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Francis S. Collins on Unveiling the Human Genome

The human genome consists of all the DNA of our species, the hereditary code of life. This newly revealed text was 3 billion letters long, and written in a strange and cryptographic four-letter code. Such is the amazing complexity of the information carried within each cell of the human body, that a live reading of that code at a rate of one letter per second would take thirty-one years, even if reading continued day and night. Printing these letters out in regular font size on normal bond paper and binding them all together would result in a tower the height of the Washington Monument. For the first time on that summer morning this amazing script, carrying within it all of the instructions for building a human being, was available to the world.

As the leader of the international Human Genome Project, which had labored mightily over more than a decade to reveal this DNA sequence, I stood beside President Bill Clinton in the East Room of the White House, along with Craig Venter, the leader of a competing private sector enterprise. Prime Minister Tony Blair was connected to the event by satellite, and celebrations were occurring simultaneously in many parts of the world.

Clinton’s speech began by comparing this human sequence map to the map that Meriwether Lewis had unfolded in front of President Thomas Jefferson in that very room nearly two hundred years earlier. Clinton said, “Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.” But the part of his speech that most attracted public attention jumped from the scientific perspective to the spiritual. “Today,” he said, “we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.”

Was I, a rigorously trained scientist, taken aback at such a blatantly religious reference by the leader of the free world at a moment such as this? Was I tempted to scowl or look at the floor in embarrassment? No, not at all. In fact I had worded closely with the president’s speechwriter in the frantic days just prior to this announcement, and had strongly endorsed the inclusion of this paragraph. When it came time for me to add a few words of my own, I echoed this sentiment: “It’s a happy day for the world. It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”

What was going on here? Why would a president and a scientist, charged with announcing a milestone in biology and medicine, feel compelled to invoke a connection with God? Aren’t the scientific and spiritual worldviews antithetical, or shouldn’t they at least avoid appearing in the East Room together? What were the reasons for invoking God in these two speeches? Was this poetry? Hypocrisy? A cynical attempt to curry favor from believers, or to disarm those who might criticize this study of the human genome as reducing humankind to machinery? No. Not for me. Quite the contrary, for me the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship.


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