Science,  Stateside

Obama picks evangelical Christian to head National Institutes of Health

President Obama has appointed Dr. Francis Collins, a geneticist and former atheist turned evangelical Christian, to head the National Institutes of Health, the largest medical research organization in the world.

Clearly Collins is capable of doing serious science; he led the government’s successful effort to sequence the human genome and was part of a team that in 1989 discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis. But reaction from the largely atheist scientific community has been mixed. The appointment worries Bob Park, a University of Maryland physicist who produces a weekly online science newsletter:

He was a natural choice for NIH director, having led the National Human Genome Research project in its successful race against maverick Craig Venter. Although Collins scientific credentials are impressive, and he aligns himself with science on issues of fact, including intelligent design and stem cell research, scientists wince when he describes himself as an evangelical Christian… But now that Collins has been nominated we should look more closely. Religious converts tend to be zealots. In the final chapter of his book, “The Language of God,” Collins, attributes his conversion, at 27, from atheism to Christianity to a powerful religious experience. It led him to examine the evidence for a god. He said he was persuaded by two arguments: 1) the anthropic principle, and 2) the moral law.
All seven physicist-winners of the Templeton Prize cite the same two arguments as persuasive: 1) The anthropic principle, which states that Nature’s laws were designed to make life possible. I would paraphrase that in less pompous language, If things were different, things would not be the way things are. 2) The moral law, which states, we know the difference between right and wrong. Neuroscience agrees; basic morality is hardwired in our brain at birth. My priest friends explained that the wiring was done by the Holy Ghost. I suspect that the Ghost consulted with Darwinian evolution. Given the right triggers, everyone seems susceptible to emotional experiences that appear to transcend the rational… [I]t is troubling that a PhD chemist with an MD did not recognize such an experience as a hormone rush.

Although I don’t believe in ghosts, holy or otherwise, I don’t find myself as troubled.