Francis Collins and the Origin of BioLogos

When I first read Francis Collins’ The Language of God in 2007, it was from the viewpoint of appreciation that the head of the Human Genome Project was a fellow-Christian, defending the compatibility of science and faith. That was before I had any dealings with BioLogos the organisation. But now I thought it might be useful to return for a more critical look at the book, one 14-page chapter of which is, essentially, a manifesto for BioLogos as a concept. What does Collins mean by it, and to what extent does the present BioLogos reflect that?

Let me say at once that one can’t limit an organisation to, or define it by, its initial vision, as one expects it to develop and adapt, especially when, as in the case of BioLogos, the founder soon left and others are responsible for its direction. But the exercise may nevertheless be of some use in assessing the validity of the core idea, and whether that has begun to change at all.

The first thing to note is that Collins originally intended BioLogos not as the name of an organisation, but as the descriptor of a position – he considered himself a proponent of “BioLogos” as opposed to Creationism, Intelligent Design or Atheism. The second interesting point is that he did not put BioLogos forward as a new position, but as an old position rebranded. “BioLogos” is intended as a direct synonym for “theistic evolution”.

Why the change? In Collins’ words:

…it has a terrible name. Most nontheologians are not quite sure what a theist is, much less how that term could be converted to an adjective and used to modify Darwin’s theory.

That, he goes on, suggests that ones belief in God is secondary to evolution. So, his “modest proposal” is “Bios through Logos”, bios meaning life and logos being the Greek for word.

Is it a good term? Looked at critically, I’m not sure it is, particularly, which probably explains why I’ve never heard anyone use it as an alternative to “theistic evolution”, and the term is now exclusively reserved for the foundation and its website. So what’s wrong with it?

In the first place, “Life through the Word” only hints at God obliquely, and those unsure of the meaining of “theistic” are not likely to do better on a Greek word. Additionally the term itself would cover equally well any variety of Creationism, and Intelligent Design as well, all of which believe that life comes through the Logos. It doesn’t suggest an evolutionary process at all.

More specifically, earlier on (p200) Collins lists six components typical of TE positions, the first two of which (existence ex nihilo and cosmic fine-tuning) aren’t directly related to the emergence of life. Having said that, “theistic evolution” should, sematically speaking, have nothing to do with these two either, nor with the Origin of Life.

But it is the “Logos” part that is really problematic. Collins’ explanation of the term runs thus:

To many believers, the Word is synonymous with God, as powerfully and poetically expressed in those opening words of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. “BioLogos” expresses the belief that God is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of God.”

Well, I couldn’t disagree with that last belief, and neither, I suppose would any theistic evolutionist. But actually “Logos” is not synonymous with God, but with the Son, the second Person of the Trinity. “BioLogos”, then, actually suggests that the Son is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of Christ, which is theologically true but incomplete – Christian teaching is actually that the Father is the source  of life, and that he created it through and for the Son, by the Spirit. So “BioLogos” is actually inadequate as a Trinitarian term. And yet it is specificially Christian, for only Christians link “Logos” in any way with the Godhead.

That too limits “BioLogos” compared to “theistic evolution”, for Collins himself, though a Christian, writes his book with a “those of all faiths and none” thrust. On p199 he says, of theistic evolution:

It is the view espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians…

It’s quite clear that the first three of those groups would not be happy to associate with BioLogos as a position rather than theistic evolution. Collins also ranks Anthony Flew amongst believers (which is confusing as Flew was both a non-Christian and supported Intelligent Design arguments on the origin of life). Did Flew believe life came through the Logos?

It’s of interest that Collins chose his Greek words because all the English ones carry so much baggage as to be “off-limits”. “Creation” suggests “Creationism”, “Intelligent” and “Designer” hint at ID, “Fundamental” at “Fundamentalism”. Note that he would be happy with these words in themselves, were it not for their sociological connotations. So he believes the Creator to be the Intelligent Designer (of Fundamental nature?). Also note that these scruples have been dropped in Darrel Falk’s preferred term, “Evolutionary Creation“, which on Collins’ reasoning we should take to be a simple synonym of both “theistic evolution” and “BioLogos”. A rose by any other name …

Further on in his chapter, Collins gives us some insights into his detailed understanding of BioLogos that have a direct bearing on some of the controversies generated by what has appeared on the site. On p205 he addressed the problems believers might have with the random elements of evolution:

The solution is readily to hand, once one ceases to apply human limitations to God. If God is outside nature, then he is outside space and time. In that context, God could in the moment of creation of the universe also know every detail of the future. That could include the formation of the stars, planets and galaxies, all of the chemistry, physics geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the evolution of humans, right to the moment of your reading this book – and beyond.

Now this is a bit non-specific – did God plan, or merely foresee all these things at the moment of creation, down to the detail of my reading Collins’ book? Whichever is the case, Collins here has no truck with Open Theism, which denies that God foresees the future or can plan its detail. That makes his activity as a speaker at an Open Theism and Science conference just a year after the book was published a little hard to understand.

But his meaning here is clarified as he continues:

In that context, evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified. Thus God copuld be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective…this would appear a random and undirected process.

This can only be a straight answer to the randomness question so often raised at BioLogos: random is not random to God, but (in some unspecified way) directed by God. But that also deals with the nebulous “freedom of nature” theme so often seen on BioLogos: according to Collins, “from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified.”

From these quotations, one can infer that Collins is a physical determinist with regard to natural law, but suggests ongoing divine creative (determining!) activity in the operation of random (from the human viewpoint) events. These two specify the biological outcomes, and no mention is made of autonomy in non-human nature. His theism, in this book at least, is not “Open”. If that’s so one wonders why Darrell Falk and others at BioLogos make such a meal out of avoiding committing themselves on these issues? If they did I’d have no quarrel with them.

Perhaps BioLogos has, indeed, departed from the original view of it spelled out by Collins in The Language of God. If so, it will be interesting to see where it goes next.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Francis Collins and the Origin of BioLogos

  1. Gregory says:

    “the term itself would cover equally well any variety of Creationism, and Intelligent Design as well, all of which believe that life comes through the Logos.” – Jon

    Swing and a miss. Intelligent Design theory qua ‘theory’ says nothing about )Big-L) ‘Logos’ in a technical ‘scientific’ sense. That’s just theology talking, not science. Nothing wrong with that, but that is small-id, not Big-ID you are referring to. Creationists, of course, easily accept the Big-L in BioLogos.

    “Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.” – Dembski’s analogy-laden, non-scientific theology (1999)

    Attributing to DNA ‘the language of God’ status belongs to Collins. Big-ID just says ‘it looks designed’ based on analogy with human minds, but it calls that ‘historical science’ and ‘following the evidence where it leads’ based on ‘uniform experience’. Of course, not a single proponent of Big-ID has zip for experience creating or designing Life, but that doesn’t seem to stop them from claiming a ‘scientific revolution’ is in the making!

    “Unlike Intelligent Design, BioLogos is not intended as a scientific theory. Its truth can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind and the soul.” – Collins (204)

    That’s a pretty significant claim, don’t you think, Jon?

    “Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” – Jalal ad-Din Rumi

    Although Collins didn’t invent the phrase “the language of God,” I’d venture to say that him calling his book “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” the one in which ‘BioLogos’ is first mentioned, was perhaps the greatest contribution to ‘science and religion’ discourse since Ian Barbour’s “Issues in Science and Religion” (1966), if not since August Comte’s “Course on Positive Philosophy” (1830-42). Nothing in or from the IDM, including Behe’s ‘black box’ even comes close. This doesn’t automatically make Collins a strong philosopher or theologian and it doesn’t make him right in every way (even if he’s a more ‘open’ thinker than you, Jon), but in science, philosophy, theology discourse, go ahead and please name something you find more important than “The Language of God” by the head of the Human Genome Project.

    I have a feeling it’s nearing time for me to move-on to other things. The ID/TE fence-sitting and BioLogos parading at The Hump is hard to swallow (especially after getting Fuller thrown back in my face by the one who delivered him to you!). Perhaps I’ll return when you solve the Open vs. Closed Theism dilemma because right now you seem to want to rail as much against Open Theism as Open Theists wish to rail against determinism and a Closed Universe.

    And I realise this is only part of the sentence, but it shows that you’re promoting a ‘filioque’ in the way you approach BioLogos, TE/EC and ID:

    ““Logos” is not synonymous with God…” – Jon Garvey

    Yet, “in the beginning was the Word,” so Logos is certainly not antonymous with God either.

  2. James says:

    These reflections are useful, Jon.

    I myself have often thought that “BioLogos,” while a clever neologism, is not likely to be clear in meaning to the average Christian in the churches, and I presume it is the average Christian that Collins and the other TE/EC people are trying to reach. The average Christian has heard of “evolution” and has a general idea of what it means, and the average Christian either has already heard the term “theistic” or can easily pick up its meaning, so “theistic evolution” is not inaccessible technical terminology; but “BioLogos” certainly sounds and even looks technical and forbidding. The average person will be at first puzzled by the capital L in the middle of the word — that’s unconventional, and needs explaining. And the form of the word, being Greek rather than English (in contrast with “biology” where the ending has been Anglicized), will confuse some. Plus, its general “foreignness” gives it the flavor of words like “Weltanschauung” or “Sitz im Leben” — the everyday person may acquire a vague sense of what it means, but will not really be comfortable with it.

    In short, “BioLogos” would make a great title for a thematic academic journal covering the interface of biology and theology, or a clever title for an academic conference in the area, but isn’t a well-chosen term for common folks.

    Even “evolutionary creation,” though both words in the term are accessible to a normal churchgoing person with a general idea of what “evolution” means, is probably stranger to the average churchgoer’s ear than “theistic evolution,” if only because the term “theistic evolution” has been around much longer and people are used to it. So I wonder if all the efforts to find an alternate term to “theistic evolution” are worth it. The American saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” may be the appropriate guiding rule here.

    Your point about the explicitly Christian contents of “BioLogos” is a good one. Whereas a position called “theistic evolution” could be held by Muslims, Jews, and others, a position called “BioLogos” is clearly Christian. And while there is nothing wrong with a group of Christian theistic evolutionists identifying themselves as Christian, it sends the clear message to evolution-believing Jews and Muslims and others: “Thanks for your endorsement of evolution, but we really don’t need your help.” In contrast, “intelligent design” is a concept with no particular religious affiliation, meaning that Jews, Muslims, Deists, Platonists, Hindus and many others could feel quite comfortable with the label. The label “BioLogos” thus loses potential for outreach in comparison with ID, in a way that the labels “theistic evolution” and “evolutionary creation” do not.

    I would agree with the commenter above that “The Language of God” was a good, catchy title for Collins’s book; it’s just too bad that Collins himself doesn’t follow up on the implications of that phrase, i.e., that just as human beings don’t use language randomly, but teleologically, to accomplish certain ends, so God sets up nature to operate not in a random but in a teleological way. But Collins is too wedded to Darwinism to allow himself to extend cosmic fine-tuning (which he grants) into the biological realm. And that’s too bad, because it means that the realm of life ends up being less characterized by Logos than does the realm of non-living matter. If what evolution spits out is only the product of chance, it can’t be entirely ruled by the Logos. This is where Behe’s perception, of design running right down to the level of proteins, seems to capture “the Logos of Bios” better than Collins’s conception of evolution does.

    I would not agree with the commenter above that your position, Jon, constitutes ID/TE fence-sitting. I count you as among that small group of independent commenters in the ID/TE/YEC/OEC/New Atheist wars, who thinks for himself and is willing to adopt the best ideas from all camps. Like Mike Gene, Robert Russell, Michael Denton, Steve Fuller, David Berlinski, Alvin Plantinga, and a few others, you refuse to be categorized, but simply wrestle with the issues and come up with the best answers that you can. It may be that the commenter above doesn’t agree with the particular synthesis that you have offered, and that’s his intellectual right; but it’s wrong to accuse you of fence-sitting, as if your combination of ideas indicates lack of courage rather than a genuine appreciation of ideas from different sources.

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Gregory and James

    I actually think BioLogos is quite a decent name for the organisation, but was struck on returning to Collins book that it was intended as a replacement term for “theistic evolution”, which status it hasn’t achieved, maybe for the reasons I state and that James supplements.

    I was also struck, on close examination of Collins’ words, by the fact that he commits himself more than one would have thought to a hands-on teleological (James) or closed (Gregory) view of TE. That there seems to be a dissonance of that with how BioLogos has hitherto descibed TE, and maybe even Collins later statements of his position, is worthy of note (I gather, but haven’t confirmed, that he affirms an Open Theism position in the book he wrote with Giberson).

    That makes me wonder if he didn’t realise fully what he was implying in the first book – my first impression was that he was promoting a scientifically deterministic Deism – God can determine my reading his book at the moment of creation – but he later denies that by his divinely-managed treatment of chance, the net result being that his position is very akin to my own (maybe I got it from his book originally?)

    There does indeed seem to be a real sea-change in BL’s position with the stuff by Russell, Davis and Plantinga, for example. If so, it’s a swing back to what is put forth in The Language of God, and to be welcomed. Though it might just be stormy weather, of course.

    Collins did a significant thing in popularising and promoting theistic evolution within the origins debate as a respectable alternative to YEC, OEC, ID and, of course, the new atheism. The Language of God, though a worthwhile book, was not in my opinion a medium for any great new ideas. Its science is conventional, its theology entry-level and not clearly integrated with the science – that’s not really a shortcoming, as the main purpose of the book was to say, “Hey, us scientists can be believers too,” but more than that is needed for theistic evolution to win hearts and minds, particularly in the Christian communities.

  4. James says:

    Jon:

    Thanks for your reply.

    I have no problem with BioLogos as the name of an organization, but I think it’s a clumsy, academic-sounding name for a theoretical position — especially when the people BioLogos is trying to win over to the position come largely from American fundamentalist background, and are everyday church folks, not Greek-speaking academics. And even as an academic term, it’s awkward; how does one turn it into an adjective? Does one describe oneself as a “BioLogosist”? Or a “BioLogian”? I don’t think that such terms are going to succeed in pushing “theistic evolutionist” out of the English language.

    I only read Collins’s book once through. I thought the biographical part was interesting — his personal academic journey through the various sciences was impressive, and I thought the book was tolerably well-written. But I didn’t see anything new in the science offered, and the theology-science discussion seemed to be a mostly a layering of personal piety upon received natural science — the sort of thing peddled by Giberson, Falk, Venema, Applegate, etc. at BioLogos.

    I did catch a few statements in the book which indicated that Collins might be open to a more direct involvement of God, but the overall impression that the book left me with was that God, after setting up the natural laws, pretty much keeps his hands off. (I could say the same about Ken Miller’s first book: if one strains, one can find hints that maybe God guides evolution at the quantum level or the like, but the overall vision is one in which God lets nature do its own thing, because he’s such a nice, 1960s-California, non-tyrannical sort of God.)

    I agree with your summary assessment of Collins in your final paragraph.

    The sea-change at BioLogos is interesting. Previously, they had no one but ignoramuses making comments about the history of science and the history of Christianity and the history of ideas; but lately, they have been running columns by Ted Davis and a couple of other well-trained historians, so that’s an improvement. And they’ve finally got around to giving Plantinga a hearing — long overdue (the delay probably reflecting their prejudice against the Calvinist/Reformed tradition), but better late than never. They’ve run recent things on Russell and Polkinghorne. It seems that they are going in for theological, philosophical and historical depth now, whereas before they were just a place for testimonials of Christian scientists who were inept theologians. All of this is for the good.

    Of course, there is still some of the older emphasis. Not long ago, they ran about eight columns within a few weeks on how creative “randomness” is. And I suppose they feel it is mandatory to run frequent columns on missing-link fossils and genomic comparisons that “prove” we are descended from apes and that Adam and Eve, if they ever existed, would have been subhuman primates living 6 million years ago. But overall, the new direction is encouraging. Giberson is gone, Falk isn’t saying much and will be gone in 4 months, more traditional Christian views are getting a hearing. It may be that eventually BioLogos will find its way toward a harmonization of theology with evolutionary theory that is not based on outdated biology and liberal, sentimental theology.

    I’m careful not to say that BioLogos is “evolving” in the right direction, but simply “changing” in the right direction. I hope that my choice of words will please everyone here.

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