Dr Francis Collins
Interview by Nigel Bovey
As a geneticist, he has peered down a microscope and been the first person to see processes that previously only God knew about. As a physician, he has been the last person to care for a dying patient. As a Christian, Dr Francis Collins has a perspective on life and death.
In the early 1980s, he became the first person to discover a single letter of the human genetic code that modulates production of foetal haemoglobin, the lack of which is a contributory factor to sickle-cell anaemia. In 1989, he led the team that discovered the genetic misspelling that causes cystic fibrosis. Four years later, he became director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in America and headed an international race against time and commercial interests to sequence the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome.
On 26 June 2000, he stood beside Bill Clinton in the White House as the President pronounced the first survey of the human genome 90% complete. ‘Today,’ said Clinton, ‘we are learning the language in which God created life.’ It was a phrase borrowed from Collins.
Francis, what is the human genome?
The human genome is the entire collection of the DNA of our species. Human DNA carries information by a series of chemical bases. This information has only four letters in its alphabet: A, C, G and T.
In the double helix of DNA, these letters appear like rungs on a ladder in four possible pairs: A-T, T-A, C-G and G-C. Because they combine only in this way, if you split all the pairs in half, cutting the ladder down the centre of each rung, each half-ladder contains all the information needed to rebuild a complete copy of the original.
DNA is a bit like a software program that sits in the nucleus of a cell. A particular instruction – a gene – comprises hundreds of thousands of letters of ACGT code. The whole of the human genome is 3.1 billion of those letters. Such is the complexity of the information carried within each of the one hundred trillion cells of the human body, that if someone read the code out loud at three letters per second, it would take 31 years to complete.
The human genome is humankind’s instruction book – the hereditary code of life. For a believer like me, it is the language of God.
What was the Human Genome Project?
The main goal of the Human Genome Project, which started in 1990, was to map those 3.1 billion letters. The project was completed (ahead of time and under budget, I’m proud to say) in April 2003.
But that was only the foundation. Just looking at the long string of As, Cs, Gs and Ts that direct our cells doesn’t mean we know how it all works. We are now engaged in the most exciting part, figuring out how and where misspellings can contribute to ill-health or disease, and how to bring about cures.
We are carrying out genetic investigations into common conditions such as diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, mental illness, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In the relatively near future we may be able to tell people their individual risks of contracting or developing these illnesses, and give them a chance of reducing those risks.
You discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis (CF). Have you devised a gene therapy to cure the disease?
My team and I, collaborating with another group in Toronto, discovered the CF gene in 1989. The search took seven or eight years. It was a tedious process – like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, except at the beginning we didn’t even know for sure which haystack to look in.
In 1985 it was demonstrated that the CF gene must live somewhere within a two million base-pair segment of DNA on chromosome 7. We were in uncharted territory. Then one night in May 1989 my Toronto colleague and I read the day’s data from the lab – a deletion of just three letters (CTT) from the DNA code in the protein-coding part of a previously unknown gene had to be the cause of CF.
We are hopeful that one day CF will be a thing of the past. But people underestimate the time it takes to bring about cures. There are a lot of steps that have to follow that kind of initial discovery.
You have to understand what the normal function of this gene is, what is wrong with it in people with CF. Then you need to figure out how you can compensate for that, either with a gene therapy or a drug therapy. Only now, 18 years later, are we seeing new drugs coming into clinical trials that are based specifically on the knowledge of how the CF gene works.
So not all genetic diseases are cured by engineering a patient’s DNA under a microscope?
All disease has some hereditary contribution. Some diseases, such as CF, are due almost entirely to genetic misspellings. Other diseases, such as diabetes, come about as a combination of some misspellings that place somebody at risk, plus environmental circumstances such as diet and exercise.
Finding the genetic basis of a disease leads to two possible treatment pathways – to use the gene itself as the treatment (gene therapy) or drugs. For example, haemophilia is caused by a defective blood-clotting gene. There has been some success in introducing a normal copy of that gene into a patient’s liver and getting the blood starting to clot again. But most gene therapy efforts are not yet successful.
The problem with CF was to figure out how to deliver normal copies of the gene into a patient’s airway without triggering the immune system which would try to repel it as a foreign body. That turned out to be extremely challenging. So we are coming around to the perspective that the solution may be to use what we know about a gene and then design a drug that is very precisely tuned to the problem.
What can gene research do for conditions such as Down’s syndrome?
Somebody with Down’s has an extra copy of chromosome 21, so has 47 chromosomes in total, instead of the usual 46. This means that all of the genes on that chromosome are present in three copies instead of the usual two. The idea that a doctor could remove the extra chromosome is difficult to imagine at present, as every one of the 100 trillion cells in that person’s body has that extra chromosome.
Maybe the strategy is to focus on the effects on the brain. Somewhere in the collection of genes on chromosome 21 must be some that are very sensitive to ‘dosage’.
If we knew which genes were involved, we might be able to devise a drug that would dampen down their production, or compensate for the overdose they create. Treatment would have to start in the early days of brain development. So there may come a time when we could make the consequences of Down’s milder or even reverse them. But that’s a long way off.
What role do genes play in governing our behaviour? Is there a ‘selfish’ gene or a ‘gay’ gene?
There are undoubtedly genetic variations that play some role in behaviour, as the study of identical twins (who have the same DNA) has indicated for a long time. A few clues about behaviour, such as anxiety, have already been discovered. We have looked to see whether genes have a part in determining sexual orientation, but so far no specific genes have been identified. The indication is that sexual orientation is genetically influenced but not hard-wired by DNA.
Behaviour is not the major focus of genome research. The big push is for medical benefits. We are concentrating on finding the genetic factors in diabetes, cancer, heart disease and mental illness.
Conditions such as cystic fibrosis are caused by a letter in the genetic code being out of place. How can an all-loving Creator let that spelling mistake happen and allow that person and their family to suffer as a consequence?
That is a tough question. I don’t think God makes the spelling mistake. I think God’s heart is also broken by the occurrence of these diseases. (The fact that God sent his only Son to suffer for humankind means that Christians are perhaps in a special circumstance of knowing they have a God who appreciates what suffering is.) Of course, much human suffering comes about because of what we humans do to each other. But what about a terrible earthquake or cancer in a child?
The English physicist Professor Sir John Polkinghorne asks the question: Why does God allow this kind of suffering? Does it mean God isn’t loving enough or that he isn’t powerful enough? Polkinghorne’s answer is that God in his wisdom chose to create the universe, the world and ourselves, using a process over very long periods of time that involve change – for example, tectonic plates moving which cause earthquakes. God also chose to use a mechanism that requires DNA to change over time, without which there would be no life. This is the same mechanism that, on rare occasions, results in a mis-copying of a critical gene and produces a disease like cystic fibrosis or cancer. Polkinghorne argues that you can’t have one without the other.
Ultimately, I think we have to come to grips with the fact that all suffering may have a significance beyond what we can appreciate. I know that the times I have learnt most about myself and my relationship to God are not those where everything was going great but the times when there have been serious difficulties and suffering.
CS Lewis said suffering is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. Perhaps then we shouldn’t expect that the kind of world God has in mind for us is one where at the end of every day it could be said that everyone had a good time.
Talk of cloning and genetic modification sounds exciting because we want to be rid of life-threatening conditions. But it also sounds frightening – scientists playing God, designer babies, society defining (as in the film Gattaca) who is valid and who is invalid on the basis of genetic perfection. What ethical safeguards are there to the work on the human genome?
The Human Genome Project distinguished itself from the beginning by committing a significant proportion of its budget to studying the ethical, legal and social issues. That scholarship led to the conclusion that a major issue in need of resolution is protection against genetic discrimination: you didn’t get to pick your DNA sequence, and so it shouldn’t be used against you in determining healthcare or your qualifications for a job.
After 12 years of many of us trying to raise consciousness about the need for this kind of protection, this year the US Congress is very close to passing a Bill that would prevent genetic discrimination. For people who could be denied employment or medical insurance if details of their genetic make-up were made public, this is a critical issue.
Scientists have something to contribute to those debates because they know the facts of what is possible and what isn’t. But they also have a natural conflict of interest. They want to see science going forward, so the decisions about what boundaries should be put around research should not be made by scientists alone. There has to be broader public discussion. What makes me a little crazy are claims by some people that the whole area of genetic research is dangerous and should be stopped. This is the most unethical stance imaginable.
If we, as a benevolent society, are called to try to alleviate suffering and to do something about the child with cystic fibrosis or cancer, then it seems to me it would be profoundly unethical to say: ‘We haven’t worked out some of these social consequences yet, so we’re going to put genetic research on hold.’ Try saying that to a parent who has a dying child!
Is science, much of which seems to assume that there isn’t a God, irreconcilable with faith?
Some people see science and spirituality as opposing forces – somehow mutually inconsistent. They are not. I find them entirely complementary. I don’t think science will ever be in a position to prove the existence of God. But I do think there are evidences that come out of science that point more towards than away from the existence of a Creator God who cares about human beings. Science has limits. There are huge questions science cannot answer, such as ‘Why did the universe come into being?’, ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What happens after we die?’
When you look down a microscope at the building blocks of life, what evidence for God do you see?
The fact, for instance, that the universe had a beginning (and Big Bang theory calls out for an explanation, because nature has not been observed to create itself) immediately draws the question of how that beginning came to be. At the time of this incredible explosion of matter and energy there must have been something outside nature that was capable of creating. And that ‘something’ sounds like God himself.
When you look at the fine-tuning of the universe – the so-called anthropic principle – where you see how incredibly improbable it is that all of the constants that govern the behaviour of matter and energy were set at exactly the point at which some sort of stable life was possible, you can’t help but marvel and conclude that there was something more than happenstance behind the process to set those constants in just that precise way.
Then there’s the moral law, or ‘law of right behaviour’, which is present in humankind. We might argue about what is right and what is wrong but we all have a sense of right and wrong.
The moral law cannot be readily explained in terms of evolution because it sometimes calls us to do things that are really quite the opposite of what evolution would ask – like jump into a river to save a drowning stranger. The moral law has been fully set in the heart of only one species – humankind. There’s no bigger signpost towards the existence of a personal God.
How did you become a Christian?
I wasn’t raised in a faith tradition. As a child I was vaguely aware of the concept of God. My parents enrolled me in a church choir to learn music. I took to the music but not to the theology.
As a student, both at college and as a physical chemistry graduate student at Yale, it was convenient for me to walk away from any responsibilities other than the ones I chose for myself. I was surrounded by people in science who largely ignored any spiritual aspect of life, so I just ran with the crowd.
I was convinced that everything in the universe could be explained by equations and physical principles. No thinking scientist, I concluded, could seriously entertain the possibility of God without committing intellectual suicide. I had gone from being an agnostic to an atheist. To me, faith was sentimental superstition. But then I changed direction and went to medical school, and I started to encounter the reality of suffering and death in a much more up-close-and-personal way.
One afternoon an elderly patient with a terminal illness shared her faith with me and explained why this gave her comfort and peace as she saw the end of her life approaching. She turned to me and said: ‘Doctor, I’ve told you about my faith but you haven’t said anything. What do you believe?’
I had never been asked that question so directly. Suddenly I felt a great sense of unease that I didn’t have a good answer, that I had never seriously asked myself the question, that as a scientist I had never taken the time to look at the evidence for and against belief, and had drawn a conclusion without having considered that evidence.
I started by visiting a Methodist minister. He listened to my confused questions and gave me a book to read. It was Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. As I read it I realised that all my arguments against the rationality of faith were those of a schoolboy. Lewis’s case for faith, which is something I had never encountered before, was extremely compelling.
I fought it. I didn’t want it to be true. I was reading the book to shore up my atheism, not to become a believer. But, as Lewis puts it, the ‘Hound of Heaven’ was after me. I fought the evidence for almost two years.
When did the searching stop and the finding begin?
It became clear that I had to make a decision not only about whether to believe in God but also about what kind of God he was. I encountered the person of Jesus Christ as this remarkable figure in history who clearly was different from any other figure in any other faith.
Jesus claimed not only to know God but also to be God and to forgive sins, and he died on a cross in a way that took me a long time to understand. Eventually it made the most beautiful, perfect spiritual sense. I realised that this was not just a story to walk away from. I had to reach my own verdict based on the evidence.
My moment of commitment came one autumn day while I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains. It was a beautiful afternoon and as I rounded a corner I unexpectedly saw a frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high. The remarkable beauty of creation was overwhelming. I could no longer resist. I fell on my knees and asked Christ to be my Saviour. My days of wilful blindness towards God were gone. The search was over.
Do you believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection and the second coming of Jesus?
Even though these things are outside scientific rationalism?
Yes. The main questions one has to ask oneself are whether you believe in a God who is outside nature, and whether you believe in Christ as divine. If you are willing to say yes to both of those questions – and I became unable to say anything but yes after considering all the pros and cons and feeling the spiritual tug in my heart – then the idea of these miracles is not really such a problem, even for a scientist. If God is outside nature and is all-powerful, there is no reason why he cannot occasionally stage an invasion of nature, which we would call a miracle, to get our attention.
There are scientists who conclude that some theories have a negative consequence for religion. Richard Dawkins, for instance, claims that evolution is necessarily atheistic. Is that the way you see it?
No. There are a number of areas where people are being asked to make a choice between either science or faith. Often the science involved is evolution. The atheistic approach, which Dawkins takes, claims that science trumps faith. To draw the conclusion that an acceptance of evolution requires an acceptance of atheism as a personal theology, as he does, is simply to go outside the evidence.
Evolution is an incredibly unifying approach to understanding the relationship of organisms. Study of DNA strongly supports Darwin’s proposal of descent from a common ancestor. By comparing the genomes of many different organisms, we can see how this fits precisely with what one would expect if they had begun as a common ancestor and then diverged over very long periods of time.
Evolution says only how the process might have occurred. It doesn’t say a thing about why life is here. It doesn’t say much about whether our existence on this planet has a purpose beyond randomness. For those answers, we must look beyond science.
The creationist view is that faith trumps science. It argues that evolution is a lie. It says that the relatedness of organisms as visualised by the study of DNA is simply a consequence of God having used some of the same ideas in his multiple acts of special creation.
Confronted with such facts as the similar ordering of genes across chromosomes between different mammalian species, or the existence of repetitive ‘junk DNA’ in shared locations along the DNA of humans and mice, they simply dismiss this as part of God’s plan.
Do you have a preferred personal view of the origins of the universe?
I do not see it as a choice between faith in a personal God and science. Many materialists, noting the advances of science filling in the gaps of our understanding, announce that God is dead. Many believers see the advance of science as dangerous and untrustworthy – a threat to God. Both positions are dangerous and unnecessary. The God of the Bible is also the God of the human genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral and in the laboratory.
God’s creation is majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful. creation cannot be at war with itself. Only imperfect humans start such battles. Only we can end them. For me, they can be blended without compromise through what is known as theistic evolution – what I prefer to call ‘Bios through Logos’ (Life through the Word), or just ‘BioLogos’.
Basically, this says that God, who is unlimited by time or space, created the universe and established the natural laws which govern it. He then chose evolution as the mechanism to create microbes, plants and animals.
God then intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will and a desire to seek him – humankind. He prepared the biological home for humanity by evolution, but then he filled it with the soul, the knowledge of right and wrong (the moral law) and free will.
God also knew that these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the moral law, and thus the fall would occur. His provision for this would be to send his Son, Jesus, to live, die and be raised for our salvation.
Back to the top
Bookmark this page:
Is it possible to believe in God in the modern era of scientific discovery? In a series of in-depth interviews, scientists from fields as diverse as botany, immunology and physics talk about their scientific research and their faith in God.
All the interviews on these pages were conducted by Major Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The Salvation Army newspaper The War Cry © The Salvation Army. For further reprint permission, please contact The War Cry.
Read these interviews and others in God, the Big Bang and Bunsen-burning Issues by Nigel Bovey (£8.99, Authentic Media)
Rejesus is looking for new content contributors: artists, writers, thinkers, coders, film makers, creatives. If you have a great proposal get in contact.
I never cease to be amazed at the wisdom which politicians seem to be able to draw on after they… more
Horse chestnut seeds, high vis jacket, goggles, gardening gloves - it means just one thing: the conker season is here.… more
What is your first thought when a stranger comes towards you? Is it friendly or fearful, hostile or welcoming? Do… more