – and sometimes high consequence – feedback on my perceptions of reality and my perceptions of personal certainty/un-certainty regard what I think I know or not. I have a good deal more “tested instances” in such areas than most people actually do.

      My early history in cult movements and emergence by study are definitive data points that suggest a skill in discernment through inquiry.

      So I don’t think its out of bounds for me to ask, why the sweeping judgment, specifically?

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  6. Hi, it seems I might have offended you with my comment. If so, I’m sorry, I meant no offence. Let me explain.

    You have criticised Francis Collins for not giving an adequate explanation of the state of NT scholarship in his book, even though he has a PhD and should have higher standards. I felt this was like asking someone to use a high level of precision at times when this wasn’t reasonable or necessary. So I used the example of free will to show we don’t expect others to be so precise in all parts of their life as they would be in their science, so why expect Collins to be so precise?

    The comment “I think my main problem here is that you seem to take a very unrealistic view of knowledge and its role in life.” was not intended as a general statement about you, but a statement about your expectations in this case, that’s why I used the word “here”.

    I don’t know if that makes things any clearer, it is 11:30 at night here, but I wanted to try to clear this up. I’m sorry again, I wasn’t trying to be offensive, just trying to analyse what you were saying and where and why we were disagreeing.

    Best wishes.

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  7. Let me express it a simpler way. I think because Francis Collins is a well-credentialled scientist, you are expecting him to behave in a rigorous way like a scientist when he is writing about Jesus. But we don’t have to behave like rigorous scientists in all of our life, as the example of freewill shows.

    Hope that makes it easier to understand what I was getting at. Best wishes.

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    • Hey unkleE,

      Not a problem, thanks for the clarification. I think we agree on most points here, converging down to the question of whether Collins should/shouldn’t have done what he did given his office/podium/reputation.

      “I think because Francis Collins is a well-credentialled scientist, you are expecting him to behave in a rigorous way like a scientist when he is writing about Jesus. But we don’t have to behave like rigorous scientists in all of our life, as the example of freewill shows.”

      “Christianity seems to be where Collins takes a sort of break from rigor.”

      I’m seeing decent agreement here.

      In the end, Collins is a mature scientist. Given his background in academia, he should expect folks like me to make the critique that I’ve made on a point of casualness in his book. For better or worse, he leaves himself vulnerable to this kind of questioning. We’re all left to make our own assumptions as to whether he is unknowing or simply omitting. Incidentally, if you do wind up reading Shermer, he has his own analysis of Collins that I found interesting. Sam Harris does as well; I believe that was in “The End of Faith”. He makes it too easy for these guys.

      Cheers, and thanks.

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  8. Hi and thanks. Just one further comment. I don’t think Collins was writing so much to defend his views agains non-believers, but to help christians accept evolutionary science, and even (if I recall correctly) stem cell research. If that was his main audience, it would be unfair to judge him by a different standard. Thanks again for the discussion.

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Michael Seidel, writer

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