Semi-Apology to Francis Collins

Howdy, cousin! (Wikipedia)

I owe an apology (sorta) to Francis Collins, even as we all owe a great, big, fat one to our cousins, the chimpanzees. I confess to being one of those bullheaded atheist biologists who raised a ruckus when Dr. Collins, an enthusiastic evangelical Christian, was nominated to head the National Institutes of Health. We weren’t pleased about his ardent contention that 2,000 years ago, some ancient dude walked on water, multiplied loaves and fishes at a single bound, was born of a virgin, and raised folks from the dead, not to mention floating up to heaven a few days after his demise.

It’s the kind of nonsense we expect even the most gullible of children to transcend once they reach their own personal Age of  Reason. Not that Dr. Collins isn’t entitled to such beliefs, but what’s the difference between the anti-empirical credulousness they require and claiming that brass amulets cure arthritis, that rhino horns cure impotence, or magnets cure cancer?

Dr. Collins believes fervently in Jesus, is utterly convinced about the resurrection (not just JC’s but, forthcoming, FC’s too), as well as about the existence of a personal providential God who answers prayers, etc. The whole magillah. Accordingly, he’s simply not the kind of guy I wanted to see leading the nation’s premier biomedical research enterprise, whose primary job is to discriminate among various scientific Just-So stories and choose the ones most worthy of receiving federal research funds. (Since he is a geneticist, btw, I’d love to ask Collins some day whether Jesus was haploid or diploid, or maybe haplodhuman-diplodivine.)

Moreover, I had been especially aggrieved by Collins’s jejune book, The Language of God, in which—among other evo-beginner’s blunders—he supported his “certainty” of God’s existence by claiming that human ethical judgments and principles could not “possibly” have arisen as a result of evolution … which unarguably showed him to be ignorant of such basic findings as altruism via kin selection, reciprocity and/or third-party effects. Not only that, but he didn’t even know what he didn’t know. (Still doesn’t, I’d bet.)

On the other hand, Francis Collins is a notably resourceful physician-geneticist, endowed with Ph.D. and M.D., and who, in the 1990s,  successfully led the government’s efforts to decode the human genome. Although a devout Christian, he is not a fundamentalist, insofar as he doesn’t take all of the Bible as literal truth. (Thank “God”?)

But I said this was an apology, and here is why. The NIH, led by Dr. Collins, has recently accepted a recommendation from the National Institute of Medicine that future chimpanzee research funding shall be suspended, and that exceedingly strict guidelines are to be imposed. Although I am not a PETA-phile, I strongly support this highly ethical and biologically sophisticated decision, based largely on the demonstrably close evolutionary relationship between chimpanzees and human beings, and thus, the near-certainty that Pan troglodytes experiences many of the emotions and even the intellectual events of Homo sapiens.

It’s a surprisingly tricky business, because nearly all hard-core Christians fervently deny the existence of a “soul” in any nonhuman animals, and as a result they are similarly hard-pressed to afford non-human creatures, insofar as they lack said “soul,” the solicitude they supposedly grant to their own species. Yet the most fundamental insight to be derived from evolution is continuity among all living things, including ourselves and the rest of natural selection’s “creation,” which in turn gives the lie to that most pernicious of all mythologies: the claim of qualitative, organic discontinuity between Us and Them.

Combined with the equally pernicious biblically derived notion that we people have been granted suzerainty over the rest of the natural world, the Claim of Discontinuity has given rise not only to a cavalier attitude toward cruel treatment of animals, but toward mistreatment of the whole planet. To be fair (something I occasionally attempt, and at which I even more rarely succeed), I must note and applaud recent efforts on the part of certain religious groups to identify a biblically based—or at least, permitted—responsibility to be stewards of  “the creation.” And I can think of no more immediate or obvious manifestation of such stewardship than to acknowledge that there is in fact no meaningful discontinuity between us and our chimpanzee cousins. What we wouldn’t do to each other we shouldn’t do to them.

This, in turn, leads to some thorny problems for the devout who genuinely want to be biologically informed and ethically responsible while also remaining true to their curious and injurious insistence that we Homo saps are genuine chips off the Old Block, hence different from all other critters, who aren’t. But that’s a topic for another rant, another time. For now, I’m grateful to Dr. Collins for a chip of common sense.

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