National Geographic : 2007 Feb
VOICES FRANCIS COLLINS An automated DNA sequencing machine depicts a tiny fragment of the genetic code of life. Collins led the government effort to decode the entire human genome. 5. . . H4IIK10 a tornado or tsunami. Why would God not prevent those things from happening? HORGAN: Some philosophers, such as Charles Hartshorne, have suggested that maybe God isn't fully in control of his creation. The poet Annie Dillard expresses this idea in her phrase "God the semi-competent." COLLINS: That's delightful-and probably blasphemous! An alternative is the notion of God being outside of nature and time and having a perspective of our blink-of-an-eye existence that goes both far back and far forward. In some admittedly metaphysical way, that allows me to say that the meaning of suffering may not always be apparent to me. There can be reasons for terrible things happening that I cannot know. HORGAN: I'm an agnostic, and I was bothered when in your book you called agnosticism a "cop-out." Agnosticism doesn't mean you're lazy or don't care. It means you aren't satisfied with any answers for what after all are ultimate mysteries. COLLINS: That was a put-down that should not apply to earnest agnostics who have considered the evidence and still don't find an answer. I was reacting to the agnosticism I see in the scientific community, which has not been arrived at by a careful examina tion of the evidence. I went through a phase when I was a casual agnostic, and I am perhaps too quick to assume that others have no more depth than I did. HORGAN: Free will is a very important concept to me, as it is to you. It's the basis for our morality and search for meaning. Don't you worry that science in general and genetics in particular and your work as head of the Genome Project-are undermining belief in free will? COLLINS: You're talking about genetic determinism, which implies that we are helpless marionettes being controlled by strings made of double helices. That is so far away from what we know scientifically! Heredity does have an influence not only over medical risks but also over certain behaviors and personality traits. But look at iden tical twins, who have exactly the same DNA but often don't behave alike or think alike. They show the importance of learning and experience-and free will. I think we all, whether we are religious or not, recognize that free will is a reality. There are some fringe elements that say, "No, it's all an illusion, we're just pawns in some computer model." But I don't think that carries you very far. HORGAN: What do you think of Darwinian explanations of altruism, or what you call agape, totally selfless love and compassion for someone not directly related to you?