I've been wrestling with how to respond to the imminent appointment of Francis Collins to the NIH, and it's tough. The problem is that he has excellent qualifications for the position of chief paper-pusher and technician-wrangler, but that his position on religion is just plain weird. He's a lovable dufus with great organizational skills whose grasp of the principles of science is superficial. But you can't just reject the guy because he's religious — we're in big trouble when we start using a religious litmus test for high political positions.
Oh, wait…we already do that. You know if someone with equivalent prestige and administrative credentials was even half as vocal about atheism as Collins is about Christianity, there's no way she would even be considered for this appointment.
Anyway, I was on The World Tonight Redux with Rob Breakenridge, a radio program out of Canada to talk about these issues the other night, and I listed a few reasons why Collins was a poor choice.
He's a big-science guy, who headed the National Human Genome Research Institute. I have some concern that he has a mindset that may not promote the diversity of scientific research — he represents a very narrow, gene-jockey style of research, which is valuable and does churn out lots of data, but I've often found exhibits a worrisome lack of understanding of the big picture of biology. I'd have liked to have seen a leader with more breadth: someone with an appreciation of systems biology, or environmental biology, and a little less shackled to the purely biomedical side.
He doesn't understand evolution. He has said that he thinks humans are no longer evolving, that junk DNA is functional, and he can't understand how altruism could have evolved. RPM summarized these deficiencies well. I know he argues well against the specifics of intelligent design, but ultimately, he's following the same gods-of-the-gaps formula that the Discovery Institute does, as this article on Slate explains:
This formula offers a convenient litmus test for where Collins falls on a variety of questions: If a given problem appears to be merely unsolved, then he'll leave it to the realm of science; if, on the other hand, Collins deems a question to be unsolvable, it's fair game for inclusion in a spiritual interpretation of the universe.
That's not what I want to hear from someone with such a visible position in science.
His website, Biologos, is an embarrassment of poor reasoning and silly christian apologetics. It's awful. His logic is a joke, and all it really shows is that Collins is a man blinded by faith to the absurdities of his convictions. That he even asks "At what point in the evolutionary process did humans attain the 'Image of God'?", or "Was there death before the Fall?", among many other similar absurdities, is a revelation. These are questions that don't even have any meaning outside the scope of a specific, very narrow religious view.
It's also another difficult issue for me. I'm the last guy who's going to say someone should be denied a position because he maintains a controversial website. However, it's not the controversy that annoys me (it's also not particularly controversial among the American mainstream — it's more like a site that panders to a religious bias), it's the stupidity.
This is a big one for me: he will use his position to act as a propagandist for Christianity, entirely inappropriately. We already saw this in the announcement of the completion of the draft of the human genome project, where he actually brags about getting Clinton to include religious language in his speech, and where he himself made claims about the DNA sequence being "the language of god". The head of the NIH isn't just an administrative position; it's a political position, and the appointment of a loudly evangelical Christian to that spot is sending a political message. There are enough of us even louder atheists out here who will make a stink over any attempt on his part to use the accomplishments of science under the NIH to proselytize, that he's going to have to be very cautious in his statements from now on.
Finally, my objections rest on an important word: integrity. Collins hasn't got it.
I don't mean integrity in the sense of being honest and having strong moral principles; I think Collins is entirely sincere, and he doesn't seem to be the type to have ever crossed any lines of ethical behavior, except perhaps in his taste in music.
I mean integrity as in the condition of being unified, unimpaired, or sound in construction. He's a jumble of intellectual contradictions, and when you read any of his interviews, he comes off as an amiable lightweight. I'd rather have someone who can think like a scientist in charge than yet another Jebusite with an evangelical agenda.
Steve Pinker, and
Eric Michael Johnson all have interesting things to say on this subject. I have no hope that any of this will make a difference, however; Collins will obligingly appeal to the superstitions of congress and sail through any confirmation. I had higher hopes for Obama, but at this point, I can only despair of the kind of president who would consult the Pope on bioethics. I'm beginning to feel he will not hesitate to sacrifice reason on the altar of religious conformity.