Francis Collins and Karl Giberson Talk about Evolution and the Church, Part 2

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March 12, 2011 Tags: Christian Unity

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Francis Collins and Karl Giberson Talk about Evolution and the Church, Part 2

This is the second in a six part discussion between BioLogos vice-president Karl Giberson and founder Francis Collins, co-authors of The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions (note: Francis Collins' work on this project was completed prior to his appointment as director of the National Institutes of Health). The conversation first appeared as "Evolution, the Bible, and the Book of Nature" in Books and Culture and took place during a conference at Azusa Pacific University in 2008.

Karl Giberson: One of the things I appreciate a lot about Darrel Falk, who I think is a courageous voice in this conversation, is that he will come out and say that common ancestry is simply a fact. And that if you’re not willing to concede that the genetic evidence points to common ancestry than you’re essentially denying the field of biology the possibility of having facts at all. That’s the strong language that he uses.

Would you say that common ancestry and evolution in general is at that level? How compelling is the evidence at this point?

Francis Collins: The evidence is overwhelming. And it is becoming more and more robust down to the details almost by the day, especially because we have this ability now to use the study of DNA as a digital record of the way Darwin’s theory has played out over the course of long periods of time.

Darwin could hardly have imagined that there would turn out to be such strong proof of his theory because he didn’t know about DNA - but we have that information. I would say we are as solid in claiming the truth of evolution as we are in claiming the truth of the germ theory. It is so profoundly well-documented in multiple different perspectives, all of which give you a consistent view with enormous explanatory power that make it the central core of biology. Trying to do biology without evolution would be like trying to do physics without mathematics

KG: But are not some of these comparisons cheating a bit? Isn’t it cheating when people like Dawkins compare the theory of evolution to, say, the theory of relativity? I don’t think this is a good comparison. To me, it seems like evolution is this gigantic, complicated tapestry of interwoven bits of explanatory power. Ernst Mayr talked about the five separate theories that come to together in evolution. But this big tapestry of evolution is filled with holes. It still hangs together, of course, but it does have holes. For example, evolution requires the invocation of common ancestors that we don’t have any fossil record for; we don’t really know anything about them, other than indirect DNA inferences. A layperson is understandably skeptical when they are told that there’s this tree of life going back to a common ancestor and all these animals are on the tree but we have no direct evidence for most of them and we have to infer them hypothetically. How do you respond to this large number of missing pieces in the puzzle? Does that bother you at all?

FC: I know it bothers people who are not really convinced yet about the consistency of the whole theory but it doesn’t bother me at all. Is the absence of a fossil representation of an organism really all that troubling when you realize that what you’re asking for in that case—fossilization— is extremely unlikely to have happened? Now we can actually go back and predict pretty much to the base pair what was the genome sequence of the common mammalian ancestor.

We have done that for big stretches of the genome to show how you can computationally assemble that information. And it’s breathtaking that you can actually look now at the DNA sequence, which is a fossil record of its own, of an organism that we’re all descended from. And so are all the other mammals because we have enough evidence from today that we are able to look back through history to see what that must have looked like.

Maybe because I’m a geneticist and I’m particularly interested in genomes, but that is more interesting to me than having a fossil record of that individual common ancestor because the genome is much more detailed and gives you a richness of information about that organism. And we can do that. So that fills in a lot of the holes. Again, evolution may seem from the outside to have a lot of complexities and components and, certainly, lots of details—some of which we haven’t worked out—and for anybody to say there are no arguments would be a total mistake. There’s lots of stuff we don’t agree upon. But we do agree upon descent from a common ancestor, gradual change over a long period of time, and natural selection operating to produce the diversity of living species. There is no question that those are correct. Those are three cardinal pillars of Darwin’s theory that have been under-girded by data coming from multiple directions and they are not going to go away. Evolution is not a theory that is going to be discarded next week or next year or a hundred or a thousand years from now. It is true.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.
Dr. Francis Collins is a physician and geneticist known for spearheading the Human Genome Project and for his landmark discoveries of disease genes. Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation in November 2007 and served as its president until August 16, 2009, when he resigned to become director of the National Institutes of Health. (Note: All blogs written by Collins were completed before accepting his duty as director of the NIH).

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Jon Garvey - #55793

March 27th 2011

...But where on earth does any reference to adaptationism appear on this thread before your mention of it?


John - #55798

March 27th 2011

Jon, here’s one reference:
“Again, I smell the danger of evolution-ism”

I don’t see any difference between Gregory’s “evolution-ism” and the adaptationism described and decried decades ago. I’m challenging Gregory to explain the differences that justify renaming it. 


Whether differences exist or not, it’s interesting that Gregory doesn’t cite Gould and Lewontin.

Jon Garvey - #55801

March 27th 2011

John - #55798

As I understand it they’re quite distinct. Adaptationism (is it not?) is a debate within the biological evolution community over whether all evolutionary changes are adaptive to the environment.

Evolutionism is the extension of evolutionary explanations beyond biology into abiogenesis, psychology, history, sociology, religion, politics, engineering and everything else that changes or progresses. Pejoratively it is also used (sometimes by opponents of evolution) to describe the holding of evolutionary views as a matter of faith
beyond what they deem to be the evidence, or the belief that evolution explains everything there is to know about life, including the human condition.

Somebody else might refine or improve those definitions.


John - #55872

March 28th 2011

Jon:
“As I understand it they’re quite distinct. Adaptationism (is it not?) is a debate…”


How on Earth or in heaven can any “-ism” be defined as a debate, Jon? Isms are idologies.

”... within the biological evolution community over whether all evolutionary changes are adaptive to the environment.”

Not even close. It’s a derogatory term applied by real evolutionary biologists to describe the IDEOLOGY that produces amateurish handwaving, primarily in the behavioral, linguistic, and social sciences. Perhaps you should read Gould and Lewontin. I’m sure that Gregory has been directed to them, so I’m wondering why he never cites it.

“Evolutionism is the extension of evolutionary explanations beyond biology into abiogenesis, psychology, history, sociology, religion, politics, engineering and everything else that changes or progresses.”

Not as Gregory uses it here, Jon. Gregory is obsessed with adaptationism in the social sciences. He calls it “evolutionism” or “Darwinism,” but those terms are nonsensical when we realize that it would make Stephen Jay Gould an “antievolutionist.” It’s just a rebranding, and it looks like a very academically unethical one from my perspective.

“Pejoratively it is also used (sometimes by opponents of evolution) to describe the holding of evolutionary views as a matter of faith beyond what they deem to be the evidence, or the belief that evolution explains everything there is to know about life, including the human condition.”

The only difference I see is that Gould and Lewontin are orders of magnitude more sophisticated (and funny) than Gregory is. You don’t seem to grasp the fundamental notion that evolution is not limited to Darwinian mechanisms. That’s why Gould’s description, “overreliance upon adaptive scenarios in evolutionary explanation,” is so much better than your conflation above of “evolution” with its underlying mechanisms. Gregory appears to be distorting and rebranding to appeal to evolution denialists—like you, Jon?

“Somebody else might refine or improve those definitions.”

I find the idea that we should change labels on ideologies depending on who is advocating them or criticizing them to be very, very dangerous. Jesus Christ had infinitely more to say about hypocrisy than He did about evolution.

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