Apologist and former physician Erik Strandness reviews the encounter between the two high-profile scientists and what it tells us about God, design and morality.
In one of the most anticipated Big Conversations of the year, Richard Dawkins, emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project and National Institutes of Health, sat down to discuss the compatibility of science and religion. It was a wide-ranging discussion which covered various topics such as Covid, genetics, evolution, the origin of the universe, evil, morality and the existence of God.
Is evolution elegant?
One of the reasons the debate between Dawkins and Collins was so civil was because they both admired the elegance of Darwinian evolution. Collins stated it this way.
“If God had the intention of ultimately putting forward on this small blue planet, somewhere on the outer edge of a galaxy, creatures with big brains who would have conversations like this and who might even be interested in whether there is something beyond what they could see materially, wouldn’t evolution have been a very elegant way to do so?”
While Dawkins and Collins expressed fondness for the evolutionary process, there is a significant proportion of people who are not as enthusiastic. I think one of the reasons for this discrepancy is that people have a hard time describing a process that depends on the life and death struggle of genetic mistakes as “elegant.”
Merriam Webster defines scientific elegance as precision, neatness, and simplicity. While it’s certainly possible to describe evolution as simple, it’s difficult to call it precise when mutations are mistakes in genetic replication, and hard to characterize it as neat when nature red-in-tooth-and-claw always leaves behind a bloody mess.
Atheists, theistic evolutionists, and evolutionary creationists frequently talk of the beauty, awe, and wonder they experience when they contemplate the evolutionary process, the rest of us, however, are left emotionally cold because we so frequently encounter genetic disease, naturally selected cruelty, and a historical record that reveals the consequences of considering humans to be mere animals.
God Need Not Apply
While both men agreed evolution had the power to create complex creatures, Dawkins astutely asked why, if this is true, is God necessary? Why would a revealing God adopt a creation strategy that makes His participation unnecessary? Why give God the job title of Creator and then tell Him He need not apply?
“I think if I were God and I wanted to create life, maybe even human life, which is part of the expectation if you are a religious person, I think I would not use such a wasteful, long-drawn-out process. I think I’d just go for it. Why would you choose natural selection which has the possibly unfortunate property that it could have come about without You? Why would God have chosen a mechanism to unfold His design? He chose the very mechanism which actually makes him superfluous.” (Dawkins)
Collins appropriately pointed out that a God who flexes His intellectual muscle is far more interesting and worthy of our devotion than a magician who just pulls a cosmos out of His hat.
“God is really interested in order. God is not so excited about the idea of just snap the fingers and then here we all are. God wanted a universe that was going to follow these elegant mathematical laws which by the way is one of those signposts that I see of an intelligence behind the universe. Einstein would have agreed with that part as well. An intelligence that also wanted it to be interesting, we could get into those constants that determine the behavior of matter and energy that seem to be just in this precise place to make something interesting happen…Evolution is a pretty darn impressive way to get there.” (Collins)
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Dawkins not only questioned the mental status of a God who would make himself known through random mutations and natural selection, but also wondered why an omnipotent God would take His dear sweet time. Wouldn’t it have been more spectacular if God only took 6 days and then settled the question for scientists and believer alike? I think the point Dawkins misses is that Christians don’t worship a Magician who is a skilled conjurer but a God who wants to share His creative thoughts with us.
The gods of the Ancient Near East who created the cosmos by snapping their fingers were a dime a dozen, but a God who personally planned and ordered creation was One of a kind. It was the thinking, speaking, ordering God described in the Old Testament who was so stunning, a God who didn’t want us to guzzle an intoxicating creation but savor it like a fine wine.
Maybe God intended science to not just gobble up facts but also to taste and see that He is good. Maybe old earth creation is more like sitting down with God for a leisurely conversation over a lovely cup of tea rather than getting fast religious food at a young earth drive through. An instant creation would only reveal God’s power, but a gradual creation would give us the opportunity to explore His thoughts on the matter.
Fine Tuning for Dummies
Since Collins isn’t an Intelligent Design advocate, he needs to make God the planner, the legislator of natural laws, so that He doesn’t have to get His hands dirty in the day-to-day work of evolving. Dawkins, however, considers this stance a betrayal of Darwinian evolution.
“It is a betrayal of everything that Darwinism stands for to smuggle in a creator once you got rid of Him and then you let us bring Him back because it feels good to bring Him back.” (Dawkins)
The Bible describes a God whose immaterial thoughts become physical words. If this is true, is it reasonable to render God scientifically mute during the evolutionary process?
While Collins doesn’t detect design in evolution, he does allow God to be known through the fine-tuned laws of nature. Even Dawkins professes mild admiration for this argument. The problem, however, with restricting God’s ability to reveal Himself to fine- tuned cosmological constants is that the average person knows nothing of strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism, or the mathematics of gravitation, they just see evidence of beauty, order, and design. It appears that the man-on-the-street is perfectly capable of hearing the heavens declare without the need of an astrophysicist spokesperson.
If elegant mathematical laws are the best observable scientific evidence we have for the existence of an intelligent God, then we make cosmologists, mathematicians, and physicists into shamans. Thankfully, we don’t need a degree in the sciences to see God’s handiwork because as it turns out design detection is simply fine-tuning for dummies.
The True, Good, and Beautiful
Collins alluded to the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty as clues to the existence of God, but I would argue that we only come to that conclusion because we see evidence of the transcendent in the day-to-day organization of the immanent. We discover truth when our observations about the world match God’s thoughts. We discover the good when we hear the echoes of God’s “good” blessing in every aspect of the natural world. And we experience beauty when we see how God’s “good” words come together in an ecologically “very good” way. In other words, we detect an intricately designed plan that has been implemented with great scientific precision.
My problem with the theistic evolution approach of Francis Collins is that it seems to give God credit for the planning stages but can’t see his hand in the roll out. If you deny the ability to detect design in the natural world, you end up honoring the hammer and ignoring the house, and as nature pours out speech day-to-day all you hear is the sound of pounding nails and not the voice of the One who spoke them into being.
Interestingly, as the two men discussed the COVID pandemic and the mutations that led to new variants, Dawkins offered a Darwinian approach to medicine:
“Darwinian medicine which tries to look at disease from the point of view of the pathogen, what the pathogen is trying to do in its life which is to get itself propagated, and at the same time look at what the patient is trying to do.” (Dawkins)
As one who has spent his professional life caring for premature babies, I found his evolutionary approach to medicine a bit odd. First, survival of the fittest doesn’t square with a profession dedicated to saving the evolutionarily unfit. Second, evolutionary theory has made medicine worse.
We already approach infectious disease by trying to understand the behavior of the pathogen, but it has been an evolutionary mindset that has interfered with our ability to understand the response of the patient. Dawkins correctly pointed out that fever reduction has been emphasized in the treatment of infections despite the fact that we now recognize that fever is one of the most important mechanisms for battling infection.
The reason that fever had been dismissed as a treatment modality is because evolution assumes that the human body is a flawed system and that biological findings we don’t understand are often considered to be mistakes rather than an elegant physiological responses. Fever, the vestigial appendix, the poorly constructed eye, and junk DNA, are but a few examples of items considered to be the unwanted or unnecessary residue of an imperfect evolutionary journey, but we now know that fever is therapy, the appendix is an important immunological mediator, the eye works better than anything we can create, and junk DNA is a highly complex genetic regulatory system.
Dawkins appropriately offered fever as a wonderful example of our failure to take into account the response of the organism, but his assessment wasn’t based on an evolutionary paradigm, but rather the result of design detection.
If we approach nature from a design perspective, then every phenomenon we encounter will be taken seriously. If, however, we assume that we dance to the tune of our genes then everything we don’t understand will be considered white noise. Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory has been an impediment to scientific progress and it is only when we embrace design that the response of both the pathogen and patient become medically meaningful.
Baked in Morality
In describing his faith journey, Collins noted that his acceptance of evolutionary science was largely settled prior to his conversion. It wasn’t the questions that science could answer that spoke to him of God but questions it couldn’t answer. He was especially moved by the moral argument popularly presented by C.S. Lewis. For Collins, the question of where we get our morals was of supreme importance in his faith journey.
“I encountered a total sense of unease and dissatisfaction at stopping at the deist version of God because of this issue of good and evil and where does that come from and how do we put that into the equation of who we are and who God might be.” (Collins)
Collins considers morality to be a top-down phenomenon introduced by God into humans after millions of years of evolution. However, I find it interesting that many of the moral issues we face today are intimately connected to the natural world such as global warming, species extinction, and pollution. I believe this ecological moral mandate is better explained by a God who declared each aspect of creation to be “good” and the ecological whole “very good.”
Morality, it appears, was embedded into the universe. I have a hard time believing that at some later date a morally deficient hominid was handed a moral compass to find his or her true ethical north. Morality wasn’t the ethical frosting on the human cake but was baked into creation from the beginning. It is the “very good” design that we detect in the world around us that gives us ethics and not just a moral burning in the bosom.
Dawkins acknowledges the reality of morality, of good and evil, and in fact made it the basis for one of his more famous statements about God’s character.
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (The God Delusion)
Dawkins, however, creates a bit of problem for himself because he also is not a big fan of how the evolutionary wheel grinds away.
“Natural selection is cruel…The suffering which comes from the fact that it’s all about competition, it’s all about evading starvation, the ones that die are the ones that starve to death or are eaten by predators, consumed by disease. It’s not a benign process at all.” (Dawkins)
If Dawkins wants to hate on a Creator, then he should at least hate equally. I think it’s fair to rewrite Dawkins’s diatribe against the God of the Old Testament by replacing Him with natural selection.
The Natural Selection of evolution is arguably the most unpleasant mechanism in all science: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (Authors rewording)
Evolution may make him an intellectually fulfilled atheist, but it should also make him cringe. I guess it’s just easier to hate a Person than a pathway, hate a theology than a theory. I would respect his views more if he actively worked to rid the world of its evolutionary creator rather than be its pitch man. While Collins also adheres to an evolutionary paradigm, he avoids the materialist baggage of blind pitiless indifference by acknowledging the salvific work of a visionary God who cared for us so much that He emptied Himself and sacrificially died on our behalf.
I applaud Unbelievable? for hosting such thoughtful discussions because we all grow in the process, and the pairing of Dawkins and Collins was yet again another example of the masterful way the show aims to get you thinking.
Dr. Erik Strandness is a Christian apologist and former neonatal physician living in the Pacific Northwest. He is a regular blog contributor to Premier Unbelievable?