Simon Conway Morris still thinks “God did it” is a scientific statement

I’ve just picked up Larry Moran’s teaser “Can You Guess Who Wrote This?” on his Sandwalk blog. As the words are a restatement of Paley’s classic but long ago debunked Watchmaker analogy and the Sandwalk article is accompanied by a photograph of the paleontologist and champion of theistic evolution, Simon Conway Morris, there isn’t much of a mystery.  There original article by Conway Morris, Darwin was right. Up to a point, appeared in Thursday’s Guardian as part of its Darwin 200 coverage.

Conway Morris first came to widespread public notice in 1989 when his reclassification of the Burgess Shale fauna was described enthustiastically by fellow paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in the book “Wonderful Life” (ISBN 0-393-02705-8). Gould, whose target was what he viewed as the excessive adaptationism of contemporary biologists and thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith and Daniel C. Dennett, used the Burgess Shale fauna as an example to illustrate his view that evolution could easily have taken a very different path. Natural selection, he believed, wasn’t so strong that it led inevitably to the kind of ecology we now see in the modern world.

Gould’s primary image in this illustration was “the tape of life”.

“But if I could rerun the tape of life from the origin of unicellular organisms, what odds would you give me on the reevolution of this complex and contingent insect-flower system? Would we see anything like either insects or flowers in the rerun? Would terrestrial life originate at all? Would we get mobile creatures that we could call animals? Fine-scale predictability only arises when you are already 99 percent of the way toward a particular result — and the establishment of this 99 percent lies firmly in the domain of unrepeatable contingency.”

As he often did, Gould overstated some of his points, and his presentation has been attacked by many biologists as laying too much emphasis on the role of chance.  Biologists, including Conway Morris himself, correctly point to the evidence of convergence, where natural selection has repeatedly produced similar solutions to similar problems in different situations involving creatures that are not closely related.  The strong resemblance between the hydrodynamic forms of the dolphin and the shark are perhaps the most striking example of this.

For Conway Morris, however, more is at stake.  As a Christian he believes that Genesis 1:27, wherein God creates man in his own image, is true, and this constrains evolution in his eyes.  In the eyes of Gould, and of most biologists, the evolution of high intelligence is not inevitable.  As PZ Myers has already remarked in his December, 2003 review of Conway Morris’s “Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe” (ISBN 0-521-60325-0), Conway believes that:

  • We’re unique. Although not impossible, the odds of life arising at all are so remote that it’s likely that we’re all alone in the universe. It’s a miracle that we exist.
  • We had to exist, exactly as we are. Once life exists, it must run down a foreordained track to a very specific outcome, us. Yes, bipedal, tool-using humanoids are a necessary result of evolution, and if life arose on other planets (which it didn’t, because it’s so improbable, but if it did…), there would be people living on it just like us.

(PZ’s wording)

This places Conway Morris at odds with most biologists, who see nothing inevitable about human beings.

Conway Morrir’s problem here isn’t so much that he’s in a minority among biologists, but that it is at all possible for biologists honestly to disagree on whether humanity was inevitable.  It’s a problem because his target isn’t his fellow biologists at all, it’s atheism.  In this article, and in his Boyle Lecture (PDF), Conway Morris mixes and matches scientific and theological arguments against atheism.  We’ve seen it all before, of course.  Darwin cannot explain everything so some of nature must be due to God; a godless world is one without morality, so God must exist or we’ll just kill one another.  Weak stuff.

More recently Ed Yong in his “Not Exactly Rocket Science” blog has described, in lay terms, how a scientific experiment by Richard Lenski and others has rerun the tape of life in microcosm and eventually produced divergent results.  One strain of E. Coli kept under tightly controlled conditions, developed, through a complex evolutionary path, the capacity to metabolize the citrate medium in which it was kept under anaerobic conditions.  Other strains kept under identical conditions did not and (it was shown) could not develop it, because their history had led to a different accumulation of minor mutations.   So Gould was right, to the extent that history does matter. Ironically, Conway Morris had earlier cited the experiment as evidence that Gould was wrong.

5 Responses

  1. […] – Tony Sidaway’s Blog -Simon Conway Morris still thinks “God did it” is a scientific statement Sandwalk – Can You Guess Who Wrote This? Bookmark […]

  2. Conway Morris was preaching in this morning’s Radio 4 service this morning.
    Not impressed by his 2005 Boyle lecture, or by his aticle at The Guardian’s Comment is Free.

  3. I think you rather misrepresent the Lenski experiment which showed that both chance and necessity play an important role in evolution. The overwhelming trend at the phenotypic level was to emphasize the power of necessity to produce parallel changes across independent lineages under the same selective regime, although some subtle chance difference occurred. At the genetic level the adaptive substitutions were concentrated in a few genes, empahsising again the power of necessity to produce parallel changes. All twelve populations have increased in fitness and followed similar trajectories and all have become glucose specialists. The striking exception was that one population developed the ability to use citrate due to a contingent set of changes. What can draw out from the experiment is that both Conway Morris and Gould have a point; chance and necessity have had a rich and complex interplay throughout life’s history. Its not an ‘either’-‘or’ thing.

    As for whether five fingered Homo Sapiens are inevitable, certainly not. But as Robert A Foley said in a recent essay:

    ‘Rather the adaptive process which is driven by selection does have some law like properties that may well – under the right circumstances – lead to more purposive behaviour as a means of increasing or coping with complex adaptive integration and greater complexity and lead to contained directional trends. These characteristics can be said to give evolution a repetitive and, hence, to some extent. inevitable pattern….The final conclusion I would draw is that evolution on other planets – or a rerun of evolution on this one – will lead to many similarities because of the law-like nature of these processes…In a distribution of intelligences in the universe, or on a sample of one, we might speculate that conscious, purpose driven intelligence represents the mode’

  4. I certainly simplified the description of the experiment. I don’t think Conway Morris has a place for chance, which is why I view the divergence in the Lenski experiment as so crucial. No five-fingered humans? Rubbish, no humans more like. Adaptation is only purposive through retrospective coronation.

  5. I think he does recognise the role of chance but seeks to put it into a wider context and show that pervasive biases occur (which they do). He necessarily has to argue strongly against contingency because such a lot of emphasis has been put on it in the past (and here he is singing from the same hymn sheet as Dawkins). I would agree with Lenski when he says that ‘Conway Morris ‘wins’ based on the number of changes that fit his pattern, but Gould might prevail if weighted by the profundity of change’.

    Recall that even Stephen Jay Gould allowed for some kind of progress simulation. He argued that life’s history is like a drunken man on a sidewalk, bounded on one side by a wall and the other by a ditch. Eventually, the man will fall into the ditch because he cannot go through the wall and his random path will take him to and over the other edge. So similarly simple organisms cannot get simpler, but they can get more complex, ending ultimately in intelligence.

    It is of course impossible to run the tape of life again but it is possible to provide evidence based arguments that certain things would reoccur given this planet and its climactic history. These are better than a simple argument from ignorance.

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