The dying woman looked up at her physician. “What do you believe?”
The question unsettled Dr. Francis Collins. For days, he had watched the elderly woman serenely endure the pain of a failing heart, certain she was leaving this world for a better one. She talked to him often of her faith. He listened with bemusement.
He was a man of science; he had earned a PhD in physical chemistry at Yale and was completing his medical degree with bedside training at a North Carolina hospital. When his patients talked of God, he pitied them.
Yet confronted with the woman’s earnest question, Collins felt not superior, but oddly ashamed. After 30 years, he still remembers how he flushed as he stammered: “I’m not really sure.”
The patient died soon after. And Collins embarked on a journey of exploration that took him to the White House to discuss his landmark map of human DNA with President Clinton -- and to a lonely mountain meadow, where he dropped to his knees one bright morning and surrendered himself to Jesus Christ.
A scientist and a believer. A born-again Christian and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, a federal project with 550 employees, a $480 million annual budget and a mandate to explore every twist of the DNA that makes us who we are. The synthesis has brought Collins much joy and intellectual satisfaction. But he’s frustrated, too, that he’s perceived as such an oddity.
In his new book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” Collins expresses his dismay at what he calls “the chasm between science and faith.”
Evolution versus intelligent design. Darwin versus God. Embryonic stem-cell research versus the sanctity of human life.
“We act as though there’s a battle going on,” Collins said. “An irreconcilable conflict.”
He feels no such conflict. He believes in evolution and in the resurrection. He wears a silver ring with a raised cross and works at a dining-room table painted with the double-helix of DNA.
Tall and trim, with gray hair; blue eyes; a relaxed, self-effacing manner; and just the barest hint of a Southern twang, Collins, 56, has set himself up as an emissary between two clashing worldviews.
He urges his fellow scientists to give up the arrogant assumption that the only questions worth asking are those science can answer. He entreats his fellow believers to recognize it’s not blasphemous to learn about the world.
One day last summer, in the basement office of his suburban home here, Collins dictated this manifesto into a tape recorder: “Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced. God is most certainly not threatened by science; He made it all possible.” It became the central thesis of his book -- with this addendum: “Abandon the battlements.”
This plea for a truce encourages some veterans of the culture wars.
Polls routinely show that about half of all Americans believe God created man, fully formed, within the last 10,000 years, as the Bible recounts. The vast majority of scientists find that ludicrous, but their account of man evolving from primordial muck does not resonate broadly, especially with Christians who believe in a personal God, deeply concerned about each human life.
Collins, some hope, might bridge this gap by reassuring Christians that they can buy evolution without selling out their faith. Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, called Collins’ book “extremely important ... particularly because it was written from a conservative Christian view. This is not some Unitarian speaking.”
Some Christians accuse Collins of denying the foundation of faith when he calls the Biblical creation account an allegory.
“Not accepting the history in Genesis undermines the entire gospel,” said Ken Ham, president of a ministry called Answers in Genesis, which promotes creationism. “The Bible says from dust we come and to dust we return. We don’t return to an ape-man when we die.”
From the other camp, some scientists ridicule Collins’ effort to find a place for God in the scientific framework.
“I could just as well say that there are 70 pink elephants revolving around the Earth,” said Herbert A. Hauptman, a Nobel laureate in chemistry. Science and faith “are simply incompatible,” he added. “There’s no getting around it.”
Collins took a roundabout route to the intersection of faith and science.
His parents both had graduate degrees from Yale but chose to live in the mountains of Virginia on a scruffy farm with no running water. His father traveled the rural South to record and preserve old folk songs; his mother home-schooled their four sons except when a creative fever gripped her and she shut herself in her room for a week at a time, writing plays.
As a boy, Collins attended an Episcopal church -- under orders from his parents to ignore any mumbo-jumbo about God. He was there, they explained, strictly to learn to read music in the choir.
Entering college at age 16, Collins had no fixed ideas about God. He soon came up with one: Religion was for fools.
All that began to change when the dying woman asked Collins, then 26, what he believed. For months, he had been observing his patients draw comfort from faith; the question “made me realize that I had moved away from my certainty that this was all bunk into a curiosity,” he said.
Collins considers evolution irrefutable; he has no doubt that all life emerged from a common ancestor over millions of years. But he began to ask himself whether God could have set this amazing process in motion:
Maybe it all appears random from Earth -- as though man’s existence is due to an improbable series of lucky breaks -- but from God’s perspective, perhaps evolution is a logical, even elegant, way to populate the planet. Maybe God intended mutations in DNA over the millennia to lead to the emergence of Homo sapiens. Once man arrived, maybe God set him apart from the other creatures by endowing him with knowledge of right and wrong, a sense of altruism and a yearning for spiritual nourishment.
Collins knew he could never prove any of these ideas, but that no longer troubled him the way it once had.
Science could reel back time 14 billion years to postulate a Big Bang that created the universe. But it could not explain what came before that singular moment -- or how the energy that fueled the cosmic explosion came to be. Science clearly had limits. So it seemed unfair to Collins to reject the divine simply because God’s existence could not be proved.
That argument frustrates Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg. Yes, he said, science does have limits. But attributing the unknown to God doesn’t advance human knowledge or serve a useful purpose, except to give believers a “warm, fuzzy, reassuring feeling.”
And given all the violence done in the name of religion, Weinberg argues that the world is better off without it. “It’s something we have to grow out of,” he said. “There will always be mystery, always things we don’t fully understand. We just have to resign ourselves to that.”
For a long time -- even after he had convinced himself that God was plausible -- Collins, too, was uneasy about organized religion. But the more he studied Scripture, the more he felt drawn to Christianity. Still he held back, afraid getting religion would turn him into a bore: “I’d become pious, tiresome, humorless. I’d suddenly feel I had to go to Africa and save millions.”
Then one day in 1978, as he hiked past a glorious waterfall in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, Collins felt a stirring he could not resist. The next morning, he knelt in a meadow behind his motel and gave his life to Jesus. (To his relief, he found he still loved to ride motorcycles and crack jokes.)
Beginning his research career at the University of Michigan -- where he discovered the genetic flaw that causes cystic fibrosis -- Collins didn’t hide his faith, but neither did he broadcast it. Polls have found that 40% of scientists believe, as Collins does, in a God who actively communicates with man. Among elite biologists, however, the figure is much lower, about 5%, and Collins has often felt at risk of ridicule among his peers.
Even today, when his book has brought the subject into the open, Collins avoids any mention of God when he addresses scientific audiences. He much prefers to sing instead.
At a recent lecture for students interested in genetics, Collins pulled out his guitar and offered to share some of the geeky lyrics he delights in writing. Stealing the tune to the Beatles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” he belted out an ode to genetic discoveries over the ages, leading up to his breakthrough accomplishment of mapping the human genome:
Mendel had all his wrinkled peas
Darwin had all his finches’ beaks
But oh, oh, oh, you can’t stop us now
We really got the code on you ...
As Collins sang, his creaky voice filling the auditorium of the Koshland Science Museum in Washington, the audience of about 30 hooted and cheered. A young man in the back held up a cigarette lighter. And that was as close to worship as the lecture got.
In June 2000, an international team supervised by Collins finished the rough drafts of the human genetic code, a string of 3 billion letters (each representing a chemical compound) that guides the inner workings of every human being.
To Collins, the blueprint was a chance to celebrate God’s wondrous design. But he worried that Christians would use this occasion as another excuse to turn away from modern science.
“I had a great concern that this would be portrayed as though we were taking away room for spirituality, making us out to be nothing more than a mechanical instruction book -- robots, machines, victims of our DNA,” Collins said.
Invited to the White House to announce the triumph, Collins tried to signal that those concerned with the soul and the spirit should not take the new science as a threat. “It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring,” he said, standing at Clinton’s side, “to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”
That moment moved Collins -- who is married and has two grown daughters -- to talk more publicly about his faith and write the book. “It’s been a bit like taking a public bath,” he said.
Creationists have e-mailed denunciations, labeling him a false prophet. Advocates of intelligent design call him illogical for holding that God designed the universe and perhaps even the first molecules of DNA, but not complex structures like the human eye (which Collins says must have come about through evolution, though biologists haven’t yet figured out exactly how that’s possible).
The harsh words have stung -- and eaten up his time; he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to try to answer every e-mail after his morning ritual of reading the Bible and the Washington Post. Still, Collins said he’s encouraged to be part of a broader movement to explore harmonies between science and faith.
The Harvard Divinity School has established an endowed chair for a professor of science and religion. Two more books on the subject are due out within weeks: “God’s Universe” by Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich and “Evolution and Christian Faith” by Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden.
Theologians, ethicists and scientists meet regularly to exchange views under the auspices of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. And an organization for Christian scientists is sending its members to churches and religious schools with the message that science is not out to undermine faith.
“I’m probably a hopeless optimist here,” Collins said. “But I hope we might just get through this.”
Collins is still not sure how to answer the question his dying patient posed three decades ago: What do you believe?
Death is not the end, he’s certain of that now, but he cannot conceive what might come after. He doesn’t trouble himself about the details. There are too many other mysteries with answers more readily within his grasp. Collins oversees a national effort to identify the genetic roots of cancer. In his own lab, he’s close to finding the mutations that may lead to diabetes.
Outsiders sometimes ask, with alarm, whether this knowledge will allow scientists to “play God” -- to manipulate and enhance man’s genetic code in ways nature never intended. Collins urges public debate to set boundaries, or as he puts it: “How far down the line do we go [before] we start to affect what it means to be human?”
But he never feels as though he’s on the verge of usurping God with his discoveries in the lab. The more he learns, the more he’s humbled.
As he explores each intricate rung of DNA, Collins said, “it’s like I’m glimpsing a little of God’s mind.”