Ten years ago, scientist and physician Dr. Francis Collins led a team of researchers on a successful, pioneering mission to map the human genome. As an author, he has shared his strong belief in the compatibility of modern science and faith in God. VOA's Andrew Baroch has more in this week's American Profile.
"I am a scientist who uses the tools of science to understand how the natural world works," says Francis Collins. But, he adds, "I am also a believer in God who understands spiritual approaches to answers to questions that science can't help me with, such as, 'Why are we all here anyway? Is there a God? And what happens after you die?'"
Francis Collins' search for spiritual answers is less well-known than his storied career in medicine and science and his role, starting nearly two decades ago, directing the U.S. government-funded research to draw the first complete map of human DNA, the so-called the Human Genome Project, which he describes as "an ambitious and audacious effort to read out all the letters of the human DNA 'instruction book.'"
"All organisms carry information in DNA," Collins explains. "That is the way it's carried from parent to child down through the generations. That information is called the 'genome.'"
Dr. Collins says the Human Genome Project was initiated in 1990 as an effort to read out all of the 3.1 billion letters of the human DNA code. And the effort paid off. Collins and his colleagues discovered that DNA carries information by a series of chemicals "that you can think of as letters in a book. The DNA language is remarkably simple," he says. "There are only four letters in its alphabet, abbreviated as 'A,' 'C,' 'G' and 'T.' We have the whole instruction book [of human heredity] now, and so we have the power to figure out how a 'misspelling' in that book can cause disease."
The most obvious practical application of the project's findings is so-called genomic medicine, which Dr. Collins says is just getting off the ground.
"If you are somebody who has a family history of breast cancer or colon cancer, for instance, and you're interested in knowing your own personal risk, the Genome Project has made it possible to zero in on some of the genes involved in those conditions and allow somebody interested in having a test of their DNA to find if they're at risk or not," Collins explains.
Collins' personal life presents another dramatic story: a search for meaning.
"As a graduate student in a very materialist discipline, I didn't see anybody around me with any need for God," he says. "I kind of figured, 'Alright. That must be the right answer' without any particular experience or intellectual argument. It just seemed to be the natural position to take."
But in medical school one day, he sat in the hospital room of a patient who asked him something that shook him to the core. "One of my patients told me about her faith which gave her great comfort at the end of her life. Then she turned and looked at me and said, 'Doctor, you haven't said anything. What do you believe?'"
Dr. Collins says he literally ran from the patient's room and was disturbed for days. A friend suggested he read a book titled Mere Christianity, which was to profoundly alter his worldview. "Reading the book," he says, "I realized my arguments against faith were really showing immediate cracks and about to fall into ruins, because they were the arguments of a schoolboy. Here was this profound intellect, namely C.S. Lewis, walking through some of the purely rational arguments that lead one to the conclusion that belief in God is a lot more plausible than atheism ever could be, and that was a shock. I almost felt like the book was on fire."
Dr. Collins worried later whether his subsequent conversion to Christianity would interfere with his work as a scientist and physician. Collins forced himself to face some tough questions.
"Is this consistent with my career path, which at that point was towards the study of genetics? Is my brain going to explode if I try to incorporate both the science of genetics and the belief in God and Jesus? Is that going to be a compatible synthesis?' Ultimately, I became comfortable with the fact that these are compatible views."
In his best-selling book, The Language of God, Collins describes the importance of faith in his life. "It gives you a sense of peace. Not to say that I have not had disruptions in that peace. When you are beset by suffering, it gives you an opportunity to learn from that suffering. I find that those times are the times I grow the most in terms of my relationship with God."
Dr. Collins sees this search for faith and peace as an intimate journey and a choice that is up to each of us, not to be imposed on any of us.
And sometimes, he says, a person who prays sees measurable results. At least that was his experience, praying every day for a successful outcome during his work on the Human Genome Project. Its success, he says, is proof that faith and science can work together for the good of humanity.