Horgan: What do you think of Darwinian explanations of altruism, or what you call agape, totally selfless love and compassion for someone not directly related to you?
Collins: It’s been a little of a just-so story so far. Many would argue that altruism has been supported by evolution because it helps the group survive. But some people sacrificially give of themselves to those who are outside their group and with whom they have absolutely nothing in common. Such as Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, many others. That is the nobility of humankind in its purist form. That doesn’t seem like it can be explained by a Darwinian model, but I’m not hanging my faith on this.
Horgan: What do you think about the field of neurotheology, which attempts to identify the neural basis of religious experiences?
Collins: I think it’s fascinating but not particularly surprising. We humans are flesh and blood. So it wouldn’t trouble me—if I were to have some mystical experience myself—to discover that my temporal lobe was lit up. That doesn’t mean that this doesn’t have genuine spiritual significance. Those who come at this issue with the presumption that there is nothing outside the natural world will look at this data and say, “Ya see?” Whereas those who come with the presumption that we are spiritual creatures will go, “Cool! There is a natural correlate to this mystical experience! How about that!”
Horgan: Some scientists have predicted that genetic engineering may give us superhuman intelligence and greatly extended life spans, perhaps even immortality. These are possible long-term consequences of the Human Genome Project and other lines of research. If these things happen, what do you think would be the consequences for religious traditions?
Collins: That outcome would trouble me. But we’re so far away from that reality that it’s hard to spend a lot of time worrying about it, when you consider all the truly benevolent things we could do in the near term.
Horgan: I’m really asking, does religion require suffering? Could we reduce suffering to the point where we just won’t need religion?
Collins: In spite of the fact that we have achieved all these wonderful medical advances and made it possible to live longer and eradicate diseases, we will probably still figure out ways to argue with each other and sometimes to kill each other, out of our self-righteousness and our determination that we have to be on top. So the death rate will continue to be one per person, whatever the means. We may understand a lot about biology, we may understand a lot about how to prevent illness, and we may understand the life span. But I don’t think we’ll ever figure out how to stop humans from doing bad things to each other. That will always be our greatest and most distressing experience here on this planet, and that will make us long the most for something more.
Collins: That’s delightful—and probably blasphemous! An alternative is the notion of God being outside of nature and time and having a perspective of our blink-of-an-eye existence that goes both far back and far forward. In some admittedly metaphysical way, that allows me to say that the meaning of suffering may not always be apparent to me. There can be reasons for terrible things happening that I cannot know.
Horgan: I’m an agnostic, and I was bothered when in your book you called agnosticism a “cop-out.” Agnosticism doesn’t mean you’re lazy or don’t care. It means you aren’t satisfied with any answers for what after all are ultimate mysteries.
Collins: That was a put-down that should not apply to earnest agnostics who have considered the evidence and still don’t find an answer. I was reacting to the agnosticism I see in the scientific community, which has not been arrived at by a careful examination of the evidence. I went through a phase when I was a casual agnostic, and I am perhaps too quick to assume that others have no more depth than I did.
Horgan: Free will is a very important concept to me, as it is to you. It’s the basis for our morality and search for meaning. Don’t you worry that science in general and genetics in particular—and your work as head of the Genome Project—are undermining belief in free will?
Collins: You’re talking about genetic determinism, which implies that we are helpless marionettes being controlled by strings made of double helices. That is so far away from what we know scientifically! Heredity does have an influence not only over medical risks but also over certain behaviors and personality traits. But look at identical twins, who have exactly the same DNA but often don’t behave alike or think alike. They show the importance of learning and experience—and free will. I think we all, whether we are religious or not, recognize that free will is a reality. There are some fringe elements that say, “No, it’s all an illusion, we’re just pawns in some computer model.” But I don’t think that carries you very far.
National Geographic Magazine, February 2009