One hundred trillion cells (not even including red blood cells and reproductive fluids) package DNA into 46 chromosomes – which define every human being. Twenty-three thousand genes are distributed along the chromosomes, organized in apparently no particular way. With its twenty different amino acid building blocks (each defined by a three letter linear gene code DNA), cells build proteins, some of which define skin and hair color and others carry and receive signals necessary for many body functions (insulin, smell, taste, etc.) Interestingly, each cell has the genetic set of information to build any organ, though it doesn’t – so there are no chromosome codes for the heart or the brain.
To the scientist, the philosopher and the theologian alike, the success in mapping of the human genome served as a fork in the road of life – one that forced each one to reevaluate their specific belief system regarding the foundation and inter-workings of the universe they inhabit and purport to improve. Forks in the road of life are not unique, in that every man and woman faces down several over an average life span. To some it’s the death of a child. To others it’s the unexpected loss of a spouse, a parent, or a best friend. To still others it’s the diagnosis of a terminal illness, a financial collapse or a public disgrace. In addition to each of these, the scientist is forced to contend with the ever-more frequent discovery of new information of such a cataclysmic dimension as the defining of the genetic material of a complex organism.
Every fork in the road, whether of a scientific or more personal nature represents a challenge. What are we going to do with the predicament we face – and what are we going to do and believe about the new information with which we are presented? Are we going to rely exclusively on our background, our education, our personal experiences and what our peers say about the new situation or information? Or are we going to be open to what the Spirit of God has to say about it as well?
The Road before the Fork
Two men worked nearly independently and competitively to map the intricacies of human genome (script, with all the instructions for building a human being). Francis S. Collins was at the helm of the government funded International Human Genome Project, the largest such effort ever; whereas J. Craig Venter insisted he could develop the road map of life faster and much less costly, and proceeded with a team of his own choosing.
The life road each man traveled had a few similarities, but more differences. Collins described his parents as “nominally Christian,” a role he mirrored in his childhood. But as he proceeded through high school and his first degree in chemistry, he journeyed away from his vague Christian roots and into agnosticism. Collins claims he was less an earnest agnostics, who considered the evidence and still couldn’t find a satisfactory answer, and more a casual agnostic (never really considering the evidence for and against belief – intentionally avoiding the need to be answerable to a Higher Power.) He claims this is the most prevalent position in the scientific community. Still, by graduate school he verbally declared himself an atheist. It was only after he changed his career path, entered medical school, and started dealing with dying patients, that he was finally led to question his religious views. He began investigating various faiths and familiarized himself with the evidence for and against God in cosmology. He became engrossed in the writings of C. S. Lewis, himself a former atheist, and especially his book Mere Christianity. The outcome of his investigation was a decision to become an evangelical and “serious Christian.”
His counterpart, Craig Venter was the son of an excommunicated Mormon who had drank and smoked himself to death by the age of 59. Venter originally had no interest in schooling – until he was drawn to computers, especially writing software. He most often describes himself as “just a software writer” and has a habit of calling DNA the “software of life.” Still, in his book, A Life Decoded, he expands that as follows: “As a scientist, an optimist, an atheist and an alpha male I don’t worry. As a scientist I explore and seek understanding of the world (s) around me and in me. As an optimist I wake up each morning with a new start on all my endeavors with hope and excitement. As an atheist I know I only have the time between my birth and my death to accomplish something meaningful. As an alpha male I believe I can and do work to solve problems and change the world.”
Encountering the Fork
Each team developed working drafts of the human genome at approximately the same time – with a formal announcement of the results of their efforts made in June 2000.
Both Collins and Venter faced the wonder and complexity of human life and walked away with a totally opposite conclusion as to its beginnings and source. When the announcement was made in the East Room of the White House, Collins and Venter were joined by President Bill Clinton, with Prime Minister Tony Blair connected by satellite. Collins’ expressed the effect the genome effort had on his belief system as he included the following among his comments: “… we caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.” While Venter withheld his personal beliefs during the public event, six years later, asked by “60 Minutes” interviewer Steve Kroft about his theological beliefs, his response was: “I believe that the universe is far more wonderful than just assuming it was made by some higher power.” Regarding an afterlife, Venter has said: “We have one chance to live and to contribute to the future of society and the future of life. The only ‘afterlife’ is what other people remember of you.”
These men of renown amazingly share many of the same awards and recognitions. They shared the “Biography of the Year” title from A&E Network. They jointly received the Biotechnology Heritage Award in 2001. Even in 2005, Collins and Venter were honored as two of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report and the Harvard Center for Public Leadership. How can two men view the exact same evidence and come to completely incongruent conclusions? It’s enough to drive one to the Calvinistic doctrine of election – were I not more trusting in God’s abundant grace, unconditional love, and did I not lean so heavily on the promise of Romans 10:9-10.
The Road after encountering the Fork
Let me start out by discounting a commonly held misconception of society that all scientists are purely naturalists who don’t believe in God. That’s patently false. Nor does Francis Collins stand at the podium as the sole scientist who is not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In 1916 researchers asked biologists, physicists and mathematicians if they believed in a God who actively communicates with humankind and in whom one may pray with expectation of receiving an answer, and 40% answered in the affirmative. The survey was repeated verbatim in 1997 and the percentages remained very nearly the same.
But Francis Collins is unique in the scientific community. As early as 1998, Collins proclaimed his pro-life stance in an interview with Scientific American. He stated that he is “intensely uncomfortable with abortion as a solution to anything” and does not “perceive a precise moment at which life begins other than the moment of conception.” After a term as director of the National Institute of Health (NIH), in 2007, Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation to “contribute to the public voice that represents the harmony of science and faith.” Also, building on his own experiences as a physician volunteer in a rural missionary hospital in Nigeria, he demonstrated he’s very interested in opening avenues for genome research to benefit the health of people living in developing nations. For example, in 2010, he helped establish an initiative called Human Heredity and Health in Africa to advance African capacity and expertise in genomic science. He is also known for his close attention to ethical and legal issues in genetics and has been a strong advocate for protecting the privacy of genetic information and has served as a national leader in securing the passage of the federal Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act, which prohibits gene-based discrimination in employment and health insurance. And Collins’ most recent books more than ever before focus on his faith and his journey to find it. Such are: The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine (2010), Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith (2010), and The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions (2011).
Craig Venter is also unique, though in a much different way. In the post-human-genome-mapping years, Venter and his team created “artificial life” – taking all the genetic information out of a single bacterial cell and replacing it with a chromosome they built in the laboratory. They made a DNA strand with the minimum genes essential for a bacteria to reproduce itself. This new life form has subsequently multiplied billions of times. As a result, the President actually launched a bioethics commission investigation into Venter, and Venter himself admitted that it could be dangerous if placed into the wrong hands. In the end, the Obama administration and Venter began working together to come up with an ethical framework for this type of science. The scientist even applauded the commission for its open-mindedness and wisdom. Venter claims his work is for the betterment of society and the future of humanity. He has done work to genetically engineer algae to create a substance that can be refined into gasoline in hopes of addressing the energy crisis. And more recently he has teamed up with a stem cell pioneer and the X Prize Foundation founder to form a company that will use both genomics and stem cell therapies to find treatments that allow aging adults to stay healthy and functional for as long as possible. His book, A Life Decoded, My Genome, My Life (2008) is somewhat an autobiography.
In one sense, atheists take pride in “claiming” Venter to their side. However there’s an interesting story about an exchange between Craig Venter and Richard Dawkins. Venter apparently denied common descent, and Dawkins response was that he couldn’t believe that he would even question it. In questioning whether there is a tree of life, it has many atheists and evolutionists concerned – with his dissent from Darwinian orthodoxy suggesting there is disarray in the community.
Another Fork in the Road
The “creation of artificial life” by the Venter team seems to bring each member of the scientific community to another fork in the road. Or does it? Does it really demonstrate the feasibility of life being created by random chance from non-life, as some claim?
This Venter team knew exactly what materials they were starting out with. A large group of people, working round the clock for more than a decade built on prior years of preexisting knowledge to insert some very carefully designed genes into a cell that already existed, so that it could reproduce. In atheistic evolutionary biology the claim is not that DNA somehow morphed itself into an existing cell so that it could reproduce. Before there was DNA there were no existing cells.
This research while truly amazing and potentially useful for mankind, does nothing to explain the dilemma of life production: you need DNA to make cells, but that you also need cells to make DNA. I recently read a comparative example: the fact that human beings could build New York is evidence that nature, given no building materials, could construct such a city by random chance. We all recognize how ridiculous the latter is; but atheists are in the unenviable position of accepting and defending the former.
It’s a reasonable question to ask – what do I conclude from all of this? That Francis Collins is godly and Craig Venter is an agent of the devil? Hardly! I don’t know either man’s heart – only God does. Since the original genome mapping, both men have done good works. Yet good works do not treasure-in-heaven purchase – though it’s a good beginning.
But doesn’t the Bible indicate that God doesn’t spend a lot of energy on trying to change the hearts and minds of atheists? It infers that He actually laughs at them, when He says, “Only a fool says there is no God.” See Psalms 14 and 53 and even the 1st chapter of the Book of Romans as examples. Clearly, the beauty and wonder of God is on display even in His commandments, the first of which says: “I am the Lord your God. I will have no other gods before Me.” Right off the bat He’s telling His human creation: “I know you know in your hearts that a god exists and is responsible for everything around you. Here I am! There is plenty of evidence of most Judeo-Christian faith claims. There is plenty of evidence in hand today, and there is more and more discovered every day by archaeologists, linguists, biologists, astro and geophysicists and other scientists, provided they allow for an open minded review of the evidence God places before them, and its significance.
But if God doesn’t spend a lot of energy on trying to change the hearts and minds of atheists, why should I? Is it worth it, with so many other important things God has for me to accomplish? I spend the energy because: first. I’m not God; and second, I have some very close friends and family members who claim to be atheists or agnostics, as I’m sure all of you have as well – and I’m not willing to give up on them, knowing the eternal cliff they’ll tumble off, unless something dramatically changes their hearts and minds.