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Interview by Karl W. Giberson

Evolution, the Bible, and the Book of Nature

A conversation with Francis Collins.

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.

Evolution may seem from the outside to have a lot of complexities, and certainly there are lots of details we haven't worked out—and for anybody to say there are no arguments would be a total mistake. But nearly all scientists agree upon descent from a common ancestor, gradual change over a long period of time, and natural selection operating to produce the diversity of living species. There is no question that those are correct. Evolution is not a theory that is going to be discarded next week or next year or a hundred thousand years from now. It is true.

There is a remarkable claim being made today by anti-evolutionists that runs exactly counter to this. This is the claim that evolution is based on a big deception, that there isn't any solid basis at all for the theory, and that scientists are gradually abandoning evolution. Are there evolutionists jumping ship?

I haven't met any of these people. And I think I would hear about it, if it were true, as I have identified myself as a believer interested in studying biological evolution. No, I think those claims are completely without evidence.

Stating this is a convenient way to float the idea that evolution is a conspiracy that is about to be exposed. That's the idea behind the movie Expelled, which tries to make that same case—that there is a conspiracy to squash the truth. That viewpoint totally misunderstands the nature of science. Anybody who has lived within the scientific community would immediately—regardless of their worldview—rebel against the idea that science would be able to sustain such a conspiracy. Scientists are all about upsetting and overturning things. And if you're the one who's discovered how to overturn evolution, you're going to win the Nobel Prize!

The position that people on the outside of science—like the creationists and the people in the id camp—have adopted, that such a conspiracy could actually exist for more than thirty seconds, completely flies in the face of the realities of the sociology of the field of science. It's an insult.

What do you think of this project that the Discovery Institute has launched, with a laboratory where they want to do genuine scientific research, with their own in-house Intelligent Design scientists?

It is hard for me to imagine what they will do. id doesn't actually propose any falsifiable hypotheses. Science by its very nature ought to be unfettered by any particular perspective on what the right answers are supposed to be.

But are you being completely fair? Their rejoinder would be that what you've just described as science is kind of a mythology. Science isn't really that open-minded. In reality, there are a whole set of wide-ranging theoretical ideas that aren't really on the table when you go into the laboratory. You go in working within a framework or paradigm, and you put the pieces together within that paradigm. But you don't really acknowledge it, and sometimes you aren't even aware of the influences of your paradigms.

The ID people don't want to do their research within the paradigm of naturalistic evolution. Instead, they want to say, "Well, we'll do similar research except we're not going to insist that everything we consider has to fit within this naturalistic paradigm. We are going to go outside this paradigm and see whether we notice different things."

History shows that paradigms are sometimes misleading. For example, the paradigm that there couldn't be change in the heavens caused people to miss data for many centuries about new stars. The ID scientists would say that people like you wouldn't see the design in nature because you work under a paradigm that excludes that possibility.

Sure, we have paradigms that we use to try and organize things, but one of our goals is to upset these paradigms. If laboratories did experiments and said, "Hey, wait a minute, here is some data suggesting that evolution is wrong, it is not capable of explaining something," that would be a lightning rod for excited investigation. This idea would not be ignored because it wasn't consistent with a reigning paradigm.

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!

One of my theologian friends once said, in great frustration over this issue, "I wish they had never put the Bible in the hands of ordinary people." It seems to me that we need to take more seriously the teaching ministry of the church. We encourage people to read the Bible on their own, but certain misunderstandings are bound to emerge with that approach. Young people are going to read Genesis and think of Adam and Eve as real biological parents of the human race.

I reread your Language of God recently with the stories of your childhood, and it didn't occur to me to think that some of those stories were just stuff you made up to give different insights into your character. I just read your stories and believed that was the way things happened. And that's the natural way many people read the Bible.

I think we should all read the Bible, and I believe in the priesthood of the believer. It's biblical to do so; it's certainly the way that Christ seems to be teaching us, but that means responsibility to read the Bible at more than the most superficial level.

Curious believers will want to go deeper, but that deeper searching has to involve more than searching through the Bible. We must also search through the other book that God gave us—the book of nature. We must not pretend that one of these books is untrustworthy if it seems on the surface to conflict with the other. It's our responsibility, as individuals and as a culture and I think, frankly, as Christians.

But this places a huge burden on the teaching ministry of the church to pass on that level of sophistication. I can't imagine evangelical churches embracing this task.

We must. Because what we're doing now is passing on a burden to the youth. And it's a burden that many of them are going to be weighed down with to the point where they will not have their faith anymore. Right now, many churches are telling their young people, "You have to adhere to this absolutely literal description of what we say Genesis means," and they put a lot of energy into conveying that in Sunday school and in home schooling curricula. It's not as if the church has not already invested in providing a perspective on this issue—but unfortunately they've invested in a view that's counter to God's book of nature. This is both unnecessary and tragic. But I have hopes that over time we can come to the realization that the current battle between the scientific and spiritual worldviews is not God's battle, but is one created by us. That means we should also be able to find a way toward peace.

Karl Giberson is the author of Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (HarperOne) and executive vice-president of the Biologos Foundation. He splits his time between Gordon College and Eastern Nazarene College.

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