God in the Genes?

Cavorting Beasties

For most scientists, God is irrelevant. And that is a very good thing. When science and religion intersect, an unseemly brawl (Galileo and the Church) or a synthesis that is an intellectual train wreck (creationism and “intelligent design theory”) usually result.

But in a series of surprisingly candid talks at Memorial Church last month, Dr. Francis S. Collins, the head of the publicly funded human genome project, spoke on how his own Christian faith can be squared with his scientific understanding of the world. His position is audacious. Most scientists who believe in God tend to claim completely separate domains for science and religion. At the risk of his colleagues thinking him nuts, Collins tries to integrate the two. Although his arguments fall short of a persuasive defense for how traditional belief is relevant to all scientists, he did showed how faith and science can co-exist. Collins correctly diagnosed that science and religion are often compatible, and need each other more than either side might like.

At the center of Collins’ arguments, which he presented over three nights as the William Belden Noble Lectures, are two different arguments for the relevance of the Deity. The first argument holds that God is the prime mover who is responsible for the universe in unknowable ways. This view posits that some force determined the measurements of the universe—such as the charge on an electron—to optimize them so humans could evolve. Cosmologists generally agree that the chance of a universe having the properties of ours seems exceedingly small. Supporters of this first conception of God argue that there must be some supernatural force that set the dimensions of the universe so it would be capable of supporting human life. This view might be called the “God of physics” because it’s an argument gleaned from observations about physical reality.

But in the absence of positive evidence to the contrary, most scientists reply that the universe must be nothing more than a lucky accident. After all, if it had been different, humans would not be here to wonder how well-suited it is for us. Thus, the “God of physics” can do little to make religious belief any more relevant to scientists. It does not help or hinder the scientific enterprise, and does not affect the way we live our lives. This view of the Deity is therefore quite irrelevant to science.

The second conception is God as a source of moral sense, and might be termed the “God of biology.” Collins cited C. S. Lewis in his description of a common moral law that underlies the way people from all cultures try to relate to each other. Some biologists explain the common altruistic behavior of humans and other animals as a mechanism that helps preserve the species. Thus, the rules of morality stem from the need for humans to band together to preserve their genes. For example, betrayal of family members is generally considered to be wrong across widely different cultures. Likewise is incest. But Collins explains this phenomenon differently. The presence of this law can only be explained, Collins argues, if “God has written this law within me.”


This jump from innate biological altruism to a belief in God relies on thin evidence and a good helping of emotional appeal. But here is the irony: the human genome itself could be construed as the reason for moral law to which Collins refers. The same moral sense that Collins claims is God-given is actually hard-wired into our genomes. For example, Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus E. O. Wilson argues that religion is a result of evolution. Religion and its moral codes promote survival, and those humans genetically more disposed to religion seem to have survived better. Thus, the genome is responsible for the highest moral law. You can call it God or evolution, but it’s still a standard that people hold in common.

Few students of science (myself included) will be persuaded that any sort of religion or faith can be justified by the genome. Collins would likely agree. His conception of religious belief is more conventional than either the “God of physics” or the “God of biology.”

Nevertheless, Collins’ challenge to both scientists and believers is refreshing. He argues “we need to bring the truths of both worldviews to the table, with utmost respect for the power of each to answer critical questions in different spheres of life.” Moral questions infuse scientific debates on issues such as cloning and animal experimentation. And the irrational side of religion is no less potent than the irrational drives of scientists. Scientists’ methods, selection of projects and interactions with each other are often driven by the same irrational parts of the human mind that underpin religious belief. Neither religious faith nor science is a completely rational system. After all, they are both the result of the human genome, which, as Collins knows all too well, is neither rational nor orderly.

Jonathan H. Esensten ’04 is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.