Francis Collins Speaks on Genetic Engineering and Christian Faith

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

So far, so good. I like Collins’ explanation of the path he has taken in getting to this point in life. Now he is talking about gene editing…designer babies? an ethical horror?

Hope springs eternal. The Texas state Baptist newspaper published a very favorable article about his talk.

Just because the technology is available, can we play God? There was a time I could have chosen molecular biology as my career. I realised the dangers and most importantly the temptation to play God
became the major factor in not pursuing it.

The two questions that biologists are going to have to face are:

  1. Are you treating a disease?

  2. Are you changing the germline?

The ethical dilemmas of gene editing are quite different depending on how you answer those questions, as Dr. Collins alluded to. It is one thing to make a decision for yourself, but it is quite a different thing to be making decisions for future generations.

That’s a great point. Thanks for making it, T aquaticus. Also appreciated Madd Scientist’s comment. Also something to think about…and I think T_aquaticus echoes some of that concern.

And I would say that both speakers were great…and good to know that at least one is a Calvinist!! Great response to final query.

And, of course, this interplay between ethics and science gives the lie to the “non-overlapping” aspect of Non-overlapping Magisteria. The “bleeding edge” of science seems to be always leaking into religious, moral, and ethical questions.

I will respectfully disagree:

“The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.”–Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria”

The “bleeding edge” of science can tell us what we can do (the fact), but religion speaks to what we should do (morality). There is nothing in science that says we should explode atomic bombs, or should use nuclear fission to create clean energy. All science can do is tell us how we can do either one.

I’m just saying that, at heart, NOMA expresses something true, but the absolute separation of religion and science are not possible. Ethical concerns affect science, and scientific concerns affect ethics. They cannot be separated by an absolute wall. Gene editing is an obvious example of the former. As for the latter, consider the recent controversy regarding family separations at the border. Science tells us that such trauma causes long-term psychological and developmental harm to infants and young children. Surely, that fact impacts our ethical decision-making.

Ursula Goodenough, a professor of biology at WUSTL, pointed all this out in an excellent review of Gould’s book Rocks of Ages in the 1999 issue of American Scientist. She called it, The Holes in Gould’s Semipermeable Membrane Between Science and Religion.

Unusual… FWIW: I’d say the overwhelming majority of people using or studying molecular biology don’t have any intention of playing God. The ones around me are more interested in producing proteins for experiments or determining how particular regulatory pathways interact. It’s really easy to go through one’s entire career in biology and without encountering such scary or ethical dilemmas about one’s work.

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It seems to be a one way street when it comes to facts and morality. We don’t change facts because of their moral implications, but we do change morality based on the implication of facts. Also, facts by themselves can not tell us what we should do, they can only tell us what the outcome of our actions will be. Ethical concerns don’t affect the facts. The facts just are.

Like I said before, I am certainly not going to plant my flag on the NOMA hill. As you point out, it isn’t a hard and fast rule that is correct in 100% of instances, but I think the outlines are largely true.

I will echo Argon’s comments on this topic. I have worked in molecular biology and I have never been tempted to “play God”. At most, I have had projects that use genetically modified mice, and I have genetically modified plenty of bacterial strains, but it never felt like “playing God”. These are just tools for discovering the interactions between genes, proteins, and the interactions between host and infectious agent. I would say that 99.9% of molecular biologists work on projects where modifying human genomes isn’t even a possibility in their day to day work.

We agree on this. Both of us just tend to quibble.

I see people do this all the time. When the facts are inconvenient, people will dispute them, reinterpret them, or ignore them. Facts, as you say, “just are.” They do not interpret themselves, and therein lies the rub.

Why not? Where is the limit to scientific quest? We are all worried about the Russians hacking our elections. Is it the Russians? No. any computer programmer knows how to HACK. any computer. Then what stops them from HACKING? This is where morality jumps in. Most of the programmers know how far they can go and where is the red line. When they cross the redline, they are the real HACKERS. What stops them from hacking? This is known as a a sense of knowing what is right and what is wrong. What is the origin of the sense of right and wrong. We call this morality. Where dis come from? We have laws governing physics, chemistry, biology etc. Similarly we have moral laws. What is the origin of moral laws? They are beyond the boundaries of Science. It is the moral law that will and should stop biologists from altering the human genome. Otherwise, we will be extinct.

There are multiple countries that have the capacity to plunge the entire Earth into a nuclear winter. I suppose the same thing that stops scientists from doing harm to the entire human race is the same thing that stops world leaders from nuking the entire planet.

The issues of morality and ethics in science have been around since time immemorial.

It should have been the prime thought in the minds of the designer/fabricators of the cremation ovens at Auschwitz. But it was not, and we now know the terrible consequences and results.

Politics has an insidious way of vaunting morality to suit its ends, yet the real practice speaks otherwise. It will leapfrog across the universe in the attempt to dissuade anyone from taking the moral view, and acceding to the political expediency.

Science is uncannily similar to politics in that there is no inherent or intrinsic morality employed PRIOR TO
any long term research and development. Consequently, the advent of the finished product, design, project
bares its teeth and says " LOOK, how much I have cost you to develop. Would you lose all of your investment now ??? Of course, by this stage it is way too late to invoke morality, as the budget accountant stares you down.

Money plays a dominant role in scientific research, and it is the lure of grants, fellowships and long term research funding, that blurs the line that accentuates the ethical or moral consequences. Especially when
the commodification of research products are involved, there is little, if any, moral or ethical diagnosis involved during the development stages.

Whenever a pending law was presented to the Roman Senate, the first question asked was “CUI BONO?” - Who will benefit from this legislation?

"Playing G-d" - truly in the moral sense is the prime responsibility of any scientist who can see the short, and even the long term results of certain researches. It is the very quality of exercising moral judgement that constitutes the divine capacities spoken of repeatedly in the sacred scriptures of the world’s cultures. So it is not for lack of precdence that science can claim an ignorance of the moral mandates set down centuries past that cast a cautionary eye on every petri dish in the world.

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