This is an important book because its author is an important person. Francis Collins is the head of the Human Genome Project, the group that first unraveled the DNA code of the human species. In 2000, with Collins standing by his side, President Bill Clinton announced that the first draft of the hereditary code of human life had been assembled. “Today,” Clinton said, “we are learning the language in which God created life.”(p. 2)
The Language of God has as its aim to demonstrate that belief in God is a rational choice and that “the principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science.” (p. 3) The book is part personal testimony of Collins’ own journey as both a scientist and believer, and a running commentary/argument concerning common objections leveled against belief in God. Collins’ theological companion throughout is C.S. Lewis, who is quoted or referred to dozens of times. Because Collins finds Lewis’ arguments so convincing, it is fair to say that it was the writings of Lewis that led Collins from atheism to Christianity.
Collins is foremost a scientist and not a theologian. Theologians will find his arguments simple and perhaps even simplistic at times. However, because Collins speaks with authority in the field of science, his voice is an important one in pointing out ways in which science and religion can converge. Collins’ attempt to integrate the two is a task that had received a lot of attention in recent years by some serious theologians and scientists. This model of convergence stands in stark contrast with the model of conflict, a perspective that attracts a lot of media attention but ultimately promotes rancor and misunderstanding.
Collins treats a number of important issues in the book that have proven to be controversial for religion and science. Here is a sample:
In a fascinating “behind-the-scenes” chapter on the race to unravel the code for human life, Collins finds theological implications from some of the “surprises” that emerged from the Human Genome Project. For example, out of the total amount of DNA, only about 20-25 thousand genes actually code for proteins in the human genome, which means that other simple organisms (like flies and worms) are roughly in the same range. (p. 125) Also, the genetic diversity in our species is much lower than in others, suggesting “we humans are truly part of one family.” (126) Additionally, Collins describes several pieces of evidence that indicate humans and other species had common ancestors. While he acknowledges that some might see this as evidence of the absence of God in the process of natural selection, he concludes that “freeing God from the burden of special acts of creation does not remove Him as the source of the things that make humanity special, and of the universe itself. It merely shows us something of how He operates.” (140-41)
Collins is critical of both the atheistic perspectives of Richard Dawkins and the “young earth” creationists who claim evolution is a lie and the earth is no older than 10,000 years. With reference to Dawkins, he rightfully points out that Dawkins’ atheism is itself a belief system and as such is outside the realm of science. Based on its own methodology, science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. On the other hand, young earth creationists are caught in a trap of literalism, supposing that the six days of creation spoken of in Genesis must be interpreted as six 24-hour days.
Most recently, the movement known as Intelligent Design (ID) has received a lot of attention, especially among evangelical Christians. For example, the recently released “documentary” with Ben Stein, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, claims that academia is littered with scientists who have been silenced or fired because of their belief in ID. The proponents of this movement argue that evolution cannot explain the irreducible complexity of certain multi-component biological entities. While recognizing that many proponents or ID are thoughtful and sincere in their views, ultimately Collins considers ID to be another “god of the gaps” theory whereby God is invoked to explain something in the natural order that science cannot. Collins correctly points out that ID could never qualify as a scientific theory since it proposes a supernatural answer to a scientific question. (pp. 181-95) Collins’ own perspective is “theistic evolution” (or what he prefers to call BioLogos). For Collins, this is not a “god of the gaps” theory because it actually proposes answers to questions that science is in no position to answer: How did the universe get here? What is the meaning of life? What happens to us after we die?
A lengthy appendix addresses a number of bioethical issues including in vitro fertilization, stem cell research, DNA testing and others. In May, 2008, President Bush signed a law that would prohibit discrimination based on genetic information. Francis Collins was a primary force behind this law and with its passing, the importance of the Human Genome Project for ordinary people has become even more evident. Individuals can now learn of their genetic risk toward disease without fear that the information will be used against them.
I highly recommend this book, especially for nonprofessionals in theology or science, as an example of the integration and dialogue that is possible between science and religion.