No God-of-the-Gaps Allowed: Francis Collins and Theistic Evolution
By Paul Nelson
Geneticist Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, is one of the world’s best‐known scientists. An outspoken Christian, he recently challenged equally outspoken Oxford zoologist and atheist Richard Dawkins in the pages of Time magazine. Collins’s book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief is equal parts autobiography, scientific reflection, theological speculation, and musings on bioethics. This review focuses on his beliefs about the philosophy of science and about evolutionary theory, as most of his main argument springs—albeit inconsistently, I will argue—from those beliefs. Collins chides “creationists” and intelligent design (ID) theorists for using what he calls“God‐of‐the‐gaps” reasoning, which he says the relentless forward sweep of scientific understanding has doomed to failure, yet his own “evidence for belief” is, arguably, an instance of God‐of‐the‐gaps reasoning.
Theistic Evolution and the Reasonable Christian.
Collins’s main argument in The Language of God makes three related claims:
- “Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps” (p. 93). We cannot use causal action by a transcendent intelligence to explain puzzling natural phenomena. In short, no God‐of-the‐ gaps allowed.
- “Darwin’s framework of variation and natural selection,” but especially Darwin’s picture of a Tree of Life—the common ancestry of all organisms on Earth—“is unquestionably correct” (141). Universal common descent by natural processes is scientifically non‐negotiable. The theory of neo‐Darwinian evolution cannot rationally be doubted by any educated person.
- The best way to reconcile the propositional content of a transcendentally grounded morality with modern evolutionary theory is what Collins calls “BioLogos,” his renaming of “theistic evolution.” BioLogos is “not intended as a scientific theory” (204), but it is “by far the most scientifically consistent and spiritually satisfying” (210) of the alternatives in the science/religion debate (the others being atheism or agnosticism, young‐earth creation, and intelligent design). BioLogos “will not go out of style or be disproven by future scientific discoveries. It is intellectually rigorous [and] provides answers to many otherwise puzzling questions” (210).
Given this, a reasonable Christian will find herself embracing theistic evolution—BioLogos—if she wishes to be heard in our current culture.
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The former Calvin College physicist Howard Van Till prominently advocated a similar position, until his recent exodus from Christianity, in such books as The Fourth Day and Science Held Hostage. Brown University cell biologist Kenneth Miller argues in his book Finding Darwin’s God and in his extensive public lectures that Christian faith and neo‐Darwinian evolution are compatible, a view also held by a majority of the members of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), an organization of Christians in the sciences. As Collins notes, his position is the mainstream view for many believing scientists and scientifically informed theologians:
Theistic evolution is the dominant position of serious biologists who are also serious believers. That includes Asa Gray, Darwin’s chief advocate in the United States, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, the twentieth‐century architect of evolutionary theory. It is the view espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, including Pope John Paul II. (199)
For Collins, a necessary condition of being seen as a “serious biologist” is acceptance of Darwin’s theory of common descent via random variation and natural selection, and the only rational stance for a Christian is acceptance of BioLogos or theistic evolution…
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