“If this doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will.”

August 14, 2009 • 1:57 pm

by Greg Mayer

In the spring of 1979, the Shiite revolution in Iran was in full swing. The Shah had fled, Ayatollah Khomeini had returned, and summary executions had begun.

Often the only notice that a person is on trial is the announcement on the morning radio news that he has been executed. The front pages of the afternoon Persian-language newspapers are filled with grisly pictures of the bodies. (New York Times, April 11, 1979)

The full extent to which Iran would become a theocracy was still not entirely clear. On February 4th, the New York Times‘ R.W. Apple had asked “Will Khomeini turn Iran’s clock back 1,300 years”, and the short answer turned out to be “yes”.

I was an undergraduate in the department of Ecology and Evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook at the time, and often had lunch with a group of faculty and grad students in a cafeteria across the street from the biology building. At one of these lunches, during a discussion of events in Iran, a young assistant professor commented, “If this doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will.”  And for a long time, I thought nothing would. The following year marked the ascent of Ronald Reagan, and the beginning of  the agonizing descent of the Republican party from being the party of Lincoln to the party of Limbaugh, Beck, Robertson, Inhofe, and the Family.

I recalled this lunch time comment while thinking about Razib’s post on the greater acceptance of evolution among younger cohorts of Americans. I also recalled that the percentage of religiously unaffiliated had gone up noticeably from 1990 to 2008, and that another survey found the percentage was higher among young people. What could have happened so that younger people, growing up in the 90s and 00s, would be less religious? And then it occurred to me: 9/11.  Something finally happened which gave religion a bad name.  This was forcefully expressed at the time (here, here, and here) by Richard Dawkins.

Now, there may well be other or better explanations for these survey results (indeed, several alternatives have been proposed regarding acceptance of evolution in comments here at WEIT and GNXP, which alternatives might be tested with GSS data); and, clearly, religious believers can accept evolution (witness the young Catholic poll results).   But 9/11, while not giving religion a bad enough name for most people to give it up, may have led people to question on what grounds religious claims are to be evaluated, and what entitles them to respect.

UPDATE. Razib has done exactly what I had hoped: he’s tested my suggestion by looking at survey data [updated link to Razib’s new blog host] (26 surveys from 1973 to 2008). While not a decisive refutation of my suggestion, there’s not much support for it. Secularization increases from 1993 to 2008. The biggest increases occur from 1991 to 1998, with something of a plateau from 1998 to 2004, then there’s another bit of a jump from 2004 to 2006. It might be safest just to say that it increased from ’93 to ’08, and not try to interpret what may well be random variation around that rise. I would say the evidence for a lagged post 9/11 jump is modest at best, and most of the increase occurred pre -2001, so 9/11 is at most a lesser contributing factor.

Simon Conway Morris becomes a creationist

February 14, 2009 • 7:00 am

In yesterday’s Guardian the famous paleontologist Simon Conway Morris (describer of many of the Burgess Shale fossils and author of Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe) uses Darwin Day not as a reason to celebrate what the old man did, but to point out what he did not do, and to engage in some atheism bashing on the way:

Darwinian [sic] has reached near saturation and among the customary pieties there is little doubt that it will conveniently serve as a love-in, with much mutual self-congratulation, for atheism. But perhaps now is the time to rejoice not in what Darwin got right, and in demonstrating the reality of evolution in the context of entirely unexceptional natural processes there is no dispute, but what his inheritance is in terms of unfinished business. Isn’t it curious how evolution is regarded by some as a total, universe-embracing explanation, although those who treat it as a religion might protest and sometimes not gently. Don’t worry, the science of evolution is certainly incomplete.

He then beats the drum for evolutionary convergence (the arrival of independent lineages as similar evolutionary solutions, like the camera eyes of vertebrates and squid). His ultimate example of “convergence” (though it really isn’t one), is the high intelligence and mentality of humans. He claims that convergence shows the incompleteness of Darwinism.

What! Darwinism not a total explanation? Why should it be? It is after all only a mechanism, but if evolution is predictive, indeed possesses a logic, then evidently it is being governed by deeper principles. Come to think about it so are all sciences; why should Darwinism be any exception?

This is palpable nonsense. The “deeper principle” at work here is simply natural selection: organisms adapt to their environments. We can expect, in some cases, that different organisms facing similar adaptive problems will hit on similar solutions. Sharks, ichthyosaurs, and dolphins all adapted independently to life as fast-swimming predators in the ocean, and all developed similar shapes, for such a way of life requires fast, torpedo-shaped beasts with fins. And of course sometimes similar evolutionary problems are met by different solutions, and in those cases evolution is not predictable. Some fish, like seahorses, escape predators by being permanently camouflaged and hiding in a matching habitat, while others, like the flounder, can change their colors and thus be camouflaged while moving between different habitats.

Conway Morris then takes up Alfred Russel Wallace’s nineteenth-century position that the evoution of the human mind is inexplicable by evolution:

But there is more. How to explain mind? Darwin fumbled it. Could he trust his thoughts any more than those of a dog? Or worse, perhaps here was one point (along, as it happens, with the origin of life) that his apparently all-embracing theory ran into the buffers?

His solution? God of course. This is no surprise to anyone who has followed Conway Morris’s biological arguments in favor of the Christian God.

If, however, the universe is actually the product of a rational Mind and evolution is simply the search engine that in leading to sentience and consciousness allows us to discover the fundamental architecture of the universe – a point many mathematicians intuitively sense when they speak of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics – then things not only start to make much better sense, but they are also much more interesting. Farewell bleak nihilism; the cold assurances that all is meaningless. Of course, Darwin told us how to get there and by what mechanism, but neither why it is in the first place, nor how on earth we actually understand it.

In his peroration, Conway Morris, triumphant, asserts that the fact of human rationality and consciousness puts paid to atheism:

To reiterate: when physicists speak of not only a strange universe, but one even stranger than we can possibly imagine, they articulate a sense of unfinished business that most neo-Darwinians don’t even want to think about. Of course our brains are a product of evolution, but does anybody seriously believe consciousness itself is material? Well, yes, some argue just as much, but their explanations seem to have made no headway. We are indeed dealing with unfinished business. God’s funeral? I don’t think so. Please join me beside the coffin marked Atheism. I fear, however, there will be very few mourners.

I don’t want to fulminate at length about this terrible and misleading “logic,” but do want to make four points.

1. The conscious and rational human mind does not demonstrate convergence, because it is a singleton: it evolved only once–in the lineage leading to modern Homo sapiens. By definition, evolutionary convergence involves at least two species. I am puzzled why Conway Morris continues to use this example (well, not really puzzled–he wants to show that the evolution of the human mind is inevitable). I have criticized this viewpoint in a recent article.

2. Contra Conway Morris, there are many people who feel that consciousness is “material” in the sense that it arises from purely material causes in a material object: the brain. Understanding how and why consciousness evolved are hard problems, but to throw one’s hands up in despair and say, “God made it” is a ludicrous solution. Give biologists another century of work on the brain, for goodness sake!

3. This brings us to my conclusion that Conway Morris advocates a form of intelligent design. He seems to believe that things might have evolved as Darwin proposes–except for one thing. That, of course, is the human mind. Here a Creator must have intervened! In this piece he seems to go beyond his previously-published view that the evolution of our higher intelligence was simply inevitable; here he comes close to saying that it was impossible. It’s a bit confusing since he also makes the statement that mind was the result of an evolutionary search engine, but even if he is advocating only that God directed evolution to produce rational minds that could discover God (a rather circuitious way to create us!), that is still a form of intelligent design. Conway Morris has thus joined the ranks of what Dan Dennett calls “mind creationists,” a view that Dennett dismantled in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

4. Conway Morris is way, way peeved at atheists. He mentions them several times in his piece. He thinks he has vanquished them with his “unanswerable” evolutionary arguments. But he has not. He is simply proposing a “God of the gaps” argument, and here the gap is our mind. It’s Alfred Russel Wallace recycled. He is wrong: neither will atheism die, or even flinch a bit, and we will, I predict some day understand, as Darwin believed, that the human mind is simply a product of the blind and materialistic product of natural selection.

Conway Morris is straying from the scientific path here, but he simply can’t help himself. He is a committed Christian, and has to find some way to show that the evolution of humans was inevitable.

Postscript:  Over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers has done a far better critique and deconstruction of Conway Morris’s lucubrations.  This paragraph analyzing C-M’s prose is sheer genius:

“I cannot bear it any more. I have to make a secondary complaint about Conway Morris’s piece. He seems to regard the English language as an axe murderer would a corpse: as an awkward obect that must be hacked into fragments, and the ragged chunks tossed into a rusty oil drum he calls an article. Continuity and flow are something that can be added after the fact, by pouring in a bag of quicklime. Unfortunately, one difference between the two is that Conway Morris will subsequently proudly display his handiwork in a newspaper, while the axe murderer at least has the decency to cart the grisly carnage off to the local landfill for anonymous and clandestine disposal. One can only hope that someday the paleontologist will perfect his emulation and take his work to the same conclusion”