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?