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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Charles - #54136

March 12th 2011

Thank you for writing this book. I finished the book on my kindle this morning and it has help me in so many different ways. Thank you

 


Karl Giberson - #54176

March 12th 2011

Charles:  Thank you for this nice comment.  I also enjoy reading on a Kindle.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #54167

March 12th 2011

Please do not confuse evolution with Darwin’s Theory.

Unless one is a Realist, a name or idea is not the same thing as what it describes, especially when the process of evolution was poorly envisioned by Darwin.   


Darryl - #54228

March 13th 2011

Roger,

“Please do not confuse evolution with Darwin’s Theory.

Unless one is a Realist, a name or idea is not the same thing as what it describes, especially when the process of evolution was poorly envisioned by Darwin.”

There’s a long tradition in science and mathematics of associating a person’s name with a theory, concept, or law.  Darwin’s name is very rightly associated with the theory of evolution by natural selection.  As for the claim that he “poorly envisioned” it, naturally the first person to articulate and propose a new theory isn’t going to have as complete an understanding of it as specialists in the field 150 years later!  As Giberson and Collins note, the theory still has “holes” even today, yet there’s enough known about it to be able to rather confidently fill in those holes, and in a way that actually leaves Darwin’s thinking on the subject standing fairly tall.  It seems to me a fine thing to continue associating his name with it.


Mike Gene - #54246

March 13th 2011

I agree with Roger.  At first I was confused when Collins said, “the study of DNA as a digital record of the way Darwin’s theory,” but then a few sentences later, it became clear he was talking about evolution.

There was more to Darwin’s theory than evolution by natural selection.  His theory also strongly insisted on a very strict gradualism and proposed a form of blending inheritance where the body cells produced gemmules that contained the “information” for traits.



Roger A. Sawtelle - #54298

March 14th 2011

Okay, let us go with the definition that Darwin’s Theory is evolution by natural selection.

What did Darwin mean by natural selection?  By all description, especially his own, he meant natural selection based on Malthusian population theory based on conflict.  Now when I try to discuss this with those who claim to agree with Darwin, they are quick to deny this theory of natural selection and of course Malthusism has been rejected by most, if not all, scientific thought.  It has not been scientifically confirmed.  

So what is the current Darwinian understanding of natural selection?  Is it the old Malthusian view that no one wants to defend, or is it a new concept that Dawkins can not explain, or has it disappeared into a tautology, as Popper claimed and never really denied?  

If Darwin’s Theory is evolution by natural selection, but there is no scientifically verified defintion of natural selection, then how can his theory be a scientific theory?
If there is no consensus as to what is natural selection, how can it be a coherent theory?   


R Hampton - #54336

March 14th 2011

Roger,
I like this defintion from U. Berkeley site on Evolution:
If you have variation, differential reproduction, and heredity, you will have evolution by natural selection as an outcome. It is as simple as that.


Given these three facts, what mechanism(s) would prevent natural selection from happening?


Gregory - #54365

March 14th 2011

¨Trying to do biology without evolution would be like trying to do physics without mathematics¨ - F. Collins

This is confusing. Is Collins suggesting ´evolution´ is best thought about as a ´field of study,´ as an ´academic discipline´?

Mathematics, physics and biology are all sovereign fields of study, which contain multiple theories and apply various methods.

I thought ´evolution´ was a theory [or method] *within* the field of biology [& some other NPSs] & *not independent* from biology. It would be interesting to learn how many people posting at BioLogos would consider ´evolution´ as a sovereign field or discipline instead of as *just a theory* within a field.

Again, I smell the danger of evolution-ism of the universalistic variety rearing its head around the corner if qualifications are not offered. Please note that it is not just evolutionists; systems theorists and cyberneticians often elevate their ideas in attempting to create a universal flavour too.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #54378

March 14th 2011

If you have variation, differential reproduction, and heredity, you will have evolution by natural selection as an outcome. It is as simple as that.

Given these three facts, what mechanism(s) would prevent natural selection from happening?

R Hampton,

Thank you for the quote.  It would seem that science should have learned by now that if something seems obvious, it isn’t.  It is quite obvious that the sun moves around the earth too.

The question is not whether natural selection happens, but how it works, just as it Newton and Einstein had different views of how gravity works.  The question is how does nature select winners and losers through selection.  For many it seems that the model of predator and prey is the prime model, however the lion does not receive an advantage from killing all of the zebras and in fact this would put them at a distinct disadvantage.  

What is left out of this equation is the reason for change, the need for evolution.  The reason behind evolutionary change is the evolution of the earth’s ecosystems.  Humans probably could not survive in the same ecosystem that brought into being the dinosaurs.  When that ecosystem disappeared it gave early mammals the right ecosystem to develop and flourish.

Now these facts are quite obvious to most people.  I really cannot explain why Darwinists don’t understand them, but except many people are satisfied with the obvious ”:good enough,” so they fail to seek the better.  Others like Dawkins have a vested interest in traditional Darwinism.  Ecology and evolution work hand in hand.  This is not by random chance as Darwinists claim.  This is the law of the cosmos.


John - #54379

March 14th 2011

Gregory:

“This is confusing. Is Collins suggesting ´evolution´ is best thought about as a ´field of study,´ as an ´academic discipline´?”

Evolution is a phenomenon, Gregory. The field of study is called “evolutionary biology.”

“Mathematics, physics and biology are all sovereign fields of study, which contain multiple theories and apply various methods.”

No, none of them are sovereign. You might try leafing through Biophysical Journal sometime. Or would you say that, for example, single-molecule measurements of the change in force production caused by disease-causing mutations in genes encoding molecular motors can only be classified as biology or physics?

“I thought ´evolution´ was a theory [or method] *within* the field of biology [& some other NPSs] & *not independent* from biology.”

Evolution is a phenomenon. The theories of evolutionary biology pertain to the mechanisms underlying the phenomenon of evolution.

“It would be interesting to learn how many people posting at BioLogos would consider ´evolution´ as a sovereign field or discipline instead of as *just a theory* within a field.”

Or neither, but I don’t think you’d be too interested in that.

“Again, I smell the danger of evolution-ism…”

I smell something silly based on a fallacy of equivocation. I’m not endorsing Collins’s analogy, as it’s a poor one. Mathematics is both a tool used in every science and a field of study in its own right. You can’t blame “evolutionism” for that confusion, though.

R Hampton - #54389

March 14th 2011

What is left out of this equation is the reason for change, the need for evolution.

To you, it seems to be like a multi-species collusion of planned mutations, but it is in fact natural selection.

As a new generation of salmon swim upstream, each individual represents a test of a unique combination of genetic material - some conserved from the previous generation, some new. This holds true the insect larvae and zooplankton that the salmon feast on, the parasites that infest their bodies, and the eagles that prey on them. This interaction is so dynamic and interdependent that intelligent foresight is not possible on the part of the genome or the environment. The only way the ‘need for change’ can be calculated is to live the experiment.

The question is, by what mechanism can life ‘pre-adapt’ to the unpredictable, like a 8.9 earthquake off the coast of Japan and the resulting tsunamis? The next generation of Japanese Salmon (Oncorhynchus masou) to swim upstream will certainly be affected, but even the fish themselves do not know which genomes will succeed. While epigenetics will play a role, the salmon DNA was set before the catastrophe occurred, before the need for change. Necessity dictates that a variety of genomes is the best strategy a species has against the unknown.

Equally unpredictable, though less dramatic, is the ordinary dynamic of life which is concurrently ongoing with all living things. Because the need for change can only be known after the fact, and because changes ripples through an environmental niche in all manner of ways, begetting other changes, the symbiosis that you so often speak of is best described as natural selection.


unapologetic catholic - #54401

March 14th 2011

“For many it seems that the model of predator and prey is the prime model, however the lion does not receive an advantage from killing all of the zebras and in fact this would put them at a distinct disadvantage.”

That’s true and nobody said otherwise.  In fact Darwin himself pointed that out.

“too efficient” predators have been known to have populaition crashes for that very reason. 


Gregory - #54408

March 15th 2011

“Evolution is a phenomenon, Gregory. The field of study is called “evolutionary biology”.” - John

Does it follow then that *only* outside of ‘evolutionary biology’ can ‘phenomena’ be classified as ‘non-evolutionary’?

So then professional scholars who talk about the ‘evolution’ of morals, institutions, economies, psyches, etc. these people are all somehow *away from the real power of evolution*, i.e. that which is to be found in the scientific field called by Lamarck ‘bio-logy’.

“mechanisms underlying the phenomenon of evolution.” - John

Again, these are strictly ‘biological mechanisms’ that you are referring to & *only* wrt ‘biological phenomena’, right? Iow, you are *not* speaking about ‘mechanisms underlying the phenomenon’ of changes/developments in *non-biological* fields, right? You are leaving the door open for fields in which ‘evolution’ is a misnomer (& perhaps not even just b/c in those realms it is ‘unscientific’ - it seems you are saying something like “evolution is science, some fields are not ‘really scientific,’ so in those fields there cannot be ‘evolution’ as a ‘scientific’ concept”).

“I’m not endorsing Collins’s analogy, as it’s a poor one.” - John

Which analogy? Do you mean the analogy that calls the human genetic code the ‘language of God’ is a ‘poor one’? Do you like or dislike that analogy, John? You have kept this a secret at BioLogos thus far.

I am not a biologist, or a natural-physical scientist, but that analogy is appealing to me as a believer in supra-natural things, including a ‘Designer’ &/or ‘Evolver’ of the human genetic code.

As a person who may or may not have suggested on this site that they are both a Christian & a biologist, these two things would seem like a nice fit for you, John. Are they?

“fallacy of equivocation” - John

Probably you took a 1st-year university philosophy course, John, & nothing more & have little to no idea about the depths of ‘wisdom’ to be found in philo-sophia, when pulling up your worn out crib notes to locate a ‘fallacy’ to label me with as if that gives strength to your argument.

I hold a degree in philosophy & studied under one of the top Russian phenomenologists, editing one collection of papers on phenomenology. O.k. John, you twice say ‘evolution is a [biological] phenomenon.’ Now can you back it up based on your ideological biologism?

There is no doubt that you are an ‘evolutionist,’ John, perhaps even a ‘universal evolutionist’ in your ideology. At least that’s how it appears to me. *Most evolutionists* (incuding theistic evolutionists) try to downplay the extremities of their ‘evolutionism’ while in public. The consequences of this ideology, however, are displayed in certain peoples’ writings that most of thosefriendly to & who visit BioLogos, would probably be better off not to read. There are some vicious (or more often vacuous) writings out there by evolutionists about morals, ethics, beliefs, values, etc. that I’m sure Falk, Giberson, Applegate, Venema, et al. would *not* want to be associated with, even given their acceptance of ‘evolutionary biology.’ This needs to be ‘logossed-out’ or spelled out more clearly on this site.

You would ask us to read those things, John, so that we would better understand the dark. With analogies like F. Collins’, & completely unlike your condescending biologism, we are helped to see the light of God’s biosphere, ecosphere & also the human noosphere, which was (for lack of better duos) ‘intelligently designed/theistically evolved’ in God’s image.

- Gregory

p.s. ‘sovereign’ does not mean ‘without overlap’


Roger A. Sawtelle - #54432

March 15th 2011

R. Hampton wrote:

“Because the need for change can only be known after the fact, and because changes ripples through an environmental niche in all manner of ways, begetting other changes, the symbiosis that you so often speak of is best described as natural selection.”

Thank you for your agreement and confirmation of my position.  The issue is not whether natural selection takes place or not, but how it takes place. 

\We are agreed that it takes place through the phemenon called symbiosis, whereby life forms find ways to live together with each other and adjust to the physical environment.  Example of this are too numerous to count and this is clearly verified by scientific studies.  

However the most prominent biologist who shares this view Lynn Margulis is marked as a critic of Darwinism, and the one who most loudly attacks this view, Richard Dawkins, is considered the spokesperson for Darwinism today.  See Climbing Mt. Improbable, pp. 267-68.  So is symbiosis point of view Darwinist or critical of Darwinism? 

If science and scientists decide to accept symbiosis as the basis of natural selection, that is well and good, but would be the basis of a scientific revolution of the kind described by Thomas Kuhn.  It needs to be understood as such and should require a major shift in the scientific understanding of life.  As things stand science is not willing to make this change.

Again the problem is that science and the rest of us need that change to take place to put our world on a sound scientific intellectual foundation.       


Roger A. Sawtelle - #54625

March 17th 2011

Back to my original problem. 

Do the authors accept the definition of Darwin’s Theory as evolution with natural selection?

If so what is their definition of Darwinian natural selection and  evidence that it has taken place?

If there is no specific evidence of Darwinian natural selection, then we have no evidence for Darwin’s Theory as defined.  We just have evidence for evolution.


John - #54674

March 17th 2011

Gregory:
“Does it follow then that *only* outside of ‘evolutionary biology’ can ‘phenomena’ be classified as ‘non-evolutionary’?”

No.



“So then professional scholars who talk about the ‘evolution’ of morals, institutions, economies, psyches, etc. these people are all somehow *away from the real power of evolution*,…”

Correct, because if all they are just talking, they aren’t doing science.

“Which analogy? Do you mean the analogy that calls the human genetic code the ‘language of God’ is a ‘poor one’?”

No, Gregory, the one *you* quoted. Can’t you remember the context? Moreover, I am unaware that Collins has ever proposed the analogy you are attributing to him.

“I am not a biologist, or a natural-physical scientist, but that analogy is appealing to me as a believer in supra-natural things, including a ‘Designer’ &/or ‘Evolver’ of the human genetic code.”

The genetic code or the genome? “Human genetic code” makes no sense, as the genetic code is nearly universal!



“I hold a degree in philosophy & studied under one of the top Russian phenomenologists, editing one collection of papers on phenomenology.”

Was your statement about editing offered to elicit admiration or pity from the reader?

Have you done any original work?

“O.k. John, you twice say ‘evolution is a [biological] phenomenon.’ Now can you back it up based on your ideological biologism?”

I back it up based on evidence. Evolution is observable.



“p.s. ‘sovereign’ does not mean ‘without overlap’”

I didn’t claim that it did. 

P.S. “Genetic code” does not mean “genome.”

Howard - #55666

March 25th 2011

In 6th ed of Origin, Darwin complained, “But as my conclusions have been lately much misrepresented, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection, I may be permitted to remark that in the first edition of this work, and subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous position - namely at the close of the Introduction- the following words: ‘I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification.’  This has been of no avail.  Great is the power of steady misrepresentation, but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure.” (Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 6th ed, Wm Benton, Chicago, 1952, p 239)


Gregory - #55681

March 26th 2011

I asked: “Which analogy? Do you mean the analogy that calls the human genetic code the ‘language of God’ is a ‘poor one’?”

 

“No, Gregory, the one *you* quoted. Can’t you remember the context? Moreover, I am unaware that Collins has ever proposed the analogy you are attributing to him.” - John

The record goes against poster ‘John’ again:


I wrote: “Again, I smell the danger of evolution-ism”

John replied: “I smell something silly based on a fallacy of equivocation. I’m not endorsing Collins’s analogy, as it’s a poor one.”

The main question is re: what John himself wrote: “Collins’s analogy…it’s a poor one.”

He really seems not to want people to speak about ‘ideology’ in connection with ‘evolution.’ Why not? Math, Physics, Biology, Evolution. It seems as if, the more it matters @ actual people’s lives & their faith, the less John is interested & the less he wants to engage in dialogue @ it.

Well, I have no time for biology-centric narrow-mindedness, given the breadth & depth of topics available to be engaged under the rubric of ‘science, (philosophy) & religion’ dialogue. My questions above remain for F. Collins & I’ve no doubt he would engage them as fairly as possible. The ‘language’ (of our communication) needs to change.
 
“if all they are just talking, they aren’t doing science.” - John

I can assure you, John, they aren’t ‘just talking.’ I just spent two long days with some of the top scholars from more than a dozen countries in my field (including one of the most fascinating scholars in the world today imho) & they were spending two more full days, preparing the international agenda. It doesn’t mean a thing to me if ‘John the biologist’ amidst the clang of his beakers doesn’t call that ‘science,’ just because they weren’t making experiments.

Which Francis Collins analogy is a ‘poor one’ in YOUR opinion, John?

I quoted Collins above: ¨Trying to do biology without evolution would be like trying to do physics without mathematics¨ - F. Collins

Is this what your fuss is about?


John - #55711

March 26th 2011

Gregory,Your comment is incoherent. I stated (correcting my typo) that if they are only talking, they aren’t doing science. I also asked if you have done any original work, as your whole shtik was covered 32 years ago with wit and grace by Gould and Lewontin. The only thing you appear to be adding is a grossly deceptive label. If you disagree, please cite their contribution properly and explain how you are disagreeing with/modifying/advancing their concept.

“I can assure you, John, they aren’t ‘just talking.’”

What are they doing, then?

“I just spent two long days with some of the top scholars from more than a dozen countries in my field…”

How exciting! Did you contribute anything? Were you serving them coffee? What were you doing other than talking?

Do you have enough of a grasp on freshman logic to realize that I’m not claiming that talking is bad, just that it shouldn’t be all one is doing if one is doing science?


”...& they were spending two more full days, preparing the international agenda.”

I am duly chastened, then! Two full days preparing an agenda? And not just a domestic one, but an international one? Golly, how exciting for you! Did you suggest breaking for lunch at 12:15 instead of 12:00? 

Tell me more…wait, why are you telling me this to begin with? To impress me, right?

“It doesn’t mean a thing to me if ‘John the biologist’ amidst the clang of beakers doesn’t call that ‘science,’...”

If what I think doesn’t mean a thing to you, why are you bragging to me about the company you occasionally keep? Have you done any original work in any academic field, or are you just a groupie?

John - #55749

March 26th 2011

Gregory:
“He really seems not to want people to speak about ‘ideology’ in connection with ‘evolution.’ Why not?”

I’m perfectly willing to, just not using your terms.

The ideology to which you refer was identified, labeled, and successfully attacked at least 32 years ago by Gould and Lewontin and others. The name of the ideology is neither “evolutionism” nor “Darwinism,” it is “adaptationism.” I don’t subscribe to it.

So why are you repackaging adaptationism with a new name, Gregory? Why are you pretending that Gould and Lewontin et al. haven’t already covered this ground? Are you trying to thread a political needle between the rank deception of ID and the position of the good people here at Biologos?

”... Math, Physics, Biology, Evolution. It seems as if, the more it matters @ actual people’s lives & their faith, the less John is interested & the less he wants to engage in dialogue @ it.”

To prove you wrong, let’s have a dialogue about the deeply flawed ideology of adaptationism. You can start by summarizing the historical origin of the term. Then we can have fun discussing your failure to cite those who defined, labeled, and fought it. Even if one disagrees with the trailblazers, there’s zero ethical justification for a failure to acknowledge past work.
<!—EndFragment—>


Jon Garvey - #55779

March 27th 2011

“Adaptationists such as Steven Pinker have also suggested that the debate has a strong ad hominem

component. Some suggest that the controversy over the relative importance of various factors would be a quiet debate over subtleties if the critics were less prone to caricaturing their opponents” (Wikipedia)

Quite right, John - plus ca change, plus le meme chose.


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