The Language of God (Book Review)

language-of-godThe discussion about the evidence for either creation or evolution does not seem to be going away any time soon.  The topic has always interested me because I was educated with a foot in each world.  My church and family training on the questions of science and origins equipped me with the arguments for the universe and everything in it being a special creation of God.  My public school training taught me the theory of evolution as the scientific way to account for the natural world.  These two explanations were presented as competing stories.  In other words, they are either both wrong, or one of them is right.  But they cannot be harmonized.  I was aware of the via media of “theistic evolution” (TE) that proposes God’s existence and his mechanism of evolution to creation the world.  Yet this harmonization never appealed to me because I just wasn’t convinced that natural selection joined with random biological mutations could account for the diversity and complexity of life.  No matter how much time elapsed.

So it was with a scientific curiosity I haven’t had in a long time that I picked up a highly praised book defending theistic evolution.  Written by the brilliant geneticist and medical doctor Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief had been a controversial best seller from its publishing date in 2006.  Does this book harmonize the two theories?  I wondered, albeit with a skeptical eye.  In the end, I don’t think my brother in Christ, Dr. Collins, succeeds.  What I find is an admirable attempt to pursue moral, religious, and scientific truth from a presupposition that non-supernatural evolution is true for biology but special divine creation is true for physics and cosmology.  This adds up to a disappointing book (at least for me) with the logical fallacy of special pleading at its most fundamental level.  I just don’t see how consistency is maintained in the author’s worldview.  It is not consistent with a biblical worldview or a scientific worldview.  Sadly, I cannot recommend this book.  It is a valuable and helpful contribution for its appeal to the Moral Law as a signpost to God.  And I learned about the wonderful discoveries wrought by Collins and his team of researchers on the Human Genome Project.  But the book’s many problems associated with the author’s evolutionary presuppositions, and his almost complete inability to fairly represent his own and his opponents’ perspectives, finally overcome the book’s strengths.

As I read through The Language of God, I noted some points that interested or bothered me from each chapter.  I offer these comments as a non-scientist who has tried to stay conversant in the creation-evolution discussion that has occurred during the last 20 years.  Mine is the perspective of a Reformed pastor with biblical, theological, philosophical and apologetical training.  Now that you know where I am coming from, here are my notations and page numbers arranged by chapter.  Hopefully you can tell the difference between my summaries of the author’s positions and my assessments of those positions.

Introduction

  1. Naturalism, materialism, atheism, and non-directed evolution are contrasted with Young Earth Creationism (YEC), literalism, and fundamentalism.  Are these the only camps? (4-5)
  2. Central question of the book: “In this modern era of cosmology, evolution, and the human genome, is there still the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews?”  Collins answers yes. (5-6)
  3. Thesis: “there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us.  Science’s domain is to explore nature.  God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science.  It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul—and the mind must find a way to embrace both realms.”  I find his thesis debatable.  Can the Bible speak truth about the natural world?  Does it?  Is this truth reliable? (6)
  4. Is the “BioLogos” (TE) position the only alternative that values both reason and revelation, science and faith, Nature and the Bible, general and special revelation?  What about Old Earth Creationism (OEC), modified YEC, and Intelligent Design (ID)?  Later in the book, the author only addresses naturalistic atheism, YEC, and ID, but only interacts with them on a superficial level.  Perhaps that is all one can ask for in a popular-level book?

Chapter 1

  1. Author shares his personal testimony up to the very moment of believing.  Proud of his “free thinking” upbringing.  Sought answers to how life worked scientifically.  Had a sense that God is there, but later ignored and then denied God.  Never seemed to question the Darwinian evolutionary dogma (it is assumed in his worldview).
  2. The Christian (through his writings) who led him to faith was C.S. Lewis—a former atheist who (I think) still believed in TE when he wrote Mere Christianity.
  3. Lewis’s argument for the universal existence of the Moral Law convinced him of the God Hypothesis.

Chapter 2

  1. Assumes evolution of the earth.
  2. Addresses four common objections to God’s existence and the truth of God found in religion.  Relies mostly on C.S. Lewis.  Uses Bayes’s Theorem to defend miracles.  Cites John Polkinghorne approvingly.
  3. Asserts free-will theism.  It seems to me he is not aware of other views regarding God’s sovereignty and human free agency.  Of course this would bother a predestinarian like me!
  4. Seems to accept miracle accounts from different religions.  This is curious from his standpoint as a professing Christian.  Perhaps he does not believe in the exclusivity of the Christian gospel?  Does he believe all religions lead to God?  Unanswered questions.

Chapter 3

  1. Explains how methodological, experimental, and theoretical science works.
  2. Relies heavily on Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. (60, 62, 75)
  3. Mathematical precision on universal laws is elegant in simplicity and supports anthropic principle. (71-78)
  4. Big Bang theory requires a Creator who pulled the trigger. (67)
  5. Scientific theory is both uncertain and certain.  I wonder how to know which is which?  Ptolemaic planetary model was a thoroughly described phenomenon and was accepted as scientific truth for centuries.  Could evolutionary theory be uncertain.  Certainly not for Collins.
  6. Seems to assume an active Creator sometimes (75) and an inactive Deity other times (81-82).  Is the Deity only a foreknowing God outside time looking for life in the universe?  Did God go hunting through the universe he created looking for a habitable planet for intelligent life?  Sounds like Star Trek.
  7. His God hypothesis sounds quite deistic, based on a theology of libertarian free will (81-82).  Does God interact with humans contrary to their free will?  We’re in a lot of trouble if he doesn’t. (81-82)
  8. Relies on St. Augustine as one of his two theologians of choice (the other is Lewis).  This is peculiar because Augustine’s creationism is so unique in the history of biblical interpretation.  His doctrine of instantaneous creation is not recognized as a doctrinal strength. (83)
  9. Asserts that the creation account in Genesis is unquestionably poetic, and therefore the author may be using creative license.  Actually the literary genre of the Genesis creation account is highly debatable.  It is clearly not standard Hebrew poetry, but is not normal prose either.  Hence the debate.  It is probably best described as highly stylized prose, which admittedly doesn’t completely unravel the knot. (83)

Chapter 4

  1. Attacks ID theory by explaining molecular biology, then asserting it as evidence for evolution.  ID practitioners would object, “Hey, I believe in molecular biology too!”
  2. Demonstrates he misunderstands ID theory.  Over and over again.  This is why ID scientists so forcefully object to Collins’s portrayal of their arguments. (87-88, 90, 92-93)
  3. Appears to equivocates on the mechanism that produces life.  Is it evolution, natural selection and mutation, or DNA-RNA formation?  Or perhaps he is just not clear.
  4. He cannot imagine how a serious scientist could not believe in evolution.  This demonstrates he doesn’t understand other scientific viewpoints, or at least cannot try on other viewpoints for the sake of understanding the natural world from another perspective. (99)
  5. Leaps from scientific descriptions of DNA-RNA to evolution.  But the steps in the middle are what are in dispute! (93-96)
  6. Makes assertions about newly discovered transitional fossils, but does not offer any details.  Only provides one source.  Doesn’t acknowledge they are disputed by other scientists. (95-96)
  7. Arguing that the Cambrian explosion is an illusion stemming from the lack of fossil evidence (since fossils are rare by their very nature) is special pleading.  If one pushes the existence of complex life forms back further in evolutionary time, there is not enough time for life to develop according to the evolutionary model of origins. (94-95)
  8. Dismisses evidence (e.g., whales) that contracts evolutionary theory.  Offers a particular “tree of life” construct as evidence for evolution.  Why is the tree model constantly being changed?  Updates are sometimes more than mere tweaks around the edges.  Could it be the preferred model is a reflection of current evolutionary theory?  That would be the cart before the horse. (96)
  9. “No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life.  In fact, the relatedness of all species through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology that it is difficult to imagine how one would study life without it.” (99).  This is just blind prejudice.  Serves to weaken the reader’s confidence in the author’s objectivity and humility. (106-107)

Chapter 5

  1. Asserts most of human genome is “junk DNA” because it can  have no use related to the surrounding genes.  Has science borne out this conclusion since the book was written (2006)?  I read scientists have identified specific design purposes in the genetic code previously thought to be junk. (117)
  2. Does Collins have a doctrine of the Fall that relates to biology?  It seems no, since his biological eschatology is progressive.  Hence his optimism in the future of science and human biological development. (123)
  3. Since Collins cannot conceive that biology is understandable without the theory of evolution, he assumes he is right.  Better to learn from scientists who can conceive of biology outside an evolutionary framework, instead of dismissing their credentials or intelligence. (132-134, 136-137, 141-142)
  4. Assumes a universal brotherhood of mankind.  Looks like mankind is “good”.  What does this mean?  That the human race is basically good and getting better all over time? (123)
  5. How do our human component parts “learn” to multitask?  Are they intelligent?  Can evolution account for this apparent intelligent multitasking?  Describing how RNA appears to work does not explain how the RNA “learned” to do its job. (125)
  6. If the founders of the human race are 99.9% genetically identical, then why stop at a 10,000 person pool in the distant past?  Why not go further back to trace the parentage of those 10,000 people?  Is it arbitrary to stop at 10,000 for a founders pool?  Or does this mesh with a human evolutionary theory that must discredit the original single human pair theory. (126)
  7. Does the tree of life generated by DNA analysis always reveal the same tree?  If not, why prefer the one Collins proposes?  Are the alternative models generated by DNA analysis similar or very different?  It sure could make a difference knowing this. (127-130)
  8. Extrapolates from micro- to macro-evolution.  Asserts this is an arbitrary distinction.  But that is the crux of the debate! (131)
  9. Decapitated AREs (ancient repetitive elements) may be a poor description and understanding of the DNA phenomena.  But Collins is confident that current science understands.  Do we have to take his word for it because he has witnessed it with his own eyes.  How to handle conflicting scientific eyewitness testimony? (136-141)
  10. Offers examples from animal biology for evolution that could just as easily (if not more so) be evidence for devolution. (140)
  11. Proposes a reason why more Americans don’t believe in evolution: they are confused about the definition of “theory”.  This is insulting the intelligence of his opponent. (142)

Chapter 6

  1. Evolution is not more widely accepted because creationists are shortsighted, it’s against a literal reading of Genesis 1-2, and the teaching of creationism is not suppressed.  Is her arguing for a forceful suppression of all forms of creationism, including ID in the public sphere? (148, 158)
  2. Totally dismissive of Genesis 1-2 interpretations that have developed since Darwin.  This is prejudiced and a particularly gross example of special pleading. (151)
  3. Compares geocentrists in Galileo’s era to evolution deniers of our era.  This is not a fair comparison because there are plenty of scientists (who are Christians) who object to evolution on the scientific evidence, not merely on biblical doctrine.  Come on people, get on the right side of history! (153-156)

Chapter 7

  1. Critiques the flavor of atheism propounded by Richard Dawkins.  But then he uses the evolutionary arguments of Stephen Jay Gould to critique.  Interesting juxtaposition. (161-167)
  2. Critiques atheism on moral law arguments, not scientific arguments.  Collins is being consistent with his believe that science cannot speak to religion and the spiritual/moral realm. (162)
  3. Agnosticism should be at best a temporary position, held until the agnostic researches and reaches a decision on God’s existence. (167-169)
  4. Assumes Darwinism is scientific truth based on evidence.  This is why the “BioLogos” option seems not only the best option to the author, but the only viable option for scientists. (169)

Chapter 8

  1. His opponent is really the pervasive, popular YEC.  Yet he lumps all other creationists into this category.  Note OEC and some ID folks also share beliefs with YEC about Genesis 1-2.  Note ID folks may share some YEC views, but not as a part of their ID position because ID is a scientific position that does not use Genesis as a source. (172-173)
  2. Argues against dismissive attitudes of creationists.  But would Collins dismiss alternative theories of science proposed by creationists?  It appears he would a priori.  Special pleading. (173)
  3. Uses Augustine to bolster harmony of Genesis 1-2 and evolution.  This is anachronistic at best and dishonest at worse. (174-175)
  4. Shows total ignorance of the history of interpretation regarding the biblical account of creation.  YEC is not a 20th century phenomenon!  The early church, although not monolithic in its doctrine of creation, made room for proto-YECs. (175)
  5. Argues for the sake of evangelical children not having to choose against faith and science. (177-178)
  6. The author’s arguments for an old earth only address YEC.  Other creationist positions are untouched because believe in an old earth is not the exclusive property of evolution.
  7. Looks like a major reason Collins hates YEC is because it “may be depriving science of some of its most promising future talents” (177).  Since from his view, scientific understanding is unimaginable apart from believe in evolution.
  8. Collins considers himself an evangelical (probably like C.S. Lewis would have).  He quotes approvingly from B.B Warfield (an evangelical Reformed Presbyterian) who was an evolutionist.  But Warfield is not as good a witness as Collins would like.  He lived in the first generation following Darwin, too early to be informed by scientific creationism, ID, and other anti-evolutionary evidences. (178-179)

Chapter 9

  1. “The year 2005 was a tumultuous one for Intelligent Design theory” (181).  Collins has no time to claim historical perspective on ID.  His book was written in 2005! (181)
  2. Argues ID is at base the same as William Paley’s teleological thesis, albeit more sophisticated.  Does not consider ID a reformulated argument in response to Paley’s critics. (183)
  3. Assumes scientists are unbiased truth seekers.  Ha!  I should expect better from a scientist-believer.  Are scientists somehow immune from the effects of the Fall?  Does Romans 1 describe their humanity and thinking?  Are they above the fray?  Insert standard postmodern critique of modernist optimism. (187)
  4. Defines the scientific enterprise in such a way that non-evolutionary, theistic alternative theories are disqualified a priori.  If ID is not “science” because the only way it could be verified is through time-travel to the creation event, then this definition of “science” is unnecessarily restrictive.  A fair definition of science should be open to the possibility of special creation really happening.  For if a time machine could discover special creation happened at the beginning, then Collins’s definition of “science” would discount the discovered evidence contrary to evolutionary theory. (187)
  5. Responds to scientific arguments for ID from evolutionary presuppositions.  Thus he begs the question and makes irrelevant arguments. (188, 191-192)
  6. Misrepresents ID as another “god of the gaps” theory that inevitably gets squeezed out by the progress of science. (193)
  7. If ID contains the theological seeds of its own destruction, then how much more TE?  Special pleading. (194-195)
  8. Attempts to explain that the bacterial flagellum, the poster child of ID, can be explained in evolutionary theory by associating its common constituent parts with other complex systems.  But common cellular machinery are not evidence for evolution any more than motors in my car and my clock are evidence of their random, undirected, evolutionary common descent. (192-193)

Chapter 10

  1. Claims TE is the dominant view of scientist-believers.  Perhaps because to deny evolution is to risk your membership in the scientific guild?  That has been the standard complaint. (199)
  2. Lists typical beliefs of TE.  Includes supernatural and natural elements.  Nuanced or inconsistent? (200)
  3. Gives 5 answers to why TE is not more widely embraced.  Nothing here recognizing honest and intellectual skepticism of evolutionary theory. (201-206)
  4. BioLogos (TE) not a scientific theory.  It is more a position for scientists to stand on when discussing spiritual/biblical theological matters.  In that sense, evolution is the presupposition for TEs. (203)
  5. Employs “God outside of time” argument to solve the problem of evolution appearing random and undirected by God.  Not sure how this helps. (205)
  6. Incomplete solution to problem of Adam and Eve’s origins. (207)
  7. Displays hubris and triumphalism regarding TE position. (206, 210)
  8. Claims that only TEs can be both honest/alive as scientist-believers. (201, 210-211)
  9. Is Man’s spiritual nature created or evolved?  This is unclear. (200, 205)
  10. Only cites TEs regarding evolution.  Can a prominent theologian understand yet disbelieve in TE?  What do you do with Vern Poythress, a trained theologian and mathematician who is quite knowledgeable of current science? (202)
  11. Argues that BioLogos creates harmony.  Baloney!  The organization of the same name that was formed in the wake of this book has been divisive, controversial, and destructive to theology and institutions from its inception. (203)
  12. Quotes “early Lewis” as a proponent of biological evolution.  But is C.S. Lewis a good Christian source to cite regarding his belief in the truth of evolution?  In his more mature thought the “later Lewis” moved away from evolution toward creationism. (208-209)

Chapter 11

  1. Wonderful story, but difficult to see why a creationist or ID proponent couldn’t do/say the same. (213-218)
  2. Moral Law is the strongest signpost to God’s existence and nature.  It is one of the classical theistic proofs.  But there are others.  The cosmological, the teleological, the ontological. (218)
  3. Includes personal testimony that allows a loophole to escape the gospel into another world religion.  This is a limp-wristed Christian testimony.  Have some backbone Collins!  The gospel is offensive by nature.  If you believe it is true, then as a scientist you should believe it is true for everyone in every place for every time.  Just come out and say it. (219-224)
  4. Allows for some supernatural work in creation, but not for the process of undirected evolution.  Inconsistent and special pleading. (218-219)

Resources

PCA Report on Creation.  Search for the term “theistic evolution” for relevant sections.

An update on the question of “junk DNA”, by Rich Holdeman.

The scientific consensus has significantly shifted on the complexity and functionality of the human genome.  Collins has changed  his position on much of what he regarded as evolutionary DNA junk upon new scientific knowledge.  The money quote by Francis Collins in January 2015: “We don’t use that term [junk DNA] anymore. It was pretty much a case of hubris to imagine that we could dispense with any part of the genome — as if we knew enough to say it wasn’t functional. [Most of what we called junk DNA] “turns out to be doing stuff.”

Book Reviews

American Spectator, by Logan Paul Gage.  Scientific.

Christian Research Institute, by Paul Nelson.  Theological.

Discerning Reader, by Tim Challies.  Theological.

Discovery Institute, by Jonathan Wells.  Scientific.

Evolution News and Views and Touchstone Magazine, by Jonathan Witt.  Scientific.

Wikipedia.  Populist.

Xenos Christian Fellowship, by Dennis McCallum.  Scientific.

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