News that Francis S. Collins is stepping down as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a bit like hearing that Santa Claus is handing off his reindeer reins to a newer, younger version of St. Nick.
The comparison isn't meant to suggest that Collins is a jolly, rotund fellow with a penchant for red velvet and an affinity for elves. He does, however, hold mythical status in some quarters, and is considered by many to be a gift himself. A man with a merry spirit and a brilliant mind, he'll pull out his guitar and sing a song at the hint of a request. He would also gladly tell you that he loves God and believes that evolution and the divine are not incompatible but complementary.
Not your everyday scientist or Christian, it's fair to say. Rather, Collins is the embodiment of a seeming dichotomy that puzzles many on both sides of the ultimate question. Is there a God?
Collins has studied the question with scientific precision — helping map life's greatest mysteries through the Human Genome Project, which he ran until 2009 when then-President Barack Obama tapped him as director of the NIH. In the 1980s, he also identified the genes responsible for several diseases, including cystic fibrosis and neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that feeds the growth of tumors, as well as Huntington's disease.
Known as a "gene hunter," Collins's scientific discoveries have had profound, life-altering effects on countless lives and throughout the global community. Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, and Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He's so admired and respected that Presidents Donald Trump and Biden both kept him onboard when they took office.
Beyond Washington, Collins has become a familiar face during the pandemic, his soothing voice and straightforward manner a tonic for frightened people confused by partisan bickering over, of all things, whether to wear a mask or get a vaccine against the coronavirus. He doesn't mince words, but nor does he season them. His quiet bedside manner makes him — and his message — accessible without scaring or intimidating people.
Yet, for most of his life, Collins has been missing from scandal sheets, slick magazines and talking-head TV. When you really are the smartest person in the room, I guess you don't need a publicist. His statement announcing his retirement was characteristically humble: "I fundamentally believe ... that no single person should serve in the position too long, and that it's time to bring in a new scientist to lead NIH into the future."
This is typical Collins, who is a practicing ethicist, too. In recent years, he has apologized for structural racism in science and refused to appear on any all-male panels. Under his watch, the NIH has vowed to stop experimentation on chimpanzees.
Though I'm awed by Collins's accomplishments, it is his biblically inspired scientific mission that interests me most. My personal observations about him are based on occasional visits over the past decade or so at gatherings and dinners that often centered around the intersection of faith and science. Though a true believer in both, Collins was once an atheist. In his 2006 best-selling book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," Collins argued that evolution isn't a negation of God but rather is how He created the world.
One can debate such issues forever, but there's no question that Collins has done his homework, scientifically and theologically, and is equally fluent in both realms. His courage and equanimity in the face of criticism or insults — as when the late atheist/provocateur Christopher Hitchens basically called Collins an idiot at a dinner debate I attended — is a testament to a maturity missing in our public square.
Collins and Hitchens spoke more that evening in 2007, beginning a friendship that lasted until Hitchens's death in 2011. Collins, by the way, played the piano at his memorial service.
At 71, Collins surely has earned his retirement, but he won't be idle. He'll continue leading his research laboratory at the National Human Genome Research Institute and, perhaps, continue his work advancing harmony between the church and science through his BioLogos Foundation. Heaven knows, we need it now more than ever.
I'm sure I've sounded like a eulogist here, but given my admiration for the scientist and the believer, I couldn't let Collins depart without some confetti and a few deserved words of praise.
The next time we meet, I'll have a question for him about our species' prospects for survival, which I can pose now: Has our genetic code mutated to liberate the inner ape crouching within us humans? Or is evolution done with us?