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Francis Collins and Karl Giberson Talk about Evolution and the Church

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March 5, 2011 Tags: Christian Unity
Francis Collins and Karl Giberson Talk about Evolution and the Church

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 BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Today we begin the first 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: You are an unusual evangelical in that you don’t struggle with the relationship between evolution and your faith. Has this never been an issue for you?

Francis Collins: I had a problem in terms of the counterintuitive nature of evolution. Remember, I had no meaningful exposure to biology in my formal education until I was already a graduate student.

I learned biology in a high school class in a little town in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia—if it mentioned evolution, I don’t remember that at all. It was purely descriptive: “Here’s how we classify organisms; here’s how you memorize the parts of the crayfish;” and that’s what it was all about. I don’t think I really had much exposure to the whole concept other than just knowing “Oh yeah, there’s this vague concept that’s out there called evolution.”

I had an issue how counterintuitive it is. Almost everybody encounters this when they first bump into this concept. And it was, of course, difficult for Darwin at first, too, to get his mind around so we shouldn’t feel like we’re all so stupid, if it takes a little while! We are so tied up in our natural daily experiences that being able to imagine what could happen over hundreds of millions of years in very small increments is just not something that comes naturally.

KG: As someone who takes both the Bible and evolution seriously, is there any point when you said, “Well, wait a minute, it’s really tough to put things together at this point?” Did this harmony really just come naturally?

FC: You know, it really did come naturally. I was aware that there was an issue that some people had about this. When I became a believer at 27, the first church I went to was a pretty conservative Methodist church in this little town outside of Chapel Hill. And I’m sure there were a lot of people in that church who were taking Genesis quite literally.

I couldn’t take Genesis literally because I had come to the scientific worldview before I came to the spiritual worldview. I felt that once I arrived at the sense that God was real and that God was the source of all truth, then just by definition, there could not be an irreconcilable conflict between these perspectives. It just was a matter of working out the details. It did not seem to me that there was likely to be anything irreconcilable here, just that there had been misunderstandings along the way in terms of how people had interpreted the first book in the Bible. When I read Genesis, I had to say “I don’t know what this means here”, even before I read any commentators on it. It seemed to me that this was not a part of the Bible that read as the record of an eyewitness, so it shouldn’t therefore be taken as such.

KG: You seem like a mirror image of the fundamentalists who struggle with this. The fundamentalists grow up with a lot of confidence in the Bible and then they encounter evolution so they are bringing their prior confidence in the Bible to this new problem. You were interpreting the Bible before you knew there was a biblical issue to worry about. You had developed enough confidence in evolution so then when you read about origins in the Bible, you would read as we do today when it comes to those biblical passages that seem opposed to heliocentricity— we don’t think of a moving earth as a problem so we don’t even notice the biblical problems.

FC: Right, right. They haven’t noticed those issues because they weren’t pointed out for a long time. I will say, though, that I think evolution is a much tougher problem for a believer to get comfortable with than heliocentricity versus geocentricity. The fundamental nature of evolution is a comment on our biological nature and that’s a lot closer to the “image of God” concept than whether the earth floats around the sun or the other way around. So I don’t think it’s a perfect parallel, though I wish it were. I wish we could say, “We can get comfortable with evolution now just as easily as the church has gotten comfortable with heliocentricity.”

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.
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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defensedefumer - #53270

March 5th 2011

I can’t wait for more. I too struggled with Genesis when I first read it.

Gregory - #53282

March 5th 2011

First, I am glad it is noted in the first answer, that when FC hears ‘evolution’ he means ‘biological evolution.’ He is not speaking about cultural evolution or social evolution. He is limiting himself to speaking about biology, a subject he knows well.

Iow, he is *not* suggesting that ‘morals naturally evolve,’ or something philosophically naive & theologically dangerous like that.

“the counterintuitive nature of evolution.” - FC

This has almost nothing to do with ‘nature.’ Our ‘intuitions’ are somehow ‘above the rest of nature’ because of how we were created. This is said b/c human beings are different in ‘kind’ (homo divinus, as D.A. prefers) from other animals.

“being able to imagine what could happen over hundreds of millions of years in very small increments is just not something that comes naturally.” - FC

Actually, it comes quite ‘naturally’ to most people when their culture & society has educated their character about it. What is supposedly ‘unnatural’ about this viewpoint? I don’t see much that is counter-intuitive in FC’s biology.

”KG: Did this harmony really just come naturally?

FC: You know, it really did come naturally.”

What was ‘natural’ about this idea? Here ‘naturally’ sounds like ‘easily,’ or “without difficulty did I find harmony between science and religion.” It does not sound, however, like “finding balance is part of human nature/character.” Does this distinction make sense to people?

Naturalism comes in a variety of forms; one of them (perhaps ‘linguistic naturalism’) is using the term ‘natural’ to describe things that are either non-natural or that are nature-plus.

FC’s story is great; but it is likewise not a ‘natural’ story.

Ronnie - #53288

March 5th 2011

One way to struggle with Genesis is to read it within an evolutionary worldview or mindset, as Francis Collins admitted to doing in the above article. He is interpreting (attempting to harmonize) Genesis with evolution by using the tenets of evolution; e.g. long ages, slow gradual changes, in spite of what is plainly written in Genesis as well as the entire Bible.

He is right about one thing, an attempt to harmonize Genesis with evolution requires one to “get ones mind around the concept”, like intellectual gymnastics of some sort. Or, we can take the Word of God for what it plainly says.

Jeff L - #53319

March 5th 2011

Enjoyed the first installment of what looks to be an interesting 6-part series. Thanks Drs. Giberson and Collins.

Jon Garvey - #53368

March 6th 2011

@Ronnie - #53288

Most people take a time to “get their minds round” concepts like eternity, the Trinity, the Incarnation, election and many others. Does that mean these are not to be found in the Bible?

Ronnie - #53385

March 6th 2011


Getting ones mind around the concept of evolution requires a wresting of the scriptures that the concepts you mention do not. Mr. Collins claims that God is the source of all truth, yet he rejects Gods account of creation in favor of mans theory of evolution. Who does he trust more?

leadme.org - #53401

March 6th 2011

Hi Ronnie,

I was raised in a spiritual environment in which young earth creationism was The Truth, so I certainly understand the struggle involved in coming to terms with evolutionary biology.  At one point, I finally decided that I would try as best I could to look past my assumptions and simply let the chips fall where they may, and needless to say, the chips fell overwhelmingly on the side of evolutionary science.  And you know what?  I would say that I now have a much richer appreciation for God and for the Bible than I previously did, and that relates in no small way to the process of struggling I went through, and that I still go through.

Just wanted to throw that out there, for whatever it may be worth to you.

Johnny V - #53472

March 7th 2011

Would you please provide the evidence that the ‘chips fell overwhelmingly on the side of evolution’?

It isn’t the fossil record—that supports sudden creation
It isn’t transitional forms—they are missing
It isn’t simple basic cells as Darwin said, must be—cells are irreducibly complex
It isn’t ape to man evidence—look at the numerous fraudulent claims—perhaps to keep grant money coming?

Take the time to study the issue from many sources.  You may come to the conclusion that I have come to, evolution is a house of cards.  It is 19th century science that is being propped-up by the latest imaginative drawing of a cave man. 


Ronnie - #53433

March 6th 2011


I can appreciate what you’re saying, I’m sure many believe as do you, but many also believe just the opposite. You have to ask yourself, is evolution supported by scripture? Without twisting words, how does the account in Genesis mean anything other than a 6 day creation of all things? Not to put you on the spot, but I’m curious to know biblically how your “chips fell on the side of evolution”, as opposed to a recent 6 day creation?

conrad - #53438

March 6th 2011

ONLY half of man is the product of evolution,... the “dust of the earth” i.e.DNA.
 The important part is the ‘breath of life”.
That comes from the spirit world.

Think of it this way.
 Your computer is made out of steel.
 To understand the information age,... would you research Andrew Carnegie and the steel industry????
... or would you study things like Google and the web and Twitter.
We will get new bodies in the after life,... and then,... we can [hopefully],..forget the disposable material our earthly bodies are made from.
 Hopefully that will end the romance about “evolution” of DNA and the Darwinians fixation on every revision of the DNA code that earth ever produced.
conrad - #53439

March 6th 2011

Do you think it would be rewarding to study every product that was ever made out of steel?
 The evolutionary biologists do something similar to that.
leadme.org - #53446

March 7th 2011

@Ronnie - #53433

As for the chips falling on the side of evolution, I meant that in terms of the scientific evidence, which I saw to be far too compelling for me to discredit any longer.

As for how I can reconcile that with my faith, I do so in much the same way that I reconcile heliocentricity with my faith, despite the words of Joshua 10:12-13.  Does the Bible teach evolution?  Of course not.  But precious few people make an issue out of heliocentricity anymore, even though the Bible doesn’t teach heliocentricity.  As Dr. Collins mentioned, the issue of evolution isn’t a perfect parallel with the issue of heliocentricity, although we can learn quite a lot from that earlier episode.

In short, it just doesn’t bother me that Genesis doesn’t give a detailed, scientific account of origins.  You, likely, will disagree, and perhaps we’ll just have to leave it at that.

John - #53448

March 7th 2011


ONLY half of man is the product of evolution,... the “dust of the earth” i.e.DNA. The important part is the ‘breath of life”.”

Conrad, you’ve got it historically backwards. The history of vitalism of the sort you’re espousing here is pretty grim. Buchner trashed it for fermentation in 1897. Then the hopes of vitalism (this still included some practicing biologists) were put into DNA replication, the opposite of what you’re claiming!

Of course, Arthur Kornberg dashed those hopes in the 1950s. Have you heard of his work?

Why do you have to find some place to put God? Why can’t God be everywhere instead of only being in the gaps?

Ronnie - #53486

March 7th 2011


Heliocentricity and origins are very different issues. Having the sun and moon stand still may not have a natural explanation, just as the virgin birth of Christ cannot be explained naturally, but as Christians, we have faith that Gods Word is true and we believe them whether we understand them or not. The creation/evolution controversy is no different. I think creation is a vital issue for the Christian, as well as for the Christian to be. I believe God calls us to make a choice on this important issue; believe and trust His Word or believe and trust in the words of man.

I would encourage you to revisit this issue, the chips don’t have to fall where they may, you can decide where they fall. I pray God gives you wisdom in this matter.

Jon Garvey - #53499

March 7th 2011

@Ronnie - #53486
”...we have faith that Gods Word is true and we believe them whether we understand them or not.”

That may be true for events in Scripture, but is not a right attitude to Scripture itself. Scripture was written to be understood, not merely believed. And the Spirit was given to lead us to understanding, as were ministers and scholars of the word whose study, under the Spirit, can increase understanding.

I witness, as a believer since 1965, that Creationist teaching barely existed then until men introduced it, mainly in the USA. When I see YEC arguments, I see the words of these men rehashed and heated over. This would matter less if their words did not so often abuse the text and meaning not only of Scripture, but of the other book of the world around us as natural philosophers observe it.

So to be strictly honest, your  “believe and trust His Word” actually means “believe and trust in the teachings of some American Protestant writers from the second half of the 20th century.” Which is slightly less of a loaded choice.

R Hampton - #53504

March 7th 2011

“but as Christians, we have faith that Gods Word is true and we believe
them whether we understand them or not. The creation/evolution
controversy is no different.”

The argument is not if God’s Word is True, but that belief that YEC’s understand it better than everyone else. When you resort to literalism, you make an implicit claim that there is nothing else to understand.

Louis - #53509

March 7th 2011

Johnny V -regarding your 4 “It isn’t” statements - whereas each of those could merit a lengthy discussion on their own, be it known that all four are quite false, and reflect the popular propogandistic literature of some Creationist outfits.
We have evidence of simple life in the Archean.
The wordplay around the word “transitional” has been demonstrated by others before. 
Behe’s “irreducible complex” argument has been exposed.
Man and ape have a common ancestor, and although there was some minor frauds early on, human evolution is on a much firmer footing now, including DNA.

As to the chips falling on the side of evolution - in my own field, Geology, I wouldn’t even use the word “overwhelmingly” - I would simply say “all”.

Johnny V - #53547

March 8th 2011

I’d be happy to discuss my four “It isn’t” statements.  However, I must say that  you dismiss the science behind my statements as ‘propaganda’.  I just want to point one item for you to consider.  You state, “We have evidence of simple life in the Archean.”  That is pure speculation.  There is no evidence, period.  Now I know that you must know this but my question is why you would state something so intellectually dishonest? 

Point by point my statements are correct and backed up by science.  Science backs creation not evolution.  So please don’t dismiss my comment with an pompous wave of your hand and then give your vague rubber stamp ‘refutations’ and expect to gain respect.   

You have a faith in evolution that is not backed by the science you claim to espouse. 


Louis - #53510

March 7th 2011

Ronnie: ” I believe God calls us to make a choice on this important issue; believe and trust His Word or believe and trust in the words of man. “

Question: Evidence for your belief stated above?

Question: Where did the Bible (God’s Word) come from - who defined it? (Be very careful here…)

Louis - #53551

March 8th 2011

Johnny V - I’m sorry, but the evidence is there (stromatolites, for instance, which still exist). Also, I accept evolution because of the science - I used to be a YEC’ist.

What is your experience in science? How much geology, nuclear physics, paleontology etc etc have you studied? Where do you get your information regarding the impossibility of evolution? Have you looked at the fossil record? Have done any radiometric dating? How many scholarly journals have you read, and examined the evidence?

Or do you blindly accept the words of a small number of YEC’ist campaigners?

Johnny V - #53558

March 8th 2011

I’m a biochemist with three decades of studying fossil records and dating processes.
How much nuclear physics, etc. have I had?  I’ll ask a question that I hope you really do consider answering.  Why would you give me a backhanded insult and expect me to respect anything you have to say?  You are just a common demagogue using high school science.  Evolution is a corpse.         


Louis - #53560

March 8th 2011

Johnny - for the record: I’m a geologist, I ran an Ar-Ar lab, I’ve been co-author on published geochronology papers, as well as other geological subjects, I have written hundreds of geological reports, I have considerable experience.

But if this is to become a mine is bigger than yours shouting match, I’ll retire. So maybe, some constructive questions:

Why, in your opinion, does geochronology not work?
Why are stromatolites “not evidence”?
How do you explain the clear progression of fossils from simple stromatolites to complex organisms in the geological record?
What are transitional fossils?
How do you fit the entire geological record in 6-10 millenia?

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