Paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris gives evidence for God from evolution

September 10, 2012 • 4:59 am

You’ve probably heard of Simon Conway Morris if you’re a layperson interested in science, and you’ll certainly have heard of him if you’re an evolutionary biologist. He’s a very famous paleobiologist who works out of Cambridge University, and is renowned for his work on the Burgess Shale fossils.  If you’ve read Steve Gould’s famous book on those fossils, Wonderful Life, you’ll know that he touts Conway Morris as a young hero, someone who discovered a group of early fossils that were not the precursors of anything now living, but which went extinct without issue.  Gould used this to show the contingency of evolution: if we rewound the “tape of life,” perhaps the Burgess Shale animals would have persisted instead of dying out, and modern life could be very different.

Conway Morris originally agreed with the view that the Burgess Shale animals were not members of any lineage now existing, but subsequently changed his mind based on closer inspection of the fossils.  He later placed many of them in extant groups, showing that they could have been related to things still living, and that therefore evolution might not be quite so contingent on the vagaries of environmental change and extinction. Conway Morris and Gould had a heated debate about who said what when (see their exchange here).

Conway Morris is also known for being a devout Christian, one who tries to show that the evidence from paleobiology and evolution supports the existence of God.  As Wikipedia notes,

Conway Morris is active in the public understanding of science and has done extensive radio and television work. The latter includes the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures delivered in 1996. A Christian, he is also actively involved in various science and religion debates, including arguments against intelligent design on the one hand and materialism on the other. In 2005 he gave the Second Boyle Lecture. He is an increasingly active participant in discussions relating to science and religion. He is active in the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion and has lectured there on “Evolution and fine-tuning in Biology.” He gave the University of Edinburgh Gifford Lectures for 2007 in a series titled “Darwin’s Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Song of Creation”. In these lectures Conway Morris makes several claims that evolution may be compatible with belief in the existence of a God.

He is a strong critic of materialism and of reductionism:

“That satisfactory definitions of life elude us may be one hint that when materialists step forward and declare with a brisk slap of the hands that this is it, we should be deeply skeptical. Whether the “it” be that of Richard Dawkins’ reductionist gene-centred worldpicture, the “universal acid” of Daniel Dennett’s meaningless Darwinism, or David Sloan Wilson’s faith in group selection (not least to explain the role of human religions), we certainly need to acknowledge each provides insights but as total explanations of what we see around us they are, to put it politely, somewhat incomplete.”

and of:

“the scientist who boomingly — and they always boom — declares that those who believe in the Deity are unavoidably crazy, “cracked” as my dear father would have said, although I should add that I have every reason to believe he was — and now hope is — on the side of the angels.”

In March 2009 he was the opening speaker at the “Biological Evolution Facts and Theories Conference” held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, as well as chairing one of the sessions. The conference was sponsored by the Catholic Church.

In recent years, Conway Morris has been studying evolutionary convergence, the phenomenon whereby unrelated groups of animals (and plants) develop similar adaptations.  Two examples are the remarkable similarity between the vertebrate and the cephalopod “camera eye,” and the similarity in morphology between a protists that’s an intestinal parasite (Haplozoonpraxillellae), and a tapeworm (cestode).  Both have similar attachment structures, transverse segmentation of the body that breaks off new individuals, and a hairy covering. The photos below show their similarity.


The dinoflagellate Haplozoon praxillellae, an intestinal parasite of polychaete worms that has converged on a cestode-like bodyform, including attachment structures, strobilation and a hairy covering. Scale bar, 10 mm. Picture courtesy of Brian Leander (University of British Columbia). From Conway Morris 2010.

A tapeworm (from PS Micrographs):

Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a parasitic tapeworm (Taenia sp.) Magnification: x23 at 5x7cm size. x57 at 6.75×4. 75″.

Conway Morris and his associates have a large project devoted to documenting evolutionary convergences, the Map of Life Project. If you go to the link, you can find many fascinating examples of evolutionary convergences (it’s a great teaching resource). Many other examples are documented in a 2010 paper in Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. (reference at bottom, free download) and his 2003 book, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe.

I learned a lot from that big book, but it was marred, for me, by its ultimate goal of showing not only that evolution goes along predictable pathways (that’s why there’s convergence), but also because one of those pathways was that leading to Homo sapiens, the only species that can apprehend and worship God.  To Conway Morris, as a devout believer, the evolution of humans could not have been contingent, but must have been inevitable, and he tries to show this by documenting the many evolutionary “inevitabilities” instantiated by convergence.

The problem is that complex human intelligence—and certainly religious belief and practice—is not convergent on anything!  It is an evolutionary one-off, like the elephant’s trunk, and hasn’t evolved in any other group, though some groups, like dolphins and crows, do show abilities to solve problems and communicate in a fairly complex way.  I have never understood how documenting evolutionary convergences says anything about the inevitability of a feature that arose only once, and this is the fatal flaw in all of Conway Morris’s convergence work.

I discuss this further in my article in The New Republic in 2009: “Seeing and believing,” which reviews books by Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller. Both Giberson and Miller, heavily influenced by Conway Morris’s arguments, adopted the view that the evolutionary appearance of humanoid creatures was inevitable. For various reasons documented in my New Republic piece, I don’t think we can say this at all. If you take Conway Morris’s path, you might as well say that the elephant’s trunk was the ultimate goal of God’s creation (after all, though God created humans in His image, perhaps God is a Celestial Pachyderm).

Some people have doubted that Conway Morris’s work on convergence was either conditioned by or heavily influenced his views on God. For these doubters, I urge them to check out an article I read yesterday, “Creation and evolutionary convergence” (pp. 258–269 in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, J. B. Stump and A. G. Padgett, eds. 2012, Blackwell Publishing). I am publishing two excerpts from the book (leaving out the section on “Predictable evolution?” since I’ve already discussed that idea), to show how Conway Morris’s belief has slanted his science.  It is an example of religionism (the opposite of scientism): my neologism for the tendency of religion to overstep its boundaries and claim that science gives evidence for God or the supernatural.

From the section “The Emergence of Cognition,” here’s Conway Morris claiming that the emergence of mind from matter testifies to the transcendent (i.e., Jesus):

There seems to be no a priori reason why mind should emerge from matter.  The solution (if that is the word) is to postulate that mind is identifiably different. This need not lead to dualism.  Consider this alternative, that whilst mind is certainly embodied in one sense, we serve as receptacles, or perhaps better an “antenna” for mind. From this perspective, we should be neither surprised that we have access to truths that are themselves immaterial, nor immediately dismiss “out-of-body” experiences.”

But it is the theological implications that are even more intriguing. Talk of mind as a real property invites consideration of a whole spectrum of issues, such as the nature of free will (the emergence of which from  a materiality which is oblivious to intentionality seems to be incoherent), the sense of purpose, and the likelihood that whilst our minds are necessarily embodied (although near-death experiences suggest this is not essential), in other agencies mind could still be very much part of the universe but from our mundane perspective immaterial. (p. 265-266)

And, from the section “And Christianity?,” Conway Morris justifies miracles (p. 266):

What then of Chistianity?. . . The idea of a god may be bad enough, but to have him wandering around in an out-of-the-way nook of the Roman empire, with a raggle-taggle band of followers, then fizzling out in an all too common method of execution, and to cap it all to claim he was God incarnate seems risible.  They might, however, benefit from a refresher course in theology rather than sitting at the feet of the village atheist.

What we seem to see is an interpenetration of worlds with the unavoidable conclusion that much lies beyond our mundane expectations. Such is evident from the Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension.  Science in its present primitive state has very little useful to say about any of these events: just because they are inexplicable does not mean that they did not happen.

It is sad that such an accomplished scientist has gone this route: I wonder if his religiosity preceded or followed his scientific studies. What’s even sadder—and annoying as well—is that Conway Morris goes around purveying this kind of “evidence” for God in public venues, such as the Gifford Lectures and talks at the infamous Faraday Institute at Cambridge University. (Cambridge is fast becoming a hotbed of mush-brained accommodationism).

Inevitably, Dr. Conway Morris’s work on evolutionary convergence was supported by The Templeton Foundation ($983,253 from 2006-2009), and his work on the emergence of biological complexity, along with that of five other principal investigators, was also sponsored by Templeton ($3,584,147 between 2005-2008).  For my previous posts on Conway Morris, including his evolutionary views and connection to Templeton, go here, here, and here. I predict that within a decade Conway Morris will nab the Templeton Prize.

Simon Conway Morris


Conway-Morris, S. 2003. Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. UK.
Conway-Morris, S. 2010. Evolution: like any other science it is predictable. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. 365:133-145.

88 thoughts on “Paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris gives evidence for God from evolution

  1. How sad. This sort of nonsense nearly destroyed Wallace’s reputation as a scientist, I wonder if it will do the same for Conway-Morris.

  2. Such is evident from the Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension.  Science in its present primitive state has very little useful to say about any of these events: just because they are inexplicable does not mean that they did not happen.

    Well, since Matthew also says a whole bunch of other zombies climbed out of their graves along with Jesus, and there is no independent evidence for that silliness either, I think I’ll stick with the materialist’s take on the matter: what utter nonsense.

    1. Morris’ reasoning here would apply to every possible extraordinary claim. If someone says they mixed baking soda and salt and it turned into uranium — but they subsequently lost it — then “science in its present primitive state has very little useful to say about that event: just because it is inexplicable doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

      Yeah, right. He’s applying the “anything’s possible” heuristic and claiming it comports fine with science.

  3. Am I missing something, but isn’t convergence the result of strong selection pressure in certain directions? For example, the fish-like shape of cetaceans being a result of their need to move freely through a viscous medium?

    I had this discussion with someone online recently who quoted convergence and SCM in response to my saying a rewound earth history would almost certainly not result in the re-appearance of humans (being the result of random mutation and selection pressure)

    The “random mutation” bit is pretty significant isn’t it? The sequence of mutations that gave rise to humans wouldn’t happen twice in succession surely? I’m no evolutionary biologist, but isn’t this a no-brainer?

    1. isn’t this a no-brainer?

      well, yes and no. there could be constrained developmental pathways that are dependent on lineages, but then, when you look at common ancestors, there could be any number of potential solutions to a given selection pressure that put the constraints there to begin with.

      Morris has never actually been able to support the idea that convergence means that similar selective pressures will always produce the same developmental pathways, and so animals will not necessarily be similarly constrained, even when facing similar selective pressures that favored a specific trait.

      IOW, your dolphin evolving a streamlined body for hydrodynamic movement will likely involve entirely different developmental pathways than in, say, a sailfish.

      different pathways leads to different predictions as to where the convergence of that group of traits (“streamlining”) could lead to next.

      thus, no particular “end” is inevitable, because you have MANY different paths involved.

      Morris is trying to work his way from the top down, instead of the bottom up, and the problem with that is that you can’t then see all the potential branches that existed at any give time where selection favored a given trait.

      What Morris is trying to do is simply not possible.

      1. I have never found anything profound in convergent or parallel evolution – whether by similar or different developmental pathways, or similar or different genetic changes. Different bird lineages have evolved to see in the UV using the exact same point mutation – so what? Throwing in the mysticism layer (when mechanisms of convergent evolution are well known) is only a more sophisticated (TM?) version of Ray Comfort’s video “showing” that the configuration of a banana rules out atheism. Even if TWO lineages independently evolved the level of cognition we see in humans, that would say nothing about deities or supernatural “plans.”

        Dolphins are smart, we’re smart, ergo Jesus.

        1. I don’t understand the relevance of convergence to Conway Morris’ point. If you want to say that humans are inevitable, how does it help to say that various species end up with similar solutions to environmental constraints? Doesn’t that actually mitigate against humans being special, because various otherwise radically different organisms could converge on features such as intelligence, empathy, moral reasoning, etc.? I would think that you would want to argue that there is only one path to humanity, and that no other creatures could have arrived at it.

  4. So that large lump of rock that hit the Earth some 65 million years ago was part of “God’s” plan; or did he have some other event in mind if that didn’t work in order for homo sapiens to have evoved from mammalian ancestry.
    So he shares the same viewpoint as Francis Collins?
    “Give me the boy and I’ll give you the man!”
    Would have loved to have seen him in discussion/debate with Christopher Hitchens….

    1. Conway Morris’ argument isn’t that the asteroid was part of his god’s plan, but is the much broader claim that even without the asteroid human beings were evolutionarily inevitable. I think that is a much harder claim to support, since it seems empirically false. As evidence, I present how well hominids do against velociraptors — see Spielberg, S. (1993).

  5. “just because they are ineplicable does not mean that they did not happen.”
    Trawl through an incredible number of sites reporting UFO’s, alien visitations and reptilians amongst us and you will find much that is inexplicable. So what?
    There are many tales from the days of the Raj describing the Indian Rope trick. But there has not been one alleged example which has withstood rigorous testing in the modern period.
    Ultimately, Morris is saying nothing other than that he believes miracles are possible.

    1. Isn’t it amazing how many people claiming to have supernatural skills, had visitations from aliens, seen UFOs etc., have taken up the James Randi Organisation’s $1million challenge….!

  6. I suppose we should be grateful that Conway Morris doesn’t think that trilobites are 6000 years old.

    What we seem to see is an interpenetration of worlds with the unavoidable conclusion that much lies beyond our mundane expectations.

    He should leave the Sophisticated Theology™ to the Sophisticated Theologians™. They’re better at it. (By which I mean that CM’s stuff is too pedestrian, not impenetrable enough.)

    As for Conway Morris being ‘such an accomplished scientist’ — he did make quite a mess of his initial interpretation of the Burgess Shale fossils. I enjoyed reading Gould’s Wonderful Life and felt a bit betrayed when I learned that all those ‘new phyla’ were in fact a matter of overly speculative taxonomy.

    Convergent evolution is indeed a fascinating topic; I know of several striking examples within the Orchid family, with distantly related species having virtually identical and unusual-looking flowers. I wouldn’t say ‘and therefore Jesus,’ though. 🙂

  7. I don’t get it. Doesn’t the existence of non-convergent features, such as compound eyes, scupper the whole argument that an evolutionary trait must be inevitable? Not to mention that the human race clearly isn’t convergent as the which god it believes in. Or even which brand of Jesus.

  8. Inevitably, Dr. Conway Morris’s work on evolutionary convergence was supported by The Templeton Foundation

    so something IS inevitable after all!


  9. ”There seems to be no a priori reason why mind should emerge from matter.”

    And there seems to be no a priori reason why it should not.

    ”The solution (if that is the word) is to postulate that mind is identifiably different.”

    Mind is different from matter? What does he mean by this? This is a trivial observation and does not imply magic of any kind. Mind is merely a property of matter, a result of particular arrangements of various types of matter and the interactions between them.

    ”This need not lead to dualism. Consider this alternative, that whilst mind is certainly embodied in one sense, we serve as receptacles, or perhaps better an “antenna” for mind.”

    What? This need not lead to dualism, but I think it does? Serving as receptacles or antenna for mind is precisely dualism. And not even a particularly original concept of dualism either.

    ”From this perspective, we should be neither surprised that we have access to truths that are themselves immaterial, . . .”


    ”. . . nor immediately dismiss “out-of-body” experiences.”

    “We” didn’t immediately dismiss them. “We” categorized them as improbable. Then “we” studied them scientifically in some detail, and based on the data generated, recategorized them as so improbable that “we” can confidently claim that they are not real.

    1. Persons with antennae tuned to supernatural magic mind-radio should be able to tell us more than gibberish. I think he should tell us why telepaths go in for books so much.

    2. “This need not lead to dualism.”


      it is rather the very definition of it!

      this is what cognitive dissonance does to your brain.

      *shakes head sadly*

    3. Well put. And while there is no reason a priori why mind should emerge from matter, we can certainly see it happening by looking at those little electrical impulses jumping around. . .

    4. It’s much easier to imagine a priori reasons for consciousness as an individual stand-alone capability than for a centralized celestial state broadcasting system.

      This adolescent antenna idea can be so easily dismissed with a bit of thought. How to rectify the antenna model with “out of body” experience? Out of antenna experience? What point is the antenna if that were possible? Why does sleep and anesthesia and coma make the antenna stop working?

      What about interference, transmission times? What is the source? How do individual signals get filtered from the broadcast? We know how to do this (as in wi-fi) but does it sound feasible that every human brain is receiving signals for all humans, decoding them, and dumping noise intended for others? Maybe our spine passes through a wormhole providing a direct connection with the mind of God? lol.

      And if there were a kind of ‘immaterial’ transmission capable of being received by a material brain, then it has the energy to move or affect material particles, so it would be fairly easy for us to detect the presence of this mysterious energy.

      1. It’s much easier to imagine a priori reasons for consciousness as an individual stand-alone capability than for a centralized celestial state broadcasting system.

        The “broadcast” model is also certainly heresy for an orthodox Catholic, since Catholicism teaches that each person is indeed imbued with a separate and distinct soul at conception. Abortion isn’t being fought because fetuses have antennas.

  10. ““That satisfactory definitions of life elude us may be one hint that when materialists step forward and declare with a brisk slap of the hands that this is it, we should be deeply skeptical. ”

    What materialists do that? I would suspect that materialists are the ones least disposed to draw a definitive line between life and non-life. It’s the supernaturalists who are most inclined to say something like “life begins at conception.”

    1. ““That satisfactory definitions of life elude us…

      This isn’t even true.

      There are lots of definitions of life that are more or less OK.

      I prefer the broadest one, from NASA.

      “Life is self reproducing, independent, evolving genetic lineages”.

      This includes viruses. It excludes mitochondria and chloroplasts (not independent).

      1. Are viruses “independent”? They really so profoundly on their hosts for much of their reproduction, it seems odd to say they are “independent”. And would this definition also include prions? If so, that really seems to be stretching things.

        1. They are independent _lineages_, or you would have problems with coevolving species and especially symbionts.

          And indeed viruses jumps species barriers at times.

          The old NASA definition involved metabolism, so they excluded viruses but made it easier to identify individuals. Here I don’t like the redundant and fuzzy “self reproducing” characteristic. If you evolve you reproduce. And few species clone in the strong sense, reproducing “self” as faithfully as possible instead of individuals with variation that belongs to the population.

          But if they drop “self reproducing” they will abandon identifying individuals and go for the harder, but more general, task to identify representatives of a biosphere. Also, a lot of people like to describe abiogenesis as achieving “self reproduction” instead of reproduction. Oh, joy.

  11. Of all the Christian brands, Catholicism creeps me out the most. Having been brought up in that cult, though rejecting it silently at age 7 and escaping at age 18, I am truly repulsed by people who find it attractive, comforting, and plausible.

    If Catholicism was not around, it would ‘converge’ into existence somehow–some brains just warm up to its particular kind of magical focus on absolutism, purity, and certainty all the while being cloaked in the most ridiculous obfuscation and faux humility.

    With god belief, especially the icky brand of Catholicism, anything is permissible, any kind of pathetic rationalization in the guise of a sincere quest for truth. The impatient shoddiness of religious belief is awful–let’s say we know right now without evidence, let’s get indignant when asked for evidence, let’s strawman and brandish every logical fallacy known, but never let’s us accept the reality of which we have substantial evidence, no matter how incomplete.

    1. The faux humility – that is particularly nauseating. Didn’t you just love the phrase “Science in its present primitive state has very little useful to say…”? He then pits primitive science against the crazy ravings of truly primitive people and concludes that the real primitives had it all right.

    2. I think Catholicism attracts because of lot of mutually supportive theological memes that are rather tightly woven together.

      It’s contaminated by a bad moral logic with false concepts of pride and humility, and ecclesiastical power-trips.

    1. Pardon, I’ve misplaced my SimonConwayMorris decoder ring. Do I need to know what you’ve said, or are you just giving away the Ovaltine location?

    1. Conway Morris is certainly a possibility but there’s a few more with a better chance in the near future.
      Francis Collins is more likely to win it before Conway Morris, especially if he retires as NIH director after the next presidential election. I also think John Haught is in with a shot.

  12. ”What we seem to see is an interpenetration of worlds with the unavoidable conclusion that much lies beyond our mundane expectations.”

    Beyond our expectations? No. Beyond or experience, beyond our understanding, sure. This is really pretty awful bafflegab.

    ”Such is evident from the Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension.”

    At least he doesn’t try to hide his intentions. He just comes right out and says that he is going to use his conclusions as evidence to support his conclusions.

    ”Science in its present primitive state has very little useful to say about any of these events: . . .”

    Wrong. He just doesn’t want to acknowledge what science is saying because he knows it does not support his religious belief.

    ”. . . just because they are inexplicable does not mean that they did not happen.”

    His use of “inexplicable” here seems to be a bit of misdirection. The consensus of all avenues of scientific inquiry is that those events are contrary to reality. Not just in the general case of those types of events, but in the specific case of those particular events. Claiming that you can’t explain something that isn’t real is not very persuasive to me.

    I am not in a position to determine whether or not Morris truly has performed good science in his career to date. I can conceive that he may have contributed significantly with observations, experiments, compiling and organizing data, and similar aspects of doing science. But reading his thoughts here I think that any explanations and conclusions that he has provided are suspect. It seems very clear that he is purposely, with forthought, intent on interpreting the evidence to support his fairly specific religious beliefs.

  13. What we seem to see is an interpenetration of worlds with the unavoidable conclusion that much lies beyond our mundane expectations. Such is evident from the Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension.

    I doubt he believes a word of it. He endures the cognitive dissonance, proud to be sacrificing intellectual coherence to the greater good of the Church.

  14. I get it even less than Kevin Anthony.
    Convergence thus God?
    A feature that arose only once thus God?

    The only sequitur I recognize here is that teleology sucks.

  15. I attended a four-lecture series by Conway Morris, and yes, supported by the Templeton folks (who also included atheists such as Ursula Goodenough in the same lecture series). Conway Morris was without a doubt the most interesting — hell, most FUN — lecturer I have ever seen. I felt like I had learned several semesters worth of biology by the time we neared the end of the fourth lecture…at which point up came a slide of the Shroud of Turin.

  16. To Conway Morris, as a devout believer, the evolution of humans could not have been contingent, but must have been inevitable…

    Every time I hear this notion, I think of the movement – I think it was ca. 1900 – to close the Patent Office on the basis that everything had already been invented.

    And then

    …because one of those pathways was that leading to Homo sapiens, the only species that can apprehend and worship God.

    Yeah, and particularly that all H sapiens have convergently apprehended the one true religion. Oh, wait, they have! Just ask any one of them.

    1. It seems to follow then that Conway Morris’ own existence could not have been contingent, because the pathway leading up to the only person who can apprehend and explain the significance of evolutionary convergence would have had to have been inevitable.

  17. Simon Conway Morris is using the word “convergence” in two different senses, the first sense converging into the other. The first one allows and explains parallel organs and structures; the second one, the unique characteristic of human intelligence and consciousness, which does not converge with anything.

  18. It’s wonderful that so intelligent an adult can retain a child-like fascination with fantasy and make-believe. But why does he have to spoil it by insisting that his imaginary friends are really real?


  19. There seems to be no a priori reason why mind should emerge from matter. The solution (if that is the word) is to postulate that mind is identifiably different.

    Since mind-from-matter hasn’t been shown to be a priori impossible (or even: too improbable to happen once or twice every billion years), this postulate is a solution (if that is the word) to a problem that there’s no good reason to believe exists.

    SCM’s The Crucible of Creation was a fascinating book for its discussion of Greenland fossils, especially that some of them may represent groups right at the base of Animalia, prior to some major splits (eg. molluscs and annelids, IIRC). But I also recall one or two mystical speed-bumps about patterns in evolution indicating Something More.

  20. “What we seem to see is an interpenetration of worlds with the unavoidable conclusion that much lies beyond our mundane expectations. Such is evident from the Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension.”

    But the T, R, and A aren’t evidence in support of a claim, they are the claim! The evidence in support of the consists entirely of — faith!

    1. They are both. They prove themselves. See how easy that is?

      Similarly, I prefer that reality functions in that way, therefore that must be the way it does function. I mean, if it didn’t I wouldn’t feel that way, right? I just know that that’s the way it is.

    1. Is it better to be the village atheist or the village idiot? Guess it depends on if the clergy has a goat to scape or not. Or maybe what kind of goat needs to be scaped.

    2. What good is the village atheist anyway? The Shaman can give you guidance on how to conduct your sacrifices and what (or who) to sacrifice. The village atheist doesn’t know anything important like that.

  21. I don’t think SCM is a Catholic, actually. Maybe Episcopal?–I can’t recall offhand. Several years ago I interviewed him for a book I was writing. Unfortunately, our discussion of his religious beliefs was off the record, so the tape recorder wasn’t running. But he described himself as fairly liberal in his religious views, and more or less nonconformist in his sectarian leanings. Not that this changes anything about what he’s written.

    I first met Simon in the early 1980s when he stayed with my family a couple of times. He was friends with my dad–a staunch atheist who had no patience for mixing religion and science–and my impression is that at the time he was not very public about his religious views in those days. It may or may not be coincidental that this was when he was leaning towards contingency. I don’t know whether he had a religious awakening later on, or just gained the confidence to express his views once he’d established himself. It does seem hard to deny that his turn towards convergence seems to have parallelled his public religiosity.

    I will say, though, that he is a damn fine paleontologist. The reclassification of the Burgess fauna was a scientific issue, not, primarily, a metaphysical one. Derek Briggs, who is not religious at all to my knowledge, was involved in the same initial Burgess work, and came to the same conclusions. It involves a very interesting debate about cladistics (ok, it may have been metaphysical after all!), but I’d be careful chalking that one up to religion.

    That said, I do find SCM’s writings on natural theology somewhat bizarre. It’s like he’s living in the 19th century, which perhaps what being a Cambridge don is all about…

    1. Yes, I just did some checking and I can’t verify that he’s a Catholic so I’ve changed it to “Christian” above. But I never did imply that his paleontological work was chalked up to religion. I don’t believe that for a moment; it’s good, solid work and I admire it. The religion stuff doesn’t infuse his straight science, though it infuses stuff like his book on humans in a “lonely universe.”

      1. No, of course–that comment was directed at a couple of commenters here, not at you. It’s interesting, though, to consider the ways in which his religion genuinely does influence his real science–much more, one might argue, than it does, say Francis Collins’. But the bottom line is that even the convergence stuff is defensible as straight science–this is more a case where religion might give someone a certain interpretive predisposition (or in the case of Gould, an opposite predisposition) in a debate where the evidence is ambiguous.

  22. The problem is that complex human intelligence—and certainly religious belief and practice—is not convergent on anything!

    True, good point.

    Although, IMO, intelligence and tool use is so powerful an evolutionary strategy that it might always arise sooner or later.

    Just look at us. 7 billion people. Something like 80% of the large animal terrestrial biomass is humans and what they eat. We’ve been wildly successful and are the dominant species on the planet.

    Note though. It requires no magic invisible Sky Fairy, just biology.

    1. Dominant species? Bah — half the total biomass on the planet are single-celled organisms, and the biomass of ants alone may exceed that of humans. So I’m not all that impressed with the success of humans using the metric of biomass.

      1. Neither of those groups are single species — if we’re going to talk about “dominance” at all, we need to compare apples with apples.

        I assume you’ve heard of the Anthropogene concept — that we should name a new geological period, starting around sometime in recent decades? Between sequestering some staggering fraction of the planet’s biomass unto our own use, and the geochemical changes we are wreaking, it’s likely no single narrowly-drawn taxon has had such impact on the biosphere since the rise of the oxygenators in the pre-Cambrian. And they probably took a lot longer than the mere century or so it has taken us.

        That seems like a good criterion for “dominant” — even if it does make it synonymous with “recklessly stupid”.

  23. Just a nitpick, I expect the scale on _Haplozoon praxillellae_ to be 10 micro-meter, not 10 mm. The biggest I know about is only around 0.14 mm in length.

  24. Simon Conway-Morris:

    Such is evident from the Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension.

    Oh gee, is this stupid. It’s just Presuppositionalism, assuming that the bible is true because, well just because he is a xian.

    The evidence that any of that occurred is none, zero, nil.

    There is a lot more evidence that it is just stuff some old authors made up.

  25. There seems to be no a priori reason why mind should emerge from matter. The solution (if that is the word) is to postulate that mind is identifiably different. This need not lead to dualism.

    Conway-Morris really goes off the rails here.

    My cat has a mind.

    AFAWK, mind is just an emergent property of large, complex brains. It emerges because it is useful in survival like legs, wings, homeothermy, and fur.

    1. mind is just an emergent property of large, complex brains.

      This is most certainly true — brains cause minds. But…

      It emerges because it is useful in survival like legs, wings, homeothermy, and fur.

      Problem-solving is useful — it’s not clear that “having experiences” (aka subjectivity) has any utility, and thus can be explained in evolutionary terms. Reacting behaviourally to damage should work whether or not it is actually accompanied by a subjective feeling of pain.

      1. I don’t know for sure, but is it certain that we withdraw our hand from something painful because of the pain, per se, or is that we have an unconscious powerful reflexive action to withdraw at the same time or even slightly before the pain signal is consciously perceived?

        So the subjective feeling of pain may have little to do with our unconscious reflex reaction to damage, but rather acts as a kind of priority override to our conscious thinking so we don’t stupidly decide to, say, finish our meal before doing something about the fact that someone seems to be sawing our arm off. Also in adjusting our movements during the healing period.

        And the visceral unpleasantness of pain may have much more to do with impressing the conscious learning of how to avoid future repeats than it has to do with the immediate unconscious reaction to damage.

        It seems like the greatest value of consciousness is in learning, remembering, planning, anticipating consequences of possible actions, and in assessing results of an action with feedback into learning for future decisions. It seems like the manipulation of symbols enables thoughts to simulate hypotheticals disconnected from immediate sensory input, to imagine, to ponder, to dream. It seems consciousness, emotion, and language are essential parts of this.

        This is all pretty useful. It may not be that consciousness is necessary for these things, but it may be the most economical way to get these things with maximal flexibility via plasticity and the continual tuning of itself to the environment.

  26. There seems to be no a priori reason why mind should emerge from matter.

    In a natural universe mind, if it arises, would have to arise from matter. In a supernatural universe, however, it wouldn’t have to at all: “Mind” is nonmaterial and nonreductive, just is and that is that.

    So I’d love to see Morris redirect his question to theism: why did God not only embody minds — but give them what appears to be a long, cumulative history of gradual development from mindless material? Is it a test of faith? Sort of like if God were to plant fossils in the earth and then see if people can ignore their implications?

    Theistic evolutionists are just crazy in a different spot.

    1. And why is it that human minds gradually developed from mindless matter, but angels had their minds magicked into them? Or does he not believe in angels? (And, for that matter, does he think that creatures other than humans have some sort of mental life?)

  27. So intriguing. I’d love to pick this guys brain and see if I could get a handle on why, you know? Such a huge investment in this idea in the face of so much opposition, again, it just really makes me want to know what’s making him tick.

    He got the boomingly part right, at least, I feel like Jerry Coyne sounds a great deal like Harrison Ford. Now I want to see Jerry yell “I didn’t kill your God!” and William Lane Craig to yell back “Ah dawn’t cayre!” at the top of a reservoir…

  28. Simon Conway Morris’s writings provide abundant and irrefutable evidence of convergence.

    From this he infers that there are constraints that, in some sense, “guide” evolutionary processes such that these are not solely determined by (purely) stochastic or contingent phenomena.

    I entirely agree with this contention. Indeed the observed directionality of evolution of species by natural selection, together with the apparent “fine tuning of the universe” supports strongly supports the assumption.

    Where Conway Morris goes off the rails is his use of the argument to support the notion of a “designer) that stems from religious mythologies.

    There are no designers!
    The “fine tuning” argument (of which convergence can be considered to be a corollary) is the only empirical argument advanced by creationists, all others being derived solely from hearsay and mythology.

    But this, too, contains a fatal flaw which results from the naturally anthropocentric world-view that we inherit both genetically and from our culture. Namely the concept of “designers”. We intuitively assume that individuals of our race “design” things. But only in a very trivial everyday sense is this seemingly obvious notion valid.

    It can be argued, with strong evidential support, that we do not, invent or create artifacts of systems but that , rather, these are more properly viewed as having evolved within the collective imagination of our species.

    To quickly put this counter-intuitive view into focus, would you not agree that the following statement has a sound basis?

    We would have geometry without Euclid, calculus without Newton or Liebnitz, the camera without Johann Zahn, the cathode ray tube without JJ Thomson, relativity (and quantum mechanics) without Einstein, the digital computer without Turin, the Internet without Vinton Cerf.

    The list can. of course be extended indefinitely.

    It may be seen that fine tuning (an effect which extends well beyond the values of the physical constants) does not require the assumption of any kind of “designer”, merely the full appreciation of the observable fact that selection is a function of dynamically changing prevailing conditions which are themselves subject to evolutionary processes such that they are sufficiently often “just right”. This seemingly an intrinsic property of natures machinery.

    In fact, there is a good case to be made for a much broader evolutionary model that extends beyond biology. From the formation of the chemical elements in the stars right through to the autonomous evolution of technology in the collective imagination of our species which is so apparent today.

    A model which can give useful insights into short-term future outcomes

    This is outlined, very informally in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” (free download in e-book formats from my “Unusual Perspectives” website)

    1. I don’t know if you missed this, but this web site has had a series of threads involving how modern physicists see no religious “fine tuning”. (Cf the weakless universe.)

      Or that physicists even necessarily need to find physics finetuning, balancing parameters to match observations, caused by unique processes. (Cf eternal inflation.)

      Goldilocks effects may be fine in certain systems, but it is unlikely to pertain to this universe in general.

      1. There are certainly some physicists who dispute “fine tuning”. Victor Stenger is one of the more vociferous of these. But there is no overall consensus between physicists on this point. Indeed, there are many who resort to the very unparsimonius conjecture of an infinity of multiverses with varying physical parameters to try get around the question with out resorting to superstition. (those fears being actually unfounded)

        However, the physical parameters are but the tip of the iceberg. There is actually a much greater body of evidence to support fine tuning to be found in fields of science far better established than cosmology.

        After all, perhaps the earliest proponent of fine-tuning was the biochemist Lawrence Henderson. In “The Fitness of the Environment”, published in 1913, he observed that “”the whole evolutionary process, both cosmic and organic, is one, and the biologist may now rightly regard the universe in its very essence as biocentric”

        Geology, biology and particularly chemistry provide many examples of “just right” prevailing conditions that enable and indeed, make virtually inevitable, the strong directionality we observe in evolutionary processes.

        The most recent part of this evolutionary continuum is that most familiar to us and of which we have the best knowledge: The autonomous evolution of technology within the medium of the collective imagination of our species.

        The assumption that IF fine tuning is a valid phenomenon THEN it favors theism is flawed.

        Because it predicated by the very common and entirely intuitive belief that it suggests a “designer”.

        But it can be very plausibly argued that, except in a very trivial sense, the concept of a “designer” is but an anthropocentric conceit for which there is no empirical basis.

        An objective examination of the history of science and technology bears this out.

        All this is discussed more extensively in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?”, but to address another point that you have made, that not all parts of the observed universe are overtly biocentric:
        Quite obviously systems (eg planets) which support biology are very rare (though maybe not unique). But we must remember that the machinery of nature seems to have little regard for economy.
        The chances of an individual sperm succesfully finding an ovum is, in most species, extemely low. The chances of one of the sperm relased reaching an ovum, on the other hand, is usually quite high. When we consider all the sperm and ova that have the potential to form zygotes within that species, however, that outcome is vanishingly close to certainty.
        You, see, Torbjörn, we need to look at the system as a whole. You doubt would not hesitate to agree that the inhospitable domain of the supernova is a prerequisite for biology?
        To be accurate, we should not describe the universe as biocentric but rather “life generating” using the interpretation of “life” that I adopt in my books. A process that includes but is not confined to biology.

        1. Okay, you have plugged your book twice on this thread already, which is apparently the reason you are hear. Stop it now, or leave.

  29. ¨

    There seems to be no a priori reason why mind should emerge from matter. The solution (if that is the word) is to postulate that mind is identifiably different.

    ‘There seems to be no a priori reason why crystals should emerge from atoms. The solution (if that is the word) is to postulate that crystals are identifiably different from matter.’

    Nope, didn’t pass the smell test.

  30. “Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension. Science in its present primitive state has very little useful to say about any of these events: just because they are inexplicable does not mean that they did not happen.”

    Science says they didn’t happen. History says they didn’t happen. Common sense says they are myths. Just because it’s Jesus miracles doesn’t make them any more credible than any other miracle claims made by thousands of religious systems for as long as they have been around.

    Inexplicability is not the reason why miraculous claims get short shrift from anyone who hasn’t succumbed to religion out of deep, psycho-emotional-existential fear, loss, or other kinds of pain. Precious few people believe in miracles as a result of long, serious had thought and investigation, on rational and empirical grounds.

    All these noisy religious folk are desperately preaching to the already converted. And it is desperation.

  31. How truly sad. Simon Conway Morris is a classic example of confirmation bias. “People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.”

    What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us’ Ralph Waldo Emerson. It encapsulates the power of our internal factors [beliefs] in driving our perception or interpretation of reality, at any given moment.

    So much scientific accomplishment, driven by delusion.

  32. There is no a priori reason why mind should not emerge from matter. There is no good reason for thinking that it doesn’t.

    Yes, mind is different. When I am unconscious I might as well not exist. That is certainly different from from being conscious.

    We don’t require dualism. Correct.

    Truths that are immaterial? If that means non-empirical truths then mathematics would be an obvious example. Antenna? For mathematics we need a frontal cortex in a healthy functioning human brain. Or a computer. In the human case we need experience and a self-refererencing feedback system with a capability for abstract reasoning. More useful than a supernatural antenna for a supernatural signal, surely?

    We shouldn’t dismiss out of body experiences. Science shouldn’t dismiss experience. We should seek to understand experience. The mind can play tricks on itself. Then there is wishful thinking. Out of body experiences are interesting. It would be good to know the explanation. Science may be able to tell us. Otherwise its hand over to magical thinking.

    Jumping to mystery rather than trying to figure out how the mind works is not becoming of a scientist.

    Talk of mind in a scientific way is more intriguing than magical thinking. Or should be for a scientist. Science can help inform us about subjects like free will, purpose etc. Theism cannot. It’s a closed loop. It can never go anywhere. Near death experiences and out of body experiences can be productively studied by science. Science is not a closed loop.

    Conway Morris is only half a scientist. The other half is completely lost to science. It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon.

  33. I had a look at the Map of Life website, and found that while it is certainly a nice resource, it is not free of dubious ad hoc reasoning and glaring errors of fact.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, such reasoning can be found especially when it comes to explaining cases where there is no convergence. For example, on the page devoted to carnivorous plants ( it is noted that snap traps (the kind seen in the Venus Flytrap) are very rare, being present in only two species. What is not stated clearly is that these two species are in fact sister taxa, so that snap traps may well have evolved only once and therefore probably don’t illustrate convergence at all.

    We then read:

    So why did snap-traps not evolve more often then? Perhaps it is because they are not only highly intricate, but also stand in competition with pitcher plants. So too the snap-traps are associated with ephemeral habitats conceivably making it more difficult to establish an evolutionary foothold.

    This is all false. One of the two species (Aldrovanda vesiculosa) is an aquatic plant, so it can’t possibly stand in competition with pitcher plants, which are not aquatic. The two are also not associated with ephemeral [transient] habitats, as one Aldrovanda occurs in permanent bodies of water while the other, the Venus Flytrap, is a long-lived perennial plant growing in bogs, which is not an ephemeral habitat at all. The last part of the citation is therefore irrelevant, while it should also be noted that many annual plants are able to cope very well with ephemeral habitats. They managed to evolve, didn’t they?

    It looks as if absence of convergence makes the writers of the Map of Life site uncomfortable, and they try to explain it away by making stuff up. Not good.

    I found other errors of fact as well. This is wrong, for example:

    Outside the diverse Araceae, the only notably rotten-smelling monocot is the Eastern North American species Trillium erectum, a member of the family Melanthiaceae (in the Liliales) known commonly as Stinking Benjamin or Purple trillium.

    There are quite a few orchid species with rotten-smelling flowers.

    In all, a resource to be used with care.

    1. It would seem (see that most of the texts on the Map of Life site were written by Conway Morris himself. So they may be pretty biased towards his own theory (if his vague and to me largely incoherent speculations can be called a theory), as my reading of the bits on carnivorous plants seems to demonstrate.

  34. It’s nice to know that god is in charge of evolution and was nice enough to give us such wonderful examples of his work as Spanish Flu and the current rash of superbugs resistant to antibiotics. I guess that since he promised not to drown everyone in a flood again he’s got to try and find a different way to show his love and annihilate his ‘inevitable’ creation.

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