Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Culture: Disagreeing with Francis Collins

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I recently finished reading the The Language of God by Francis S. Collins, the well-known geneticist that amongst other things led the government portion of the Human Genome Project. I'm probably one of the few readers who started the book without any wonderment about the fact that a prominent scientist like Collins could be religious--I've long held that there isn't necessarily a conflict between the two, and on Collins' key points in the book on the potential harmony, I essentially found myself in agreement. Instead, I read the book to find out what had compelled him to have faith--and found it quite unconvincing.

The key part of Collins' argument for the existence of God is the idea of the "moral code," or the nearly-universal tendency of human beings to exhibit a degree of selfless altruism. I agree with him when he points out that it is contrary to evolutionary theory in that "it cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves" since many exhibiting this behavior die before reproduction. Clearly, something other direct natural selection as described by Darwin or even Richard Dawkins' selfish gene theory is at work in creating this behavior.

Yet, I found Collins quite quick to dismiss possible explanations. He completely discounts the possibility of selflessness being a positive attribute in mate selection. He cites studies of "nonhuman primates that often reveal just the opposite--such as the practice of infanticide by a newly dominant male monkey, in order to clear the way for his own offspring" but fails to recognize other studies often held up Robert Sapolsky at Stanford that show "Alan Alda" male chimpanzees having reproductive success simply by being around females more often, rather than by being the alpha. It seems that even amongst non-humans, there are multiple paths to reproductive success, and altruism might actually help in attracting mates in some of them, thus potentially perpetuating itself.

What really surprised me, though, is that a geneticist would overlook the argument that a mutation that created altruism might also create another trait with a more clear evolutionary advantage and thus be perpetuated even though it might be harmful itself. The most common example of this kind of situation is sickle-cell anemia being linked with malarial survival--the same mutation that causes the sickle cells affords that person malarial resistance, which might actually be a net positive trade-off in survivability. Considering that we have yet to determine the chemical mechanism of altruism, it seems a bit presumptuous to assume that we will not, and that it might not be linked to something else that confers emotional strength, disease resistance, or some other clear advantage.

Furthermore, I find it rather ironic that Collins spends an entire chapter pointing out how new scientific discoveries are rendering the arguments made by intelligent design advocates moot--such as gaps in the fossil record (many of which have now been filled in by later discoveries). Could not the same process of continued discovery and improved theories eventually render his own arguments about the "moral code" being divine look unnecessary if a scientific explanation eventually comes forward? I don't know if that will ever happen, but the fact that Collins doesn't even seem to see the possibility is rather disappointing.

While I've never met him, the ideas expressed by Francis Collins in his book suggest to me that he is exactly the kind of deeply religious person with whom I could get along. He thinks about his beliefs in profound ways, applies critical thinking to his faith, and reconciles it with the world around him. I might reach a different conclusion based on the same facts, but there would be no arguing about the facts themselves, and any argument about the conclusions would be educational. People trying to reconcile science and religion should find value in his perspective, and more importantly can respect his leadership in trying to point out that reconciliation is not such a difficult task. In the end, that's why I was so disappointed in his reasoning in favor of faith--it doesn't offer much challenge to those who start out from an atheistic perspective.

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