Transcript Dr. Francis Collins’s presentation titled ‘The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence of Belief’ at Caltech 2009. In this talk, Dr. Francis Collins (Former Director of the National Institutes of Health) shares his journey from atheism to faith and answers the question, “Are science and faith consistent ways of seeing the world?”
Dr. Francis Collins – Former Director of the National Institutes of Health
Thank you very much, Christophe, for that kind introduction and good evening to all of you. Good heavens, this place is really filled up with people, which is so wonderful to see and the students who have worked so hard to put this effort together, together with the Veritas organization, must be very happy to see this turn out on a rainy evening here in Pasadena.
We are here to talk about big questions, maybe the biggest question of all, does God exist? I won’t give you a proof tonight, but I hope I will give you some things to think about, things that have led me from being an atheist to becoming a believer and a follower of Jesus. And I will try to explain to you that pathway in a fairly abbreviated form, and also explain to you how I see no conflict between that perspective and that of a scientist who is rigorous in his views of data and won’t allow you to put one over on me when it comes to views of nature, but who also sees that the study of nature is not all there is.
So come, let us reason together here this evening and see what we might learn. And as Socrates said, ‘Let us follow the truth whithersoever it leads.’ And of course Veritas means truth, and I think that is very much what this forum stands for.
I would like to start perhaps by telling you a little bit about the science that I’ve had the privilege of being involved in, which is the study of our human DNA instruction books, the Human Genome. When the popular press reports on this, as they increasingly have been doing since the study of the human genome has gotten pretty far along, they invariably have covers such as this one of Time magazine that use double helix as the motif, because that is, after all, the wonderful structure of this wonderful molecule, the instruction molecule of all living things.
They also, in this instance, seem to be depicting Adam and Eve, which is interesting as a question mark perhaps about whether these things are connected, and I will certainly argue that the faith and the science perspectives are appropriate to consider together.
But I have a sneaking suspicion that they have another motivation, because I also notice in other magazines that have covers about DNA, they always feature not only double helixes but naked people. And you can draw your own conclusion about what editors have decided about how to sell magazines.
So we are going to talk about this molecule, this amazing double helix shown here spilling out of the nucleus of the cell, carrying the information that needs to be passed from parent to child, generation after generation, by the series of these chemical bases, here abbreviated A, C, G, and T. And it is the order of those letters that basically must be there in order to provide the instructions to take each organism from its original rather simple beginnings as a single cell to a rather fancy organism like a human being.
The genome of an organism is its entire set of DNA instructions. The human genome adds up to 3.1 billion of those letters. And that is a phenomenal thing to think about. If we decided we were going to read the human genome tonight because it would be a useful thing to admire, we would probably regret it after we got started if we had made a real commitment to do that because we would be here reading at an average pace of A, C, G, T, T, and so on, seven days a week, 24 hours a day for 31 years.
And we have that information now, which is a pretty amazing thing to say. And you have it. Even before we knew its sequence, you had it already. And it is inside each cell of your body. And every time the cell divides, you’ve got to copy the whole thing. And occasionally mistakes get made. And if they get made during your life, well, they may not cause much trouble. But if they happen to get made in a particularly vulnerable place, they might start you on a path towards cancer.
And if a mistake gets made in passing the DNA from parent to child, well, then that child might end up with some kind of a birth defect. But once in a very long time, that change might actually be beneficial. And that, of course, is how evolution works, with gradual change applied to this DNA sequence over long periods of time, resulting in what Darwin put forward by the means of natural selection, a gradual evolution and the introduction of new species.
So DNA is, if you’re a biologist, kind of the center of the center here in terms of trying to understand how the whole system works. The Human Genome Project was proposed rather controversially in the late 1980s, and most of the scientific community was deeply skeptical about whether this was a good idea or not. It might cost too much money. It might not be feasible. It might just attract mediocre scientists because it seemed kind of boring.
Well, none of those things turned out to be true. It certainly wasn’t boring. And I’m happy to report that, in fact, it went better than expected. And for me, as the person who had the privilege of serving as the project manager of this enterprise, to be able to announce not just a draft, which we had in June of 2000, but a finished human genome in April 2003, exactly to the month 50 years after Watson and Crick described the double helix, and completing all of the goals of the Genome Project more than two years ahead of schedule and more than $400 million under budget, doggone it, which doesn’t happen very often.
And I could give you hours of descriptions of what’s happened since April of 2003 in terms of taking this foundational information and building upon it, particularly for medical benefit. And for me as a physician, that was one of the most exciting aspects of why we did this in the first place. I will spare you the details, but I will say that I think the dream is beginning to come true of how this is going to apply for medical benefit, because with these tools from the Genome Project, we have been able, increasingly, and especially in the last couple of years, to identify specific genetic risk factors for cancer, for heart disease, for diabetes, for asthma, for schizophrenia, for a long list of conditions that previously were very difficult to sort out.
And in circumstances where knowing you’re at high risk allows you to reduce that risk by changing your diet or your lifestyle or your medical surveillance, this opportunity to practice better prevention on an individualized basis is getting pretty exciting. And this is called personalized medicine. And it applies not only to this kind of prevention, but if you do get sick, it may provide you with a better chance to get the right drug at the right dose instead of something that doesn’t work or perhaps even gives you a toxic side effect, and that’s what pharmacogenomics is about.
And perhaps the biggest payoff in the long term, although also the longest pipeline, is to take those discoveries of the real fundamentals of what causes these diseases and turn those into insights that will lead us to therapeutics, be they gene therapies or drug therapies, that are really targeted to the fundamental problem instead of some secondary effect.
And we’re beginning to see that now, especially in the field of cancer. We will see much more of it over the coming decade. And I would predict that in another 15 years, medicine will be radically different because of all of these developments stimulated by the Genome Project and with the scientific community plunging in with great energy and creativity to make the most of the opportunity.
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