Thursday, October 13, 2005

Francis Collins on Life

Francis Collins is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  He was interviewed by Robert Krulwich, for the PBS series, NOVA.  They discussed the prospect of humans creating life from scratch, using only synthesized biomolecules.  Krulwich was interested in knowing what Dr. Collins thought about the notion, that such an act of creation might have spiritual implications.

Krulwich: If a human being were to create life from nonlife, that would cross—in my view, anyway—a line that I didn't know that we could cross. A mystery would be demystified. It doesn't strike you that way?

Collins: We have been demystifying life for decades. Ever since we figured out "spontaneous generation" is not right, that, in fact, life comes into being from things like spores and eggs, and so forth, we have been learning that life follows certain principles and rules. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a microbiologist who would say, "There is something unscientific, some vital force about E. coli that allows it to keep going."

Krulwich: So, really, you feel that way?

Collins: Yeah.

Krulwich: A very little, itty-bitty thing gets along because it's just chemicals in the right order.

Collins: Right. Now does that apply to human beings? No, I happen to think human beings fall in a different category. I think we, of all the organisms on the planet, have a spiritual nature which can't be explained by those common elements and "instruction books" and references to machine analogies. We have these remarkable features such as the understanding of what's right and wrong, which I don't think is something that will come out in the study of biology. Nor is it something that I think evolution can explain.

So I am a person of faith, as you might be able to tell from that last remark. But my faith is not in any way resting upon whether or not it's possible in a test tube, at some point, to generate something that looks like it replicated and had the properties of life.

Krulwich: So God wouldn't be a little bit diminished if a human could make a living thing from a nonliving thing? Or humankind wouldn't be inflated if we could make a living thing?

Collins: Well, God would certainly not be diminished. God, if it's the God that I worship, created the universe and all the laws that regulate it, and gave us this incredible gift of an intellect. And I, like Galileo, don't think that he gave us those abilities in order for us to forego their use. And so I think God kind of thinks that science is pretty cool!

So I'm not worried about God. I am worried about humans, because we have a long tradition of assuming greater importance for ourselves than we deserve. And so this does slip into the zone of hubris: "I'm no longer just an ordinary person; I am creating life. That makes me a little closer to God, and maybe a little less in need of Him, after all." If somebody were to wrap themselves in that kind of philosophical mantle, then I think we've actually not upgraded man, we've downgraded him.
In reading the entire article, I get the impression that Dr. Collins does not think there is any particular magic moment that occurs in the process of taking atoms and arranging them into a configuration that is alive.  Yet he thinks that there is something fundamentally different about humans, compared to other living organisms.  I'll have to think about that.