In This Episode << SLIDE LEFT TO SEE ADDITIONAL SEGMENTS
Read more of Bob Abernethy’s July 6, 2006 interview in Washington, D.C. with Francis S. Collins, director of the Human Genome Project:
Q: How do you describe yourself as a Christian?
A: I’m a serious Christian. I take my faith seriously. I try to practice it every day of the week, not just on Sunday. For me, though, the denominational differences that some people pay a lot of attention to in Christianity have never seemed all that important. I’ve been a Methodist, I’ve been a Baptist, I’ve been a Presbyterian, I’ve been an Episcopalian. It really is the faith itself and the core beliefs that define Christianity for me. My schedule is such that I’m probably only in town in Washington, D.C. about one Sunday out of every seven or eight, and so I’m a bit of a “spotty” attender at any organized church where I would be regularly recognized. But my faith life, I think, is very critical to me and is often practiced by myself early in the morning.
Q: What do you do?
A: I try to find those moments before the world gets into its hustle and bustle, which it certainly does for me early in the morning, to reflect, to read a little bit and to pray. Prayer is, for me, not an opportunity to ask God to do stuff for me. Prayer is an opportunity to open myself, to try and understand his will, and oftentimes it’s a prayer of thanksgiving, and sometimes it’s a prayer of supplication, and sometimes it is just worship.
Q: You wrote somewhere that when the decision came to become the head of the Human Genome Project you had a sense that it was God’s will.
A: I’ve never heard God speak out loud to me. That’s not an experience I have had. But I do think — having become a Christian and seeking that fellowship with him — that is a two-way conversation. It’s not just one-way, and so I certainly feel nudges, as I think many believers do, of God’s giving me an idea of something that perhaps he wants me to do — the idea of being asked to lead this Human Genome Project. To read out all the letters of our own DNA code was an incredibly challenging but interesting opportunity, and yet one that I wasn’t sure I was well-suited for and certainly was not prepared to have been asked to step into that role. And so for me, as a believer, the natural question was: Is this God’s plan or is this something I should leave to someone else? So that very much became an occasion of prayerful reflection leading to a long afternoon in a small church in North Carolina where I happened to be visiting my daughter. And at the end of that afternoon I was confident that this was something I was supposed to do and that, in many ways, perhaps without knowing it, I’ve been preparing for, for my whole life. As a believer, I think nothing in my life happens without God’s involvement in some way and so, yes, it does seem that many of the doors that have opened for me have not been entirely by accident, though they may seem that way to an external observer.
Q: How do you describe the Human Genome Project?
A: The Human Genome Project was this audacious, absolutely unheard of ambitious effort first announced in the late 1980s to read out all of the letters of the human DNA code, all three billion of them — an enormously challenging problem and one which, when first proposed, was thought by many to be absolutely unfeasible. And yet, over those next 13 years, we finished the job early. I had the chance to lead an effort which brought in some of the best and brightest minds in science all over the world to work together to achieve that goal, and achieve it we did two years ahead of schedule and actually under budget, which surprised everybody, especially in Washington, D.C.
Q: Describe what it was like for you, what it felt like, especially given your religious orientation, to find out what that code was.
A: This was an absolutely historic undertaking. To be able to stand at the helm of a project which was going to reveal our own instruction book would be, for any scientist, an unbelievably remarkable experience. But for me, as a believer, it carried this additional impact of reading out the letters of the code that I believe God has designed in order to bring human beings into this world. And the sense of awe in seeing that book revealed, letter by letter, converted what might have been just a scientific experience into an experience of worship.
Q: You’re a medical doctor as well as a doctor of physical chemistry. As a result of this work and this new understanding, what are the practical things you think you might be able to accomplish to heal very sick people?
A: As a physician, the part of the Human Genome Project that I am most excited about is the part we’re into now. Building that foundation of having all the letters of the code was necessary, but not sufficient, for applying that for medical benefit. But in the next ten to fifteen years the practice of medicine is going to be absolutely revolutionized by having this kind of information in front of us. First of all, we’ll have the ability to offer people preventive strategies that are much more effective than the one-size-fits-all approach we’ve currently taken, which people largely ignore, I’m sorry to say. We’ll be able to find out who is at risk for what and offer them interventions before they fall ill, based on that information. And then we can focus our health care on keeping people healthy instead of treating people with already far-advanced disease that we should have prevented in the first place. But people will still fall through that safety net. People will still get sick. The medicines that we will have to treat illness in the coming years will be drastically different, many of them, than what we have now, because they will be based on a precise understanding of the molecular basis of disease.
Q: What can you say now to somebody suffering from the terrible diseases that all of us endure?
A: The leading edge of genome-based medical interventions is already with us. If you look at a disease like adult leukemia, the development of a drug called Glevak, based specially on an understanding of what is wrong in that leukemia at the DNA level, has converted what used to be an almost inevitably fatal disease into a disease where 95 percent of the people with this disease are in permanent remission. We want to see lots more examples like that, and they are appearing day by day, week by week. Cancer is very much at the front end, because cancer is a genetic disease. It comes about because of mistakes in DNA, not necessarily inherited. Most of the mistakes occur during your life. But we are getting a very good sense of what the glitches are that result in that disease. And every one of those points you toward a new target for drug therapy. So there are dozens of drugs now in clinical trials that are based on understanding the cancer genome, and they won’t all work, but some of them will. Not far behind, though, are drugs for other conditions where the genetic underpinnings are beginning to be revealed. Things like Alzheimer’s. Things like Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Things like asthma. Even diabetes, which has been one of the toughest ones to crack and which my own lab spends most of its time on, is beginning to show some signs of cracking under the bright light of this kind of investigation.
Q: What do you make of the possibility of genetic engineering, of making ourselves stronger, smarter, more artistic, or whatever we want?
A: As a Christian, but also as a scientist responsible for overseeing the Human Genome Project, one of my concerns has been the limits on applications of our understanding of the genome. Should there be limits? I think there should. I think the public has expressed their concern about ways this information might be misused. For instance, this whole area of enhancement. We all would agree, I think, that using this information to cure a terrible disease is a good thing. But what about using it to improve ourselves? Who decides what’s an improvement, after all? And how do we do that in a fashion that doesn’t ultimately change the nature of who we are? Most of those scenarios aren’t very realistic. They’re based on an assumption that genes are us and that everything about us can be programmed by choosing our DNA in a certain way. They tend to ignore the fact that the environment is really important. They tend to ignore the fact that free will is a reality, and we all make choices, after all, and they tend to ignore our spiritual nature. But certainly there are realistic concerns about how far we want to go by applying this kind of technology to improving athletic ability, for instance, or ultimately, if we understood it better, even intelligence or the ability to remember things.
Q: But could you possibly stop a couple from wanting to have a child who was just as fit as possible? What’s the difference between seeing to that, and tutors, and all kinds of other things people do to help their children?
A: You’re right to point out that we already practice enhancement. We give our kids vaccinations. That’s a biological enhancement that’s considered not just acceptable but actually admirable. So it’s not so easy to decide where there’s a bright line between what’s acceptable and what isn’t. But I do think there are certain areas where you’re going to alter, for instance, the germ-line DNA, the DNA that’s going to get passed to the next generation, where there are strong prohibitions at the present time to doing that for humans, and I think they need to remain in place. I would not say that we, as a society, are helpless in being able to stop certain applications. For instance, we have not yet seen anybody successfully carry out cloning of human beings — reproductive cloning. I don’t think we’ll see that done in the mainstream, although there will always be some wackos out there claiming that they’re doing so. I do think as a society we are capable of deciding there are certain areas we don’t want to go with technology and enforcing that. And I think that’s what we’ll have to do here, too.
Q: Can a private person or a private corporation have a patent on what has been discovered about the genome?
A: Strong emotions are inspired by this issue of patenting when it comes to human genes or the human genome. Patenting is a legal construct, although it’s also seen in moral terms. From my perspective, the question ought to be what’s best for the public? There are instances where a patent close to the time of developing a real product provides a company with the kind of protection against competition that inspires them to spend large sums of money as, for instance, one has to do to bring a drug to market. But to patent things early in the discovery process, before you even know what the products are going to be, is not the way to benefit the public. The human genome project has, from the beginning, adopted an attitude of immediate public disclosure of everything we do, and that’s one of the stances I am most proud of that this group of thousands of scientists from many countries in the world have adopted and have stuck to absolutely faithfully. Our data go up on the Internet every 24 hours. It is therefore prior art, as one would say in legal terms. Therefore, whatever is out there cannot be patented by somebody else unless they add substantially to that information claiming, then, that they’ve done something inventive. But we are in a bit of mess because that happened. Some cream skimming went on, and a substantial number of human genes do have issued patents, and exactly how much that’s getting in the way of the development of all these medical benefits is still not clear. But it’s probably significant.
Q: Let me ask you about the enormous debate about the theory of evolution. As I understand it, what you have done with the Human Genome Project is a strong support for the idea of evolution. What do you say to those who think the first two books of Genesis are what happened and evolution is a threat to the truth of the Bible?
A: There is no greater flash point right now in the tensions between science and faith than evolution. Ever since Darwin’s ORIGIN OF SPECIES was published, that tension has been flaring, and it seems, in my view, to be getting almost worse, even after all these years. I believe that God is the greatest scientist. I believe that God gave us the abilities to explore the natural world and to appreciate the grandeur of his creation and, as Galileo once said, did not intend us to forego their use. As a scientist who has the opportunity to explore things about the natural world, this is an opportunity to glimpse, in just a small way, God’s mind. I think God appreciates that we appreciate his creation. But we discover things which, in some people’s view, cause difficulties in interpretation of certain Scriptures. This is an area, I think, where serious believers can disagree. What I want to say about this I also want to say with great love and understanding for my fellow believers who have a different view. But for me as a scientist, when I look at DNA — our own, that of the human species and of all these other organisms that we now have the genomes of, and there are now dozens of them — the evidence that we are all descended from a common ancestor is overwhelming. Some might wish that not to be so. It is so. And that’s not just explainable on the basis of individual acts of special creation. There are numerous ways in which our own DNA really doesn’t fit that explanation but does fit the idea of descent from a common ancestor, what Darwin called evolution by natural selection. Does this conflict with Genesis 1 and 2? I don’t believe it does. I don’t think Saint Augustine, if presented with the evidence right now, would consider that it does either. Augustine, who wrote no less than five books about Genesis 1,600 years ago, when there was no reason to be apologetic about Darwin, comes up with this conclusion that we really cannot know exactly what the intentions were of the writer, but a literal interpretation demanding that this be a description of 24-hour days ought not to be taken by a Christian in the face of counter-evidence lest, as Augustine says, those who have a knowledge of science would point this out as an example of a Christian talking about things that aren’t so and thereby bringing the faith to ridicule. We must not do that. One of my greatest heartaches is that at the present time we are seeing that happen, and serious believers, who are led by some circumstances to believe that they have to defend a little interpretation of Genesis in order to defend their faith, find themselves contradicting facts that God Almighty has given us the ability to discover, and putting themselves and ourselves in an untenable situation.
Q: So what do you do? Do you hope to sit down with people who believe in the literal truth of the Bible and say, you can’t believe that anymore, that’s just not right? What do you do?
A: God is a God of truth. I think all believers have to agree to that. If we could sit down together and understand each other and seek out what is the truth, both about faith and about nature, and discover that they are entirely compatible, as I believe they are, then that kind of harmony seems like a very worthwhile goal to seek after. That is a main reason I wrote THE LANGUAGE OF GOD — to try to lay out from the perspective of a working scientist who studies DNA how it is that I also worship Almighty God and see him as the creator behind the entire experience of what we see around us in the natural world.
Q: For this to take place, what does a Bible-believing Christian have to do and what does a scientist have to do? Each one may concede something about what truth is or what they think of the other’s position.
A: Let me say that it is at least as much the fault of scientists that we are at this current impasse. Some scientists, speaking out of their own personal perspectives, take conclusions about the theory of evolution and demand that that reaches a conclusion about atheism. That is outside the facts. That is using the laws of science and the scientific method to draw conclusions about God, who is outside of nature and for which the tools of science are completely inappropriate. That kind of shrill atheism which comes from many in my own community has, I think, further ratcheted up the tension and perhaps forced many serious believers even further into an entrenched position about the literalness of Genesis, in order to defend themselves against what appears to be a certain collapse of the faith if they were to accept evolution, at least as portrayed by those such as [science writer Richard] Dawkins. This is a terribly unfortunate situation, where those on the extremes of this broad spectrum are carrying the day. They are occupying the stage, and those of us who live in the middle, who find perfect harmony between science as the way to explore the natural world and faith as a way to explore the spiritual world, are beginning to think we’re all alone. And yet, I think that’s where most people are. If we could sit down together, go through what is the information, the long traditions of faith, which are timeless — let’s be sure we understand what they’re telling us, some of the new facts of science — I believe we would find them all not just compatible but complimentary in reinforcing — they would not subtract from our faith, they would add to it.
Q: What about the idea called intelligent design — yes, evolution, but God had a hand in there some place, because that’s the only way to explain the complexity of the result?
A: Many serious believers have been attracted to the notions of intelligent design because it provides an opportunity for God or some supernatural force to be involved in evolution and not have it just continuing in its own blind way. Unfortunately, I think that perspective is doomed. Intelligent design basically proposes that there are certain complex structures, molecular machines that are too complicated for evolution alone to have designed, and that it would require some other intervention to make them plausible. Interestingly, intelligent design really arrived on the scene, in many ways, as a response to evolution — from Philip Johnson and others trying to say now wait a minute, you can’t have it this way. Evolution can’t do all of these things, can it? The problem is, the examples that intelligent design puts forward, things like the bacterial flagellum, we are learning a lot about, and the notion that those are examples of irreducible complexity is showing serious cracks. I fear this is another “God of the gaps” theory, and there have been many of them down through the centuries. When science can’t quite explain something, it interposes God in that place, and then if science advances, what happens to God? My God is bigger than that. Intelligent design, while a thoughtful, well-argued perspective, I do not think is taking us to the promised land. I think this will be an argument which ultimately will not do damage to science; it will do damage to faith as its premises are shown to be unnecessary and science fills in the gaps where God was being interposed.
Q: What does science now says about the origins of the universe and God?
A: I don’t think science can ever prove the existence of God. But there are many observations that come out of science that are actually quite intriguing and cause even atheist or agnostic cosmologists to question how could this be just an accident? I think the general consensus quite broadly held now is that the universe had a beginning — the Big Bang — somewhere around 14 billion years ago. And in that flash of light and energy and mass, everything, all of the galaxies were all in one fine infinitesimally small point and then expanded at a prodigious rate over the course of these billions of years, with the coalescence of stars and planets and so on. When you look at the improbabilities of our current universe, they are stunning. There are 15 constants that characterize the universe, things to do with the weak and strong force that hold nuclei together, for instance — the gravitational pull, various constants in electromagnetism. If anyone of those were to have a slightly different value than it does our universe could not support life. It would be a mass of formless gas at best, and that leads many of us to wonder how it is that of all the possible ways these constants (which just have the value they do; you can’t derive them) could have been, they came in exactly this form. Well, some might say that’s a circular argument. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if they didn’t. At the same time, one does have to wonder: Did the universe know we were coming, or did God who created the universe choose those constants just so, so that complex organisms could populate what otherwise would have been a sterile universe? I find that quite compelling. The chances of our being here are infinitesimally small.
Q: You quote Richard Dawkins, a famous critic of Christianity: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
A: Dawkins is an incredibly articulate, gifted writer, but he has a personal agenda which is that of atheism, an agenda which goes beyond what science can legitimately support. In that quote Dawkins says the universe has no good or evil. How does he know that? Are good and evil terms that science alone can define?
Q: What I was interested in even more is the idea that there was no purpose. But you say yes, that we might have been the purpose.
A: I find evidence of purpose from many directions. One is the nature of the universe, its fine tuning to allow us to become possibilities. Another is, and a very powerful one for me, the moral law, the sense we all have of good and evil, a law which seems exclusive to human beings, not shared by other organisms on the planet, a law which we often break and yet a law which makes us, in a certain way, aware of our shortcomings and aware of our need somehow to adhere to this notion of good and evil, even when it causes us to do things which evolution would be scandalized by, such as sacrificing ourselves to save someone else. That’s very compelling. Another argument that I find compelling is this hunger that is characteristic of all humans at all times in all cultures for something more than ourselves — the search for the spiritual. As C.S. Lewis says, when you see a hunger you generally expect that it’s associated with some way to fill that hunger, whether it’s food or sexual desire or whatever. So our hunger for God that seems to be a universal part of being human — should that not also tell us that there’s a way to fulfill it?
Q: And you believe that God does intervene from time to time in the development of the universe and in life?
A: Well, deists would say that God started the whole thing going but isn’t all that interested in human beings. I’m not a deist; I’m a theist. I believe that God does have an interest in each one of us and this moral law, the sense of good and evil, is a signpost to that. If I was looking for evidence that God cared about me and I found in my own heart something that calls me to be holy even though I’m woefully incapable of it, shouldn’t that arouse suspicions that, in fact, there is some being that stands for what is good and holy? Not a neutral force here, mind you, but it also stands for seeking relationship with us as individuals. I find that a very compelling argument, and it leaves me, then, searching through the religions of the world to see what I could learn about that holy God who seeks personal relationship with each of us.
Q: Once upon a time as a young scientist you were a pretty good atheist.
A: I sure was.
Q: And what happened?
A: I grew up in a home where faith wasn’t practiced particularly, although it was occasionally referred to. It was not part of daily life. I became an agnostic in college and then an atheist, and a fairly obnoxious one at that, as a graduate student in physical chemistry, where everything was about mathematics, physics, and so on. Everything in my mind could be reduced to second-order differential equations. That’s all that mattered. But then I had a change in my professional life. I decided the world of mathematics and physics and chemistry wasn’t going to sustain me. I wanted something that had more of a human element, and I changed course fairly drastically and went to medical school. And in that experience, taking care of patients who had terrible diseases that they had done nothing to bring down on themselves, I really had to face up to these questions of life and death. I had to try to understand how some of these individuals leaned on their faith in a way that clearly gave them enormous comfort and that, if it was a psychological crutch, was awfully impressive. I had to ask myself what was going on. At one particular moment, one of my patients who was a strong believer turned to me and said, so what do you believe? I stammered and stuttered and said I didn’t know and realized that was a pretty important question. As a scientist, you’re supposed to draw conclusions based on the evidence, and I’d never really looked at the evidence at all. It was convenient for me to be an atheist. I didn’t have to answer to anybody. I was practicing what [C.S.] Lewis calls willful blindness to the facts of whether or not God exists. Shaken by that experience, I decided I’d better go and look at the evidence in order to confirm my atheism, which is what I expected to happen. And instead, over the course of almost two years of intense learning and struggling and struggling and learning, I accidentally converted myself. At the age of 27, I became a follower of Jesus Christ.
Q: One of the influences was reading the books of C.S Lewis, especially MERE CHRISTIANITY.
Q: Talk about his role.
A: As I was struggling about what to believe and realizing I didn’t understand any of these concepts, I visited with a minister who lived down the street, and after asking him a number of questions and probably uttering a series of blasphemies, he took down a book from his shelf and said, “Maybe it would help you to read this.” I took it home, opened the pages, and my life changed, and the book was MERE CHRISTIANITY by C.S. Lewis. In the very first few pages of that book, all of my arguments against the plausibility of faith were rapidly dismantled. I saw them then as the arguments of a schoolboy. I realized that this Oxford scholar whose intellect towered about my own had traveled through this same path of atheism and in his effort to shore up his disbelief had also arrived at belief. I realized I was in trouble, that this book was likely not to carry me off in the direction that I had expected. I continued through those brief chapters one by one, encountering many instances where Lewis seemed to read my mind and immediately address the objections that were forming as I was reading one paragraph. In the very next paragraph there would be the response. By the end of that book, I was quite convinced that belief in God was more plausible than unbelief. But of course no intellectual argument can carry you all the way into faith. There is that moment where you have to decide whether or not to make that leap, and I fought that for a long time, terrified of its consequences, until finally life became almost unbearable. Because of this sense of discomfort at holding off the hound of heaven, I ultimately fell on my knees and accepted his lordship over my life, which continues to this day.
Q: As a result of both your religious and scientific pilgrimages, how do you put these things together? I’m thinking about what you call theistic evolution. How have you yourself found a bridge between these two worlds?
A: I think many people are trying to find how to synthesize what we know about the natural world with a search for God. For me, that synthesis arrived gradually but in a very comforting way, and here it is: If God who is outside space and time chose to create a universe and populate it with creatures in his image with whom he could have fellowship, who are we to say that the process that we as scientists have uncovered, the Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets and the mechanism of evolution to create life and ultimately human life, is not the way we would have done it? It’s an incredibly elegant, remarkably beautiful way to conduct that marvelous act of creation. I find that enormously satisfying. Nothing that I know as a scientist is in contradiction to that. Nothing that I know as a believer is in contradiction to that. It provides this sense of harmony, of unity, where I can both worship God as the creator and use the tools of science that he has given us by giving us an intellect to explore his creation.
Q: What do you do about miracles or an event such as the resurrection?
A: I’m a scientist. When someone says that event was a miracle, it’s natural for me to be skeptical, because until one has exhausted natural explanations, it’s probably not a good idea to say that was a miraculous event. The blooming of a flower is, in my mind, not a miracle. It’s something that we can understand on the basis of molecular biology these days. But I do accept that in special moments God, who is supernatural, chooses to invade the natural world, and to us that appears as a miraculous event, and that includes especially the most important miracle for my faith, which is the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Q: One of the things some people find so difficult is the whole idea of suffering. Suffering’s challenge to the idea of God has been an important barrier for a lot of people and remains so.
A: I recognize that many skeptics and many believers, myself included, struggle with this issue of suffering. Why would a loving God allow it? If God loves us, wouldn’t he spare us the kind of experiences that most of us go through? This is not necessarily a garden of delights. This is often a vale of tears. In my own life I’ve been spared many experiences of suffering, but not all. My own daughter, as a college student, was raped by a man who broke into her apartment in the middle of the night, a terrible experience that has left her affected for her whole life. But at the same time, looking at that experience one has to wonder, could God have prevented that? Should we blame God for not doing so? This was an act of free will by somebody who in a very criminal, awful way chose to exercise it. And could we even in that terrible circumstance be able to identify something that came out of this that was positive? My daughter would say yes now. So God’s perspective is different than ours. I don’t think God is the author of suffering. But if God were to intervene in every instance where suffering was about to occur, this would be a very chaotic and confused world. At some level, we learn most at those times where we’re going through suffering. [C.S.] Lewis, again, says God whispers when things are going well. He shouts in those difficult times. It’s his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. I think, in my own life, that’s been true. I haven’t learned very much when everything was going swimmingly. I’ve learned a lot when things were tough. And if God’s perspective is to draw us closer to him and to prepare us for another world, then a life without suffering might not be the best plan — not for me, but for us.
Q: Many Christian writers over the years have been very wary of what they call dualism, the material world and the spiritual world. Some have found an explanation in the interweaving of the two — that there is just one world, really, but it has these two parts. Is your view that there is a material world on one side that scientists can understand and then separate from that a spiritual life that people can have?
A: These arguments have gone on for as long as science and faith have coexisted. Do they need to keep themselves separate? Stephen Jay Gould, a very prominent evolutionist, wrote this famous book [ROCK OF AGES: SCIENCE AND RELIGION IN THE FULLNESS OF LIFE, 1999] about the “nonoverlapping magisteria” — that the scientific and the spiritual perspectives were both legitimate, but they should not take any chances of actually entering the same room at the same time. I don’t feel that way. I would be very uncomfortable compartmentalizing what I know as a scientist but away from what I know as a believer. [It] seems to me the scientific and the spiritual world views are not just compatible, they’re actually complementary. You learn things about each one by consideration of the other. Science allows you to ask some pretty interesting questions. Faith allows you to ask other interesting questions. They’re both ways of seeking truth. They’re both ways of knowing, and to decide that you have to put a wall between the two in order to avoid some discomfort just doesn’t feel right to me at all. So I’m very much opposed to the dualism arguments and very much in favor of the notion that we can be complete creatures, complete worshippers of God and, at the same time, people who study his creation using science.
Q: You write again and again about the dangers involved in this sometimes angry and suspicious battle between science and faith. What are they?
A: We’re at a difficult time in our cultural history. Are we headed on a path of increasing secularism of society, on the one hand? On the other hand, are we headed towards a circumstance where science is considered untrustworthy and we move substantially more into the direction of fundamentalist views about how the world came into being and what’s an acceptable perspective on that? It seems to me those polar extremes are getting a lot of the stage. Neither of those outcomes will be good for us in the long term. We need science if we’re going to survive in a complicated world and if we’re going to treat terrible diseases that cry out for some form of alleviation. And we need faith if we’re going to keep ourselves in perspective instead of slipping into this very self-involved means of portraying our future. Any pathway that seems to be trying to knock down one or the other is a pathway that’s dangerous for our culture. So we must seek out the ways in which these worldviews can happily coexist. It’s perhaps our strongest mandate right now, if we’re really concerned about our own future in this world.
Q: Did you once say that what you had come up with was what only God had known before?
A: I don’t think I said that, but I think it all the time. As the person who had the privilege of leading the Human Genome Project and watching our own DNA instruction book emerge letter by letter, that provided a profound sense of awe unlike anything that I could’ve imagined. It was, after all, reading the language of God. It was seeing the evidence of his majesty and creation laid out in this remarkable digital code inherited down through millions of years from some ancestral source that he also had planned. That, for me, was life spoken into being by God. “Bios,” the biological world, coming into being through “logos,” the word. I think we could even call this perspective “biologos.” That’s what it seems to me God is saying — speaking life into being through his remarkable creative powers.
Q: You said what you were finding and the experience of doing that was something no other human beings had known or experienced before.
A: The most remarkable experiences for a scientist are those moments where you learn something that wasn’t previously known. Every scientist longs for those moments. But for a believer, that is also the moment where you look just a little bit into God’s mind, because God knew that before, and everything else, too, and that brings you into this moment of relationship, this bond with your creator that is an unbelievable experience. You know something at that moment that man never knew before, but God knew all along, and the sense of bonding with the infinite in that experience of discovery is not to be overstated. It is, perhaps, for the scientist-believer the thing you remember most.
Q: What should we do and what shouldn’t we about stem cell research?
A: The whole area of stem cell research has, I fear, gotten quite muddy. Some of it is a terminology problem; some of it is that this is scientifically complicated stuff and not easily explained in a sound bite. Stem cells are an enormously exciting discovery and one which for human medicine offers the potential of treating, maybe curing, a long list of diseases — diabetes, Lou Gehrig’s disease, maybe Parkinson’s disease. And yet that promise is very unclear at present time in terms of just how real it is. It’s going to take a lot of additional research to determine that. Where do stem cells come from? Well, they could come from two places. One is to derive them from a human embryo that was formed by the union of sperm and egg in the usual way. And there are a number of cell lines of that sort that are approved for federal funding based on President Bush’s decision back in 2001. But there’s no permission, with federal funding, to create additional cell lines of that sort. From my medical perspective, those are useful, but they will not be incredibly valuable for treatment purposes because they will be derived from some other genetic source, and so all of the problems of transplantation that we know about when it comes to organ transplants will apply to the use of those kinds of stem cells. What you really want is a stem cell derived from yourself. If you have Parkinson’s disease, you want to get that stem cell to turn into a neuron that’s going to deal with the fact that some of your neurons are dying. If you have type-1 diabetes, you want that stem cell to turn into a cell that will make insulin to take care of the ones that aren’t doing that. To do that is a very different process, something called somatic cell nuclear transfer, where you take one of your cells, take out the nucleus which contains the DNA instruction book, insert that into a egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed, and then count on that egg cell to somehow send the signals to your skin cell to convince it that it has the ability to do anything. That is the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer. Now that is very different in my mind morally than the union of sperm and egg. We do not in nature see somatic cell nuclear transfer occurring. This is a purely man-made event. And yet somehow we have attached to the product of that kind of activity the same moral status of the union of sperm and egg. I don’t know quite how we got there. I know the argument is that once you get there this has the potential of becoming a human being, if you were to re-implant it in the womb of a woman and everything went right. But nobody intends to do that part. So why is it, then, that we have in our minds, in many instances, equated a prohibition against doing research on human embryos that are formed by sperm and egg union to a prohibition on this somatic cell nuclear transfer exercise? Because it’s the latter that probably offers the greatest medical promise, but it is also stymied by current rules and regulations in this country.
Q: What do you think needs to be done?
A: I guess I’m an optimist about this. I am hopeful that if we could step back from the rhetoric, from the entrenched positions which happened very early in this discussion and really think through what is the circumstance scientifically between these two different approaches, that we might be able to arrive at a reasoned, benevolent position which balances the risks of doing something which we would all agree is inappropriate, that is, reproductive cloning versus the risks of not treating or curing somebody with a terrible disease who is waiting for us to get the ball rolling here in this kind of research, which clearly is being impeded at the present time in the United States.
Q: What are your greatest hopes for the use of the work you have done?
A: My great hope is that the study of the human genome will lead us, within a few years, to the opportunity where better prevention is available to all of us, enabling us to stay healthy. If we fall ill, the drugs that we take will be individualized for us, both in terms of which drug and at what dose, because we’re all a little different and we’re starting to learn how to predict those differences, and the new drugs that come along in the next ten or 15 years or the new gene therapies will both be much more effective and also less toxic than the ones that we currently offer to people with cancer or heart disease or mental illness, all of which we desperately need new approaches to, and which we are going to see happen out of this field of genomics. This is going to be a revolutionary period. At the same time, I think we have to be careful not to over-promise that those developments are not going to happen overnight. They will take an enormous investment in biomedical research, both in the public and private sectors, and we as a culture have to agree to support that, or the progress will be much slower than it could be. We are no longer limited by good ideas or by technologies. We’re solely at this point limited by our willingness to invest in the research.
Q: And your fears?
A: A current fear, which could be solved with some national will, is that people will be unwilling to learn about their own DNA because of concerns that it will be used against them by damaging their ability to get health insurance or a job. This genetic discrimination issue has been addressed repeatedly by scholars that we funded through the Genome Project. It has been widely accepted that the only real solution to this is effective federal legislation. We have seen a bill pass the United States Senate 98 to nothing almost two years ago, and we now await action by the House on that same bill. My hope will be that we see this happen without another session going by. It’s a bill that’s supported by the administration; it currently has 220 co-sponsors, which you would think would be sufficient, to guarantee passage. But at the moment it’s not scheduled for action.
Q: What would that bill do?
A: The bill would basically say genetic information is off the table when it comes to deciding whether somebody has access to health insurance or what premium they should pay, and it’s also off the table for employers in making decisions about hiring, firing, or promotion.
Q: And who is against it?
A: Concerns about the bill have been primarily from the business community, who don’t necessarily welcome the idea of having their hands tied and who are concerned about frivolous lawsuits that might be filed by people who were fired for cause and who then come back and say, “Well, it because of my DNA. That’s why they did it,” when in fact that wasn’t the case. But more than 40 states have had such legislation now, some of them for ten years. There hasn’t been a single such case filed. That seems unlikely to be a real risk here.
Q: And the greatest fears down the road?
A: Down the road I think my greatest concerns are in the area of enhancement. Will we be successful in defining boundaries that we really don’t want to cross? While many of those enhancement scenarios aren’t scientifically realistic, some of them are. Do we as a culture, as a species, want to engage in what could be, over the long term, reengineering of ourselves into a somewhat different biological entity? I would be very uncomfortable with that as a believer, because I think we are made in God’s image. I think God intended for us to be as we are, in a general way. And the idea that we would ultimately morph into some other kinds of creatures is chilling and disturbing. Again, [it is] unrealistic, not something that anybody should lose sleep over on this very moment, but in the long term [it is] something that we should be paying attention to.