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Questions About the Language of God

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Science  17 Jul 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5938, pp. 250
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_250b

Although many scientists say geneticist Francis Collins will make a superb director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), not everyone is celebrating. A discussion about whether Collins's very public religious views will influence his leadership of NIH played out on blogs early this spring and again in the past week. There seems to be little evidence for such worries, but they persist.

Collins has written that his beliefs played a role in the 2000 White House press conference to announce the draft sequence of the human genome, when President Bill Clinton called the human DNA sequence “the language in which God created life.” In 2006, Collins wrote a book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, that describes his religious conversion at the age of 27 and how he reconciles this with the science of evolution. Richard Dawkins, the biologist and prominent antireligionist, feuded with Collins for mixing science and faith.

This spring, Collins raised hackles again when he and several other scientists launched a foundation and Web site, BioLogos, which claims that it “emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life.” Funded by the Templeton Foundation, which supports projects at the intersection of science and religion (including at AAAS, Science's publisher), BioLogos answers faith-related questions and links to a blog by its founders.

As weeks passed with Collins the rumored nominee to head NIH but no announcement, some speculated that BioLogos might be an obstacle. One prominent critic, Paul Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris, who runs the anticreationist blog Pharyngula, faults Collins for suggesting that altruism cannot be explained by evolution and instead came from God. “Collins has got some big gaps in his understanding of the field of evolutionary biology,” Myers says. In comments this spring on Pharyngula, others fretted that Collins's beliefs could influence his decisions on topics such as stem cells and sex research.

But others have pointed out that Collins's record as director of the genome institute doesn't support such fears. And some scientists active in the anticreationist movement approve of his attempts to reach out to the faithful. Evolutionary geneticist Wyatt Anderson of the University of Georgia in Athens says he read Collins's book, and “I get the picture of a very rational scientist.” Josh Rosenau, public information project director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, says: “It's very useful to have scientists out there like Francis Collins to talk about their beliefs and why they don't see them as in conflict with science.”

As of last week, Collins is now only “minimally involved” with BioLogos, says his wife, Diane Baker, a BioLogos board member. She says he plans to step down from the foundation once the Senate has confirmed his nomination and that he will decline any speaking engagements or efforts to promote BioLogos.

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