Francis Collins is Director of the National Institutes of Health. He is probably the best known evangelical Christian in the federal science establishment. He recently announced he will be stepping down from that post by the end of 2021.
Collins has been lauded for showing how a religious believer can rise to the highest levels of the scientific establishment while keeping his faith intact and while integrating his faith with his science.
I do not question the sincerity of Collins’s Christian faith. But I think this depiction of Collins as a someone who has developed a good model for integrating faith and science is in many respects a tragic myth.
In my first article about Collins for Evolution News, I documented controversies Collins has faced in 2021 over the use of aborted fetal body parts in research, the harvesting of organs and tissues of aborted babies as old as 42 weeks, his less-than-candid responses about NIH funding of gain-of-function research in China, and his intemperate attacks on unvaccinated Americans in the name of “loving your neighbor.”
In this article, I want to show how Collins’s current policies and views are part of a pattern reaching back many years. I also want to explore how his model for faith and science focuses less on integrating faith and science and more on accommodating faith to dominant materialistic modes of scientific thinking, existing power structures and cultural norms.
Collins’s handling of a major scandal at the NIH during his first term as NIH Director provides a good place to start.
Premature Babies as Guinea Pigs
The scandal involved disclosure of a multi-year experiment involving more than 1,300 premature infants funded by the NIH. As part of the experiment, premature infants were randomly assigned to receive higher or lower levels of oxygen. Those receiving lower levels of oxygen were more likely to die, while those receiving higher levels of oxygen had serious eye damage that could lead to blindness.
Parents were not informed of the possible increased risk of death for infants enrolled in the study, nor were most of them informed about a key part of the study’s design that would deprive their infants of individualized treatment: Researchers re-calibrated oxygen equipment used by infants in the study so it would generate false oxygen readings in order to prevent medical staff from adjusting oxygen levels based on the individual needs of the infants in their care.
Medical ethicists were appalled. “The word ‘unethical’ doesn’t even begin to describe the egregious and shocking deficiencies in the informed-consent process for this study,” said Michael Carome, MD, the director of the Health Research Group at the non-profit (and politically liberal) group Public Citizen. “Parents of the infants who were enrolled in this study were misled about its purpose… They were misled to believe everything being done was in the ‘standard of care’ and therefore posed no predictable risk to the babies.”
Carome previously served in the Office for Human Research Protections in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and he helped lead the effort to expose the misconduct of researchers and to ensure the abuses did not recur.
This was a bipartisan scandal, as the premature infant study began during the Administration of George W. Bush. But it was Obama Administration officials like Collins who had to respond to the ethical objections raised. They had a choice: Acknowledge there was a problem and fix it, or circle-the-wagons and deny wrongdoing. They chose the latter option. Chief among the defenders of the study was NIH Director Collins.
Public Citizen accused Collins’s NIH of working to undermine the regulatory authority of the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP), which had issued an enforcement letter against the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) because of the failures of the premature infant study to obtain adequate informed consent from participants.
“NIH interference in the conduct of an ongoing compliance oversight investigation appears to be unprecedented in the history of OHRP,” wrote Public Citizen. “This interference has seriously compromised the integrity and independence of OHRP’s compliance oversight investigation.”
Collins also co-authored an article in The New England Journal of Medicine defending the premature infant study. In the article, Collins and his co-authors insisted that “investigators had no reason to foresee that infants in one study group would have a higher risk of death than would those in the other group.”
Public Citizen later called that claim “disingenuous,” providing documentation showing that key researchers were aware of and discussed the possibility of a differential death rate from lower oxygen levels. Indeed, one of the purposes of the study was to find out whether there was a differential death rate. In their article, Collins and his co-authors also neglected to disclose that researchers had re-calibrated the oxygen equipment in order to prevent individualized care, or that most parents were never informed of this crucial fact. A much more detailed discussion of the premature baby study scandal (with further documentation) can be found in the afterword to the paperback and Kindle editions of my book Darwin Day in America.
Collins’s handling of this scandal should trouble any fair-minded person, religious or not. Informed consent is supposed to be non-negotiable for experiments on humans. Yet Collins defended this unethical research and appears to have subverted efforts for accountability. This is one example of Collins’s tendency to defend rather than challenge the interests and worldview of his guild.
But it is not the only example.
Collins’s Troubling Record on Life
Most people probably expect Francis Collins to be “pro-life” since he is an evangelical Christian. They would be wrong.
First of all, Collins doesn’t seem to know when human life actually begins. In an appendix to his book The Language of God, he casts doubt on “the insistence that the spiritual nature of a person is uniquely defined at the very moment of conception.” (p. 256) According to one media profile, “He sees a human embryo as a potential life, though he thinks that it is not possible scientifically to settle precisely when life begins.” (emphasis added) According to another journalist, Collins is “dubious of the idea that life begins at the very moment of conception.”
Collins has even justified eugenic abortions of infants with Down’s syndrome, telling Beliefnet.com that “in our current society, people are in a circumstance of being able to take advantage of those technologies [i.e., abortions]. And we have decided as a society that that choice needs to be defended.”
Of course, Collins has also championed the unrestricted funding of embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the destruction of human embryos.
In addition, as discussed in my first article, the NIH under Collins has spent millions of dollars funding the harvesting of body parts from aborted babies up to 42 weeks old. During his tenure as Director, the NIH has also funded research using baby body parts to create human-mice hybrids. The babies used for those experiments were 18-20 weeks of gestation, meaning they had heartbeats, brain waves, and could hear sounds and move their limbs and eyes.
As an evangelical Christian, how does Collins justify this research, which most traditional Christians would believe violates Biblical injunctions against the unjust destruction of human life?
I don’t know. As mentioned in my first article, I spent weeks trying to get responses from Collins on various issues, including the research just mentioned. But his media representatives would not respond.
Collins’s record on life issues sadly seems to be another case of accommodating faith to culture rather than being willing to question culture even if it is heading in the wrong direction.
Collins’s Surrender in the Sex and Gender Wars
Life isn’t the only area where Collins has increasingly conformed to the reigning culture. He has thrown his enthusiastic support behind the LGTBQI political and social movement, pledging earlier this year to be “an ally and advocate”although he is merely “a White cisgender and heterosexual man.” I believe all people should be treated with dignity and fairness, because they are created in the image of God. But reasonable people can disagree about the ethics of sexual behavior based on their underlying moral and religious beliefs, and they have a constitutional right to voice disagreements they may have about proposed public policies relating to sexuality and gender. Yet reading the NIH website, there is nothing to suggest that Collins’s push for “inclusivity” at the NIH includes Christians, Jews, or others who might not want to be enlisted in the NIH’s politically tinged “Allyship in Action” campaign.
Collins is rarely pressed on any tough issues when interviewed by his friends in the faith community. But in a recent interview, leading Baptist Ed Stetzer tried to gently raise an issue touching on our culture’s current gender wars. Assuring Collins “I’m on your team,” Stetzer lamented that “it’s becoming increasingly hard for me in the last few months, as one who wants to be your champion, when the apparatus that is under NIH and all the health stuff, seems to have been caught up in some of the currents of the day.” The example Stetzer offered is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which now describes mothers as “pregnant people,” an Orwellian contortion of language presumably meant to avoid offending certain political activists.
The idea that non-women can have babies not only flatly contradicts the historic Christian faith that Collins says he espouses (which upholds two genders, not twenty), it also contradicts the basic facts of biology. Biological human males can’t have babies. But in the topsy-turvy gender wars, you aren’t supposed to say that, and so you can’t reserve motherhood for women. Stetzer sensibly wants to know how to answer his fellow church members who are skeptical of government scientists because they can see clear examples like this where ideology twists the scientists’ supposed science.
It’s obvious Collins doesn’t want to answer Stetzer’s question, and he masterfully dances around the topic without saying anything substantive.
Say what you will, this is not an example of an individual courageously defending his worldview. It’s not even an example of a scientist being willing to defend good science.
It’s an example of someone conforming to the prevailing paradigm in order to keep his job.
I am actually sympathetic to Collins’s plight. Having served as a university professor, I know the tremendous pressures to conform to the guilds that exist among scientists and non-scientists alike, and I know that those who don’t conform are often pushed out. The only way Collins could get where he is — and stay there — is by at least appearing to embrace the ideas and actions of the prevailing culture.
I can commiserate with Collins over the many difficult choices he has had to make to advance his career. What I can’t do is pretend he’s come up with a good model for how scientists (and others) can integrate their faith with science in public life.
The Great Reconciler of Faith and Science?
Of course, Collins is best known in the faith community as a defender of the compatibility of faith and science. But his actual views here should be troubling to his fellow Christians.
Collins does talk about how science and faith are compatible, a truth with which I wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately, Collins often appears to achieve his reconciliation between science and faith by insisting that fellow Christians simply accept scientific claims they may find unpersuasive, unethical, or unscientific.
Perhaps that’s why Collins’s biggest target in science and faith discussions over the years hasn’t been atheists. It’s been fellow Christians who have yet to conform to the culture like he has. When he set up his BioLogos Foundation, for example, the primary goal wasn’t to witness to atheists or defend Christianity against scientific materialists. It was to change the minds of evangelical Christians who refused to get with the program and embrace Darwinian evolution like he did.
For Christians who place a high value on cultural acceptance, the Darwin holdouts in their midst are a continuing embarrassment. Being confused for one of them can taint your reputation or derail your career. So it’s far better to delegitimize them by never sharing a platform or engaging in debate with them, no matter what their credentials or how thoughtful their arguments. I know the mindset, and I’ve known a lot of fellow evangelical academics who think this way and see a fellow traveler in Collins.
Collins’s interest in neutralizing Christians who raise scientific critiques of unguided evolution reaches back a long way. Peter Wehner was a political appointee in the George W. Bush Administration. In a 2020 article for The Atlantic, he reported how he and Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson met Collins for lunch at the White House “to discuss not politics but science and faith.”
And what specifically about science and faith did they discuss?
“All three of us were concerned about some prominent Christians who were denying evolution, which we knew was anti-science and we believed was discrediting to the Christian witness.”
Thus began Collins’s years-long quest to delegitimize fellow Christian scientists, scholars, and laypeople who are skeptical of Darwinian evolution or supportive of intelligent design in biology. In the foreword to one book, Collins denounced Christians who question Darwinian evolution for peddling “lies” and promoting “anti-scientific thinking.” (Collins, “Foreword” to Karl Giberson, Saving Darwin, v, vii) In the endorsement of another book, Collins gravely warned that intelligent design “is not only bad science but is potentially threatening in other deeper ways to America’s future.” (Collins, back cover blurb for Kenneth Miller, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul)
In his influential book The Language of God (2006), Collins offered an extended polemic in favor of Darwinism and against intelligent design in biology.
Before discussing that book in more depth, let me acknowledge that there are a number of good things in it. Collins has an inspiring personal story to share of his journey from atheism to Christianity. Drawing on C. S. Lewis, Collins makes clear that Darwinian evolution can’t explain human morality. (pp. 22-29) And as my colleague Jonathan Witt has pointed out, Collins even embraces evidence of design in physics and cosmology. (pp. 71-78)
But Collins is a biologist, and he knew the one thing he absolutely must not say is that Darwin is wrong or biology displays the evidence of design just as physics does. If he did that, he’d be thrown out of the guild. Accordingly, when Collins addresses the topic of biological evolution and intelligent design, he devotes superhuman effort to finding a way to reconcile unguided Darwinian evolution with his faith in God as Creator.
Collins’s discussion of so-called “junk DNA” is especially instructive. Collins asserts (wrongly) that “roughly 45 percent of the human genome [is] made up of… genetic flotsam and jetsam.” (p. 136) While conceding that “some might argue that these are actually functional elements placed there by the Creator for a good reason, and our discounting of them as ‘junk DNA’ just betrays our current level of ignorance,” Collins ends up dismissing this explanation: “some small fraction of them may play important regulatory roles. But certain examples severely strain the credulity of that explanation.”
The clear implication of Collins’s discussion of “junk DNA” is that he believes the human genome is “littered” with non-functional “junk” produced unintentionally during the undirected process of Darwinian evolution.
That sounds like Collins is arguing that God wasn’t even directly guiding evolution, a view embraced by many academic “theistic evolutionists,” some whom are Collins’s friends. But I suspect Collins recognized that explicitly arguing for unguided evolution would be a bridge too far for many of his readers.
So he also offered them a more palatable alternative. Collins explained that God “could” have directed evolution, but if God did so He nonetheless made evolution “appear a random and undirected process.” (p. 205, emphasis added) In other words, God hid what he was doing from people, and He even tried to convince people that His work was really the product of “a random and undirected process.”
Collins’s proposal that God may have made evolution look “random and undirected” is not particularly good theology. It depicts God as actively misinforming His creatures by promoting the falsehood that He didn’t direct the development of life. As I’ve written elsewhere about Collins’s view, this is a depiction of God as the great cosmic trickster. Needless to say, this is not how either the Bible or the Church Fathers or most orthodox Christian theologians through the ages have described God’s actions as Creator.
Yet, in many ways, Collins’s proposal was brilliant — at least for a Christian who wants to be accepted by the guild of secular scientists. It provided a way someone could (sort of) believe in the intelligent design of life, but in a way that might not offend their secular colleagues. After all, if God truly made evolution look “random and undirected,” you could fully affirm to materialist colleagues that you too believe the scientific evidence shows evolution is “random and undirected.” Your private faith that God may have secretly directed the development of life need not be raised because it would make absolutely no difference. Your faith that God guided things can be mentioned on Sundays and at evangelistic meetings, but safely kept in storage for the rest of the week.
Collins would likely bristle at this criticism of his position. He would no doubt argue that for him, the embrace of evolution isn’t just about secular acceptance; it’s also about being faithful to the scientific evidence, and in his view, the scientific evidence clearly supports evolution. Collins would likewise insist that he rejects intelligent design in the history of life not just because that view may gain Christians cultural acceptance, but because the biological evidence simply doesn’t support intelligent design.
Fair enough. But what evidence does Collins actually offer to refute evidence of design and purpose in biology?
The evidence he presented in The Language of God was shaky at best when it was originally published, and it hasn’t aged well.
Consider Collins’s embrace of “junk DNA.” It turned into one of the most embarrassing blunders of his career. Today the more scientists look at what they used to dismiss as “junk,” the more exquisite functions they are discovering. The scientific consensus has changed so much that a recent science journal article declared, “The days of ‘junk DNA’ are over.” Even Collins seems to have abandoned the argument in recent years. Since publication of the main results of the ENCODE project in 2012, genomics and bioinformatics research has established that the vast majority of the genome that Darwinists previously characterized as “junk” is actually biochemically functional. Overall the non-protein coding regions of the genome (previously called “junk”) function much like an operating system in a computer, controlling and regulating the timing and expression of other sections of code (in the biological case, the code for building proteins).
Then there are his attacks on biochemist Michael Behe, largely cribbed from his fellow theistic evolutionist Kenneth Miller, America’s most recognized theistic evolutionist until Collins displaced him.
Against Behe, Collins argues that the bacterial flagellum was produced by Darwinian evolution because there is a less complex “type III secretory apparatus” that it could have evolved from. (p. 192) But scientists now think the flagellar motor originated before the type III secretory apparatus, and thus cannot have been its ancestor. Either the type III secretory apparatus devolved from the flagellum, or it originated independently from it. Either way, the flagellum existed first, and the secretory apparatus came later. So the secretory apparatus offers absolutely no explanation for how the flagellum came to be. Collins’s killer argument (taken from Ken Miller) has turned out to be a dud.
Collins likewise attacks Behe’s claim that the human blood-clotting cascade is “irreducibly complex” and therefore couldn’t be produced by an unguided step-by-step Darwinian process. Collins asserts that the “blood-clotting cascade” could have been produced through a Darwinian process through “gene duplication.” (p. 189) But Collins completely ignores Behe’s thorough response to this criticism, published six years before Collins’s book.
Collins further assures readers that the evolution of the mammalian eye from an original light-sensitive “pit” poses no problem for Darwinian evolution. (pp. 190-191) Collins makes the same claim in a later book with Karl Giberson, The Language of Science and Faith. But Collins (again) ignores the actual scientific evidence showing how challenging the evolution of the eye would have been for the Darwinian mechanism of random mutation and natural selection.
Collins offers up stickleback fish as evidence for how macroevolution can build new species through many incremental steps. That example hasn’t aged well either. It later turned out that the stickleback fish Collins cited represented another example of devolution, not evolution. The original species of stickleback fish lost a biological feature, which lead to another version of the fish. Casey Luskin points out:
Alas, Collins’s example… really only provides evidence that populations of organisms can lose unique and complex features when selection pressure is relaxed. This tells us nothing about how complex features… evolved in the first place — it just shows something we already knew: that Darwinian evolution is great at losing functional genetic information.
Many people were turned against intelligent design by Collins’s book. Most of them probably never bothered to read the people Collins was critiquing. They simply trusted Collins — because Collins was a famous scientist, and they were told they should listen to him.
The Perils of Cultural Accommodation
Mark Galli, the former Editor of Christianity Today, recently wrote:
Elite evangelicalism… is too often “a form of cultural accommodation dressed as convictional religion.” These evangelicals want to appear respectable to the elite of American culture… I don’t know that evangelicals have been sufficiently self-reflective to admit their basic and personal insecurities. It’s just no fun being an outsider to mainstream culture. We all just want to be loved, and if not loved, at least liked and respected. Elite evangelicals are not just savvy evangelists but also a people striving for acceptance.
“Elite evangelicals are… a people striving for acceptance.”
That indictment is spot-on in my experience. I’m pretty sure Galli would not accept my critique of Collins. After all, Collins has been a beloved figure for Christianity Today just like for other elite evangelical institutions. But I think Galli’s observation accurately diagnoses why so many evangelical leaders flocked to Collins.
Many evangelical leaders, including pastors and professors and pundits, crave approval of the establishment — and that’s what Francis Collins represented to them. After all, he was on the cover of Time! He was praised by the secular media! If they could somehow associate with him, they would no longer be cultural lepers. As a result, evangelical movers and shakers rushed to promote Collins, acting more like press agents than moral and spiritual leaders.
The result was the creation and propagation of a mythical Collins, Collins as a wise guide for how scientists and others can stand for their faith even at the very top of the scientific establishment.
Evangelical leaders who embraced Collins because of his acceptance by the secular establishment might have been better off asking why the secular establishment has been so approving of Collins.
In 2019 the journal Science noted that when Collins originally was appointed as NIH Director by President Barack Obama, some worried “that his outspoken Christian faith would influence his leadership.” But Science went on to assure its readers that the critics need not have worried: “His religion never became an issue — he followed Obama’s order to loosen rules for stem cell research, which some Christians oppose, and has defended fetal tissue research despite criticism from antiabortion groups.”
A journalist at Slate put it even more starkly: “If Collins’ faith mollifies even a few political conservatives who would otherwise continue to waste time and money fighting research efforts that violate their specific religious tenets, then the benefits of his faith should outweigh whatever qualms scientists might have.”
For more than 12 years, Collins served the secularists’ agenda at NIH by providing cover for them to do what they wanted to do anyway.
That’s not something to celebrate. It’s something to grieve.
The ultimate tragedy in this situation is that Francis Collins might have developed a better model for faith and science integration had he been offered more than just uncritical adulation by many evangelical leaders.
In my view, those leaders failed Collins. For all their friendship, they failed to give him the one thing he most needed: an honest challenge to his accommodation of the dominant materialistic worldview of the culture.