Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Courtesy of CNN, an empty-headed opinion piece that adds no real dimension to the topic.

As the director of the Human Genome Project, I have led a consortium of scientists to read out the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome, our own DNA instruction book. As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God’s language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God’s plan.

I did not always embrace these perspectives. As a graduate student in physical chemistry in the 1970s, I was an atheist, finding no reason to postulate the existence of any truths outside of mathematics, physics and chemistry. But then I went to medical school, and encountered life and death issues at the bedsides of my patients. Challenged by one of those patients, who asked “What do you believe, doctor?”, I began searching for answers.

Pretty much the exact opposite of my experience (ie, “true believer” turned atheist). Read on here….


  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    April 4, 2007

    …an empty-headed opinion piece that adds no real dimension to the topic.

    Another closely-reasoned critique. I’m sure Collins is devastated.

    Pretty much the exact opposite of my experience…

    Oh … well, I guess that settles it then, doesn’t it??

  2. #2 MartinC
    April 4, 2007

    What about this part ?
    “For me, that leap came in my 27th year, after a search to learn more about Odin’s character led me to the person of Thor. Here was a person with remarkably strong historical evidence of his life, who made astounding statements about loving your neighbor, and whose claims about being Odin’s son seemed to demand a decision about whether he was deluded or the real thing. After resisting for nearly two years, I found it impossible to go on living in such a state of uncertainty, and I became a follower of Thor”

  3. #3 Gerard Harbison
    April 4, 2007

    Another closely-reasoned critique.

    About as much reason as the subject warrants. Does Collins really think the origin of the human moral sense can’t be scientifically investigated? What about the scientists who are currently investigating it?

  4. #4 G. Shelley
    April 4, 2007

    Another closely-reasoned critique. I’m sure Collins is devastated.

    More of an observation than a critique.

  5. #5 Mark
    April 4, 2007

    Note that he was the director and “led” the scientists. Although he has a phd in pchem, he is a physician. I think that means he is not really a scientist. Upon reading what he says, which is mostly the same tired, multiply-debunked crap the creationists use, I think my opinion is confirmed: he is an idiot.

  6. #6 Shelley
    April 4, 2007

    LOL Martin. 🙂

    I did write on the topic, the link is included in the post so i didn’t have to repeat myself. However, perhaps I should have. To make things clear, I do believe it is a topic worth discussing and if you’d read what I had written on it you would know that it being the opposite of my experience in no way “settles the matter.” In fact I’m open to quite a few views as long as they make sense and are rational.

    My main problems with his piece was that while he seems like quite the rational scientist, he applied decidedly un-rational methodology to his religious beliefs. He does not apply the same level of scrutiny to those observations as we would to, say, genetic observations in his work. That is a major failing of his position, in my opinion, and instead of demonstrating some happy co-existence of religion and science it suggests that he just gives religion “a pass” which he wouldn’t dole out to other topics (well, hopefully at least.)

    And, as Martin mentioned, he doesn’t even bring up other religions (or defunct ones, or mythology, etc). Why is religion any different–it still relies on “faith”, ie no evidence, to exist. For someone trained in the scientific method, which is, find theories to best fit the facts, he feels quite comfortable dismissing that and trying to fit facts to a pre-established theory. Yes, I take issue with that.

  7. #7 Davis
    April 4, 2007

    I had to admit that the science I loved so much was powerless to answer questions such as “What is the meaning of life?” “Why am I here?”… “If the universe had a beginning, who created it?”

    Let’s see, he’s begging the question (in the petitio principii sense) in these questions.

    “Why are the physical constants in the universe so finely tuned to allow the possibility of complex life forms?” “Why do humans have a moral sense?”

    There’s good reason to think science will eventually have good answers to these questions, so now he’s playing god of the gaps.

    “What happens after we die?”

    Based on repeated observation, it seems pretty likely that we rot, unless we’re disposed of in some other way. But the intended meaning for this question is, again, question-begging. (It assumes the self is somehow separate from the body.)

    “Why does mathematics work, anyway?”

    An analogous question: “Why is language so useful for communicating my thoughts to other people?”

    I hope most people would agree that the analogous question has nothing at all to do with god. So why should the original one?

    It’s kind of embarrassing to me that an intelligent person like Collins thinks these questions are an argument for god. So yes, I’d have to agree with the “adds no real dimension to the topic” comment.

  8. #8 Ex-drone
    April 4, 2007

    So on this CNN website, not only does the article give Collins an uncalled-for opportunity to evangelize, but an affiliated link provides the Creationism Museum free advertizing. Do you think that CNN is trying to raid Fox viewers?

  9. #9 Eric Irvine
    April 4, 2007

    I do think that it is incredibly naive to think that the bible and religion can provide all the answers to reality and life. I just think that their being a “god” is much too of an anthropomorphic explanation to be real, and that we will never have all the answers about reality.

    However, I also think that it’s unfortunate that religion has somehow become such a hot topic in science. I’m sorry but it doesn’t matter one angstrom what religion a person is as long as they can still carry out their research like a scientist. Thus CNN shouldn’t be talking about this and neither should scienceblogs – big whoop, so he believes in God, who cares?

    Seriously, the best posts on scienceblogs are on science – I look forward to more of them. We know intelligent design is stupid, but how many times do you have to disprove it? Why not ignore them. Educate the public so that people can make their own choice, and fight in the legal battles if need be.

    Science (including social science) rules! I wish scienceblogs would get back on focus (especially PZ, I think he’s awesome but does every other post have to be about religion?)

  10. #10 Shelley
    April 4, 2007

    Eric, your complaint is not alone. Which is one of the reasons I participated in the “Just Science” week, and this is probably one of 10 posts out of over 500+ that have been about religion. That said, I blog about what I want. Mostly, thats about science, or news, or hearing research, nerdy fun, etc. But, as a person who grew up a certain way (religious), I do have an interest in how the media presents religion especially when it is given a facade of legitimacy through a scientist mouthpiece. It does affect how people view science, which very directly affects my research. Both through funding and what I’m allowed to do by “morals” and “ethics” (I would like to do stem cell research.)

    I understand your criticism, but it might be better voiced on PZs blog. Perhaps if my science posts generated as much interest as a blurb about religion, I wouldn’t think twice. 🙂

  11. #11 Davis
    April 4, 2007

    I wish scienceblogs would get back on focus…

    I’ll point out that Scienceblogs is a product of Seed Magazine, whose motto is “Science is Culture.” The Seed overlords set out to create a magazine about the intersection of science and culture, not just science, and I think Scienceblogs in its current form dovetails nicely with their stated purpose. Religion is a major part of culture, after all.

  12. #12 Eric Irvine
    April 4, 2007

    “I understand your criticism, but it might be better voiced on PZs blog. Perhaps if my science posts generated as much interest as a blurb about religion, I wouldn’t think twice. :)”

    Agreed, I do actually read most of your posts and nary a one mentions religion. The comment was more directed towards scienceblogs and the media in general, and I would voice my opinion on PZ’s blog but i’m afraid my opinion probably wouldn’t go too far with him – he already knows what my lot think.

    As for religion affecting research, my view is that it’s better to teach good science instead of attacking something like intelligent design. Obviously, the Kansas school board interfered with this process and it is necessary to show why they’re wrong, but it has really blossomed into an all out cultural war in some areas. For most, however, I think that the only real way to understand why some ideas might be wrong is to teach why we think our scientific ideas are right (much better than in highschool!).

    I know that for me at least I never fully understood what science was all about until university – and that was mostly from psychology classes. I never really got evolution until I took a biology elective, took a human evolution class in anthropology, and read the origin of species and Dawkins. Unfortunately, highschool never really painted the “big picture” for me of what science (and math) was all about (if that makes sense).

    btw I do read and enjoy pretty much all of your science posts. Keep up the good work 🙂

  13. #13 Eric Irvine
    April 4, 2007

    @ Davis

    Good point, but then why not more posts about how science relates to other aspects of culture?

  14. #14 Davis
    April 4, 2007

    Good point, but then why not more posts about how science relates to other aspects of culture?

    I’ve found that some of the less-popular blogs on SB do indeed cover a number of non-religion topics. It’s just that the religion posts tend to be the most visible, as they generate the most heat and noise (and clog up the Top Five). That’s why I generally use the Scienceblogs combined RSS feed (though I do occasionally allow myself to be drawn into the noisy threads).

  15. #15 DrMaybe
    April 5, 2007

    I would agree that the piece as presented is empty-headed and adding nothing, because he’s asking questions that, judging by the comments, sound fundamental to the true believer, but to anyone else they aren’t fundamental enough.

    He claims there are rational grounds to believe in some creator, but we don’t hear them, we just hear the same old flawed questions that are designed to give the answer he wants.

    To me, he just sounds like someone who wanted to hear that he was important – oh yes, you’re life does have a meaning, you are here for a reason, we won’t let your existence end permanently. That is why his questions are flawed – he doesn’t want to consider the possibility that there isn’t an answer he wants to hear – that there isn’t a reason for his being, that he’s merely a consequence of chance and unthinking natural selection, and that death is the end.

    In other words, the only rational reason for believing in a creator that I can see from this article is that it makes him feel good.

  16. #16 Paul
    April 5, 2007

    Mark, I think you’re being unfair to Collins, he has a pretty impressive record as a scientist, including being part of the team responsible for the first identification of mutation responsible for cystic fibrosis. It would be more accurate to claim that he is a scientist who dabbled in medicine.

    He’s also denounced creationism and ID on many occasions, though his own belief in “theistic evolution” is hardly more scientific.

    He does appear to be using his justified fame as a leading molecular biologist to add a scientific sheen to completely unscientific beliefs. I’m not sure whether his decision to go public with his beliefs is bad, in that it muddies the water of what is and isn’t science, or good, in that it shows religeous people that acceptance of science and of evolutionary theory does not require rejection of faith.

  17. #17 Mark
    April 5, 2007

    “What is the meaning of life?” “Why am I here?” “Why does mathematics work, anyway?” “If the universe had a beginning, who created it?” “Why are the physical constants in the universe so finely tuned to allow the possibility of complex life forms?” “Why do humans have a moral sense?” “What happens after we die?”

    This sort of sophomoric philosophizing is the hallmark of creationist apologia. The “finely tuned physical constants” and “human moral sense” issues beg the question. Any scientist worth his salt should know better than to start with that kind of circular logic. It also demonstrates a pretty profound ignorance of the physical world. At best Colliins is a good demonstration of mental partition. The problem is that he is letting his irrational pie-in-the-sky beliefs leak into his professional life.

  18. #18 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    April 5, 2007

    Challenged by one of those patients, who asked “What do you believe, doctor?”, I began searching for answers.

    You should prepare yourself in case this question ever comes up in an inappropriate setting. The correct answer is, “I believe I’ll have another beer.”

  19. #19 Cameron
    April 5, 2007

    The bit about 3.1bbps juxtaposed with “DNA instruction book” reminded me of monkeys typing shakespeare. So I decided to see just how long it would take some monkeys to randomly type out a genome.

    After rewriting a few math classes (long ints weren’t going to cut it and not a linux box so not hassling with GMP through cygwin) I gave raising 4^ 3.1 billion the old college try.

    A few hours and some math shortcuts later, I had the answer. The chances of a monkey typing the human genome are one in 3.1e1866386642 attempts, rounding down.

    To put that in perspective…sort of…if every atom in the universe was a monkey with a type writer, and each monkey with a type writer was in turn composed of a universe worth of atoms that were in their own turn monkeys with type writers, and so on, you’d have to go 5 universe/monkey/atom levels deep before you’d have enough monkeys and type writers to stand a reasonable chance of replicating any one living person’s genome. At 2 bananas per monkey per hour, and $100 per typewriter… 🙁

    The number itself takes up over a gigabyte of space on my HDD. It isn’t completely an exercise in wasted time, since our genomes were in some ways made by exactly this kind of random process. Having worked with the number, I have a better appreciation for 1) The importance of divergence and evolution in genes genesis and 2) The sheer number of routes to sentience not taken just within this framework. The universe could create itself countless times and even if it used the same framework (earth and sol, amino acids, physical constants, etc) nothing close to us would be likely occur.

  20. #20 Davis
    April 6, 2007

    So I decided to see just how long it would take some monkeys to randomly type out a genome.

    Kittel and Kroemer’s Thermal Physics book gives as a problem the computation of the expectation time for a large collection of monkeys to produce Hamlet (given some generous assumptions), which is smaller than the genome. The problem was titled “The meaning of ‘never'”.

  21. #21 Science Avenger
    April 7, 2007

    Once again Collins, a very intelligent believer, shows how religious thinking can turn even the likes of him into a blithering idiot promoting the kind of reasoning that would be laughed at, if not considered downright insane, in any other arena of thought.

    His god must really be a scatterbrain.

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