Pharyngula

Biological pareidolia

Jesus in a pita, Madonna in bird poop, gods speaking through the arrangement of viscera…we’re used to ridiculous religious pattern seeking. A reader, Mike Barnes, wrote in to tell me about a scientist who has been playing the same game: Francis Collins sees DNA in stained glass windows.

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Collins showed two images–a stained-glass rose window often seen in Christian churches, and an eerily similar graphic that he described as “looking down the barrel” of DNA’s double helix.

“I’m not trying to say that there’s something inherently religious” in the DNA image, Collins emphasized. “But, I think it is emblematic of the potential here of the topic to both interest people and to make them unsettled. Can you, in fact, admire both of these [images]? Can you do it at the same time? Is there an inherent problem in having both a scientific world view and a spiritual world view?”

You know you’ve taken a long stroll on a short limb when you start using phrases like “emblematic of the potential” and start seeing significance in the fact that people can see what they want to see in a random image. Collins is also making a peculiar leap to associate the Rose Window with ‘spirituality’. As Barnes explains:

In his 2008 lecture Francis Collins used a slide of York Minster’s beautiful Rose Window as his first religious analogy. Not only is this spurious in principle, but also in fact:

I went to York University; a good friend (and atheist) was doing his PhD on the stained glass of York Minster. First, and more trivially, the Rose Window only looks the way it does on Collins’ slide because the medium of film completely distorts the exposure to create a spurious silhouette effect. It was never intended to be seen, or its meaning ‘read’, this way.

Also, Collins uses the Rose Window/genome slide and asks “do you have to make a choice between these two?”. (science versus religion, he supposes) In fact the Rose Window was designed in the 16th century as propaganda for the bloodthirsty Tudor dynasty, celebrating the union of Henry 7th and Elizabeth of York. The rose was the dynastic symbol: red for Lancashire, white for York. So the roses round the edge are as much symbols of victorious, naked state power as swastikas were in Nazi Germany – albeit more picturesque.

So, nothing to do with god or Jebus – or is the mere fact it’s situated in a Cathedral enough for Collins?

I’ve seen this comparison of Rose Window/DNA genome on Christian propaganda before and as someone who saw the original it annoys me a lot. Collins assumes a photographically-distorted soft-focus image can ‘say’ something about the genome. Unless he simply means, ‘here’s something old and pretty to see, and hey, the genome kinda looks like it’ the facts about the Rose Window blow his analogy to pieces. Or maybe he really loves old, bloodthirsty tyrants?

I can look at the Rose Window and see a piece of history; some interesting architecture; a pretty pattern; the product of skilled human labor; a monument to oppression; a relic of institutionalized superstition. There are also a few things I do not see. I do not see DNA, except that both DNA and the window share the extremely general property of exhibiting radial symmetry. I also do not see the hand of any god, because it is entirely the product of human hands and minds. There is an inherent problem in “having a spiritual worldview”, in that it compels Collins to see things that are not there.

Whatever you do, don’t let anyone show Collins the structure of laminin or potassium channels! I know it’s too late to shield him from the sight of waterfalls.