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« George Bush and Extreme Altruism | Main | A Whack for Kevin Kelly »

More Francis Collins

In previous posts I've quoted excerpts from my Q&A with Francis Collins, the Genome Project Director and Christian, for National Geographic. "Francis Collins: The Scientist As Believer" is now online, so you can see his views not only of extreme altruism and the inevitability of war but also free will and the problem of evil.



Many thanks for this link to the full interview of Francis Collins. I agree entirely with his views, and like the conclusion:

"In spite of the fact that we have achieved all these wonderful medical advances and made it possible to live longer and eradicate diseases, we will probably still figure out ways to argue with each other and sometimes to kill each other, out of our self-righteousness and our determination that we have to be on top. So the death rate will continue to be one per person, whatever the means. We may understand a lot about biology, we may understand a lot about how to prevent illness, and we may understand the life span. But I don't think we'll ever figure out how to stop humans from doing bad things to each other. That will always be our greatest and most distressing experience here on this planet, and that will make us long the most for something more."

It's always good to look at people's expectations of progress in the past and compare those expectations with the way things have turned out.

The benefits in health from abolishing smoking and such like have resulted in a msssive increase in life expectancy in Britain, with a small young population having to pay - via taxation - the pensions of an increasing proportion of old, retired people.

Instead of reducing the strain on the Health Service, the net effect is an increased strain. People are dying slowly and needing care for many years. Most of the early mortality before was from heart disease and relatively fast-killing cancer. Today, people die more slowly on average, and so they are more expensive to care for.

Everything that science and technology can possibly do to make the world a better place, can be negated rapidly by increasing population or instantly by bigotry, racism, religious hatred and terrorist.

If you make things too good in one generation, there will be too many kids and the overpopulation will make things tougher in the next generation.

Like mass and energy, hatred seems to be governed by a conservation principle. You can't ever really destroy it; it just gets passed on from person to person or changed from one form into another.


Nice work, John. I like the way you cut to the chase, both in your interview questions and the framing section at the beginning.

It's a bit of stretch to go from Collins' comment about people finding ways to kill each other to "the inevitability of war", isn't it? War is a whole different beast than an isolated instance of murder. (And war has much less to do with biology and free will, as opposed to culture and politics.)

Sam Taylor


Good show for your defense of agnosticism. It is quite possible to be agnostic about the potential for the existence of entities that may have had some influence on our small planet or for the potential for mind as an emergent property of matter, etc. etc. and be an atheist about the reality of the tribal god Collins seems to embrace as fact. It is not as if we did not have a fairly good historical understanding of how this tribal religion evolved.

On the other hand, it seems to me that in this world it can be sane to make a Kierkegardian leap of faith, so long as it has been done consciously and the outcome does not result in inhumane actions. Such a leap can be to either a Dawkins like macho materialism or one of several (countless?) mystical stories, some of which are quite beautiful as works of art. Ignoring the influence of the cultures in which we are raised, the choice appears to be largely a matter of taste.

Where is Collins on this spectrum?



Davis Cloward

Francis Collins’ pardons “God” for human suffering first by suggesting that we humans need to suffer a little to grow, then by transferring the blame for suffering to a need to guarantee human free will, and lastly by stating “a lot of the pain and suffering in the world we cannot lay at God’s feet”. These are very shallow answers to a complex question. Mr. Collins is suggesting that for those living in Indonesia, that a wall of water took away husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, children, friends, homes, and livelihood so that they could “grow, learn, and discover things about (themselves) and things about God”. If suffering could be measured, the total caused by all wars, enslavement, and depravity in the history of mankind does not come close to the suffering humans endure from famine and disease. Leprosy is a slow terrible torture that is not earned or deserved. It has maimed, and killed many more humans throughout history than have been displaced, killed, or tortured by men. The number of dead, the number of children killed or orphaned, attributable to plague far exceeds the number attributable to all the evil acts of men. Malaria, trypanosomal diseases, tuberculosis, pandemic influenza, polio, pneumococcal diseases… the list is not short. Human free will did not invent or require these illnesses. Why a creator-being, who is presumed to be benevolent, allows these illnesses to kill and maim his beloved creatures cannot be so easily explained by suggesting that the creator needs to respect the creature’s free will. As a father I do what I can to teach my children, I cannot make their decisions them for them, and my children are adept at demonstrating that they remain free spirits. But as a loving parent I protect my children from preventable ills. Protecting is not enabling. By protecting them I have not removed their freedom to choose their actions and beliefs.

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