Review of The Language of God by Francis Collins

In this book, Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project and a Christian, sets forth his view of a harmonious synthesis between science and faith.

The book is very good and is a welcome addition to the literature on the relationship between science and religion (Christianity in particular). The most similar author I can think of offhand is Howard J. Van Till, or perhaps John Polkinghorne. However, in my opinion, Collins is a more accessible and engaging writer. He clearly has a gift for popular science writing, and also tells personal stories (related to his own spiritual growth) in a captivating manner. If you’re looking for a book to recommend to the average educated reader with an interest in these questions but who might find Polkinghorne a little too abstract or dry, then Collins’s book might be just the ticket.

The contents of the book are easily summarized. Collins begins with the story of his own journey from atheism to Christianity, a journey in which C.S. Lewis’s writings played a starring role. Collins quotes from Lewis and Augustine copiously. Collins is particularly impressed with Lewis’s argument about the Moral Law. He also gives quite a lot of weight to the Big Bang and the fine-tuning of physical constants, although he is very wary of the “God of the gaps” and, for example, does not try to make too much of the inadequacies of current theories of the origin of life.

The bulk of the book is devoted to a subject in which Collins is an expert, namely evolution. Collins devotes a chapter each to naturalistic evolutionism, young-earth creationism, intelligent design, and theistic evolution. He rejects the first three and champions the fourth (curiously, I don’t think he quotes Van Till or other well-known theistic evolution proponents; perhaps he’s not aware of them). Collins is not a theological or philosophical scholar (and he admits this), so if you’ve studied the creation/evolution controversy before, you will not encounter any major new ideas here. However, he presents his point of view clearly and commonsensically, and some of the specific scientific facts that he cited were new to me.

The part of the book that I like best is the appendix. If you don’t want to spend the time to read the whole book, I would encourage you to borrow the book from the library and just read the appendix. In it, Collins addresses a number of pressing issues in bioethics, including stem-cell research, in vitro fertilization, somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT, aka “cloning”), and eugenics via genetic engineering. In less then 40 short pages he gives one of the best introductions to these issues that I have read, exhibiting sensitivity to different viewpoints but not hesitating to give his own recommendations, as well as giving clear explanations of the relevant science. Scientific knowledge in this sphere is advancing daily, and questions that used to be dismissible as being of interest only to philosophers and science-fiction lovers are rapidly becoming intensely practical. It is our responsibility as Christians and as educated people to stay abreast of these developments as they occur, rather than to react only after it is too late. This appendix is a great entry point into the subject.

[Postscript about SCNT: Collins baldly condemns the use of SCNT to produce a new human being, but he argues strongly for SCNT itself. SCNT, according to Collins, promises many of the same sort of benefits that advocates of stem-cell research tout, and so long as one harbors no intention of implanting the cell in a uterus with a view towards producing a new human being, the cells are just cells. The question of interfering with the natural generative process by which human beings typically come to be is sidestepped entirely.

What I find very interesting is that one of the things that Collins says against using SCNT to clone a new human being is that doing so would be “unnatural.” I can’t tell from this book what Collins’s overall view of natural-law arguments is, but this use of the word “unnatural” is consistent with what I’ve found from personal discussions with friends, namely that a lot of people who claim to disavow arguments about “unnatural” behavior are surprised to find the word involuntarily popping out of their mouths when the discussion turns towards bestiality, necrophilia, (consensual) cannibalism, and other behaviors that evoke visceral disgust in them.]

Posted November 2008

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