I swore off reading Simon Conway Morris long ago, after reading his awful, incoherent book, Life’s Solution, which I peevishly reviewed. He’s the go-to guy for Cambrian paleontology, and he’s definitely qualified and smart, but he’s got two strikes against him: he’s a terrible writer, making most of his output well-nigh unreadable, and he’s one of those scientists with a serious god infection, which means much of what he writes collapses into babbling theology at some point.
He’s done it again. Simon Conway Morris has an opinion piece in the Guardian, and it’s his usual tirade: atheists are nasty people who don’t think about the meaning of evolution, which is that god created us. As Jerry Coyne points out, this makes him indistinguishable from your garden variety creationist.
I have tried to follow the logic of Conway Morris. I can’t. Here is the bulk of his article, with my futile attempts to dissect the chain of reasoning in his central premise. This won’t be an easy exercise.
Isn’t it curious how evolution is regarded by some as a total, universe-embracing explanation, although those who treat it as a religion might protest and sometimes not gently. Don’t worry, the science of evolution is certainly incomplete. In fact, understanding a process, in this case natural selection and adaptation, doesn’t automatically mean that you also possess predictive powers as to what might (or even must) evolve. Nor is it logical to assume that simply because we are a product of evolution, as patently we are, that explains our capacity to understand the world. Rather the reverse.
Let’s agree with much of this. Our understanding of evolution is far from complete, of course. No one with any sense argues that the outcomes of the evolutionary process are at all predictable — there are just too many possibilities, chance and history play too great a role, and results are always dependent on local conditions, which change. This paragraph induces great confusion in me, though, because when you read the rest of the article, and when you’ve read his excruciating book, you realize that Conway Morris actually claims the exact opposite: that he can predict the general outcomes of evolution, that human-like beings are an inevitable outcome, and that in fact, the whole panoply of life on earth follows predictable paths to a small suite of convergent solutions.
But wait a moment; everybody knows that evolution isn’t predictable. Yes, a rich and vibrant biosphere to admire, but no end-product any more likely (or unlikely) than any other. Received wisdom pours out the usual litany: random mutations, catastrophic mass extinctions and other mega-disasters, super-virulent microbes all ensure that the drunkard’s walk is a linear process in comparison to the ceaseless lurching seen in the history of life. So not surprisingly nearly all neo-Darwinians insist that the outcomes – and that includes you – are complete flukes of circumstance. So to find flying organisms on some remote planet might not be a big surprise, but certainly no birds. Perhaps all life employs cells, but would anybody dare to predict a mushroom? In fact the evidence points in diametrically the opposite direction. Birds evolved at least twice, maybe four times. So too with the mushrooms. Both are among the less familiar examples of evolutionary convergence.
No, this is not at all correct, but Conway Morris does find another point of congruence with creationists. Most evolutionary biologists certainly do see chance and contingency as very important contributors to diversity…but no one concludes that species are “complete flukes of circumstance”. I’m surprised that he didn’t follow through with the usual cliche about evolution being like a tornado assembling a 747 in a junkyard.
Then he leaps onto his favorite hobby horse, convergent evolution. Remember the first paragraph I quoted, where he denounces the idea that we might predict evolutionary outcomes? Here he goes again, telling us that he can — implying that we ought to expect birds and mushrooms on other planets. (By the way, I have absolutely no idea what he’s claiming when he says that birds have evolved on earth four times, independently. I’m actually a bit concerned that I don’t know what he means by “birds” — terms seem to have a certain fluidity in the oozing liquidity of his logic.) But yes, let’s hear more about convergence.
Convergence? Simply how from very different starting points organisms “navigate” to very much the same biological solution. A classic example are our camera eyes and those of the squid; astonishingly similar but they evolved independently. But let’s not just concentrate on the squid eye, from molecules to social systems convergence is ubiquitous. Forget also the idea that in biology nearly anything is possible, that by and large it is a massive set of less than satisfactory compromises. In fact, paradoxically the sheer prevalence of convergence strongly indicates that the choices are far more limited, but when they do emerge the product is superb. Did you know eyes can detect single photons and our noses single molecules? Evolution has reached the limits of what is possible on planet Earth. In particular our doors of perception can only be extended by scientific instrument, enabling a panorama from the big bang to DNA.
I cannot bear it any more. I have to make a secondary complaint about Conway Morris’s piece. He seems to regard the English language as an axe murderer would a corpse: as an awkward obect that must be hacked into fragments, and the ragged chunks tossed into a rusty oil drum he calls an article. Continuity and flow are something that can be added after the fact, by pouring in a bag of quicklime. Unfortunately, one difference between the two is that Conway Morris will subsequently proudly display his handiwork in a newspaper, while the axe murderer at least has the decency to cart the grisly carnage off to the local landfill for anonymous and clandestine disposal. One can only hope that someday the paleontologist will perfect his emulation and take his work to the same conclusion.
As for convergence, Conway Morris focuses on it because it fits his desired conclusion, that biology is fore-ordained by a creator, not because it fits the totality of the evidence. I argue against the significance (but definitely not the reality) of convergence on two grounds.
Common descent tangles the interpretation of convergence hopelessly. I recommend an article in this week’s Nature by Shubin, Tabin, and Carroll that argues for an important concept of deep homology. We do see similar structures, such as limbs in insects and invertebrates, that are not at all homologous on a morphological level, but when we examine their molecular genetics, we find similar substrates for both. This is the central idea of deep homology, that we have shared primitives, a set of regulatory networks, that see reuse over and over again in evolution. So while limbs arose independently in insects and vertebrates, when we look more deeply, we find that both use the distal-less developmental pathway. We see convergence because there are common functional demands that channel the solutions of selection, but there are also shared molecular constraints that limit the range of likely solutions.
Conway Morris dwells far too much on the patterns that fit his model, and ignores the importance of divergence. For instance, one can focus on the way vertebrates have repeatedly evolved fusiform shapes for aquatic life: fish, ichthyosaurs, cetaceans. There certainly seems to be one likely answer that re-evolves over and over again. But these are all vertebrates, and that seems to be a pattern that is also a consequence of fundamentals of our body plan. But our seas are full of a very different solution: squid. Sure, they configure themselves into a streamlined teardrop shape for rapid locomotion, but they began with a very different body plan, and their solution is radically different, with long arms and jet propulsion. But then, perhaps, Conway Morris’s definition of “fish” is sufficiently fluid to include squid, ignoring the differences.
Convergence is interesting, and it does happen, but as a universal explanation for evolution, it is seriously lacking.
Yet how the former led to the latter, how it was that complexity emerged and is sustained even in that near-miracle of a chemical factory we call the cell is still largely enigmatic. Self-organisation is certainly involved, but one of the puzzles of evolution is the sheer versatility of many molecules, being employed in a myriad of different capacities. Indeed it is now legitimate to talk of a logic to biology, not a term you will hear on the lips of many neo-Darwinians. Nevertheless, evolution is evidently following more fundamental rules. Scientific certainly, but ones that transcend Darwinism. What! Darwinism not a total explanation? Why should it be? It is after all only a mechanism, but if evolution is predictive, indeed possesses a logic, then evidently it is being governed by deeper principles. Come to think about it so are all sciences; why should Darwinism be any exception?
Once again, in the welter of sentence fragments, we again see an example of convergence…between Conway Morris and creationists. There is the word “Darwinism” used as a pejorative; how often do we see that particular trope? Cells are really, really complex on the inside, full of “factories”, and he has a hard time imagining how they could have evolved without a designer — that’s straight from the Intelligent Design playbook. There too is the surprisingly ignorant accusation, in this case that neo-Darwinians are reluctant to use the word “logic”. If you’ve read Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful, for example, you’ll find it uses the word frequently — there is regulatory logic (which he explains with liberal use of comparisons with computer science), developmental logic, evolutionary logic. We simply do not hesitate to point out a rational examination of the world of biology does reveal order and pattern! Science wouldn’t work if the universe were purely chaotic. Where we differ is that we see that logic as a product of the natural properties of our universe, not as the product of a deity, but that does not mean that we deny order.
But there is more. How to explain mind? Darwin fumbled it. Could he trust his thoughts any more than those of a dog? Or worse, perhaps here was one point (along, as it happens, with the origin of life) that his apparently all-embracing theory ran into the buffers? In some ways the former possibility, the woof-woof hypothesis, is the more entertaining. After all, being a product of evolution gives no warrant at all that what we perceive as rationality, and indeed one that science and mathematics employ with almost dizzying success, has as its basis anything more than sheer whimsy. If, however, the universe is actually the product of a rational Mind and evolution is simply the search engine that in leading to sentience and consciousness allows us to discover the fundamental architecture of the universe – a point many mathematicians intuitively sense when they speak of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics – then things not only start to make much better sense, but they are also much more interesting. Farewell bleak nihilism; the cold assurances that all is meaningless. Of course, Darwin told us how to get there and by what mechanism, but neither why it is in the first place, nor how on earth we actually understand it.
Now we get a shift in emphasis. Somehow, the evidence of convergent evolution is supposed to point to a godly plan for life, but also human consciousness, which he argues is unique, is also supposed to point to god. It really doesn’t matter what phenomenon Conway Morris discusses — common solutions or one-off oddities, they all seem to cry out “god!” to the god-soaked mind. He thinks this is interesting, but I’m afraid that I find postulating untestable, unevidenced phenomena like a supreme being to explain reality is a tedious cop-out.
Of course, the claim that atheism implies “bleak nihilism” is yet another common canard. I am an atheist, yet neither am I bleak nor a nihilist. I know very, very few people who could even be called nihilists, but Conway Morris must find it easier to invent a caricature to rail against than to actually consider that most atheists are reasonably positive and find rationality to be a solace and an advantage.
To reiterate: when physicists speak of not only a strange universe, but one even stranger than we can possibly imagine, they articulate a sense of unfinished business that most neo-Darwinians don’t even want to think about. Of course our brains are a product of evolution, but does anybody seriously believe consciousness itself is material? Well, yes, some argue just as much, but their explanations seem to have made no headway. We are indeed dealing with unfinished business. God’s funeral? I don’t think so. Please join me beside the coffin marked Atheism. I fear, however, there will be very few mourners.
Yes, I seriously believe that consciousness is a product of a natural process. I find that the neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers who proceed from that premise are the ones who are actually making useful contributions to our understanding of the mind. We have not found any property of the human mind that is not dependent on the physical substrate of the brain (which does not preclude the possibility that other factors could contribute, but no one, including Conway Morris, ever manages to stutter out a useful alternative in public. Does he want to postulate a soul? I’m sure he does. But he never quite manages the courage to state it outright.)
This is a strange funeral Conway Morris is attending. The corpse is awfully lively, dancing about the room, courting all the pretty young boys and girls, thumbing its nose at the stuffy preacher, and jeering at the morose and inarticulate creationist standing in the corner with his shiny, unused shovel. Need I mention that we’ve buried a succession of gods? Apollo is gone, Zeus is no more, Thor is neglected, Dionysius is scarcely remembered (although I’m sure his wake was to die for), and almost all the gods people have ever worshipped are extinct. I’m sure Jesus will follow sometime, and this next time, there will be no resurrection — he’ll be the archaic myth that people only recall in literary metaphor.
Atheism will only die with human reason. It could happen, and Conway Morris is right — there may be no mourners. But there should be.