Francis Collins

Francis Collins has a new book due out soon. Jerry Coyne has already covered it more interestingly than I can here, but this quote from Collins really got me.

The conclusion is astounding: if any of these [physical constants] were to vary by even the tiniest degree, a universe capable of sustaining any imaginable form of life would be impossible.

Having just read Victor Stenger’s New Atheism, I find Collins all the more annoying for bringing up this point. The fine-tuning argument is terrible enough just for the fact that it often takes the form of “But how is everything so well adapted to life?!”, but all of its creationist forms are awful. In Collins’ version, he’s assuming that the variance would be done to only one physical constant. In reality, physical constants are almost always dependent upon each other; the changing of one would mean the changing of them all. Collins’ argument is, then, incoherent.

Infuriatingly silly

Jerry Coyne has a post about why Francis Collins pollutes science with religion. It’s a succinct piece that basically nails Collins for all his silly, childish, superstitious, frankly stupid beliefs.

The most inane and disingenuous part of Collins’s argument is his claim that without religion, the concepts of good and evil are meaningless. (Collins’s slide 5 in Harris’s piece: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”) That’s palpable nonsense. Good and evil are defined with respect to their effects and the intents of their perpetrators, not by adherence to some religious code. It is beyond my ken how a smart guy like Collins can make a claim like this, even going so far as to argue that “strong atheists” like Richard Dawkins have to accept and live their lives within a world in which good and evil are meaningless ideas

It’s inconvenient for Collins or any other religiously-driven person to admit that morality is a purely human affair. And really, it’s getting to be a tiresome argument. Explanations abound for how morality could have naturally evolved. That should be good enough to force any reasonable person to admit that, no, morality need not have a god, it need not adhere to the whims of one individual entity, and it definitely is not universal. Our ideas of morality change with the times, with cultures, with known facts, with context. The only real constant is that every human society has developed a moral system. The details within each system may vary wildly – in bin Laden’s, the death of most of America is just – but they are always put within some sort of construct. That does not mean that bin Laden’s version of morality is equal to any other version which may exist. One key component in any moral system is basing premises on facts. That’s the main reason that god-based moral systems tend to fail or be wacky (see inane hatred of homosexuality among, well, almost all the religions). It’s one of the reasons bin Laden’s system doesn’t work and is not equal to mine or yours or most Americans’ or other Westerners’ (or even most Muslims’).

Collins, like most Christians who think they somehow own the moral high horse, despite all the contrary evidence, does not understand that morality is not universal. It is only moral systems. His is broken and can only work because he’s made it malleable to the progression of secular values and understanding. Indeed, if religions weren’t so agreeable to such change, Christianity would be as much a relic as slavery. Of course, that isn’t to suggest that religion so easily moves along with reason. It doesn’t. It usually comes kicking and screaming, forced by the hand of rationality.

There are, of course, also statements made without evidence, including this one: “God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul” And this (slide 4): “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God.” How does he know? What’s the evidence? Isn’t the distinction between the science slides and the faith slides being blurred here?

One thing I’ve been forcing myself to ask myself a lot lately is “Where’s my evidence?” I recently went on a big hike through the 100-Mile Wilderness, the most remote and difficult section of the Appalachian Trail. I recall passing a tree root that had made a sort of rainbow shape. Each end was in the ground, but the middle was up in the air (as opposed to laying against the ground). It was unusual, but I quickly thought “It must have been buried at some point before being exposed, thus causing it to pop up”. I had to stop myself right there. How did I know that? I didn’t. It was a plausible guess, but other explanations were also plausible. It could have grown that way. Another tree could have been there before being removed, long ago, by the Maine Appalachian Trail Committee (MATC). It could just be a brief, weird angle I had making me think it was a root when in reality it was just a fallen branch that appeared buried in the ground. All I had was a hypothesis, and one I wasn’t about to test. I had to settle with “I don’t know” as an answer. Sometimes that isn’t just a temporary answer. Every single claim/question about the after-life that Collins makes deserves a permanent “I don’t know”. He doesn’t have the evidence. As a scientist, he should value that above all else in his work.

But then again, he is a Christian. Religions do not value evidence.

Marriage is between people, not disparate ideas

There are a couple of articles floating around about a new site run by Francis Collins and Karl Giberson

Our Mission: Faith and science both lead us to truth about God and creation. The BioLogos Foundation promotes the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms, and seeks to harmonize these different perspectives.

It’s just another accomodationist point of view. These people want to marry science and religion. It’s politically very tactful: people don’t like extremes, so taking a sort of middle-road is very appealing. Beside that, many people know enough to realize that biologists aren’t lying when they say evolution underscores all of biology but they don’t know enough to recognize they should reject their particular cultural god(s).

But here’s the kicker. These people aren’t really middle-of-the-roaders. They are creationists gussied up once again. They aren’t concerned with science at all. What they want to do is twist established fact to fit their preconceived worldview, science be damned. Let’s call these people what they really are: the New Creationists.

Simon Conway Morris presents a different perspective, arguing humans, or a human-like species, are actually an inevitable part of evolution. Morris is not proposing a different mechanism for human evolution, merely a different observation of its possible outcomes. Morris would agree that any slight difference in the history of human DNA would result in a different evolutionary path. Unlike Gould, however, Morris argues each of those possible pathways would inevitably lead to something like the human species. Morris writes:

“The prevailing view of evolution is that life has no direction — no goals, no predictable outcomes. Hedged in by circumstances and coincidence, the course of life lurches from one point to another. It is pure chance that 3 billion years of evolution on Earth have produced a peculiarly clever ape. We may find distant echoes of our aptitude for tool making and language and our relentless curiosity in other animals, but intelligence like ours is very special. Right?”

“Wrong! The history of life on Earth appears impossibly complex and unpredictable, but take a closer look and you’ll find a deep structure. Physics and chemistry dictate that many things simply are not possible, and these constraints extend to biology. The solution to a particular biological problem can often only be handled in one of a few ways, which is why when you examine the tapestry of evolution you see the same patterns emerging over and over again.” 4

The patterns Morris mentions are also referred to as convergences in the evolutionary process. In his most recent book, Life’s Solution, Morris gives many examples of physical traits or abilities found repeatedly among different species.5 Normally, such similarities are understood asthe result of common ancestry. However, the species in Morris’s examples are known to be distantly related. In many cases, not even these species’ common ancestor shared the same trait. The implication is that several different species have independently developed similar traits.

There is just so much wrong here. First of all, this is saying the roads of evolution are limited, thus humans (or something similar to humans) were inevitable. This is only true if one is to start from a certain, late point. An ape, for example, is limited to being a mammal for many thousands, even millions of years. It is bound to the land for a significant period of time. But go far enough down the line and it isn’t possible to count the possibilities of ape evolution. Taking this principle, we can walk back in time. Deep time. Three and a half billion years ago, eukaryotes weren’t inevitable. Hell, four billion years ago and life wasn’t inevitable, much less humans. It’s an absurd argument being peddled that is designed to harm the atheist position while strengthening creationists. This isn’t about marrying science and religion at all; it’s about propping up religion at the expense of actual science.

Second, this is saying that because similar features have evolved again and again and not as a result of common ancestory, this is evidence for limited pathways in evolution. This doesn’t speak to any of that goobbity-goop. What this says is that natural selection has a tendency to take common initial pathways and make similar structures. The eye is a good example. This website, being a creationist site, naturally abuses the example of eye, so I hope I can fix that a bit.

The eye has evolved independently about 40 times. This doesn’t mean that the eye is absolutely inevitable. If it did, then we should see more species with eyes. What we actually see is an entire planet with the same basis for life – DNA. From this DNA, we see cells. In eukaryotes, we see certain similarities with Vitamin-A parts of molecules in all eyed animals. In addition, most animals (regardless of whether or not they have eyes) have photoreceptor cells. All it really takes for an eye to evolve is a small pit, indent, or even surface area for these cells to rest. Having just a tiny bit of vision can give enormous benefits to any animal. Some squid, for example, have eyespots which allow them to detect the wavelengths of light. This helps them ‘know’ (they have no brains, only nervous systems) in which direction to go. Say a certain shade of green is common on the sea floor, which is where the squids food source (let’s say) lives. Being able to decipher between green and other shades is beneficial. Natural selection will favor those with better green detection. Going further, other animals can develop the same basic idea through mutation yet evolve it in completely different ways at completely different times. This isn’t evidence for some things being so improbable that ‘God done it’. It’s evidence for common chemistry and biology being molded by the far-from-improbable mechanism of natural selection.