Guest post: Francis Collins defends faith, disses science

June 6, 2012 • 3:46 am

Reader Sigmund is an indefatigable follower of things BioLogos, and, examining founder Francis Collins’s views before he started that organization, came across some interesting video. He’s even boosted the audio to make it easier to hear.

Below is Sigmund’s take on Francis Collins’s response to the encounter between a straight creationist (the now-familar surgeon Ben Carson) and two evolutionists: Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett. I don’t think you’ll be pleased with the response of the present director of our National Institutes of Health.


Was BioLogos doomed even before it started?

by Sigmund

What happens when the Director of the Human Genome project hears creationist claims that he can easily counter using genetic sequence data?  Well, exactly that scenario occurred six years ago in a recorded debate between Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Francis Collins and Ben Carson (the creationist surgeon recently featured in WEIT).  The recording has been on YouTube for a few years but the sound quality was terrible.

In the light of recent posts about both Collins and Carson, I thought it might be worthwhile to boost the audio and revisit this debate, which occurred in Beverly Hills in 2006, a year before Collins founded BioLogos.

The debate is useful for one reason: Collins’ response to the evolution denialism coming from Carson shows why BioLogos was doomed from the outset.

In the following seven-minute clip from the debate, it’s clear that Dawkins apparently hadn’t realized that Carson was a creationist and appears shocked when Carson says he doesn’t accept evolution.

I’ve transcribed the section after Carson tried to use, as evidence for a creator God, the dubious claim that we have consciousness and other animals don’t:

Dawkins:  Well, I would like to ask Dr Carson then at what point in the evolutionary divergence between the common ancestor of us and chimpanzees or us and rhesus monkeys, did this human faculty arise, and why do you need to postulate, given that, presumably, you believe in evolution, how do you reconcile the fact of evolution, because it is a fact, with the separation that you seem to be wanting.

Carson: Well thank you for asking that question because, in fact, I don’t believe in evolution, so that…

Dawkins: (sounding shocked!) Ahh, so Dr Collins and you can have a discussion about that.

Carson then launches into a standard creationist trope about an alien coming to a future Earth and finding a Volkswagen and a Rolls Royce and, because the Rolls Royce is more complicated than the Volkswagen, asserts that evolutionary theory would have us believe it evolved from the Volkswagen.  Carson finishes his point with the following lines:

Carson: Darwin himself, as you know, said that we would eventually have a mechanism, we would be sophisticated enough, geologically, to show, completely, the lineage from an amoeba to a man. He said it would probably take fifty to a hundred years. Well it’s been a hundred and fifty years. We still haven’t  found it. I suspect , maybe one day you will. When you do find it I will be all ears.

Unfortunately, Dan Dennett, the next to speak, misses the opportunity to send the question directly over to Collins – who, at this time was  head of the Human Genome Project and hence probably one of the most appropriate individuals on the entire planet to tackle Carson’s challenge using the evidence from the genome project.

Astoundingly, when Collins does get a chance to speak, about a minute and a half later, he completely avoids Carson’s creationist claims and instead immediately resorts to accusing Dennett and Dawkins of “scientism” (defined by Collins as “the error of applying in a vigorous scientific way, arguments about faith”).

Remember, despite claiming that his faith is compatible with science, Collins, wanting to have his communion wafer and eat it too, sees a problem with examining arguments about faith” in a vigorous scientific way”. As Dennett has said before, this is tennis without the net.

In other words, even before BioLogos was founded, Collin’s response to a fellow believer who espouses creationism is not to correct him on the science but rather to attack those who make valid points about the evolution of aspects of humanity (in this case consciousness and human morality), accusing them of the crime of “scientism”.  We can see now, in hindsight, that BioLogos was never about promoting good science. It was about defending religion, if need be by attacking science and addressing methodological naturalism with accusations of ‘scientism’.

The entire debate is in five sections: here, here, here, here and here.

63 thoughts on “Guest post: Francis Collins defends faith, disses science

  1. Francis Collins demonstrates the amazing ability of Creationist scientists to selectively unthink facts that do not fit their twisted view of reality. Ben Carson, on the other hand, is simply deluded to consider the VW-Rolls Royce example a valid metaphor in this discussion.

    1. As silly as Carson’s automobile metaphor is, it also reveals his powerful ignorance about what evolutionary theory tells us. Both the VW and the Rolls Royce had their own design and engineering histories–one did not evolve from the other. However, both share a common ancestor, even if that ancestor is just the human idea of a self-propelled four wheeled vehicle.

      1. The aliens might not have access to the car’s histories. Though if they have the technology to travel vast distances then surely they have dating technology and be able to work out that cars don’t reproduce.

        1. Yes, of course. Not only is Carson apparently unaware of this fact, but he also appears unaware that there’s not much ambiguity regarding the history of these two automobiles. Bishop Paley would be proud…

      2. In fact, cars are more like bacteria, and Rolls-Royce has merged with BMW, whereas it is Bently, which was a Rolls-Royce clade, has merged with VW.

        In any case, I’m not sure that a Rolls-Royce is “more complicated” than a VW.


        1. My question also.

          By “complicated”, does Carson mean “a majority of humans have agreed that a R-R will be a status symbol, and therefore will cost more money”?

  2. This is interesting fact, so Collins never “falls to faith” – he was there from the beginning!

    How can he finished the Human genome project then? Oh yes, second behind Venter!

    1. Let’s not give Collins too much credit for the HGP, either it’s failures or it’s successes. It was a huge undertaking and the BAC-by-BAC strategy that made it slow, and which virtually no one questioned (it was the safe strategy, guaranteed not to turn into a $3bn goose egg), was not his. His biggest practical role was to keep the money flowing and the many big-ego players from eating one another. Ventner’s whole-genome-shotgun strategy, which many thought would produce an unusable pile of data that couldn’t be assembled, turned out to work much to the surprise of a lot of smart people who don’t share Collin’s blinkered outlook.

      That said, he is an embarrassment, and I believe he has personally set the cause of acceptance of evolution back at least a decade. The HGP should have been the moment when the obvious truth of evolution became undeniable for even the most obdurate, when public message should have been about all the absolutely clinching proof of evolution found in the genome. Instead, there among the leaders was someone who told believers not to worry, that the genome helped their cause rather than delivered a death blow to it. I have many religious friends who sincerely believe that the ultimate outcome of the HGP was to throw a wrench into evolution. It’s a startling upside-down view of the world and Collins is personally to blame for giving many of them this impression.

  3. Fascinating. And disappointing. (Disclaimer: I do not intend to watch the video, so I am taking your representation at face value)

    I suppose the priorities make sense if you take it all literally… Carson is in danger of saying something stupid, Dawkins and Dennett are in danger of leading people to hell — right? Still, if anything, it’s yet another demonstration of the perniciousness of religious belief. Collins is supposed to be, and in fact often is, an ally in this fight. But his religious delusions prevent him from having anywhere near a sane set of priorities.

    1. Yes, it clearly bothers Collins more if someone is an atheist than if they are a creationist.

      If Dawkins’ (or Dennet’s) companion had been an atheist who rejected evolution, does anyone think for one moment he would have let something like that pass under his radar and/or escape his criticism because hey, at least his teammate wasn’t doing apologetics for God?

      1. Teammate is a telling word. So much of religion, and indeed politics, is simple in-group/out-group dynamics. “Whose team are you on?” is always the dominant question.

  4. The VW/Rolls ananolgy is incredibly weak. As a “species” they are not capable of self-reproduction, much less with modification.

    As a surgeon, I would hope Carson knows the difference.

    1. Someone ought to take him aside and have the “flowers & bees” talk with him. Seems it is overdue.

      1. The (British) English idiom is “the birds and the bees”. Was that a literal tranlation of the Swedish idiom?


          1. Oh, don’t apologise: I wasn’t being critical.

            “Flowers and bees” actually makes more sense.

            I wonder how far the English idiom has been influenced by Cole Porter…

            And that’s why birds do it, bees do it
            Even educated fleas do it
            Let’s do it, let’s fall in love


    2. The Rolls Royce stork allegedly visits loony toon creationists. The stork theory works for all “species”.

  5. Carson is ludicrous when he talks about the growth of religions “not” based on a loving Creator but on power how to control people. His own fundamentalist friends are all about power and control!! As for his “loving Creator” I repeat Ben Goren’s recent comment that sometimes “Christian love” is like “Christian science”.

    Surely, Carson is aware that cars have no self-replicating or mutating capacity. A 7th-grader could see through that one!! (I certainly could have in 7th grade.) It might take a bit more sophistication about evolutionary psychology to see through the other arguments.

    Having semi-defended Collins (more for sincerity than anything else) in the previous post on the subject, I must concede that here Collins’ priorities seem to be wrong.

    Carson seems to think there can be no evolutionary explanation of tool-making, and Collins no evolutionary explanation of morality, the latter complaining about scientism. Both are immunizing selected areas of inquiry against scientific investigation, Collins more narrowly so.

    We can’t mandate that scientists have no religious beliefs, but its good to monitor their effects.

  6. it really is hard to see collins as an intelligent man when he’s so horridly dim here. i suspect no one tackles carson’s bad metaphor because it is just that, bad. any time spent on it would likely be worthless for dawkins/dennett.

  7. I think James Sweet nailed it. Religion poisons everything.

    Not to go too much OT, but I found this fasinating:

    Carson: Darwin himself, as you know, said that we would eventually have a mechanism, we would be sophisticated enough, geologically, to show, completely, the lineage from an amoeba to a man. He said it would probably take fifty to a hundred years. Well it’s been a hundred and fifty years.

    First I would ask Carson for a source. That “completely” seems at odds with the careful Darwin’s assertions.

    Second, it seems he has managed to mix up the mechanisms, which are well known, with the phylogeny. Not making the listener satisfied that he has been “all ears”.

    Third, I thought paleonthology had “a standard phylogeny” in the same way that we now have “a standard cosmology”. Maybe not so resolved in all parts but “completely” ordering extant complex aukaryote species to a statistically satisfying degree. (Never mind that insects may go inside the crustaceans recently, that goes to the resolution I gather.)

    However, when I try to get to the history of such trees I draw a blank. There are many trees out there, and the technical history seems hidden in books.

    1. I searched on the key words of the Carson quote and found nothing attributable to Darwin. (In fact “amoeba to man” seems to be a Creationist trope.) So on what basis does Carson say “as you know”?

  8. Francis Collins:

    No! Stop ith! Quith shining that bright lighth of rational scientific inquiry into my faith!!!

    (Spoken with a girly voice and a lisp, of course.)

  9. You scientists with your scientism are so deluded. You demand that the burden of proof for my claim fall upon me and even more just because my claim is extraordinarily implausible you demand an even greater burden of proof. Well I have that overwhelming proof you demand. Blind faith in my claim makes me feel real good.

    1. “I can’t prove my faith in God, but I can’t ‘prove’ my faith that my wife loves me, my faith in the power of knowledge, my faith in the beauty of nature, my faith in a better future for humanity, or my faith that life matters and good is better than evil. You will not find any of these with a microscope and a scientific approach — but you know — believe them –through faith.

      Because they’re all alike. I mean, they’re all the same sort of thing. And you can’t make a scientific, skeptical analysis of my statement and break it apart for inconsistency and error because what I said is more like self-expressive poetic literature than like something I’d submit to a peer-review journal. I’m amazed you can’t see that. Must be your scientism at work.”

        1. Seconded.

          We may need a web based LOLcreationist translator (mabbe without the lolz). It used to be lists of “creationists says the darnedest things” and “creationist quote mines”, but accommodationist language is fresh and unexplored territory.

  10. “scientism” (defined by Collins as “the error of applying in a vigorous scientific way, arguments about faith”).

    Collins only thinks this makes sense because he’s gotten completely comfortable with the faithful imperative to blur categories of things together, so that the morals, meaning, and inspiration of religion gets mixed up with the supernatural claims. You can’t apply a vigorous scientific approach to the hypothesis that the substrate of the universe is a Mind because you can’t apply a vigorous scientific approach to whether or not a sunset is beautiful and moving and one ought to feel grateful it’s there if Someone did indeed put it there for you.

    3 things kill faith: curiosity, clarity, and consistency. And I think science is that part of philosophy which has all 3 in their purest (and thus most dangerous) form.

  11. “…over the course of history, many religions have sprung up that don’t really have a whole lot to do with my concept of a loving creator.” Yes, he did say “my concept”

  12. » Mr Francis Praline:
    This last couple of points seem to commit the error of applying in a very scientific rigorous way arguments about faith. I would call that scientism. What more important questions do we humans have to answer than: Is there a god? Does he care about me? Why are we all here? What happens after we die? Is it not immediately apparent that science is poorly designed to answer those questions? And similarly, I would say that science is poorly designed to assess the truth or falsity of faith. Surely one can look at the history of religions and you can draw parallels between various belief systems, but I don’t believe that will help you very much in deciding whether faith is true or false, because that series of intellectual approaches is not designed to tackle the issue that you most want to know about.

    I find it ever harder to believe that anyone could ever have taken Collins seriously. So the one thing he doesn’t want an approach to faith to be is ‘rigorous’. I see. And there is no more important question than whether there is a being that principally cares about an ape species on one out of eight planets in one solar system out of at least 100 billion in one galaxy out of roughly 200 billion? Really, no more important question? Like, should we end world hunger instead of pouring hundreds of billions of dollars every year into producing ever more weapons of mass destruction? The man is not just delusional, his priorities are perverted (in the ‘sick’ sense). He’s a loony. We shouldn’t be too surprised to receive a complaint about a van from the Ministry of Housinge next.

    And even the comparative study of religions and their multitudinous contradictory statements of course is a rational reason to dismiss them all, if the web of their contradictions is so tangled as it in fact is. Collins seems to be going even further than just retreating into an epistemological safe zone of saying, ‘I don’t accept your evidence because logically I don’t have to’, thereby resigning from the quest for objective knowledge, he almost seems to be implying that not even the Law of Non-Contradiction applies to his (or anyone’s) pet delusions. And that is more than half-way to Crazy Town.

    1. This last couple of points seem to commit the error of applying in a very scientific rigorous way arguments about faith. I would call that scientism. What more important questions do we humans have to answer than: Is there a god?

      Um. I see a major internal contradiction here.

      If “is there a god?” is an important question, then it calls for a serious, rigorous, scientific approach. You’re interested in examining and testing the hypothesis. Anything else is just begging the question, special pleading, motivated reasoning, untestable assumptions, immunizing strategies, category errors, and confusing facts with values and wishes with reality. Belief in belief.

      For crying out loud, don’t they ever think about what they’re saying? Or does it all just trip blithely off the tongue and flow easily through the fingers due to superficial plausibility and constant repetition?

      1. They do think about what they’re saying, and they know that the twue beleevers will pick up on all the dogwhistles. No one else really matters.

      2. » Sastra:
        Um. I see a major internal contradiction here.

        Yeah, that too. He’s wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to detect them all at the same time… 😉

  13. Given that this debate is overshadowed by the extreme political dangers of the religious Right, I am a bit curious to know what Collins’ political views are. How safe is it to appease religious people about evolution in today’s climate of culture wars? How prepared is Collins to take a stand against religious facism?? I’m very pleased that he is on Obama’s side, but questions linger.

    1. Conversely, I have often wondered if his open Christianity and folksy ways have served as a buffer between the evolution verifying science his agency often funds and the harsh political world dominated by believers who might, at any moment, decide that much NIH funded science is the enemy and should be defunded. Probably others could do it without those qualities, Eric Lander is pretty slick at working a crowd of senators too, but I think a lot of Christians probably feel less threatened with Collins at the helm, and that might be a good thing for funding, if not for public acceptance of the truth.

      In a similar vein, as soon as he was appointed I wondered if it was perhaps a smart move on the part of Obama, politically, a way to defuse the political cost of being pro-ESC research by putting someone Christians feel they can trust at the helm.

      1. I generally tend to agree, but I was posing the question, not giving the answer.

        Certainly, accomodationism helped win the Dover trial.

        1. I have never heard a peep about Collins’ political views. I am pretty sure that is by design. He is very at home in Washington and I have always sensed in him the savvy to play to his audience, which is not other scientists, but senators and representatives. Of the prominent scientists involved in the HGP, almost none of them ever seemed as comfortable dealing with politicians as Collins. He seems born to hob nob with senators.

          I don’t think he is prepared to take a stand against anything, really, short of glaring atrocities of some sort, a massacre say. I think it’d be a mistake to say that he’s on Obama’s side as well. He has carefully staked out a place that is not on any political side. He is on his own side or, generously, on the side of funding medical research. I expect him to keep as quiet as possible about as many issues as possible in order to keep the NIH money flowing. That may be kind of smart, at least short term. In the long term, telling people what they want to hear just encourages them, so I’m not sure.

  14. I too am not going to bother with watching, but would only quibble a bit about BioLogos being doomed from the beginning. When Francis started the foundation, the focus was on young people being exposed to good science in high school and college after being indoctrinated with YEC. His hope was that they could accept the science and not abandon their xian faith, albeit with dramatic changes. Early on, BioLogos, with Giberson and Enns, was free to say that YEC, OEC, age-gap, ID, etc., were simply wrong and that theology had to attempt to address current science. Well, we know how well that went, and now see that accommodationist BL is attempting to accommodate those who have no intention on changing their views of science, e.g. the Southern Baptists. This is what I believe has made BL much less relevant IMHO.

    1. I agree that BioLogos didn’t start out with a stealth mission to become what it is today. It was doomed, though, before the first bit hit the web site, because the mission was impossible. It is a great irony, one that JC has pointed out many times, that it is often the fundamentalists who have the clearer, more logical, view of the threat that evolution is to their belief system. They see a flamethrower in their “house of faith” and reasonably conclude that it’s not going to turn out well for them. BioLogos is trying to say to them, in effect, “No, don’t worry. You can safely use a flamethrower in your home if you’re careful.”

  15. When he begins to speak,Carson makes a distinction between faith and religion. Indeed, in his talk titled “Faith: Pretending to know what you don’t know”, philosphy professor Peter Boghassian points out that faith rather than religion per se is the problem. Society unjustifiably recognizes claims of faith,like those of Carson or Collins, as being decent and moral, when there is absolutely nothing decent or moral about pretending to know what you don’t know.

    1. Credulity is considered a virtue. You get this from watching almost any movies at all. The important thing is that you believe and not be skeptical. The content of the belief hardly matters.

  16. Collins is strongly opposed to creationism even if he missed this opportunity. He gives one of the best arguments for evolution in his book The Language of God.

    I recommend this book to any creationist that I meet. It allows them to keep their belief in god while learning good science. Baby steps are often the way to knowledge.

  17. Many extreme religious folk are guilty of the follow “-ism”s.

    1) Sanctimonious self-righteous moralism.
    2) Frenzied emotionalism.
    3) Learning-hostile anti-intellectualism.

    “Scientism” is not necessarily such a bad alternative.

    Also, just because science doesn’t have all the answers doesn’t mean your local clergy does.

    1. “just because science doesn’t have all the answers doesn’t mean your local clergy does.”

      That’s the thing. What is their alternative to patient study of the universe, hypothesis formulation and testing, and critical rigour? Ancient guesses, visions and voices, glued together with doubletalk and imposed with a “teaching magisterium” and the threat of Hell for deviation or disbelief.

  18. Dunno how much Carson knows about evolution, but he obviously knows sod-all about cars. 😉

  19. Collins uses the gender term “he” when referring to “god”…. just cannot get away from the patriarchial origins of religion – especially those of the Catholic faith!

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