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What’s In Your Genes: Do You Really Want To Know?

IMG_2137 A little over two years ago, I confessed that I was “just a little scared of genetic testing.” I have two young children and almost every day I see traits in them that I’m pretty sure they inherited from me whether via genes or behavior. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you can imagine that there’s a lot of self-blame going on in our house.

So when it comes to genetic testing, I should want to know but I don’t. At least not right this minute. Haven’t I got enough to worry about?

From Middletown Journal’s month-long series on the battle against cancer – Many with cancer gene don’t want to know. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Eye on DNA*

NIH Director Francis Collins Jams With Aerosmith’s Joe Perry At Capitol Building


Rudy Tanzi, Joe Perry, Francis Collins

I know. I was just as surprised as you are. Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, author of The Language Of God, and new director of the National Institutes of Health performed live in front of a group of Washington locals at the Capitol building today. He actually jammed with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry in an “unplugged” performance of Bob Dylan’s, “The Times They Are A Changin’.” This is not the kind of thing one expects in the hallowed halls of the Capitol building. But maybe it’s time to expect the unexpected?

I happened to have my reporter’s microphone with me in the audience so I recorded the song. The vocalist is Dr. Collins, Joe Perry does a guitar solo near the end, and Dr. Rudy Tanzi is on harmonica. The sound quality is… well… it’s what you’d expect from a hand-held microphone. But it’s worth a listen, just to get to know our new NIH director a little better!

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Delta Goodrem

Australian pop star and cancer survivor Delta Goodrem followed Dr. Collins with this acapella beauty (again, forgive the sound quality):

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A few things struck me about the event. First of all, Francis Collins is more of a “firecracker” than I expected. I read and reviewed his book recently, and his vivacious personality did not come through in its pages as well as it did on the stage with Joe Perry. He’s a fun-loving guy, a serious scientist, and very committed to advancing research and encouraging young people to rekindle their interest in discovery. That’s all very good news for America.

Secondly, I was touched by Joe Perry’s story about wanting to be a marine biologist when he grew up. Apparently he had a learning disability of some sort that was not addressed in school. For that reason, his test scores suffered and he looked for ways to excel outside of the classroom. His bright mind discovered an immediate affinity for music, and he poured himself into a career as a rocker. He still yearns for the ocean, though, and is a certified diver. As I looked at Joe, I kept thinking – my gosh, he might have been the next Jacques Cousteau if he had more help in school. But brilliance finds its own way to flourish – and Aerosmith became his outlet instead.

Thirdly, I realized that there are in fact a few congressmen with their heads screwed on straight when it comes to science. I had almost lost hope after watching video footage of Tom Harkin instructing scientists to validate his opinions rather than test whether or not certain things were true. Yikes. But the three co-chairs of the congressional biomedical research caucus, Reps Brian Bilbray, Mike Castle, and Rush Holt, seemed to truly understand some of the issues facing the advancement of medical research – and are determined to move America forward.

And finally, I noted that there wasn’t a single female or minority “rock star scientist” in the program. That made me a little bit sad. Are we really that rare? I guess we still have a long way to go on that front… And since Dr. Collins mentioned that only 15% of US students are enrolled in science or engineering bachelors’ programs (compare that to 50% in China or 75% in India) we are soon going to be playing catch up with the rest of the world in terms of scientific discovery.

So we’ve got our work cut out for us folks – with our youth’s waning interest in science education, the excessive red tape that is slowing down the process of producing cures, and the public getting their medical advice from the likes of Jenny McCarthy, there has never been a more important time to restore science to its rightful place.

Maybe Francis Collins is going to “bring sexy back” to science?

Whatever works!


More info on the Rock Stars Of Science program.

Francis Collins: Is He Fit To Lead The NIH?

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is probably best known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project, though his discoveries of the Cystic Fibrosis, Huntington’s, and Neurofibromatosis genes are also extraordinary accomplishments. Dr. Collins is a world-renowned scientist and geneticist, and also a committed Christian. In his recent best-selling book, The Language Of God, Dr. Collins attempts to harmonize his commitment to both science and religion.

Some critics (such as Richard Dawkins) have expressed reservations about Dr. Collins’ faith, wondering if it might cloud his scientific judgment. Since Collins was rumored to be the most likely candidate for directorship of the NIH (and he was nominated for the position yesterday, but must be confirmed), and because I wanted to know if Dawkins et al. had any reason for concern, I decided to read The Language Of God.

First of all, Christians are a rather heterogeneous group – with a range of viewpoints on evolution, science, and the interpretation of Biblical texts. On one extreme there are Christians (often referred to as “young earth creationists” or simply “creationists”) who believe in an absolutely literal interpretation of the Genesis story, and see evolution as antithetical to true faith. Dr. Collins suggests that as many as 45% of Christians may actually be in this camp.

On the other end of the spectrum are Christians who embrace evolution, accept and promote scientific thinking, and understand the Bible to be a blend of poetry, allegory, and historical literature. While they see the Genesis account of creation as poetic, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings are considered to be more literal.

Collins’ views are very representative of the scientific end of the Christian spectrum. In fact, he spends several chapters attempting to help creationists embrace evolution. He takes great pains to explain how irrational it is to deny the evidence we have (both from a genetic, and an archeological/basic science perspective) for evolution. He argues that evolution is not an enemy of faith, but rather an enlightening look at how God’s creative process works.

Collins also takes on “Intelligent Design (ID),” exposing it as a PR play, not a true scientific theory. He suggests that ID is an “argument from personal incredulity” expressed in the language of mathematics, biochemistry, and genetics. Furthermore, Collins explains that ID proponents have confused the unknown with the unknowable – there is no current “irreducible complexity” that cannot be explained by evolutionary theory. We don’t need a “God of the gaps” to explain what we’ve yet to learn.

One of the more interesting parts of the book is Dr. Collins’ mathematical review of the incredibly low odds of the right blend of atoms/elements and the correct rate of expansion of the universe to occur by chance. He argues that certain atomic particles needed to be present in unequal and varying amounts at the earliest moment of the Big Bang to produce – eventually – the right conditions for life as we know it. He uses this analogy: it’s possible that a poker player could randomly obtain a straight flush in 50 consecutive hands. However, a more plausible explanation is that he’s cheating. In the same way, the universe could have come into being by coincidence, but it’s more likely that it was a coordinated event.

Collins’ argument for the existence of God is compelling to me. His explanation of why he chose to become a Christian is a little less so. Collins often resorts to lengthy quotes of C.S. Lewis in lieu of his own theological rationale – but I suppose we can forgive him for this. He is first and foremost a scientist, not a theologian, and his book simply reflects that fact. [Those interested in a more compelling theological rationale for Christianity might try Timothy Keller’s, The Reason For God: Belief In An Age Of Skepticism.]

In summary, Collins claims to believe in “theistic evolution.” He says that few people have heard of it because it harmonizes science and religion – and “harmony is boring” and doesn’t have a PR agenda. Nonetheless, he finds it internally consistent and intellectually satisfying. The material world is best understood through scientific inquiry, the spiritual world cannot be tested or understood by science. Matters of conscience, morality, and a yearning for answers to questions that may not be resolved empirically (What happens to us after death? What existed before the Big Bang? Is there a soul?) are matters best left for religion.

After reading The Language Of God, I feel confident that Collins is a reasonable person. He embraces science more successfully than many people of faith, and I didn’t notice anything about his beliefs that would make me question his ability to lead the NIH in true, scientific inquiry. In fact, The Language Of God may embolden other Christians to join the Science-Based Medicine movement by offering them a rational way to allow faith and science to co-exist. I hope that  scientists who hold atheist or agnostic religious views will embrace this small group of evolutionary theists as religious moderates who fully support scientific orthodoxy.

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