Book Review: “The Language of God” by Francis Collins

Do science and faith conflict? Does being a scientist preclude being a believer? Can you be a Christian and a Darwinian evolutionist at the same time?

These are the questions Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, seeks to answer in his book The Language of God.

The book starts with Collins’ personal testimony from atheism to belief (his testimony involves C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and, more specifically, Lewis’s moral argument for God). In the second chapter, Collins addresses some common rationalist arguments against belief.

Having answered some fundamental objections, Collins jumps into his argument for the compatibility of science and faith. He begins with Big Bang cosmology, a hard science which (I feel) offers compelling evidence for the God of the Bible. Collins’ argument here is straightforward and rather common (among Bible-believing Big-Bang theorists). The Big Bang insists that the universe had a beginning and therefore it needs a beginner; the anthropic principle shows that the universe is finely-tuned as though it were built with man in mind.

So far, I’m in complete agreement with Collins. The moral argument for God is a good and rational argument. Science and faith are compatible. The Big Bang testifies loudly of the God of the Bible. The anthropic principle indicates the personal nature of the Creator.

And then Collins loses me.

Because what comes next is an argument for the compatibility of Darwinian evolution and historic Christianity.

In short order, Collins debunks the argument from design (er…tries his best to debunk), derides the “God of the gaps”, and discounts the Cambrian explosion as a challenge to Darwinian evolution. But really, Collins’ argument boils down to this statement he makes in the middle of chapter 4:

“No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life. In fact, the relatedness of all species through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology that it is difficult to imagine how one would study life without it.”

Collins unpacks his support for Darwinian evolution as he explains the genome and his work on the Human Genome Project. Collins refers to DNA as “the language of God”–“the DNA language by which God spoke life into being.” Honestly? I can’t say I disagree with him on that point. DNA is a marvelous thing, and it is the language that “tells” living things to carry out the functions of living. But then Collins tells us that most of God’s language is gobbledy-gook. He makes his case for evolution based on the similarities between the DNA of all living things (and the ability to create a phylogenetic tree) and on the prevalence of so-called “junk DNA” (DNA that has no known function.)

The difficulty I have with the “junk DNA” argument, in particular, is that, after deriding a “God of the gaps”, Collins now finds it completely reasonable to introduce an “evolution of the gaps”. We don’t know of functions for this DNA so it must be junk–and therefore must have come about by evolution rather than design. The evidence suggests otherwise. Unfortunately, many scientists who hold to this belief have abandoned the search for function in the “junk DNA”–but those who have continued to study junk DNA have found that there’s much less “junk” than they originally thought.

Part 3 of The Language of God turns again to science/faith conflict. Collins issues a warning by hailing back to Galileo–reminding believers that their interpretations have been wrong before, and that holding too tightly to a wrong interpretation can result in damage to the faith. Now he moves on to what he considers to be the four options in dealing with science faith issues: atheism and agnosticism (where science trumps faith), creationism (where faith trumps science), intelligent design (when science needs divine help), and “Biologos” (where science and faith are in harmony). “BioLogos”, of course, means theistic evolution.

This section was a mixed bag. I agreed with Collins’ point in the chapter on atheism. Science can not be used to discount the existence of God, especially since science cannot account for morality. I agreed with many (but not all) of Collins’ arguments against intelligent design, especially his argument that intelligent design does not offer a predictive (that is, testable) scientific model.

But Collins’ chapter on creationism seems to me to be setting up a straw man of sorts by focusing on Young Earth creationism. It is true that to hold that the universe is less than 10,000 years old means discounting the evidences of multiple branches of science (geology and cosmology primary ones, but analysis of prolific Chinese genealogies also suggests that humanity itself is older than Ussher’s date for creation.) But does this mean that the Genesis accounts are not to be taken literally and that Darwinian evolution should be accepted?

I don’t believe so. Collins completely ignores what I feel to be the most Biblically- and scientifically-faithful alternative: old earth creationism, particularly the (non-Darwinian) creation model set forth by Reasons to Believe. Reasons to Believe has a high view of Scripture AND a high view of science, believing both to be books written by God to display Himself.

The difference between Collins’ approach and RTB’s is marked. Collins says “Since the common interpretation of science and the common interpretation of Scripture are incompatible, the interpretation of Scripture must be wrong.” Unfortunately, Collins does not offer any alternative exegesis in support of theistic evolution. On the other hand, Reasons to Believe says “Since the common interpretation of science and the common interpretation of Scripture are incompatible, we must examine both carefully to ascertain what God is really speaking through the two books of general and special revelation.” Reasons to Believe offers a legitimate alternative exegesis of Genesis 1-2, as well as other creation accounts in Scripture–and offers a legitimate scientific model that has explanatory power for the observations Collins sees as irrefutable proofs of evolution.

Ultimately, I think that Collins is well-meaning in his writing and is a sincere believer in God–but I think he has more in common with a liberal branch of theology that discounts Scripture as truly inerrant than with historic Christianity (which has upheld a high view of Scripture). He made arguments for evolution, sure, ones that different individuals may find more or less convincing (I am less convinced). He made arguments for faith from outside the realm of science. But despite stating that science and faith are compatible, Collins failed to make any good arguments for how science and faith are compatible.

I’m glad I read The Language of God, and I’m thankful to Janet for drawing my attention to this book. Clearly, though, I was unconvinced by Collins’ arguments for theistic evolution (what he calls “BioLogos”).

Rating:3 Stars
Category:Science and Religion
Synopsis:The head of the Human Genome Project attempts to make a case for the compatibility of Christianity and science, particularly Darwinian evolution.
Recommendation: A thought-provoking book, but ultimately unconvincing. I recommend it for critical readers, not so much for those who aren’t able or willing to think critically as they read.