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Interview by Karl W. Giberson


Evolution, the Bible, and the Book of Nature

A conversation with Francis Collins.

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When we talk about the enduring character of American anti-evolutionism, it seems to me the best way to understand that goes back to something that is as old as Aristotle. Aristotle talked about knowledge that we get from thinking and from experience. He also noted another category that I think is the most important—social knowledge.

We are all part of social groups, and people we trust tell us things. I believe in evolution because people like you that I trust have told me it's true. I've never done a genome sequence; I've never done a fossil dig. So what do I—Karl Giberson—really know about evolution? All I know is that people I trust say it's true and people that I have less confidence in say it is not. But how are people outside the scientific community supposed to navigate this complex web of social authority, to try and figure out which voices they should listen to, and which voices they shouldn't?

Consider credentials. On paper the credentials of the better creationists and id people are like yours and mine. Take you and Michael Behe. You both have PhDs. You have both done research and published articles. So if somebody wants to put Behe up against Collins and say, "Well, here's a guy and I like what he says. And here's another guy and I don't like what he says. And you're asking me to follow Collins over Behe? Well, why should I do that?"

Well, that is a fundamental problem we're facing in our culture, especially in the United States. It's why we have such a mismatch between what the scientific data would suggest and what many people believe about things like the age of the Earth and about whether evolution is true or not.

If you ask about data-driven questions, about what is true and what is the evidence to support it—you would want to go to the people who are the professionals who spend their lives trying to answer those questions and ask, "Is there a consensus view?" So you ask, "What is the age of the Earth?" Well, who does that work? It is the geologist and the cosmologists and the people who do radiocarbon dating. It is the fossil record people and so on. So you ask, "Is this an unanswered question?" And the answer you would get is that the issue is settled. The age of the earth is 4.55 billion years.

But of course, that's not the way things are. Our society is polarized because the materialist perspective that guides science is assumed in many instances to be an over-arching worldview that excludes anything outside the material world. Large numbers of people in our very religious society are suspicious of this.

This negative reaction to scientific consensus is not about the facts. It's actually about an atheistic worldview that people fear is behind the claims of science. They're worried about that—afraid—and therefore ready to reject anything that sounds like it might be colored by that materialistic perspective they assume is hidden there. So they look for other sources of authority, like the biblical literalists who say the earth is only a few thousand years old.

Are conservative evangelicals impressed enough with your credentials to listen to you? I have heard people presenting you with "Creationism 101" objections after your talks, so they clearly are not dismissing those concerns just because you rejected them in your presentation.

And I would not want them, after one lecture, to suddenly say, "OK, you must be right; everything I've learned for the last eighteen years is wrong." I give people credit for wanting to engage the topic as opposed to shutting down and saying, "Oh, it's one of those evolution guys and I was warned about them and I'm going to stop listening right now."

But it's an awful circumstance we've put young people in. Many of them, raised in conservative Christian homes and taught that evolution is wrong, send emails to me every week. They are in crisis, trying to figure out whether the church that seems to be lying to them about origins is lying to them about everything else. The God of all truth cannot be served by such noble lies, and yet the church has been caught up in that, despite its best intentions.

How have people in fundamentalist churches responded to you, when you have spoken there?

I've had people get up and walk out! And I've had people come to the microphone clearly very upset, and imply that I am under the influence of the devil. I also get some fairly unpleasant emails from the atheistic scientific community, but the nastiest ones come from believers who are infuriated that someone who claims to be a believer could say these things about the truth of the evolutionary process. To them, I am clearly a wolf in sheep's clothing, and I'm allied with the devil. I've even been excommunicated a couple of times, though I'm not Catholic!

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