I came across the BioLogos Foundation website the other day, following a reference to Francis Collins (the director of the international Human Genome Project, and both medically qualified and with a PhD in Physics, and who is a committed christian) and a statement he was purported to have made regarding the second law of thermodymanics and its implications on evolution (Pharyngula: Another disappointment from the Collins site). BioLogos appears to be some kind of neologism coined by Collins to describe a kind of Theistic Evolution – the “L” seems to be intentionally capitalised. Now, Collins is clearly a smart and talented scientist (and an effective scientific administrator), and I’m always interested to find out why such people hold views that seem to me to be so inherently at odds with a scientific approach to evidence. Other members of the BioLogos Team and Board seem to have backgrounds in one of the christian denominations (though it’s not stated for one or two) – this presumably is an explanation for the christian focus of the Foundation. There are many references to a belief in scripture (and in fact there’s a description of how to interpret scripture – presumably necessary if your Foundation disagrees with the literal interpretation of the biblical description of creation).
The website has a list of Questions (there are 33 of them, though the answers to questions 26 onwards are “coming soon”). These begin with a description of what BioLogos is: Question 1: How is BioLogos different from Theistic Evolution, Intelligent Design and Creationism?. As with many of the articles on the site, reference is quickly made to Francis Collins’ book The Language of God (which I’ve not read and, I suspect most visitors haven’t and won’t). It would seem that BioLogos is a form of Theistic Evolution: a god exists, created the universe, interacts with it, and has created life by the use of evolution. The author of the article says of the origin of “BioLogos”:
BioLogos comes from the Greek words bios (life) and logos (word), referring to the gospel of John:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 1
Well. I would have thought that Question 1 might have involved some explanation of why the believers in BioLogos actually believe in a god. It seems to me there is vast quantities of evidence that demonstrates and supports not only that evolution has occurred and explains the diversity of life but provides a testable mechanism for how it works. In contrast there is no evidence for the existence of a deity, other than a human inability to understand the world around (or more probably an inability to accept there may be things we don’t yet know).
We can perhaps gain an insight to Collins’ theistic belief system from an interview dating from 2006 and available at Salon.com. Here we hear Collins’ account of how as a young man undertaking a PhD in quantum physics he did not see the need for belief in a god. apparently it was while a medical student that his atheist views were challenged – it would seem by seeing how people coped with suffering because of their faith:
[…] I watched people who were suffering from terrible diseases. And one of my patients, after telling me about her faith and how it supported her through her terrible heart pain, turned to me and said, “What about you? What do you believe?” And I stuttered and stammered and felt the color rise in my face, and said, “Well, I don’t think I believe in anything.” But it suddenly seemed like a very thin answer. And that was unsettling. I was a scientist who was supposed to draw conclusions from the evidence and I realized at that moment that I’d never really looked at the evidence for and against the possibility of God.
There’s no explanation of why his atheism seemed such a “thin answer” to him. Stage 2 was reading C. S. Lewis and stage 3 was a revelation received when he encountered a frozen waterfall while hiking. Unfortunately none of this clarifies why he believes in a deity, other than a need to believe.
Possibly relevant is the answer to Question 19: What is the “fine-tuning” of the universe, and how does it serve as a “pointer to God”? (), an article which really addresses what is known as the anthropic principle:
[…] the physical constants of nature — like the strength of gravity — and the beginning state of the Universe — like its density — have extremely precise values. The slightest variation from their actual values results in a lifeless universe. For this reason, the universe seems finely-tuned for life. This observation is referred to as the anthropic principle, a term whose definition has taken many variations over the years.
Once again, we’re referred to Collins’ book. This article has quite a succinct explanation of why the second law of thermodynamics cannot argue against evolution of life (essentially because the Earth isn’t a closed system – energy is continually entering the system in the form of solar radiation). The author of the article goes on to say “it seems that out of an unfathomable number of possibilities, our universe is one of very few which is capable of hosting life. Consequently, many of these observations have been used as pointers to God”. My own response to this kind of statement is that it’s irrelevant how unlikely that set of constants may be, if they were incompatible with the appearance not only of life but of intelligent life, we’d not be here to observe it. This seems to me to be an excellent rebuttal (but then I would!). The author counters that argument with a quotation (from John Leslie – the author is quoting from a secondary source, so this blog article represents a tertiary quote!) – that the argument is akin to a survivor of the attentions of a firing squad saying:
“Of course all of the shots missed, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to notice that I’m still alive!” A much more logical approach would be to seek out an explanation for why such an unlikely event occurred. A good scientific explanation satisfies curiosity, whereas this kind of explanation does nothing to offer any resolution.
No. “Why” is an inappropriate question in the context, inappropriate in the same way as the expectation there “has” to be a “meaning” to life. The fact that our existence is dependent on a narrow range of physical constants isn’t any kind of evidence for a deity.
My problem with the concept of BioLogos is that it critically depends on the belief in the existence of a deity to start things off and to keep an eye on life as it evolves. Interestingly the BioLogos site maintains that BioLogos is compatible with the three principal monotheistic beliefs (one wonders what the many interpretations of those belief systems make of that statement), but the website has an overwhelming acceptance of christianity.
In closing, I’d like to note that Jerry Coyne’s posted a demolition of the BioLogos website, in stronger terms than I, in his excellent Why Evolution is True blog (Shoot me now: Francis Collins’s new supernaturalist website).