Good, Bad, and Government Funding

By Carl Zimmer | July 27, 2009 12:13 pm

The National Institutes of Health funds research on the biology of morality in the human brain, as well as the evolution of  human morality by comparing humans to other primates. Francis Collins, who has been nominated to head NIH, has repeatedly criticized this sort of research–and has used its failure as evidence for the existence of God. In 2008, for example, he said, “I think human altruism can be seen as one of strongest signposts to the existence of a personal God. I can see no fully satisfactory explanation for it coming from biology.”

I’d be curious to know if Collins thinks NIH shouldn’t have funded this research in the past, and if he would cut it in the future. If I were a reporter who went to DC press conferences rather than one that sits at home in his slippers, that’s the question I’d ask–not as a gotcha question, but as a matter on which I cannot figure out an answer based on what he’s said in the past.

Update: Frans de Waal, who does the NIH-funded research on primates I linked to above (and writes lots of interesting trade books on said topic), posted a response I’m pulling up here into the post itself:

Yes, Collins has in the past taken human altruism as proof that God exists, seeing it as a miraculous trait that evolution couldn’t possibly have produced. I disagree, having argued that the building blocks of morality can be found in other animals. I am closer to Darwin than CS Lewis on this. But in response to your blog I must say that I am not sure that Collins will have the power to prevent specific research (such as neuroscience on morality). Furthermore I doubt that he wouldn’t want to know the answers. He is a scientist, after all, and I bet he is open-minded enough to be curious about the outcome of such research even if it doesn’t fully agree with his previous position. Or, am I just being an optimist here?

Thanks for your thoughts, Frans. Of one thing I am sure: the labyrinth of NIH funding is terra incognita for me.

Update #2: Ken Miller, a biologist well known for his books on the relationship between science and religions, has also left a comment:

The worry that Francis Collins would use his position at the NIH to “proselytize” or would not back researchers whom “the religious right dislikes” isn’t grounded in the reality of the man’s life and career.  I’m no more worried about Collins using NIH to advance his religious views than I was about Harold Varmus using the same position to advance non-religious views.  Varmus was a great Director because he was a first-rate scientist who understood how to administer research, and Collins matches him on both counts.

Yes, Collins has written that he doesn’t think that biological evolution can explain the human moral sense.  I disagree with him on that point, even as a fellow Christian.  But Collins’ whole career has been marked by openness, fair-mindedness, and above all, a driving intellectual curiosity.  The over-reaction of those sounding the warning sirens about him is without foundation in fact.  It’s also emotional to the point of irrationality.  PZ Myers has called him “a clown,” and written that “The man is a flaming idjit.”  This comes from a guy who opposes Collins in the name of scientific reason? 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Brains, Evolution

Comments (20)

Links to this Post

  1. Nothing new learned in 120 years? « A Man With A Ph.D. | July 28, 2009
  1. Frans de Waal

    Yes, Collins has in the past taken human altruism as proof that God exists, seeing it as a miraculous trait that evolution couldn’t possibly have produced. I disagree, having argued that the building blocks of morality can be found in other animals. I am closer to Darwin than CS Lewis on this. But in response to your blog I must say that I am not sure that Collins will have the power to prevent specific research (such as neuroscience on morality). Furthermore I doubt that he wouldn’t want to know the answers. He is a scientist, after all, and I bet he is open-minded enough to be curious about the outcome of such research even if it doesn’t fully agree with his previous position. Or, am I just being an optimist here?

  2. Considering the heavy scrutiny that Collins will be facing, I doubt he’ll be in a position to try proselytizing his religious beliefs by undermining research he doesn’t like. The question is whether he will be as supportive as he could be when the inevitable backlash arises against some NIH researcher who reports findings that the religious right dislikes.

  3. NewEnglandBob

    Carl Zimmer, Frans de Waal: I am happy to see you question what might happen there. Your voices are added to many others who question it.

    Romeo Vitelli@2: The question of Collins being supportive after the fact is moot, when bright lights will be shining on every move made.

  4. Sili

    I think you’re being optimistic with respect to Collin’s scientific curiousity.

    But I, too, expect that he’ll have no hand in individual decisions – unless he’ll be continuing the Bush tradition of untoward fiddling.

  5. Can God make a collection plate so vast that even He cannot fill it? Sure! ALL OF THEM.

    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/god.jpg

  6. If possible, I’d like to move the hypothetical question into an historical one. I don’t know if there’s a way to answer this, but was there research similar to what we’re talking about that Collins would have had authority/responsibility over while director of the National Human Genome Research Institute? Have complaints been lodged against Collins on similar lines? Those could be FOIA accessible.

  7. MarkD

    Dogs look out for each other too, and you know what dog is spelled backwards. I didn’t even need any funding for this.

    It’s simple social pack mentality. Help others, you get ahead when there is a pack/tribe/whatever.

    Was this too complex for him to think of? Nope, he just had an agenda.

  8. The worry that Francis Collins would use his position at the NIH to “proselytize” or would not back researchers whom “the religious right dislikes” isn’t grounded in the reality of the man’s life and career. I’m no more worried about Collins using NIH to advance his religious views than I was about Harold Varmus using the same position to advance non-religious views. Varmus was a great Director because he was a first-rate scientist who understood how to administer research, and Collins matches him on both counts.

    Yes, Collins has written that he doesn’t think that biological evolution can explain the human moral sense. I disagree with him on that point, even as a fellow Christian. But Collins’ whole career has been marked by openness, fair-mindedness, and above all, a driving intellectual curiosity. The over-reaction of those sounding the warning sirens about him is without foundation in fact. It’s also emotional to the point of irrationality. PZ Myers has called him “a clown,” and written that “The man is a flaming idjit.” This comes from a guy who opposes Collins in the name of scientific reason?

    Ken Miller
    Brown University

  9. Dr Miller,

    I think you are badly wrong or, worse, willingly misrepresenting PZ Myers’ position by saying that he opposes Collins in the name of scientific reason.
    In the name of reason seems to be the right stance.

    Irrationnal beliefs, those you share with Dr Collins and Dr Conway-Morris and you promote under the patronage of the Templeton Foundation, are just plain irrational, not scientifico-irrational.

    You are the ones trying to make them look as if they were supported by science hoping for some credibility. Don’t project your attitude to others.

  10. If one actually reads Collins’ The Language of God, one finds sound, true science. And one finds Collins’ spiritual path. Surprise, P.Z., it’s possible to be a scientist and believe in God.

  11. This isn’t a debate about the scientific or administrative credentials of Collins. We all know what is really happening. Dawkins, Myers, Coyne, et al. have once again had their feeling hurt because the general public (or in this case President Obama) is much more comfortable with and interested in what religious scientists like Collins and Miller have to say than they are with the antitheists. Myers et al. should quit sulking and go back to battling creationists where they can actually do some good for science.

  12. Grant writers, at least the successful ones, are intensely aware of keywords that might be good or bad for their grant’s success. So it would be interesting to know whether his position at the helm would change this pro-science vocabulary in subtle ways, at least for the types of grant topics you mention in your post. I personally would like to see a study funded that investigates people’s ability to believe strongly in supernatural forces while fully accepting science. E.g., are children of those who believe very strongly in both (and publish that belief) likely to have children who see the two realms as nonoverlapping? Might be heritable just like religiosity itself.

  13. No one is surprised that a scientist can believe in gods. No one is upset that the NIH director appointee is a theist. Some of us find disturbing is that Francis Collins seems willing to misinterpret or disregard scientific data to make it fit his beliefs. If Collins had kept his religious beliefs separate from his science, we wouldn’t be complaining. It’s because he insists on mixing the two, playing the God of the Gaps card, engaging in BAD SCIENCE that we question his suitability for the post of director of the NIH. I think PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, and Sam Harris made it clear that it was because of his apologetics that we questioned Francis Collins’s suitability for the post. This isn’t about atheism vs theism. It’s about dogma free science vs apologetics.

  14. Julia Udell

    People’s concerns with Collins as our new NIH director are not baseless – I think it’s reasonable to perceive his ideology, regardless of his record with the HGP, as a potential threat to certain areas of scientific research that do clash with his beliefs. My personal concern with the is the potential influence he could have over neuroscience research – namely, in the emerging study of the neural basis of ethics and morality in a variety of animals, humans included. There are many fascinating studies on this subject on the horizon, and surely many grant proposals. I’m not entirely familiar with the innerworkings of NIH bureaucracy when it comes to making funding decisions, but I’m certainly not comfortable with funding for this research being subject to the scrutiny of a man who may not be prepared to accept its results:

    “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?” – Collins’s lecture slides from a UC Berkeley talk in 2008

    I have no problem with a Christian as NIH director, but I – alongside many others, I imagine – will remain uncomfortable with the appointment until this conflict of interest is addressed. And I don’t think that is an unreasonable response by any means.

  15. John Kwok

    @ Ken –

    Heard Josh Rosenau from NCSE last night at a Center for Inquiry – New York meeting. Afterwards, during dinner, he agreed with me that your New York Times letter was quite fair and accurate. Sometimes you have to call a spade, a spade, and am glad you didn’t mince words with your Times letter or your comments here at The Loom.

  16. Wes

    I think legitimate questions can be raised about Collins’ attitude towards science in areas where it conflicts with his religious beliefs.

    Some quotes from Collins’ The Language of God:

    After all, there are clearly parts of the Bible that are written as eyewitness accounts of historical events, including much of the New Testament. For a believer, the events recorded in these sections ought to be taken as the writer intended–as descriptions of observed fact. — p. 175

    Collins is here contradicting basically all textual scholarship on the Bible for the last 200 years. The Gospels, for instance, are not in any way eyewitness accounts. They don’t even claim to be!

    1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
    2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.

    6. But humans are also unique in ways that define evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law …and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.

    –page 200

    There’s so much wrong with the above that I don’t even know where to begin. For one thing, the universe is not “precisely tuned for life”. The vast, vast majority of the universe is completely inhospitable to life. Also, what “massive improbabilities” are we talking about here? Who measured these probabilities, and using what evidence?

    And we don’t know if the universe “came from nothing”. That’s pure speculation.

    Item 6 is straightforward creationism. “Natural selection cannot explain X, therefore X was created by God.” It’s just creationism applied to one aspect of the organism, rather than the whole thing. In that regard, how is it different from Behe’s false claim that certain parts of organisms, e.g. the bacterial flagellum, could not evolve and were therefore designed by God? It’s anti-scientific nonsense.

    Collins claim about “the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history” would come as quite a surprise to the historians and scientists who actually study these cultures. It takes quite a bit of cultural chauvinism to think that all human cultures are seeking after the god that happens to be believed in the culture you happen to inhabit. The truth is, what a Westerner thinks of as “god” frequently has no analogue in many other cultures.

    I could go on. The book is filled with outright nonsense which sounds very similar to creationism to my ears. Anyone who reads Collins’ own writings can see there are good reasons to suspect that he might deny scientific findings when they don’t fit his religious preconceptions.

  17. Anonymous

    As far as supporting evolution and evolution research I wouldn’t worry at all about Collins’ priorities. Under his direction the National Human Genome Research Institute has greatly supported the sequencing of the genomes of many species with the only justification based on evolutionary ideas.

    Though he’s not exactly an evolutionary biologist, he’s supported a lot of genetic research based on evolution, including as a part of projects done in his own lab. In my experience he listens to informed scientists and is open to lots of possible explanations. I wouldn’t worry too too much about his ability to fine scale direct research dollars, since the vast majority of that is directed by the individual institutes. The big NIH wide initiatives may be a different story, but that shouldn’t have a major negative impact on any particular line of research.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    The over-reaction of those sounding the warning sirens about him is without foundation in fact. It’s also emotional to the point of irrationality. PZ Myers has called him “a clown,” and written that “The man is a flaming idjit.”

    This is confusing real concerns about Collins advocacy of religion and how this position will affect that/be affected by it, and the content of this advocacy. As for the former, there seems to be little emotion. As for the later, Collins is exasperating for scientists, as for example when he pushes the religious “fine-tuning argument” on physicists that know it to be false.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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