Why the evolution of humans was NOT inevitable; BioLogos peddles more dubious science

May 13, 2009 • 7:21 am

Over at that hilarious goldmine of accommodationism, Francis Collins’s BioLogos website (generously supported by The Templeton Foundation, they have posted an answer to the question, “Did evolution have to result in human beings?” Now if you know anything about this history of faith/science accommodationism, you know that the answer has to be “yes”, at least if you construe the question to mean “Did evolution have to result in a rational, highly intelligent being that was capable of apprehending and worshiping its creator?”  If God is running the evolutionary process, as the accommodationists maintain, then the evolution of humans (who are, after all, the goal of this process — the one species made in God’s image) could not have been left to chance.

And so, religious biologists like Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins, and “science-friendly” theologians like John Haught, have maintained in their writings that evolution would inevitably have coughed up an intelligent rational creature like Homo sapiens.  In other words, contrary to the assertions of Stephen Jay Gould, if we re-ran the tape of life, something humanlike would always appear.  Religious apologists always contend that the evolution of what we will call “humanoids” was not a continent process: it was built by God into the very fabric of evolution.

Of course, this is not a scientific belief.  For one thing, it makes humans different from other creatures.  The faithful don’t go around maintaining that the evolution of squirrels or cockroaches was an inevitable outcome of the evolutionary process, because according to Scripture God didn’t make rodents of insects in His image.  So God stuck his hand in, somewhere, to make humanoids appear.  That is creationism, pure and simple.  Or, he designed the process with the foreknowledge that humans would appear, which is also creationism, since no evolutionist really thinks that the process was jerry-rigged from the outset to produce certain life forms.

Second, if you do believe in a naturalistic and materialistic process of evolution in which God didn’t interfere, then the appearance of humans doesn’t seem likely at all — and certainly not inevitable.  Higher intelligence and rationality evolved only once, so it certainly isn’t something like eyes (whose morphology evolved independently dozens of time).  The idea that “convergent evolution” shows that humans were inevitable is deeply fallacious.

Yet BioLogos uses this argument — a favorite of the religious paleontologist Simon Conway Morris –to show that (surprise!) something like humans WAS inevitable in evolution.  After disposing of Gould’s contingency argument, they then approvingly reiterate Conway Morris’s “convergence” argument:

Humans: Inevitable, Intentional

Simon Conway Morris presents a different perspective, arguing humans, or a human-like species, are actually an inevitable part of evolution.  Morris is not proposing a different mechanism for human evolution, merely a different observation of its possible outcomes.  Morris would agree that any slight difference in the history of human DNA would result in a different evolutionary path.  Unlike Gould, however, Morris argues each of those possible pathways would inevitably lead to something like the human species.  Morris writes:

“The prevailing view of evolution is that life has no direction — no goals, no predictable outcomes. Hedged in by circumstances and coincidence, the course of life lurches from one point to another. It is pure chance that 3 billion years of evolution on Earth have produced a peculiarly clever ape. We may find distant echoes of our aptitude for tool making and language and our relentless curiosity in other animals, but intelligence like ours is very special. Right?”

“Wrong! The history of life on Earth appears impossibly complex and unpredictable, but take a closer look and you’ll find a deep structure. Physics and chemistry dictate that many things simply are not possible, and these constraints extend to biology. The solution to a particular biological problem can often only be handled in one of a few ways, which is why when you examine the tapestry of evolution you see the same patterns emerging over and over again.”

The patterns Morris mentions are also referred to as convergences in the evolutionary process.  In his most recent book, Life’s Solution, Morris gives many examples of physical traits or abilities found repeatedly among different species.5 Normally, such similarities are understood asthe result of common ancestry.  However, the species in Morris’s examples are known to be distantly related.  In many cases, not even these species’ common ancestor shared the same trait.  The implication is that several different species have independently developed similar traits.

The examples of convergence range across many levels of biology.  One popular and straightforward example is the human eye.  It turns out that several other species share a nearly identical visual system to that of the human eye, including the octopus.6 However, humans and octopuses have separate predecessors, neither of which shared this characteristic.  Two very different evolutionary paths arrived at the same visual system.  If Gould’s supposition is correct, and there was an infinity of other possible outcomes, then this example of convergence is all the more improbable.  Morris’s argument, conversely, is that the laws of nature allow for only a few solutions to any particular problem.  It appears the eye has developed independently at least seven times over the course of evolutionary time.

Human Significance

To see evidence for human significance, one need only consider Morris’s examples of convergence for many of the traits that are particularly relevant for human-like beings.  These examples include basic senses like balance, hearing and vision, as well as highly advanced features like the human brain.  Morris argues that evolution does not pose any threat to human significance.  Characteristics such as a large brain capable of consciousness, language and complex thought would inevitably have to emerge from the evolutionary process. Morris writes:

“Contrary to popular belief, the science of evolution does not belittle us.  As I argue, something like ourselves is an evolutionary inevitability, and our existence also reaffirms our one-ness with the rest of Creation.” 7

The exact anatomical features of this ultimate sentient being might not be precisely specified by the evolutionary process, however.  This thought can be unsettling to anyone who imagines our particular body plan is part of the imago Dei, or image of God. Despite the marvelous paintings in the Sistine Chapel, there is no reason to think that God the Father has a physical body that looks like ours.

God’s Sovereignty in the Evolution of Humans

Belief in a supernatural creator always leaves open the possibility that human beings are a fully-intended part of creation.  If the Creator chooses to interact with creation, he could very well influence the evolutionary process to ensure the arrival of his intended result.  (See Question 14 about Evolution and Divine Action.)  Furthermore, an omniscient creator could easily create the universe in such a way that physical and natural laws would result in human evolution.  (See Question 19 about Fine-Tuning of our Universe.)

Although the unpredictable mutations of DNA can make any species appear entirely accidental, Simon Conway Morris also puts forward strong arguments in favor of the inevitability of creatures that have the attributes of humans.  From this perspective, it seems the evolutionary process itself might be geared toward human life.

So it goes. (By the way, have a look at the last paragraph of this page where BioLogos suggests that the evolution of humanoids ON OTHER PLANETS was  improbable. (As expected, they take this stand because theologists can’t see God sending Jesus careening from planet to planet to save every species of alien).

The Argument for the Inevitability of Humanoids is perhaps the most popular argument (ranking with The Fine Tuning of Physical Constants) used by accommodists to show that evolution and God are not in conflict.  But the argument is simply wrong.  Nobody can say with assurance that the evolution of humanoids was inevitable.  The only honest response is “We don’t know” (and I would add “what we know about evolution tells us that it was probably not inevitable.”)

I attacked this argument in my New Republic essay “Seeing and Believing,” and for those who haven’t read it, or who don’t wish to plow through the link to find it, I’ll reproduce it here. This was a review of two books, Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, and Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution.


In Finding Darwin’s God, his earlier book, Miller proclaimed a universal theism: “Remember, once again, that people of faith believe their God is active in the present world, where He works in concert with the naturalism of physics and chemistry.” Giberson clearly agrees. And where do they find the hand of God in nature? Unsurprisingly, in the appearance of humans.

Giberson and Miller assert that the evolution of humans, or something very like them, was inevitable. Given the way that evolution works, they claim, it was certain that the animal kingdom would eventually work its way up to a species that was conscious, highly intelligent, and above all, capable of apprehending and worshipping its creator. This species did not have to look perfectly human, but it did have to have our refined mentality (call it “humanoid”). One of Miller’s chapters is even titled “The World That Knew We Were Coming.” Giberson notes that “capabilities like vision and intelligence are so valuable to organisms that many, if not most biologists believe they would probably arise under any normal evolutionary process…. So how can evolution be entirely random, if certain sophisticated end points are predictable?”

Reading this, many biologists will wonder how he can be so sure. After all, evolution is a contingent process. The way natural selection molds a species depends on unpredictable changes in climate, on random physical events such as meteor strikes or volcanic eruptions, on the occurrence of rare and random mutations, and on which species happen to be lucky enough to survive a mass extinction. If, for example, a large meteor had not struck Earth sixty-five million years ago, contributing to the extinction of the dinosaurs–and to the rise of the mammals they previously dominated–all mammals would probably still be small nocturnal insectivores, munching on crickets in the twilight.

Evolutionists long ago abandoned the notion that there is an inevitable evolutionary march toward greater complexity, a march that culminated in humans. Yes, the average complexity of all species has increased over the three-and-a-half billion years of evolution, but that is because life started out as a simple replicating molecule, and the only way to go from there is to become more complex. But now complexity is not always favored by natural selection. If you are a parasite, for instance, natural selection may make you less complex, because you can live off the exertions of another species. Tapeworms evolved from free-living worms, and during their evolution have lost their digestive system, their nervous system, and much of their reproductive apparatus. As I tell my students, they have become just absorptive bags of gonads, much like the students themselves. Yet tapeworms are superbly adapted for a parasitic way of life. It does not always pay to be smarter, either. For some years I had a pet skunk, who was lovable but dim. I mentioned this to my vet, who put me in my place: “Stupid? Hell, he’s perfectly adapted for being a skunk!” Intelligence comes with a cost: you need to produce and to carry that extra brain matter, and to crank up your metabolism to support it. And sometimes this cost exceeds the genetic payoff. A smarter skunk might not be a fitter skunk.

To support the inevitability of humans, Giberson and Miller invoke the notion of evolutionary convergence. This idea is simple: species often adapt to similar environments by independently evolving similar features. Ichthyosaurs (ancient marine reptiles), porpoises, and fish all evolved independently in the water, and through natural selection all three acquired fins and a similar streamlined shape. Complex “camera eyes” evolved in both vertebrates and squid. Arctic animals such as polar bears, arctic hares, and snowy owls either are white or turn white in the winter, hiding them from predators or prey. Perhaps the most astonishing example of convergence is the similarity between some species of marsupial mammals in Australia and unrelated placental mammals that live elsewhere. The marsupial flying phalanger looks and acts just like the flying squirrel of the New World. Marsupial moles, with their reduced eyes and big burrowing claws, are dead ringers for our placental moles. Until its extinction in 1936, the remarkable thylacine, or Tasmanian wolf, looked and hunted like a placental wolf.

Convergence tells us something deep about evolution. There must be preexisting “niches,” or ways of life, that call up similar evolutionary changes in unrelated species that adapt to them. That is, starting with different ancestors and fuelled by different mutations, natural selection can nonetheless mold bodies in very similar ways–so long as those changes improve survival and reproduction. There were niches in the sea for fish-eating mammals and reptiles, so porpoises and ichthyosaurs became streamlined. Animals in the Arctic improve their survival if they are white in the winter. And there must obviously be a niche for a small omnivorous mammal that glides from tree to tree. Convergence is one of the most impressive features of evolution, and it is common: there are hundreds of cases.

All it takes to argue for the inevitability of humanoids, then, is to claim that there was a “humanoid niche”–a way of life that required high intelligence and sophisticated self-consciousness–and that this niche remained unfilled until inevitably invaded by human ancestors. But was its occupation really inevitable? Miller is confident that it was:

“But as life re-explored adaptive space, could we be certain that our niche would not be occupied? I would argue that we could be almost certain that it would be–that eventually evolution would produce an intelligent, self-aware, reflective creature endowed with a nervous system large enough to solve the very same questions we have, and capable of discovering the very process that produced it, the process of evolution…. Everything we know about evolution suggests that it could, sooner or later, get to that niche.”

Miller and Giberson are forced to this view for a simple reason. If we cannot prove that humanoid evolution was inevitable, then the reconciliation of evolution and Christianity collapses. For if we really were the special object of God’s creation, our evolution could not have been left to chance. (It may not be irrelevant that although the Catholic Church accepts most of Darwinism, it makes an official exception for the evolution of Homo sapiens, whose soul is said to have been created by God and inserted at some point into the human lineage.)

The difficulty is that most scientists do not share Miller’s certainty. This is because evolution is not a repeatable experiment. We cannot replay the tape of life over and over to see if higher consciousness always crops up. In fact, there are good reasons for thinking that the evolution of humanoids was not only not inevitable, but was a priori improbable. Although convergences are striking features of evolution, there are at least as many failures of convergence. These failures are less striking because they involve species that are missing. Consider Australia again. Many types of mammals that evolved elsewhere have no equivalents among marsupials. There is no marsupial counterpart to a bat (that is, a flying mammal), or to giraffes and elephants (large mammals with long necks or noses that can browse on the leaves of trees). Most tellingly, Australia evolved no counterpart to primates, or any creature with primate-like intelligence. In fact, Australia has many unfilled niches–and hence many unfulfilled convergences, including that prized “humanoid” niche. If high intelligence was such a predictable result of evolution, why did it not evolve in Australia? Why did it arise only once, in Africa?

This raises another question. We recognize convergences because unrelated species evolve similar traits. In other words, the traits appear in more than one species. But sophisticated, self-aware intelligence is a singleton: it evolved just once, in a human ancestor. (Octopi and dolphins are also smart, but they do not have the stuff to reflect on their origins.) In contrast, eyes have evolved independently forty times, and white color in Arctic animals appeared several times. It is hard to make a convincing case for the evolutionary inevitability of a feature that arose only once. The elephant’s trunk, a complex and sophisticated adaptation (it has over forty thousand muscles!), is also an evolutionary singleton. Yet you do not hear scientists arguing that evolution would inevitably fill the “elephant niche.” Giberson and Miller proclaim the inevitability of humanoids for one reason only: Christianity demands it.

Finally, it is abundantly clear that the evolution of human intelligence was a contingent event: contingent on the drying out of the African forest and the development of grasslands, which enabled apes to leave the trees and walk on two legs. Indeed, to maintain that the evolution of humans was inevitable, you must also maintain that the evolution of apes was inevitable, that the evolution of primates was inevitable, that the rise of mammals was inevitable, and so on back through dozens of ancestors, all of whose appearances must be seen as inevitable. This produces a regress of increasing unlikelihood. In the end, the question of whether human-like creatures were inevitable can be answered only by admitting that we do not know–and adding that most scientific evidence suggests that they were not. Any other answer involves either wishful thinking or theology.

Miller opts for theology. Although his new book does not say how God ensured the arrival of Homo sapiens, Miller was more explicit in Finding Darwin’s God. There he suggested that the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics allows God to intervene at the level of atoms, influencing events on a larger scale:

“The indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations, the activation of individual neurons in the brain, and even the survival of individual cells and organisms affected by the chance processes of radioactive decay.”

In other words, God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they’re invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God’s micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.

Obviously, given that higher intelligence and rationality of the human type has evolved only once, the existence of convergence says nothing about whether these features would always appear.  In fact, the one-offness seems to imply otherwise.

What bothers me about this is, of course, that BioLogos is using the imprimatur of science (and the wonky ideas of Simon Conway Morris) to try to convince people that of course our evolution was inevitable.  This tactic is a favorite of BioLogos (and Templeton), for it tries to blur the boundaries between science and faith.  As scientists we can say nothing about the inevitability of humans except that it seems unlikely given its unique appearance.  Certainly one can say that the idea of evolutionary convergence is irrelevant here.

Please, BioLogos, stop making scientific arguments for God!

48 thoughts on “Why the evolution of humans was NOT inevitable; BioLogos peddles more dubious science

  1. I am not surprised that the accomodationists and the cretinists spout that crap. They will do anything to look correct, but all they do is look like the fools that they are.

    1. NewEnglandBob,

      They are primarily using the same argument that Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett use to argue against the importance of recognizing contingency and to support a kind of inevitability. See my post below – number 11

  2. Ambrose Bierce summed it up nicely around a century ago:
    PIETY, n.
    Reverence for the Supreme Being, based upon His supposed resemblance to man.
    The pig is taught by sermons and epistles
    To think the God of Swine has snout and bristles.

  3. Wonderfully done, I enjoyed reading that part from your essay again. This debate excites me and you are kicking ass. I think S.J. Gould destroyed their arguments and you offer a thorough debunking.

    A couple things…

    In response to your “S&B” essay, Miller states: -“This doesn’t mean, as I took care to point out in my book, that nature is rigged to produce big-brained, hairless, bipedal primates who would invent football, canned beer, and reality television. Rather, it means that the universe in which we live is sufficiently hospitable to life that on this one planet, at the very least, it has supported an evolutionary process that gave rise to intelligent, self-aware, reflective organisms, who would then be capable of arguing about the meaning, purpose, and nature of existence.

    I made no argument that this happy confluence of natural events and physical constants proves the existence of God in any way.”-

    This appears to be slightly different. In fact, he is saying in the “very least” human intelligence arose in the universe (N1). This is apart from the alien Jesus possibility. I don’t fully understand Miller’s position with regards to how he actually views arguments such as Gould’s on the question of inevitability. However, at some point he is recognizing faith as the key component, but also uses the same faith to make claims about scientific discovery by hedging it enough to make one think he’s saying isn’t it “possible”, but of course his faith is reality as much as the reality that is discovered is thought to confirm the faith. It is a top-down explanation of reality based on confirmed belief that is unjustified by the very evidences he uses to claim it is.

    The Biologos argument seems strange:

    -“Simon Conway Morris also puts forward strong arguments in favor of the inevitability of creatures that have the attributes of humans. From this perspective, it seems the evolutionary process itself might be geared toward human life.”-

    This is odd if one accepts contingency argument. The process for inevitability is given deeper roots here by arguing that we can point to ancestry as inevitable, but that is done without justification beyond making a supportive statement on why we are here with our big brains. However, this doesn’t seem to deny contingency since it must accept something could have interfered with the process leading to us, so why the inevitability when anywhere along the way we don’t know all that changed the course. Therefore if it is guided in anyway, which they seem to waffle on, the contingent force which changed the direction would have a certain level of foreknowledge placed into the system. We are then still left with only the idea that the reason these arguments can be made is that we are here to make them. There is of course nothing to change this fact at the moment, and so we are left with the top-down explanation that is dishonestly offered as a “possibility” (wink-wink nudge-nudge). These augments to me are as you depict them, nothing more than using scientific discovery to massage a God into the picture of nature. They are then letting faith dictate observed phenomena with what appears to be a recognized unjustifiability.

    We are left to some extent with these debates because of the glorious contingency, and the human brain. Of course, this is not a new debate.

    Alfred Russell Wallace, accepted evolution by natural selection then hedged because of the appearance of the human brain, it was then to complex and explanations to wanting to think it could have evolved exclusively by natural means.

    Wallace could not imagine the brain having evolved to encapsulate all the creativity found in the society of his time [Read: England, circa 1860’s] and still, according to his view, “savages” roamed the earth with the potentiality to produce cultural significant work. In the place of natural selection at the point of human consciousness, Wallace tells us a supernatural force, God, must be the explanation of such an accomplishment. For how, Wallace thought, could you explain such latent potential in the human brain?

    Again, Wallace is offering the top-town explanation forced into the brain because of the adequate explanatory power of evolutionary theory in nature.

    The importance of understanding Wallace’s view on the evolution of the human brain as shown by Gould is because of the fact an agent (i.e. – cell, plant, animal, brain, etc.) can not have foreknowledge of an event that will decide if that agent’s ability to survive in it’s current environment will transcend into another, sometimes sudden and drastically, altered environment. Wallace believed in transcendence in a spiritual way, that for him it was fact that forces unknown at the time could guide nature with an unseen hand. What Gould shows was only the belief of Wallace’s reasoning concerning how consciousness in the human brain must be guided by God, for it does not vary physically from the “savage” to the cultured so therefore he was unable to recognize other influences on adaptation. But, what Gould fails to mention how Wallace’s theory fit with his beliefs of the “spirit” world found in the mediums and fakers of his day.

    And it is on this last point where I think a certain level of understanding is needed. Even though Morris’ arguments may appear a trifle more sophisticated than Wallace’s, they are non-the-less the product of the same process due to a many teared influential structure. I do sympathize with saying their arguments are creationist type, however, I’m not certain sending the message this is creationism is wise since there is a common understanding of creationism already which if we maintain ID is just that, confusion is limited. I don’t see they have taken the leap that a Behe has, and I wonder where we are focusing our greatest concern if it suddenly is mirrored in arguments of accomodation.

    However, I do agree with you, Jerry, and once again you’ve done an excellent job. I think the attempts at reconciliation of science and religion by the religious is often insulting. It often ignores for convenience sake that scientific truths are provisional and latching a belief or justification for a belief on scientific discovery makes no sense since what happens when the theory or facts of science change. Of course, they will deviate and find something else without nary a hiccup in their faith. This often leads me to wonder of the more intemperate aspects advocated by certain atheist, it would seem to miss the point which these types of examples illustrate, we are then forced to recognize understanding belief more fully for more rational remedies to their dangers. These attempts to constantly overlap science and religion is a great frustration that is often given the weight of science via scientist making claims about Gods. It’s great that so many scientist lately want to talk about God while donning their science caps, however at what point does one recognize we don’t know what the hell we’re talking about outside of beliefs, that science has no use for a God hypothesis.

  4. Will Miller add his inevitability of the evolution of man to his biology text? If not, why not?

    It bothers me why he believes that humans are the end of this process. With his arguments, we could be just the beginning, god trying out the human thing. He didn’t get it quite right with Neanderthal, then made had Homo sap in an improvement of concept. But humans are quite there. Not all are Christians, some are dark and dirty, etc. He spins off a post-human species, perhaps with the help of a Coyne-Orr speciation gene. This new post-human species drives Homo sap extinct, and god gets closer to what he wants.

  5. I meant “But humans are’nt quite there” in previous post. In an airport with dying battery. Sorry

  6. That living things have progressed in complexity over time is an observed fact. The existence of relatively simple organisms doesn’t change that fact. Besides that, most parasites aren’t nearly as simple as they appear to be. It takes real complexity to perform some of their tricks.

    Bigger and bigger brains have also appeared over time, which likewise isn’t changed by the fact that many lineages are optimal with small or absent brains.

    I think it’s not terribly unlikely, if unlikely at all, that human-caliber intelligence can evolve more than once. After all, it’s not as if our own was merely a freak mutation that mysteriously held on. There was a long, persistent pressure in multiple human lineages for bigger brains. It’s likely that the only reason other lineages haven’t survived to this day is that our own had supplanted them.

    But that’s entirely different from suggesting (quite incorrectly) that humans will evolve, over and over. That doesn’t just include our physical form (featherless biped), but our long mental evolutionary history. Any other high intelligences in the universe may think radically differently than we do in all matters not constrained by logic.

  7. Regarding intelligence having evolved only once: while it’s clearly a rarer occurrence than eyes or flight, we really have no data on how unlikely it is, because we suffer from sampling bias. We’re the first intelligent species on Earth, and we haven’t been here very long, so surprise surprise, we observe that it’s only evolved once.

    I think one factor is that brains aren’t enough. The hominids got a lucky break in having manipulators they could profitably use with their intelligence, so there was strong pressure to improve their brains. Dolphins didn’t get that break. Octopuses did, but failed somewhere else – short lifespans, maybe.

    Or so I surmise – I’m no biologist.

  8. Even if the development of humans was, in any sense, inevitable, that wouldn’t justify any assertion that “God did it”.

    As soon as God is claimed to have created the universe or to have anything at all to do with it, a clash with science is created. If miracles and prayers are thrown in, then “God willing” would be implicit in the statement of every natural law and there would be nothing wrong with the testimonials at “Unleavened Bread Ministries” that faith can heal dead car batteries and fix uneven tire wear by fixing the front-end–among other things.

  9. If we are living in a deterministic universe, how can really anything (except perhaps specific phenomena in quantum mechanics) not be predetermined? What is chance even supposed to be? Something that happens without any reason, without any cause?

    Sorry, from the perspective of physics, I don’t get it. However: The answer to this questions has nothing to do with god and a deterministic universe like ours is not particularly god-friendly at all.

  10. As I have stated on other posts

    1) That something exactly the same as us would emerge is unlikely. However, what you can say is that from the origin of life to the present day, organisms have become, larger, multicellularly complex, taxonomically diverse, and energetically intensive. One significant trend that has emerged in life’s history (and might emerge again if the tape were re-run) is selective interorganismal investment which is represented by high degrees of parental care and social reciprocity. This is effectively a directional trend that selects for reduced fertility, higher consumption, greater investments in juveniles, and longer life. Among some primates this has resulted in larger brains, and increased capacity for attachment, altruism and moral commitment (but also manipulation, spite etc). In our particular species our brain has evolved into an advanced higher order system and we have the hard to define properties of ‘awareness’ and ‘understanding’ which increases our capacity for freedom of choice.

    2) I agree with Robert A Foley when he says that ‘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’

    3) Even if something like humans had no evolved up till now, we still have around 1 billion years before the habitable zone is extinguished by the sun’s increasing heat. One billion years was enough time to go from the first multicellular life to where we are today.

    So can we really say it is ‘unlikely’ that something like us would have evolved given this planet’s history?. I don’t think so. What about the universe as a whole with it’s more than 100 billion galaxies?.

    1. One thing I should have added as a point for debate is that if Jerry is right, the SETI project is a complete waste of time. Why are SETI and its private backers bothering to try to contact extra-terrestrials if their emergence is incredibly unlikely according to evolution?.

      1. Yet another thing I forgot to mention:

        ‘If, for example, a large meteor had not struck Earth sixty-five million years ago, contributing to the extinction of the dinosaurs–and to the rise of the mammals they previously dominated–all mammals would probably still be small nocturnal insectivores, munching on crickets in the twilight.’

        Does this conclusion have to change in the light of new evidence?.

        Dinosaurs declined before mass extinction


        Study rejects dinosaur extinction theory


        The sum total of the latest research seems to suggest that mammals diversified before the fairly sudden disappearance of the dinosaurs. The dinos themselves were in decline long before the impact which actually appears (if the latest theory is to be believed) to have had less of an effect than first thought.

        Lets say that it doesn’t. Well I’m not really sure that changes matters. First, of the other four big mass extinctions in the Phanerozoic (ie from the beginning of the Cambrian and so an effective fossil record) the net result of three of them (end Ordovician, late Devonian and Triassic) was muted. What succeeded did not differ so greatly from what preceded. Second, a good argument can be made that even those two extinctions, K/T and end-Permian, that are highly catastrophic only served to accelerate or postpone the course of evolution, but they failed to divert the overall path. The world entered a series of major glaciations from about 350 million years ago. There is little doubt that the warm blooded birds and mammals that were co-existent with the dinosaurs would have seized the opportunity to rapidly diversify into the temperate and polar regions. The tropics would remain the preserve of the reptiles but nearer the poles we would predict that the diversification of the warm blooded groups would see the emergence of complex organisations including vocalisation tool making, social play and co-operative hunting. All these attributes have evolved in birds quite independently of the mammals as indeed has warm bloodedness itself (which allows larger brain sizes due to the maintenance of regular temperature). Again its not right to conclude that five fingered homo sapiens are inevitable. But it does suggest contingency is only half of the story.

      2. Would it surprise you that Michael Shermer (I bring him up because of the arguments I presented by him in supporting contingency argument) fully supports SETI, as do I (I wouldn’t doubt Jerry does too).

        Look at the first signature on this SETI petition to President Clinton.


        Perhaps you are misunderstanding the arguments?

      3. Lord Kitchener,

        Besides my point on SETI mentioned here. I checked out that UPI news story on the massive volcanic die-off theory.

        Keller, the author of the study is concluding (quoted from the story you linked):

        ~”indicating a massive die-off did not occur directly after an asteroid strike, but occurred much later.

        Keller said her studies of rock formations at many sites in the United States, Mexico and India have led her to conclude volcanoes, not a vast meteorite, were the more likely culprits in the demise of Earth’s giant reptiles.”~

        This is not a new theory, but she indicates of some evidence, but I don’t see how your point follows about diversification from this study or story? The asteroid theory is said in the news story to put the date at 65 million years ago, all it says about the Volcanic mass-die off is much later. There have obviously been times of great die off and diversity, but I’m not sure I’m getting the link here?

      4. Lord Kitchener,

        I’m curious, since you are quoting directly from what I presume is your blog – which blogger are you? And may I ask if you’re Christian? If so, do you find that to be your primary motivation for accepting Morris’ theories? Your position perhaps being “more nuanced than the knuckle dragging materialists of present day academia.” – Did it surprise you to see Dawkins may agree in part with you, and his philosophical soul mate, Dennet also scorned Gould for applying importance to contingency. Though, I fear both read past him making them susceptible to Morris.

      5. Hi Dave

        As you’ve noticed, I have quoted from my blog and my name is Humphrey. I suppose you could call me some sort of Christian Platonist, not that this has much to do with my support for Conway Morris. I think he is restoring constraint to his rightful place although I think he has a tendency to downplay contingency too much. I knew Dawkins agrees, to a lesser extent, with this kind of ‘adaptationist’ account having read his books. I only recently got a copy of Dennett’s ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ and I was pleasantly surprised to see that this is his position too.

        On the SETI point, on the one hand I am pleased to see Gould pledge his support as a SETI enthusiast myself. However, I don’t see why he would do so if his opinion was that if you played the tape of life again you would get something completely different. Perhaps it’s because his view of evolution did allow for some kind of progress simulation, the drunken man who bounces off the walls. I shall get back to you on the KT extinction event as I need to look up the relevant study.

        One complaint. You appear to have quoted me as saying my position is “more nuanced than the knuckle dragging materialists of present day academia”. I actually said that the philosopher David Hume’s position was more nuanced, which it was.



      6. The studies which caught my attention were these ones. Apologies I haven’t linked to the actual papers, a lot of links appear to be broken.


        The first period of evolutionary expansion among the mammals was an event 100-85 million years ago when the extant orders first appeared. Modern placental lineages were therefore present at the time of the dinosaurs.

        Does that mean that even without dinosaur extinction they would have carried on evolving into the types of large mammals that we see around today?. It seems unlikely but recent research – that of Paul Barrett in the Proceedings of the Royal Society – is showing:

        ‘for the first time that the number of different types of dinosaur was declining well before their final extinction, in spite of the fact the amount of rock available for preserving dinosaurs was at its peak.’


        So my (speculative) conclusion would be that there is a pre-existing trend of mammals diversifying and becoming more successful and dinosaurs declining (constraint). We then get a series of disasters, whether it be the fall out from the meteorite impact or Keller’s volcanic activity which speed up this process (contingency), but like the previous mass extinctions this hasn’t served to radically alter the prevailing trends.

    2. Lord Kitchener,

      Re: Your: Posted May 15, 2009 at 2:24 am

      I don’t a problem here with regards to a contingency argument concerning whether humans were inevitable or not. I think Gould would be delighted by these findings, and they certainly don’t disrupt his and Eldredge’s Punctuated Equilibrium theory in any way.

      As to Gould and his his support for SETI – maybe you’re seeing it that way perhaps due to emphasis. Just because things could be different doesn’t mean you eliminate the potential for intelligent life.

      1. Last post of mine: Posted May 15, 2009 at 11:04 am

        The first sentence should obviously read:

        I don’t see* a problem here…

  11. ~~“Historical experiment after experiment reveals the same answer: we are a fluke of nature, a quirk of evolution, a glorious contingency.”~~ MS

    Some of the comments, along with the quote above brought to mind other aspects to these types of debates.

    The first in complexity. Realizing this may appear incompatible to certain sentiments, on deeper inspection they may find otherwise. Complexity theorist (and chaos theory) fully utilize contingency argument. Some big names in complexity theory, Stuart Kauffmann and Murray Gell-Mann found great use and inspiration in Stephen J. Gould’s, Wonderful Life and Full House. There was clearly some detail errors, but the structure still remains quite strong, as of yet I’ve not seen a decent rebuttal. That includes from Dennett (which makes me wonder why Jerry seems to think “inevitability” is as accepted as it is).

    In much the same way I feel it possible that Jerry is reading past Lewontin to some extent in his “critique”, Dennett went about reading past Gould in the unfashionable manner of arguing how it fit a preordained label and not so much the meat of the argument.

    But, oddly I’m provided talking about it do to the fact Jerry, a strict adaptationist (“every case” can “find”) who seems to show no emphasis or need for potential exaptation (cooption). However, he is also using the argument of contingency to strike back against the inevitability arguments used for humans. Perhaps a nice fit, perhaps a sign of weakness, after all one does not demote the other, or does it.

    Take a couple of examples…

    Shermer makes the argument that we are unlikely to find bipedal aliens, though at some time I’d like to extend this debate. Richard Dawkins responds to his argument (in a Dennett type fashion – in fact at times I wonder who needs who more, there’s a feedback loop in theory support that seems impregnable) by stating:

    ~~”I would agree with him in betting against aliens being bipedal primates and I think the point is worth making, but I think he greatly overestimates the odds against. Simon Conway-Morris, whose authority is not to be dismissed, thinks it positively likely that aliens would be, in effect, bipedal primates. Ed Wilson gave at least some time to the speculation that, if it had not been for the end-cretaceous catastrophe, dinosaurs might have produced something like the attached.”~~ Dawkins

    Yes, in case you’re wondering, that is Dawkins using Conway-Morris’ as the authority in the argument. Of course, does it really surprise you that two ends of the spectrum are attracted to Morris, or is the weight of Morris’ argument?

    Shermer answered back:

    ~~”It seems to me that if something like a bipedal primate (or the equivalent thereof) has a certain inevitability to it because of how evolution unfolds, then it would have happened more than once here.[..].but Neanderthals were as close as one can get to a counterfactual experiment, and they had half a million years to themselves in Europe without our interference, and showed no signs of cultural progress whatsoever in that time (tool kits stayed the same, no symbolic art, etc.). So that seems to me a bit of data against that argument.”~~

    In Dawkins’ response he brings it around a bit to clarify, but here he is creating distance from Morris and striking some kind of middle world (to use his phrase – I’ll save sky-hook for later).

    ~~”I agree with you that androids are rare, that is indeed suggested by the fact that they have only evolved once on Earth. I agree with you that science fiction, and the alien abduction subculture, have an unseemly eagerness to imagine androids, which you are right to denigrate. But I suspect that androids are not so very rare as to justify the statistical superlatives that you permitted yourself in the vignette. I have discussed such matters in the last chapter of The Ancestor’s Tale. I think Conway-Morris goes too far in one direction, and you go too far in the other.”~~

    Of course, the problem here as related to the original debate is human inevitability on earth. That’s the part about times arrow, even if “possibility” can be used as a sound argument we are left to contend with contingent features built into the system. What made us bipedal and what do we mean by progress, the features that create an aspect have no foreknowledge of the environment and we end up not only have one aspect being inevitable but a series of aspects having to have to happen in a fairly similar order. The only way to actually make that argument really is to use the only example we have, us, then say we appear very, very likely, therefore contingency is partly thrown out the window. But, go back to my first quote, think about the series of incredible occurrences that have happened, a few tweaks here and there along with a few major changes (an asteroid or two, galaxy collision) and we may tell a different story. So, the progress and complexity arguments, as true as they may be, do not answer the questions to satisfaction.

    Let me take a some quotes from, Glorious Contingency:

    ~~”[Stephen J. Gould]: ~”My argument in Wonderful Life is that there is a domain of law and a domain of contingency, and our struggle is to find the line between them. The reason why the domain of contingency is so vast, and much vaster than most people thought, is not because there isn’t a lawlike domain. It is because we are primarily interested in ourselves and we have posited various universal laws of nature. It is because…we want to see ourselves as results of lawlike predictability and sensible products of the universe in that sense.”~~

    Following paragraph in Glorious Contingency:

    ~~”A skyhook is a ‘mind-first’ force or power or process, an exception to the principle that all design, and apparent design, is ultimately the result of mindless, motiveless mechanicity. A crane, in contrast, is a subprocess or special feature of a design process that can be demonstrated to permit the local speeding up of the basic, slow process of natural selection, and that can be demonstrated to be itself the predictable (or retrospectively explicable) product of the basic process.” Dennett accuses Gould of trying to sneak in a skyhook while he and his brave brethren—the unalloyed Darwinians—face the crane maker with brutal honesty. In fact, Dennett spends no less than fifty typeset pages trying to convince his readers that Gould is a skyhooker. Me thinks the gentleman doth protest too much. In my opinion, Dennett, and some others who adhere to a strict Darwinian adaptationist program, may be trying to find in nature a nonexisting pattern that shows us—Homo sapiens—as the nearly inevitable result of evolution. Dennett’s crane of relentless natural selection is, for him, a skyhook—”a ‘mind-first’ force or power or process” that, run over and over, would produce us again and again.”~~

    It would appear that Gould and Dawkins both may think inevitability is possibly likely and an argument of contingency is false, not only false in Dennett’s case, but invented.

    1. Shermer writes:

      ‘Neanderthals were as close as one can get to a counterfactual experiment, and they had half a million years to themselves in Europe without our interference, and showed no signs of cultural progress whatsoever in that time (tool kits stayed the same, no symbolic art, etc.)’

      I disagree with this. It is a possibility that the Châtelperronian culture was developed independently of Homo Sapiens. Homo Flores would also represent another lineage which despite having a much smaller brain, developed stone tools and used fire for cooking. They also developed a dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (part of the brain relating to self awareness) roughly the same size of modern humans.

      1. Yes, an interesting argument. However, are we so sure. First, when you say that the Chatelperronian culture (industry) was developed independentaly of Homo Sapiens does not fully answer if some artifacts stem from a period in which they existed together. Also, as to jewel possibly predating the period of coexisting with modern humans, has that been settled and are they sure it’s jewelery? This is the most common argument for the possible cultural aspect of the Neanderthal, yet it still appears to be the only, and still not fully explainable. Perhaps, I am missing something? As for tools and fire, I think this apart from the actual argument, which about progress in evolution.

    2. I have read several of Shermer’s books and I find them seriously lacking. I therefore do not take much gravity on what he says.

      I disagree with your analysis in post #11.

      1. Quoting from ‘The Emergence of Culture’ by Philip G Chase :

        ‘It is now generally accepted that the Neanderthals were responsible for the Upper Palaeolithic Chatleperronian industry of France. Chatleperronian levels at Arcy-sur-Cure and other sites have produced a series of artefacts that, like the material from Blombos are what you expect in the context of an elaborated culture’

        According to the chapter these include, animal teeth and bones which have been pierced for suspension, worked ivory rings and bone awls intended for decoration. They closely resemble pendants, rings and decorated objects from the Arignacian, both in appearance and technique of manufacture.
        This raises the need to explain why we don’t find this sort of development earlier in Neanderthal history. The most likely hypothesis (they think) is that cultural elaboration occurred because the local circumstances had made it culturally advantageous (see group benefit hypothesis).

      2. I’m not sure what you’re disagreeing with. Is it that contingency is to be reckoned with as Jerry Coyne maintains, or the arguments that we can expect inevitability?

        Out of curiosity, what do you think of Jerry Coyne’s argument in this matter?

      3. Lord Kitchener,

        Ok, I found the reference, ‘The Emergence of Culture’ on google books.


        That link has the paragraph you quote and follow up.

        It appears the author offers other possibilities. But, again, this is besides Shermer’s point to some degree, though you are claiming by the quote that Neanderthal culture developed in here independently (though Shermer is pointing out time, and even Chase recognizes this site appears to be extremely rare, in fact none before this period) – it appears he is careful here offering 4 possibilities to what he terms the dilemma. He offers (1) they were possibly made by humans, (2) that Neanderthals and homo sapiens are the same species, (3) that cultural capacity happened before the split and (4) that these artifacts are not elaborated culture. The one he doesn’t offer is Jared Diamonds, which is they adopted to some extent certain cultural aspects of the homo sapiens that were established in the area. Interesting his expanding on 2 follows where he had said that DNA is providing evidence that Neanderthal may have been a separate species from our own. However, it seems clear that that modern humans and Neanderthal were coexisting in the area at the same times, though Neanderthal were in Europe for over 500,000 years before humans arrived around 40,000 years ago, then we find these artifacts dating to around 30 to 35 thousand years ago, and so far no artifacts like for Neanderthals before this.

      4. Well, I think the bottom line is that the possibilities are endless and it is likely we will never know for sure. It may be that there was some learning by contact involved as Jared Diamond claims. For my part, I don’t think the biological differences between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens would necessarily translate into differences in intellectual ability. I do think that if, as Diamond is arguing, Neanderthals could learn and imitate Upper Palaeolithic culture, then they were not biologically precluded from behaving in an Upper Palaeolithic way. Hence the sudden emergence of culture was prompted by social and environmental pressures rather than major cognitive differences. We shall have to wait for more evidence.

      5. Perhaps, endless. Well, we are still not past Chase’s one, and Diamonds ideas doesn’t necessarily preclude one as a possibility.

        If we propose they were in fact made by modern humans, how could this be so? We are now safely assuming through evidence of coexistence in the areas. That part doesn’t seem to be what’s debated here.

        (1) One is some form of overture or barter with the homo sapiens, (2) another is overtaking and stealing,(3) a third is the area used by both homo sapiens and Neanderthal. (4) Of course we could have intermingling to the extent of imitation by some form of learning – co-opting with the aid of humans.

        There seems to be evidences that certain locals were used by both homo sapiens and Neanderthals. We are also said to have nothing sign of Neanderthal culture before the time of coexistence in Europe. As I have stated, which is part of the point by Shermer. That’s over 500,000 years in Europe before signs of modern humans around 40,000 years ago, then suddenly we have signs of Neanderthal culture around 30 thousand years ago. The cultural traits are also not very different from what we would find made at that time by homo sapiens.

      6. All those you mention seem to be reasonable possibilities and I can see now that my initial conclusions were not as firm as I thought. These are clearly still contentious issues. I think now I shall have to settle for ignorance and wait for the next big Neanderthal discovery, at which point, if it vindicates my argument, I shall of course say ‘I told you so!’ in a very loud and obnoxious manner.

  12. Obvious correction to my last sentence.

    “It would appear that Dennett {not Gould as I wrote above} and Dawkins both may think inevitability is possibly likely and an argument of contingency is false, not only false in Dennett’s case, but invented.

    1. I was disagreeing with Michael Shermer’s comments regarding the backwardness of Neanderthals which i think are outdated.

      I disagree with Jerry Coyne’s arguments (see thread 10). My position is closer to that of Simon Conway Morris.

      1. Lord Kitchener,

        I apologize, my questions were meant for NewEnglandBob, I perhaps hit the wrong “Reply” link.

      2. I’m not sure I would say “backwardness”, he is talking about a time frame, half a million years. The locations you mention also overlap with times of coexistence with modern humans. I don’t think the argument is as settled as you and others make it appear. There is serious debate over the burial “ritual” to where it is proposed they believed in life after death, but we certainly don’t know that and there are other reasonable explanations for such types of “ritual” that have said to be Neanderthal culture.

        My current understanding is modern humans arrived in the European areas 40,000 years ago and Neanderthal from around 35,000 to perhaps mid 20,000 years ago. With evidence of a coexistence, and perhaps a superseding and intermingling.

      3. I should clarify my last post, I meant to say Neanderthal’s within Europe up until 35,000 years ago to perhaps in the mid 20,000.

  13. I find Coyne totally unconvincing on this. He is too irate with his opponents’ rediculous theological thinking to seriously consider their scientific premise. So what if “The faithful don’t go around maintaining that the evolution of squirrels or cockroaches was an inevitable outcome of the evolutionary process”? That doesn’t begin to address their scientific case. IS the evolution of cockroaches inevitable? I’d think it at least more likely than that of humans, perhaps indeed it is very likely something cockroach-like would evolve. Either way, it doesn’t directly affect the inevitablity of humans. I believe a fairly good case can be made for SOME things being “inevitable/very likely” – things like eyes. So the case is not a priori foolish, and should be seriously argued against, not dismissed with such rhetoric.

    Secondly, is it really true that “Higher intelligence and rationality evolved only once, so it certainly isn’t something like eyes”? Haven’t these features developed independently in octopi and corvids, too, at the very least? And in who knows how many other extinct species.

    We know no species ever developed our level of technology, that much is clear, but having some technology and culture at a baser level is not at all excluded. Drawing the line at our own level is putting us on a pedestal, and is merely a sampling bias, as noted above.

    Ultimately, I don’t think we know enough about how evolution works to run the simulation through. Can Cyone point to a solid simulation showing no human-like creature evolving?

    Barring such robust knowledge, my speculation is that the evolution of something human-like is inevitable GIVEN enough time [and resources] for evolution to work with, simply because evolution is a stochastic process – sooner or later, it will get to just about everything. Once large-brained social animals arise on the planet, I’d say it requires only a fairly short time.

    1. I agree and I don’t think it’s often noted just how long this planet has left in evolutionary time before the habitable zone dissipates (1 billion years). The problem is that this isn’t so much a scientific question as a historical ‘what if’ question so almost any conclusion can be made. For example, if I were arguing for contingency I might say that if a sufficiently large meteorite hit the planet it might be enough to completely derail the emergence of anything like us. Although of course the presence of Jupiter is a big help here in terms of shielding us from such objects.

      Saying that human beings are ‘a priori improbable’ given evolution is also something of an own goal because that is precisely what the creationists and ID people are saying. ‘Of course’, they would say, ‘that is what we have been maintaining all along’.

  14. Se my post in Evolution blog – 18th May], where I note that the weight of evidence reveals no teleology. And that theists beg the question as Coyne indirectly notes that we were in the mind of some god. Teleology presupposes backwards causalism as Prof. Weisz notes in his ‘ The Science of Biology.”
    Logic is the bane of theists.

    1. Revision: Coyne notes that theists think we were in the mind of God, assuming what they need to show.
      See my post at Evolutionblog.
      Also Google rationalist griggsy or skeptic griggsy.

      1. Well of course, as the historian Herbert Butterfield maintained, we have to be careful of standing on the summit of history and looking down at the long chain of events that gave birth to us and succumbing to the illusion that they were all inexorably directed towards us as a final result. However, when something unimaginably smaller than a subatomic particle suddenly bursts into an unimaginably large universe with 100 billion galaxies and then lays down the chemistry for lifeforms which emerge through a slow process of evolution into concious beings that are capable of pondering their circumstances; it does look a wee bit teleological. Perhaps it’s just me.

  15. What about the idea that god created the universe with so many planets that the evolution of humanoids on some of them would be likely? One could even increase the likelihood with a multiverse. There would be no need for god to tweak evolution. He would get his worshippers by naturalistic evolution.

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