Francis Collins is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. He is both a medical doctor and a leading gene scientist who was part of the team which discovered the genes for cystic fibrosis and Huntingtons disease.
QUESTION: Could I ask you to start by briefly explaining what is the Human Genome Project and what is your role in it?
MR. COLLINS: The Human Genome Project is an audacious effort to read the entire sequence of all the human DNA by the year 2005. It's an international effort, but the United States has the scientific lead on this, and as the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, that's sort of my job, to oversee this effort.
QUESTION: What is your own area of genetic research?
MR. COLLINS: I trained initially as a physical chemist, and then, after becoming interested in biology, I went to medical school and learned how to be a physician. So, I'm a physician scientist. My own area of expertise is the genetics of human disease. I was fortunate to be part of the team that found the genes for cystic fibrosis, and Huntington's disease and neurofibromatosis. So, I come at this from the point of view of somebody who would like to see the long list of human genetic diseases that afflict far too many people understood better, treated, and eventually cured.
QUESTION: What is your own faith and religious background?
MR. COLLINS: I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I went to church, but it was mostly to learn music, which was a good place to learn music. But I didn't learn a whole lot about theology. And for quite a while, in my early 20s, I was a pretty obnoxious atheist. Then at the age of 27, after a good deal of intellectual debating with myself about the plausibility of faith, and particularly with strong influence from C.S. Lewis, I became convinced that this was a decision I wanted to make. And I became, by choice, a Christian, a serious Christian, who believes that faith is not something that you just do on Sunday, but that if it makes any sense at all, it's part of your whole life. It's the most important organizing principle in my life.
QUESTION: As a scientist, have you ever found that your faith has conflicted with your scientific work?
MR. COLLINS: I actually do not believe that there are any collisions between what I believe as a Christian, and what I know and have learned about as a scientist. I think there's a broad perception that that's the case, and thats what scares many scientists away from a serious consideration of faith. But, unless one chooses to make an absolutely literal interpretation of the book of Genesis and the story of creation -- which I believe is not a choice that people made even before science came along in the last century to cast some doubt upon the timing of the creation events -- other than that I am not aware of any reasons why one cannot be a completely dedicated person of faith who believes that God inspired the writings in the Bible, and also be a rigorous, intellectually completely honest scientist, who does not accept things about the natural world until they're proven.
QUESTION: As someone who does combine religious faith and scientific reason in your life, why do you think that so many people do have a problem with that?
MR. COLLINS: I believe that people mix up the natural and the spiritual. Science's domain is the natural. If you want to understand the natural world and be sure you're not misleading yourself, science is the way to do it. You accumulate data, you make hypotheses, you draw conclusions, you expose them to other people's critical views, and you eventually decide whether it's right.
The spiritual world is not where science operates. The spiritual world is another part of human existence. I would argue a very critical one, and just as you would not expect necessarily theology to always get it right when it comes to arguments about the structure of molecules, you should expect science to get it right when it comes to the spiritual aspects of human existence.
QUESTION: Do you feel it is important for religious people to know about science and keep up with new developments?
MR. COLLINS: I think it's critical that we have a meaningful dialogue between people of faith and people involved in science. And ideally it would be nice if some of those were the same people. And, as I've said, I see no reason why that can't be the case. In fact, as a scientist, the religious aspects of my life, I believe, add additional meaning to what I do in science.
QUESTION: Could you elaborate?
MR. COLLINS: Well, as a geneticist, I'm in the situation, particularly with this revolution that's going on in genetics, of observing new things all the time. Running the genome project, hardly a week goes by where some gene isn't discovered that plays a critical role in understanding a disease that had been completely obscure until now. That is a remarkable experience, particularly if you have the chance to be part of the actual moment of discovery, which I have had on a few occasions. For me, as a person of faith, that moment of discovery has an additional dimension. It's appreciating something, realizing something, knowing something that up until then no human had known - but God knew it. And there is an intricacy and an elegance in the nature of biology, particularly when it comes to the information carrying capacity of DNA, which is rather awesome. And so, in a way, perhaps, those moments of discovery also become moments of worship, moments of appreciation, of the incredible intricacies and beauty of biology, of the world, of life. And, therefore, an appreciation of God as the creator.
I don't think I really answered the question that you asked, however.
QUESTION: But you answered an interesting question. Let me ask you, some religious believers have suggested that DNA or genes are sacred, and that we humans shouldn't tamper with them. What is your response to that?
MR. COLLINS: Well, I think taking DNA and adding some sort of sacred nature to it is a bit odd. Some people have suggested, in fact, that biologists now worship DNA as though it were sacred, that they've replaced the cross with the double helix. I think that's sort of ridiculous. DNA is a chemical. It's the hereditary material of all living elements. It's fascinating, but it's certainly not sacred. It is part of our inheritance. It is our blueprint, our information storehouse as far as all the biological properties of being human beings, of being human. But we will not, I think, understand what love means, or what the connection we have with God and the hunger for that by studying DNA. So, I don't think we should ascribe that sort of special, sacred significance to it. It's the blueprint, if you will, for a lot of human features, but the blueprint is not the whole thing. A blueprint is sort of a sketchy diagram.
QUESTION: How then, as a Christian, do you respond to people who object to genetic engineering?
MR. COLLINS: I think genetic engineering ought to be put in context of medical research in general. It's interesting when you read of the life of Christ how much of his time he spent here healing the sick. There must have been a reason for that. e was modeling for us what it is that we are intended to do by following in his path. So, I think the mandate for us as human beings to reach out to those who are suffering and try to heal their illnesses is a very strong one, and it's entirely consistent with strong faith. In fact, it's one of the strongest mandates we have.
To say that genetic engineering is unacceptable across the board because of its potential for creating some ethical dilemmas is the most unethical stance of all. It's to basically say, here is a powerful approach which could alleviate human suffering, but we're not going to do it because we're worried about the misuses that might occur, I find that completely unacceptable from every possible point of view. Most profoundly, the theological one.
What it does do is to require us to assume some responsibility for deciding which kinds of genetic engineering are, in fact, consistent with that mandate to heal the sick, and which kinds are putting us in a troubling direction where we'd best not go. And that is obviously where the debates begin to get underway.
QUESTION: Do you think there is a role for religious people to play in determining the directions and uses of genetic research?
MR. COLLINS: I think religious people have a critical role to play in making decisions, contributing to the dialogue about what is an ethical use of genetics and what is not. Scientists are not in a unique position to do that at all. And if you ask them, they will tell you that, and they will tell you how uncomfortable they are if people assume that they're going to make those decisions. They can tell you the facts. They can tell you what can be done and what can't be done. And that's really important, because we've had a lot of useless debates about things that can't be done anyway. But when it comes to the things that can be done, and deciding which ought to actually be done, scientists alone are in a very poor position to make those decisions. That requires a broad dialogue, and I think people of faith have a particularly critical role to play there. To do that effectively, of course, they need to be highly informed about the specifics of the science. And I certainly welcome the interest in that particular area that seems to be happening in a number of the churches, but we still have a way to go.
QUESTION: What is your response to the situation in which Jeremy Rifkin organized a group of church leaders to sign a partition effectively saying that gene patenting was a sin against God?
MR. COLLINS: The statement by the churches coordinated by Mr. Rifkin in May of 1995 was, for me, a very depressing episode in the interface between science and religion. The statement was muddy. It implied that patenting was the same, whether you're talking about a gene or a cell or a body part or a whole organism. There are drastic differences there that were not touched upon. Basically, the statement said, none of these things should happen. The consequences of that for damaging human health are substantial - and they were never referred to.
Well-intentioned leaders in the religious community who, at some level, felt a sense of resonance with the anxieties expressed in this statement about where are we going with patenting, I think, signed on to a statement which damaged their credibility at a time when the church really needs to be heard from. This was a step in the wrong direction.
QUESTION: Do you feel then that when religious people voice concern about things like gene patenting or, say, genetic screening of fetuses, that they are being overly hysterical?
MR. COLLINS: I think there are very serious issues about some applications of genetics that should be a cause for religious people to express concerns - and to do so continuously and articulately and effectively. When it comes to the use of genetics, for instance, to determine traits, not to avoid diseases, in future generations, there's a very serious issue there. When it comes to patenting, I think the dialogue has been somewhat less useful. But that's improved a lot. Patenting as a moral issue gets you into sort of deep waters very quickly. I'd prefer to argue that patenting is really a legal issue.
QUESTION: What about the issue of cloning?
MR. COLLINS: Human cloning, I think, gets right to the heart of people's concerns about how biotechnology is going to change us and our view of ourselves. And I share that. I think, before we get deeply into that, people need to keep reminding each other that the practicality of actually doing that is a long way from being proven. And even if it were to be attempted, the likelihood is extremely high that it would fail or result in a child with severe birth defects. So, from a practical point of view, it's not clear that this will ever be doable in the way that it was for Dolly.
Assuming that those barriers can be overcome - but I don't think one should just assume that - then I do think there's a very significant ethical and religious debate. Is this way of creating a human being part of God's plan for our lives? Actually, in my view, it is not. I recognize that there is vast opportunities for different discussion about that amongst people of faith, and there are arguments about how this could be a wonderful thing to make available in certain circumstances. I don't find them completely compelling.
On the other hand, I think we have to be very careful, as we talk about cloning, to be defining our terms so when I say I'm opposed to this, I'm opposed to creating a new human being by this. There are wonderful opportunities, however, to take a cell of some sort and convince it to sort of go back in time, and then back forward to become a different kind of tissue for transplantation, for instance. This may be a very significant advance.
QUESTION: You obviously feel there's a real need for religious people to be better informed about these scientific issues, so they can be involved in determining directions and policy. How do you see that we can bring the scientific and faith communities together?
MR. COLLINS: There's a proverb from the Bible which says: It's not good to have zeal without knowledge. I think in these debates about genetics, there's been, at times, a tendency for a lot of zeal, and not as much knowledge as there needed to be on both sides. I think the scientists need to get a better grasp on what it is that people of faith are concerned about. I would, in fact, argue, if scientists spent a little more time considering what faith is about, some of them might surprise themselves and get converted, but that's another topic.
From the other side, I think people of faith, if they're going to have a credible contribution to these very important debates, they have to be brought up to speed on what the information really is and what it isn't. And the good news is, genetics is not all that complicated. People assume that it is but, you know, it's really very simple stuff. A modest investment will get you a long way in understanding the issues.
QUESTION: What would you like to see come out of an interaction between the genetic science community and religious believers?
MR. COLLINS: I think as we move forward with this genetic revolution getting into full sway, there will be numerous situations where something comes along and there is a need for a broad public discussion about, do we want to do this, or do we not? Examples that often come to attention are in the arena of selecting for traits of one's offspring. But those are actually, in most instances, as currently portrayed, not very realistic.
Other circumstances where I think there could right now be a more productive dialogue relate to the issue of genetic testing for yourself to learn about your future. Is it a good idea to do that? Is it fair? Is it equitable? Is it just that that information can be used against you by health insurers or employers? The church should be standing up with one voice and saying, that's not right. Your DNA is not something you chose. That's part of your God-given inheritance, and to have that used to deny you health care is not acceptable from the point of view of everything the church stands for. There's a long list of such topics, some of which we can perceive now, some of which are off in the future. We need to have the structure in place for those dialogues to happen productively.
QUESTION: It's my impression that at least some in the scientific community have been fairly hostile to the concept of religious people having any kind of involvement. How do you see that we could get over that barrier?
MR. COLLINS: I think there are probably a lot more scientists whose faith is important to them than you know about. This recent survey that was done and published in Nature Magazine indicates that over the course of the last 70 years, there's been very little retreat in scientific ranks from a personal faith in a personal God. And yet that sort of surprised everybody. I think scientists could do a better job about expressing their own sense that these areas are not in conflict.
I think for those people who are religious, who have a serious faith in a personal God, and I count myself in those ranks, we should be more vocal about that. We should make a better effort to explain that faith does not require you to check your brains at the door. It doesn't require you to say something isn't true that you have all this data telling you is true.
QUESTION: Are there any instances where you could say that being a person of faith has in some sense helped you, or provided inspiration for your scientific research?
MR. COLLINS: It's hard for me to pinpoint a precise way in which my personal faith has aided my ability to be a scientist. It certainly aids my perspective. Science has a way of being a real roller-coaster experience. Most of your experiments fail, most of your hypotheses are wrong. If you get so personally tied up in your own worth coming from the success of your research, you can be pretty down on yourself sometimes. It helps me, certainly, to have a different perspective of who I am, who God is, and sort of the eternal significance of what's going on here. And, therefore, it's easier not to get so completely rattled when something scientifically goes badly, because it often does.
And at those wonderful moments where something does go right, the opportunity to see that not only as a scientist, but also as a person of faith, and to feel that kind of blessing, that kind of connection with the creator who knew all of this ahead of time, is one of those aspects of my existence that I wouldn't trade for anything.
QUESTION: Richard Dawkins has raised the question that if God created the universe, then how come he seems to have disappeared from the universe?
MR. COLLINS: I'm sorry that God has disappeared for Richard Dawkins. He's not disappeared for me. I think you can make an argument that if God made himself so obvious, so known, so easily interpretable in daily events, then the whole concept of faith and of making a personal decision about where you stand would be pretty meaningless. You can look at many examples down through the history of faith where this lack of certainty is a critical part of how the whole enterprise operates.
QUESTION: Physicist Steven Weinberg has made a famous statement that the more we know about the universe, the more it seems pointless. As a final question, how would you, as a person of faith, respond to Weinberg's statement?
MR. COLLINS: I think it is difficult for anybody to argue pointlessness based upon scientific data. The facts are the facts. I don't think science is ever going to answer the question, why are we here? Why is there a universe? It will answer questions of a more derivative sort. So, whether you're talking about cosmology or molecular biology, I don't think that science is the place to look to get those answers.
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