Finding God At
Francis Collins, God and The Human Genome
By Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. Executive Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, former Director of the U.S. Human Genome Project, and author of The Language of God; A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
DNA is the instruction book of all living things. This marvelous code that each of us inherited from our parents is written in a language that is shared with all plants, animals and other organisms. Its scaffold is a remarkable double-helix, carrying information in a digital code made up of a series of chemical bases we abbreviate as A, C, G and T (see Bohlin entry).
How many of these base pairs (letters) does it take to provide the information for a human being? If we were to read it out loud, without stopping, it would take 31 years. We have all that information inside each cell of our body.
We only learned about the double helix in 1953. Just exactly 50 years later, more than 2,000 scientists announced that they had worked together to complete the sequence of all 3.1 billion letters of the human instruction book. I had the privilege of leading that effort..
We learned, among many things, just how few genes are encoded in our instruction book. We only have about 20,000 genes, which is amazing given how much they have to do. Also, we learned that we humans are all 99.9 percent the same at the genetic level, but none of us are perfect DNA specimens. In fact, we all have dozens of glitches in our DNA that can help us understand genetic propensities for illnesses. We’re involved now in producing a map of how we differ, and what contributes to the risk of disease, in order to better diagnose, treat, and prevent disease.
Though many scientists may have been raised in a faith tradition, that is not my story. I didn’t know much about faith as a child, and in college at the University of Virginia I realized that I didn’t believe in God, nor did I want to consider the evidence.
I went to graduate school in physical chemistry and my doctoral project was in quantum mechanics. I decided that second-order differential equations were “truth.” What else did I need to “understand” the universe? I became an atheist with little tolerance for belief in God. That kind of faith seemed superstitious and irrational.
But I soon discovered life science and decided on medical school, due to my growing interest in DNA and RNA. One afternoon, an elderly patient with advanced heart disease shared with me her deep faith in God. She then said, “I’ve told you about my faith, but you didn’t say anything. What do YOU believe?” It was such a simple question, but suddenly I felt the ice cracking under my feet.
I found her honest question about faith, and my reaction, very troubling. What was that about? I realized I had work to do. After all, I was a scientist -- right? I wasn’t supposed to come to conclusions without considering the evidence. But I had never done that for the question of God.
Expecting an investigation of the rational basis of faith to shore up my atheism, I began to study world religions. A pastor down the street gave me Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I thought, okay, at least it’s short. But within the first three pages, a major source of my skepticism was laid to ruins by the straight-forward logical argument of an Oxford scholar who had traveled my same path. Readers, beware!
What arguments got to me? A major one was the idea that something deep within all of us knows right from wrong, and that down through history, all peoples in all cultures seem called to do the right thing (even though we often fail). Why do we embrace such altruism and self-giving? Evolution would call that a scandal, instructing us only to take care of ourselves, and to be sure our DNA gets propagated.
This so-called Moral Law was an intriguing signpost: potential evidence of a Mind interested in interaction with human beings. It seemed to be a signpost calling me to be more than I probably want to be, to be holier, and thus gave me a sense of the potential character of God.
Another signpost for me was the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Why should the laws of the universe be expressed in simple, beautiful equations? And what about the characteristics of our universe, with fifteen constants that determine the behavior of electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and the gravitational force perfectly calibrated to make complexity possible in the universe? Any miniscule change would yield catastrophe or utter sterility.
Coincidence was no longer a reasonable explanation. My atheism emerged as the least rational of all perspectives.
But the more I contemplated the significance of all this, the more I realized how far away from God’s plan I was. He gave me the Moral Law, but all too often I broke it. My deepening gloom in feeling so far away from God was resolved by the discovery of the person of Jesus. He made astounding statements about forgiving sins, turning the other cheek, and helping widows, orphans, and our neighbors. And He not only claimed to know about God, He claimed to BE God. Suddenly His death on the cross, which had always been a complete mystery, made sense – He did that for me, to set me right with God, despite my many imperfections.
One day while hiking in the beautiful Pacific Northwest I found I was ready to make a decision. And so, in my 27th year I became a believer and follower of Jesus. For 30 years now I’ve found no conflicts in what I know as a scientist and what I believe as a follower of Jesus.
Science is the only way to understand the natural world. But science is powerless to answer many of our deepest questions, such as “Why are we here?” “What is the meaning of life” “What happens when we die?” Those questions can only be answered by faith. I can find God in a cathedral or in the science lab. I can read His words in the Bible or in the genome. There’s no conflict, only joy, in discovering the harmony of science and faith.
For reflection and discussion:
“Bio” means life. “Logos” means word. In light of this entry, bio-log-y can be thought of as the “study of life,” and also, “how the Word becomes life.” In John chapter 1 we learn, “In the beginning was the Word…. And the Word became flesh….” How intriguing it is, the language of God.
• How do you hear God speaking life into you, and your story?
Dr. Collins explained, "The experience of sequencing the hu
man genome was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship." As with Francis Collins’ journey, the more we explore, the more we discover.
• What unresolved questions are asking you to find out more about God?
Thank God for his brilliance that we are only beginning to discover.
(With permission from, A Faith and Culture Devot
ional; by Kullberg and Arrington, pub. by Zondervan).