Of all the controversial words in the English language, the word evolution truly stands out among its peers.
No other word inspires as much passion, causes as many fights, or brings out as much division. The secondary effects of Darwin’s simple idea are perhaps even more powerful as the concept itself. Over the past century and a half, debates have raged between scientists and believers over the validity and significance of the concept called evolution.
Not quite four years ago, two giants in their respective camps met before a tape recorder (no video was allowed) and conducted one of those very debates.
In one corner was Oxford evolutionary biologist and world-renown author Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, one of the central figures of the New Athiest movement, has written numerous best-selling books including The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and The God Delusion.
In the other corner was geneticist Francis Collins, former director of the groundbreaking Human Genome Project. Collins is an outspoken Christian and currently the Director of the National Institute of Health. The following is a portion of their recorded conversation:
(The debate can be found in its entirety here.)
On the relationship between science and religion…
TIME: Professor Dawkins, if one truly understands science, is God then a delusion, as your book title suggests?
DAWKINS: The question of whether there exists a supernatural creator, a God, is one of the most important that we have to answer. I think that it is a scientific question. My answer is no.
TIME: Dr. Collins, you believe that science is compatible with Christian faith.
COLLINS: Yes. God’s existence is either true or not. But calling it a scientific question implies that the tools of science can provide the answer. From my perspective, God cannot be completely contained within nature, and therefore God’s existence is outside of science’s ability to really weigh in.
TIME: Stephen Jay Gould, a Harvard paleontologist, famously argued that religion and science can coexist, because they occupy separate, airtight boxes. You both seem to disagree.
COLLINS: Gould sets up an artificial wall between the two worldviews that doesn’t exist in my life. Because I do believe in God’s creative power in having brought it all into being in the first place, I find that studying the natural world is an opportunity to observe the majesty, the elegance, the intricacy of God’s creation.
DAWKINS: I think that Gould’s separate compartments was a purely political ploy to win middle-of-the-road religious people to the science camp. But it’s a very empty idea. There are plenty of places where religion does not keep off the scientific turf. Any belief in miracles is flat contradictory not just to the facts of science but to the spirit of science.
On good, evil, and altruism…
TIME: Dr. Collins, you have described humanity’s moral sense not only as a gift from God but as a signpost that he exists.
COLLINS: There is a whole field of inquiry that has come up in the last 30 or 40 years–some call it sociobiology or evolutionary psychology–relating to where we get our moral sense and why we value the idea of altruism, and locating both answers in behavioral adaptations for the preservation of our genes.
But if you believe, and Richard has been articulate in this, that natural selection operates on the individual, not on a group, then why would the individual risk his own DNA doing something selfless to help somebody in a way that might diminish his chance of reproducing? Granted, we may try to help our own family members because they share our DNA. Or help someone else in expectation that they will help us later.
But when you look at what we admire as the most generous manifestations of altruism, they are not based on kin selection or reciprocity. An extreme example might be Oskar Schindler risking his life to save more than a thousand Jews from the gas chambers. That’s the opposite of saving his genes. We see less dramatic versions every day. Many of us think these qualities may come from God–especially since justice and morality are two of the attributes we most readily identify with God.
DAWKINS: Can I begin with an analogy? Most people understand that sexual lust has to do with propagating genes. Copulation in nature tends to lead to reproduction and so to more genetic copies. But in modern society, most copulations involve contraception, designed precisely to avoid reproduction.
Altruism probably has origins like those of lust. In our prehistoric past, we would have lived in extended families, surrounded by kin whose interests we might have wanted to promote because they shared our genes. Now we live in big cities. We are not among kin nor people who will ever reciprocate our good deeds. It doesn’t matter.
Just as people engaged in sex with contraception are not aware of being motivated by a drive to have babies, it doesn’t cross our mind that the reason for do-gooding is based in the fact that our primitive ancestors lived in small groups. But that seems to me to be a highly plausible account for where the desire for morality, the desire for goodness, comes from.
COLLINS: For you to argue that our noblest acts are a misfiring of Darwinian behavior does not do justice to the sense we all have about the absolutes that are involved here of good and evil. Evolution may explain some features of the moral law, but it can’t explain why it should have any real significance.
If it is solely an evolutionary convenience, there is really no such thing as good or evil. But for me, it is much more than that. The moral law is a reason to think of God as plausible–not just a God who sets the universe in motion but a God who cares about human beings, because we seem uniquely amongst creatures on the planet to have this far-developed sense of morality. What you’ve said implies that outside of the human mind, tuned by evolutionary processes, good and evil have no meaning. Do you agree with that?
DAWKINS: Even the question you’re asking has no meaning to me. Good and evil–I don’t believe that there is hanging out there, anywhere, something called good and something called evil. I think that there are good things that happen and bad things that happen.
COLLINS: I think that is a fundamental difference between us. I’m glad we identified it.
COLLINS: I just would like to say that over more than a quarter-century as a scientist and a believer, I find absolutely nothing in conflict between agreeing with Richard in practically all of his conclusions about the natural world, and also saying that I am still able to accept and embrace the possibility that there are answers that science isn’t able to provide about the natural world–the questions about why instead of the questions about how. I’m interested in the whys. I find many of those answers in the spiritual realm. That in no way compromises my ability to think rigorously as a scientist.
DAWKINS: My mind is not closed, as you have occasionally suggested, Francis. My mind is open to the most wonderful range of future possibilities, which I cannot even dream about, nor can you, nor can anybody else. What I am skeptical about is the idea that whatever wonderful revelation does come in the science of the future, it will turn out to be one of the particular historical religions that people happen to have dreamed up.
When we started out and we were talking about the origins of the universe and the physical constants, I provided what I thought were cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea. Refutable–but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect. I don’t see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.