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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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Editor's note: Science in Focus is on vacation in July, so we're going to the archives for science-related pieces from the pages of Books & Culture. This week we're featuring a piece by Karl Giberson from the July/August 2009 issue.

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The former director of the Human Genome Project, one of the most ambitious ventures in the history of science, Francis Collins recently launched the BioLogos Foundation, which "promotes the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms seeking harmony between these different perspectives." Collins gave a personal account of the harmony between faith and science in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, published in 2006. Karl Giberson spoke with Collins during a conference at Azusa Pacific University.

You take both the Bible and evolution seriously. Did the harmony you find between evolution and your faith just come naturally?

You know, it really did. When I became a believer at 27, the first church I went to was a pretty conservative Methodist church in a little town outside Chapel Hill. I'm sure there were a lot of people in that church who were taking Genesis literally and rejecting evolution.

But I couldn't take Genesis literally because I had come to the scientific worldview before I came to the spiritual worldview. I felt that, once I arrived at the sense that God was real and that God was the source of all truth, then, just by definition, there could not be a conflict.

You seem like a mirror image of the fundamentalists who struggle with this, as I certainly did in college. Fundamentalists like me grow up with a lot of confidence in biblical literalism and then they encounter evolution, so they are bringing their prior biblical commitments to this new problem. You were interpreting the Bible before you knew there was a biblical issue. You had enough confidence in evolution that when you read about origins in the Bible, you would read as we do today when it comes to those biblical passages that seem opposed to heliocentricity—we don't think of a moving earth as a problem so we don't even notice the biblical references.

Right. I will say, though, that I think evolution is a much tougher problem for a believer to get comfortable with than heliocentricity. Evolution comments on our biological nature, and that's a lot closer to the "image of God" concept than whether the Earth floats around the Sun or the other way around.

Heliocentricity is so well-established that educated people simply can't oppose it any longer, of course. What about common ancestry and evolution in general? How compelling is the evidence at this point?

The evidence is overwhelming. And it is becoming more so almost by the day, especially because we can now use DNA as a digital record of the way Darwin's theory has played out over the course of time.

Darwin could hardly have imagined that there would turn out to be such strong proof of his theory—he didn't know about DNA. Evolution is now profoundly well-documented from multiple different perspectives, all of which give you a consistent view with enormous explanatory power that makes it the central core of biology. Trying to do biology without evolution would be like trying to do physics without mathematics.

But aren't you cheating to compare evolution to physics? Evolution is this gigantic, complicated tapestry of interwoven bits of explanatory power. But this big tapestry of evolution is filled with holes. It still hangs together, of course, but it does have holes. For example, evolution requires the invocation of common ancestors that we don't have any fossil record for; we don't really know anything about them, other than indirect dna inferences. A layperson is understandably skeptical when they are told that there's this tree of life going back to a common ancestor and all these life-forms are on the tree but we have no direct evidence for most of them and we have to infer them hypothetically. Doesn't it bother you that there are so many missing pieces in the puzzle?

Should people doubt the existence of electrons because they've never seen one? A lot of what we know to be true about physics is also inferred. I know it bothers people who are not really convinced yet about the consistency of evolutionary theory, but the much-emphasized gaps do not represent any real threat to the overall framework. And is the absence of a fossil representation of a specific organism all that troubling when you realize that fossilization is extremely unlikely to have happened?

Based on the DNA sequences of many mammals, we can now predict the genome sequence of the common mammalian ancestor. And it's breathtaking that you can actually look now at the dna sequence, which is a fossil record of its own, of an organism that is long since gone, but that we and all other mammals are descended from.

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