This is the third 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: There is an interesting claim being made today by people like Phillip Johnson that runs exactly counter to this. This is the claim that evolution is based on a big deception, that there isn’t any solid basis at all for the theory, and that people are gradually abandoning evolution. Are there evolutionists that are jumping ship?
Franic Collins: I haven’t met any of these people. Those claims really fly in the face of my own experience. I suspect I would be one of those people who would hear about it, if it were true, as I have identified myself as a believer interested in studying biological evolution. If there was something of that sort going on, and there was a rational basis for it, this would be all over the place. You wouldn’t have to go look in hidden corners to discover it. No, I think those claims are completely without evidence.
KG: I agree completely. But you definitely hear this and you say “Well, who are these people?” the response is that “I can’t remember but I heard it in a sermon by D. James Kennedy, or I saw it in a video.”
FC: Well that’s a convenient way to try out their idea that evolution is a conspiracy. That’s the idea behind the movie “Expelled”, which tries to make that same case—that there is an academic conspiracy to squash the truth; that intelligent design is actually gaining support but that those who are willing to stand up and say so are losing their tenure opportunities; and there’s a systematic effort to try to weed out the truth and maintain support for Darwinism.
That viewpoint totally misunderstands the nature of science. Anybody who’s lived within in the scientific community would immediately—regardless of their spiritual worldview—rebel against the idea that science would be able to sustain a conspiracy at that point. What do scientists actually do? Scientists are all about upsetting and overturning things! And if you’re the one who’s discovered how to overturn evolution, you’re going to win the Nobel Prize! You’re not going to have to worry too much – you may encounter some resistance but, if the facts are on your side, you’re golden!
The idea that people on the outside of science—like the creationists and the people in the ID camp—have adopted, that such a conspiracy could actually exist for more than thirty seconds, completely flies in the face of the realities of the sociology of the field of science.
KG: This certainly seems the case. But I’m continually perplexed by some of the really sharp, well-informed, people who don’t agree. The dynamics of how some of them, like Paul Nelson or Kurt Wise, simply reject the data—or at least your conclusions from that data— from the genome project, is puzzling.
I watched you debate with Paul Nelson. He’s certainly not a dumb academic and he studies the literature. He wouldn’t be as well-informed as you are, but there are a fair number of people like him, but they’re not uninformed. Where does their confidence that you are wrong come from?
FC: I can’t, without peeking inside their hearts and minds, have a clear answer about what is driving that resistance to evidence that proves so compelling. But I think the resistance essentially derives from a sense of fear—if evolution is right then there are going to be consequences for them personally that they make them uncomfortable. And I don’t think we should ever underestimate how difficult that is.
Science Magazine, of all places, had this piece about how difficult it is for a creationist scientist – there are creationist scientists out there – to actually admit that their creationism is not going to be invincible on the basis of science. This is not something they can walk away from because it is so deeply ingrained in their sense of what God is like and what humankind is all about. We should not imagine that, just because the data is going to push somebody in that direction, it just happens. The issue goes way, way down to the core of who you are and how you see yourself in a relationship with God. I think that’s the main problem and I think those that are continuing to support these ideas from scientifically indefensible perspectives, even if there are sophisticated people on top of that, and I think they deserve our support and our sympathy even though it is hard to understand why it is so difficult for them to look at the facts.
KG: Do you feel like you can really communicate with somebody who has that deeply rooted kind of non-scientific problem? How do you talk about this?
FC: I don’t think you do that in a workshop. I don’t think a finger-wagging lecture is the way to get that kind of communication across. I think you only get there by getting on a more personal level, trying to understand the dynamics of a problem that’s so personal.
That’s a hard thing to get people to do. If you’re feeling uneasy already it’s hard to get into a long-term discussion with an outcome that may very well increase your uneasiness. It’s more tempting to go back and talk to your soul-mate who agrees with you.
But the data are so compelling that you think this would be over now. But instead, we have these parallel cultures that going in opposite directions. The vast majority of scientists are completely shaking their heads and wondering how anybody could deny the truth of evolution. And then we have fringe groups, very small in number but sometimes noisy in putting their case across to the unscientific public. These fringe groups are pretty much just speaking to each other and not necessarily having a chance to test their own position because it’s so discomforting to them.