Sunday, July 19, 2009

Francis Collins on Evolution

Scot Mcknight had an interesting link to an interview with Francis Collins, a Christian who is an evolutionist. Funny, isn't it, how that statement isn't as out of place as it would have been ten years ago?

Anyway, the interviewer, Karl Gilbertson, does a great job in asking the right questions, the hard questions that many creationists would ask. He takes Collins to task with the questions like "Isn't evolution just a scientific conspiracy to mask the truth?" and others that you hear fundamentalists asking, but you never really hear dialogue about. Collins responds beautifully, in my opinion.

If you've read this blog at all in the past, you probably know that I am extremely interested in this discussion. And the word discussion is key, though I may want to call it dialogue instead. Until the last few years there was not much dialogue between creationists and evolutionists. They would just throw stones at each other which would ignite the fray, and sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly the Christians were often the ones who were the most immature in this battle. That is why this interview is such a breath of fresh air to me.

By the way, the number of scientists like Francis Collins who are Christians and evolutionists is growing. There are a number of books available that talk of the Bible and evolution going hand in hand (including the interviewer Gilbertson's book Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution). The ideas are no longer mutually exclusive. That is refreshing to me.

Here or some high points from the interview, but note: it is really best if you read the whole thing for yourself. Thanks for stopping by!

(Gilbertson is in bold, Collins in regular font).

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.

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.

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.

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!


Cineaste said...

Just something to think about...

Why is it that of all the demographic groups in the world, American evangelical Christians have the most difficult time grasping and accepting evolution? It's accepted as fact by just about everyone else.

Nick said...

I agree Mark. It definitely brings up some interesting questions.

There is no question that biases are in play.

Mark said...

Nick, if you are interested in Francis Collins, I recommend reading this debate...

God vs. Science - A debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins
by TIME Magazine

Anonymous said...

Love this article. Evolution is originally observed as a means to out prove God. That's how public schools have taught it (my experiance). I think thats why most individuals tend to hate it.

Let me purpose this: If a well know Christian like Billy Gram would have represented evolution as a creation idea instead of Darwin, would it be more accepted?

Josh B