The pious young scientist had a question about human origins and the attention of one of the foremost geneticists in the world. Standing up in a crowded Hilton-hotel conference room in Alexandria, Va., the inquisitive Ph.D.-M.D. candidate asked Francis Collins, who mapped the human genome, about an attempt to reconcile science and faith: Did Collins think it possible that all species are products of evolution except for humanity, which God created separately? "Based on everything we know," the young man asked, "would that tie together evolution and [a literal reading of the Bible] and make room for God to intervene?"
Collins showed no surprise that a star scholar poised to contribute to the future of medicine should entertain the idea that evolution might not apply to humans. Indeed, the question was almost predictable, since the room was filled with Harvey Fellows, high-performing young academics devoted to bringing a Christian presence to fields where Evangelicals are underrepresented. And Collins, that rarest of raritiesa superstar evangelical biologistand author of the new book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press; 304 pages), was perfectly qualified to answer. He did. That notion "gets you into a series of real problems," he replied. He sketched one out: the human genome contains nonfunctional elements in the precise spot where they can be found on the chromosomes of lower animals. If God was creating humans afresh, Collins asked, "why would he insert a pseudo-gene that has lost its ability to do anything in the same place that it appears in a chimp?" Barring evolution, "you're forced to the conclusion that God was trying to mislead us and test our faith and I have trouble with that kind of conjecture."
In America's ongoing and sometimes rancorous discussion about science and God, some stock characters have evolved. There are the vocal proponents of creationism and intelligent design who storm school boards in hopes that either science or local government will conform to their beliefs. Then there are academic atheists who claim increasingly aggressively that science is in the process of proving religion a delusion. But few of the polemicists have the authority to preach beyond their own choirs. Most believers don't care to listen to an atheistic scientist calling the idea of God a mythology created to explain what humans don't understand, and academic atheists are just as uninterested in scientific lectures from Bible literalists.
Collins, however, has both the standing and the desire to promote a third way. At 56, he is an unassuming 6-ft. 4-in. stork with a reedy voice, a techie's el cheapo digital Timex and his one touch of flash a wide silver ring emblazoned with a cross. "I think the majority of people in the U.S. probably occupy a middle ground but feel under attack by the bombs thrown from either side," he says. "We haven't heard very much about the way these views can be rendered into a very satisfying harmony. And I do hope that both camps are a potential audience for what I have to say."
To some, the mere fact that he is effectively outing himself to the secular world as a man of faith warrants celebration. "Just that he's written the book is important," says Randy Isaac, head of American Scientific Affiliation, a professional group for conservative Christians. "It will help convince Christian young people that science is a viable career, and scientists to recognize that Christian faith is a relevant option."