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Weird Science

Francis Collins Is a Christian, So Why Isn't He Reviled by the Scientific Community?

by Casey Luskin

While traveling recently, I wandered into an airport bookstore where a display caught my eye. In a special stand promoting "Inspirational Reading," situated directly below books by the smiley health-and-wealth televangelist Joel Osteen, were multiple rows of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

It was obvious that someone wanted customers to see this book. Its author, Dr. Francis Collins, was not only the director of the Human Genome Project for 15 years, but is also a self-professed Christian who is increasingly touted by the media and academic elite as the authority on science, faith, and Darwin. This is intriguing in that the cultural elite rarely take the trouble to promote "evidence for belief" to the unwashed masses, even when the topic sells books.

So what exactly is this "inspirational reading" that provides "evidence for belief"? According to Collins, our DNA provides "powerful support for Darwin's theory of evolution, that is, descent from a common ancestor with natural selection operating on randomly occurring variations." On this basis, Collins emphatically asserts that Darwinian science has turned "upside down" the argument from intelligent design (ID), which he calls a "pillar of belief."

I suspect that many people seeking "evidence for belief" in God won't find much "inspiration" from such arguments. So why is this book being so heavily promoted? Before answering that question, we must scrutinize Collins's scientific arguments.

Genetic Junk

Collins aims to demonstrate that human beings share a common ancestor with apes. This is his first mistake: ID is not necessarily incompatible with humans and apes sharing ancestry. At its core, ID challenges not common ancestry, but the claim that life's complexity arose via unguided processes such as random mutation and natural selection.

Nonetheless, Collins's arguments for human-ape common ancestry should be questioned, for they rely heavily upon the presumption that human DNA is largely functionless "junk." His favorite examples of "junk" DNA are ancient repetitive elements (AREs), useless short strands of DNA that appear to be parasitic, and "selfish" DNA strands that insert themselves into the genome. We have them. Apes have them. Mice have them. And we often share them in the same places in our genomes. According to Collins, these AREs are therefore "genetic flotsam and jetsam" that "presen[t] an overwhelming challenge to those who hold to the idea that all species were created ex nihilo." But is Collins correct that AREs represent genetic "junk"?

In 2002, evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg surveyed the scientific literature and found over a dozen different functions for repetitive DNA. Writing in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Sternberg strikingly concluded that "the selfish DNA narrative and allied frameworks must join the other 'icons' of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory that, despite their variance with empirical evidence, nevertheless persist in the literature." Sternberg, along with leading geneticist James Shapiro, elsewhere predicted that "one day, we will think of what used to be called "junk DNA' as a critical component of truly 'expert' cellular control regimes."

The day foreseen by Sternberg and Shapiro may have already come. Last summer, The Washington Post reported that a scientific consortium, the ENCODE project, had discovered that "the vast majority of the 3 billion "letters' of the human genetic code are busily toiling at an array of previously invisible tasks." Such increasing evidence of function for "junk" DNA effectively falsifies Collins's junk-DNA argument for common ancestry.

Fusion Frenzy

Collins's other argument for common descent is his observation that human chromosome 2 has a structure similar to what one would expect if two chromosomes resembling chimpanzee chromosomes were fused together, end to end.

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, but apes have 24. Collins argues that this chromosomal-fusion evidence explains how apes lost a pair of chromosomes, claiming that "it is very difficult to understand this observation without postulating a common ancestor" between humans and apes. Perhaps, but only if you're locked into thinking inside the neo-Darwinian box.

Due to functional requirements, human chromosomes generally resemble those of chimps, so it is not surprising that a fused human chromosome would resemble chromosomes from chimps. Such genetic resemblances might be the result of functional requirements rather than mere inheritance from a common ancestor. And even Collins admits that such functional genetic similarity "alone does not, of course, prove a common ancestor," because a designer could have "used successful design principles over and over again."

More importantly, human chromosomal fusion tells us nothing about whether our human lineage definitively leads back to a common ancestor with apes. Human chromosomal fusion merely shows that at some point within our human lineage, two chromosomes became fused. If we step outside of the Darwinian box, then the following scenario becomes possible: (1) The human lineage was designed separately from that of apes, (2) a chromosomal-fusion event occurred, and (3) the trait spread throughout the human population during a genetic bottleneck (when the human population size suddenly became quite small). In such a scenario, the evidence would appear precisely as we find it, without any common ancestry between humans and apes.

To further illustrate this point, consider the following hypothetical situation: In 2020, a small, isolated human tribe experiences a second chromosomal-fusion event (they remain fertile and otherwise normal). We'll call them the "Doublefuser" people. In 2100, war, sickness, and daytime television destroy the rest of humanity, but the Doublefusers survive and repopulate the earth, rediscovering genetics and evolution. Eventually, they develop the technology to examine their own chromosomes, whereupon they find that they have only 22 pairs of chromosomes, including two pairs of fused chromosomes. The Doublefusers then proclaim that "since apes have 24 pairs of chromosomes, we must be descended from ape-like creatures with 48 chromosomes!"

From our vantage point, we see that the Doublefusers' second chromosomal-fusion event took place recently, far removed from any common ancestor between humans and chimps, and thus offers little logical reason to support human-chimp common ancestry. Why should we assume the case must be any different with our one fused chromosome? Yet modern Darwinists mistakenly view our one pair of fused chromosomes precisely as the Doublefusers view their two pairs.

The Party Line

In light of such mistakes, why is Collins being treated as the new science-religion guru? The answer is simple: Though he is a Christian, Collins is a full-blown neo-Darwinist whose scientific views pose little threat to the preferred ideologies of the cultural elite.

Last year, for example, the journal Nature praised The Language of God, which led "new atheist" Sam Harris to complain that Collins's heartfelt description of his religious conversion "should have sparked gasping outrage from the editors at Nature." Harris has a point, especially since the journal had published an editorial just a few months earlier declaring that "the idea that human minds are the product of evolution" is an "unassailable fact," and therefore "the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside." Indeed, the only reasonable explanation for Nature's endorsement of Collins is that it finds little to fear from his "evidence for belief." It thus turns out that the non-believing intellectual elites aren't all that bothered by a scientist who speaks the language of God—so long as it's in a dialect that doesn't diverge from the Darwinian party line. 

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