Simon Conway Morris becomes a creationist

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”

39 Comments

  1. matthewackerman
    Posted February 14, 2009 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Ok, first my least favourite piece of this his essay: “Birds evolved at least twice, maybe four times…. Both are among the less familiar examples of evolutionary convergence.” which he uses to argue that evolution is deterministic. Either way, this is one of the dumbest statements I have ever read, in addition to being false. Presumably he understands that birds most certainly didn’t evolve twice, but that flight feathers may have (even though I consider this unlikely). Regardless, the (disputable) parallel* evolution of flight feathers hardly supports his contention that evolution is particularly deterministic, and more egregiously, he refers to a very good example of parallel evolution as convergent evolution. So -10 points. It is hard to believe he is a palaeontologist, since he uses such misleading language and demonstrates such a weak grasp of evolutionary theory.

    Regarding his broader argument: You dismantle a good part of his arguments, and I feel he is wrong, but I would like to play devils advocate for a moment and resurrect what I see as the strongest part of his otherwise rambling, unscholarly, and useless drivel. He argues, as C.S. Lewis and likely many before, that we need to invoke divine beneficence to explain why our minds are capable of understanding some of the truths of reality, since evolution only produces something that works, but doesn’t produce something that is right. I don’t have a complete answer to this argument, but it seems unlikely to me that there are any ways to produce minds as flexible and useful as ours that would be fundamentally incapable of reasoning logically or arriving at the truth.

    *For those of you who don’t know the difference between parallel and convergent evolution: Convergent evolution modifies [b] non homologous [/b] structures or genes into similar morphological features serving the same function, where as parallel evolution independently modifies [b] homologous [/b] structures into similar morphological features. Please point this man to an introductory text on palaeontology.

  2. Nicole
    Posted February 14, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Don’t have anything new to add to your arguments – just dropping a comment to say thanks.

    Thanks for keeping us informed.

    I’ve always objected (loudly, to ministers and priests,) to the moral arguments of Christianity. It’s a relief to know that the folks who dreamed up hell haven’t got a leg of logic to stand on.

  3. Posted February 14, 2009 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Simon Conway Morris becomes a creationist ?
    Come on, he always have been one! Call him a soft-creationist if you want a distinction from YEC (and several other brands of creationism), but creationist anyway, believer to a Creator.
    That’s why I don’t understand how you can say that Ken Miller is the most tireless and effective opponent of creationism, when he claims his belief to an Intelligent Designer (through “fine tuning”)!

  4. Posted February 14, 2009 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    “Of course our brains are a product of evolution, but does anybody seriously believe consciousness itself is material?”

    I feel that many people misuse the word “consciousness” with the connotation that it is metaphysical. Consciousness is nothing more than being aware. We have much larger and more advanced brains than most animals so it would make sense that we are much more aware than they are. But what evidence is there that consciousness is metaphysical?

    from matthewackerman:

    “He argues, as C.S. Lewis and likely many before, that we need to invoke divine beneficence to explain why our minds are capable of understanding some of the truths of reality, since evolution only produces something that works, but doesn’t produce something that is right.”

    The “truth” is almost always useful. Our brains evolved to be useful. It wouldn’t be very helpful if our brains evolved to find false answers.

  5. anonymous
    Posted February 14, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Ok, first my least favourite piece of this his essay: “Birds evolved at least twice, maybe four times…. Both are among the less familiar examples of evolutionary convergence.” which he uses to argue that evolution is deterministic. Either way, this is one of the dumbest statements I have ever read, in addition to being false. Presumably he understands that birds most certainly didn’t evolve twice, but that flight feathers may have (even though I consider this unlikely). Regardless, the (disputable) parallel* evolution of flight feathers hardly supports his contention that evolution is particularly deterministic, and more egregiously, he refers to a very good example of parallel evolution as convergent evolution. So -10 points. It is hard to believe he is a palaeontologist, since he uses such misleading language and demonstrates such a weak grasp of evolutionary theory.
    ==

    I don’t think the problem is him confusing parallel/convergent evolution. He used the terms properly considering what I think he had in mind as “birds”: pterosaurs, birds, insects, bats.

    That’s the only way I can make sense of the claim that “birds” have evolved independently four times. He’s using the Biblical definition that includes bats.

    Either way, the guy is an f—king idiot.

  6. Alex
    Posted February 14, 2009 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Great rebuttal.

    There seems to have been a spurt of theistic scientists arguing from the inevitability of human-like consciousness in evolution.

    Do any other evolutionary scientists claim this, or is it something only theists use to try and fit a square peg in a round hole?

  7. John Cozijn
    Posted February 14, 2009 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Oldcola, though SCM has always been a theist, the point Jerry is making that he has now added a new element (the non-material nature of the mind) that places him in the ranks of the “mind creationists”.

    I also note that in his TNR article Jerry has also pointed out that theists, though opponents of creationism and ID, ending up sharing crucial assumptions with them.

    In any case, regardless of whatever labelling is used, it seems useful to engage in a couple of issues that SCM has been banging on about for the past decade:

    1. The degree of “constraint” that Nature has in the evolution of engineering solutions, and therefore whether it is valid to speak of an underlying “logic” that can be extracted from the history of life on Earth.

    2. The extent to which “intelligence”, or its components, can be considered a convergent feature (comparing, as he does, dolphins, corvids and primates).

    ps Anonymous (@4): I think SCM does mean birds (not bats etc), but I am not aware of any evidence that supports this contention. And though I think he is wrong philosophically and scientifically, he is most definitely not an idiot.

  8. Posted February 14, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    I don’t mind him being called a “mind creationist” given that this expression is defined. But the heading really is misleading.

    A philosophical doctrine that God somehow directed evolution (or contrived some psychophysical laws that would constrain it … or whatever SCM is really saying) in order to produce consciousness sounds a bit wildly speculative to me. I’m happy to see such a view scrutinised carefully and debunked trenchantly, as you’ve done, but all the same it’s not what’s usually connoted when someone is branded “a creationist”.

    For me, at least, the word connotes Young Earth Creationism, literal belief in the Genesis account, diluvian geology, the claim that our planet is about 6000 (and certainly no more than 10,000) years old, and so on. In other words, it suggests a PLAINLY irrational position that SCM does not defend. I realise that there are also Old Earth Creationist positions, but SCM doesn’t seem to fit in there either.

    It wouldn’t matter, given that your post itself doesn’t claim that SCM is a creationist in these familiar senses, but it looks from various comments on the internet today that some people don’t read much past the heading.

  9. Wayne Robinson
    Posted February 14, 2009 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m still confused by his comment that birds evolved at least twice, if not four times. My understanding is that there must have been one only last common ancestor of all birds. I suppose the question is where you put feathered dinosaurs; are they birds or are they dinosaurs? It just become semantics, and it would be much easier to just say that all birds are just feathered dinosaurs.

  10. Posted February 14, 2009 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    The content of the piece isn’t unusual piece Conway Morris or for theists. It’s simply unusual for non-creationists to use Paley’s argument in this way. I wrote a backgrounder on Simon Conway Morris (click the link).

  11. NewEnglandBob
    Posted February 14, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    I said the same thing at RichardDawkins.net as I will say here:

    Conway-Morris’ piece of verbal sewage was all over the place. A little bit of it almost even made sense. He was putting together things that have nothing to do with each other. Along the way he used every possible defamatory and emotional nonsense he could think(?) of.

  12. Posted February 15, 2009 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    Well, I’d agree that Morris’s argument is ultimately a “God of the gaps” one; but I’m not sure Coyne is entirely clear on which gap Morris is calling on God to fill.

    Morris is not saying, or not just saying, that the mind is too complicated to have evolved from simple beginnings by natural selection. From Morris:

    Could he trust his thoughts any more than those of a dog?… In some ways the former possibility, the woof-woof hypothesis, is the more entertaining. After all, being a product of evolution gives no warrant at all that what we perceive as rationality, and indeed one that science and mathematics employ with almost dizzying success, has as its basis anything more than sheer whimsy.

    Morris’s argument, following C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and ultimately Descartes, is that rational thought cannot arise reliably from non-rational antecedents. As C. S. Lewis explains, on the materialistic view, all beliefs must ultimately be attributed to a non-rational cause, namely natural selection. But as soon as we can attribute a particular person’s belief to a non-rational cause — to a post hoc rationalization of a wish-fulfilment dream (as they said in his day; equivalently, in modern terms, to the faith meme) — that belief is disqualified from rational discourse. Therefore, either all thought is irrational, or materialism is false. Reason can only arise from reason; therefore, there must be a primordial Reason in the universe, that is to say a God, from which all other reason descends.

    The only attack point I can find is the premise that beliefs with non-rational causes are ipso facto irrational. Denying that, though, has — shall we say — procedural consequences. We need to ask: what exactly is reason? How does it work? Why can we rely on its conclusions? Tautological definitions like “Reason is the recognition of reality” won’t help. Is there an epistemologist in the audience?

    (More briefly: “What matthewackerman said.”)

  13. Posted February 15, 2009 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Hi John C, because SCM is not an idiot, one should take in account his declaration to be a christian and don’t be surprised when he claims a creator of the universe and/or an immaterial soul/mind and/or purpose/design.
    I’m aware that most people declaring themselves as cristians have a poor understanding of what that really implies (7% of the French Catholic Christians say they don’t believe at the existence of God :-) ), but it would be insulting to think this is the case of SCM or KM. None of them fit the definition of YEC, both the definition of creationist (believer to a Creator) as their credo states. [I do understand you have special issues with the word "creationist" in the USA, but that's not a reason to change the definition. Sometimes I use the term soft-creationism for non-YECs, but people don't like it]

    Both, and others, have to find some place for the Intelligent Designer (KM wording) to stand and at some point they will use the “God did it” argument and the immaterial Mind feature.

  14. Posted February 15, 2009 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I’d say the distinction with Simon Conway Morris is that his science seems to be predicated on the assumption of God’s existence. Whereas most Scientists (many of whom are Christians) accept the naturalistic assumption, he rejects it, and instead in his Boyle lecture presents an alternative view of science as an encounter with the mind of God–meant, he is at pains to clarify, quite literally, not figuratively.

    So he’s a creationist in that limited sense. He has abandoned the naturalistic assumption, or at the very least considers it optional.

  15. Anto
    Posted February 15, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    So what? It is plain to see what argument Conway Morris has fallen for: the knowledge gap. True, we don’t yet understand, and perhaps never will, what exactly constitutes being right, beautiful, ugly, elated or dull. The mind experiences many things that perhaps can be explained biochemically, but the actual experience is an biochemically elusive thing. The perception of the colour “red” cannot be explained by wave length only. There may be a whole field of science to be explored here. To say that God is behind it makes that science a non-starter. Shame. Perhaps Conway Morris has also chosen the safe bet in Pascal’s wager? Shame again (if so).

  16. matthewackerman
    Posted February 15, 2009 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Alex:
    “Do any other evolutionary scientists claim this, or is it something only theists use to try and fit a square peg in a round hole?”

    Well, some atheist evolutionary scientists make this claim, such as Dawkins. It’s not a particularly absurd claim, considering how mind bogglingly useful it is to be intelligent. It’s actually an object of debate among evolutionary biologist, with many falling on the side of classical-neo-darwinists, who would claim that evolution is fairly deterministic, and a minority following S. J. Gould and arguing that complex adaptation in general are fairly accidental to the process of evolution.

  17. Posted February 15, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Well said Naked Celt. For all the others, it is great to see such detached and scientifically rigorous engagement of Morris :)

    I must admit, however, that I am not evolved enough (the chemical experiments in my brain just don’t seem to work very well; please understand that it is NOT my fault) to understand and make sense of how you get out of the problem posed here:

    “Could he trust his thoughts any more than those of a dog?… In some ways the former possibility, the woof-woof hypothesis, is the more entertaining. After all, being a product of evolution gives no warrant at all that what we perceive as rationality, and indeed one that science and mathematics employ with almost dizzying success, has as its basis anything more than sheer whimsy.”

  18. Posted February 15, 2009 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    Here we have the old and tired argument that something cannot be true because it is personally awful to somebody. I’ve never understood why some people think the world is required to exist in a manner they find acceptable.

    But the worst mistake here is the leap to the Christian god. Even if someone proved that evolution was wrong that still does NOT prove an intelligent designer, a god or Jesus. It would just mean we don’t know.

  19. Gregory C. Mayer
    Posted February 15, 2009 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    After reading this and Conway Morris’s piece in the Independent, I am saddened. I really liked his work on the Burgess Shale, and thought it a needed corrective to Steve Gould’s appropriation of the fauna for his own ends (BTW, the newly discovered late-surviving anomalocarid, discusse in an earlier blog post here, is further evidence for Conway Morris’s interpretation). As a student of Caribbean anoles, which have repeatedly evolved the same community structures, I’m very impressed with the power of covergence. So I’m all for a certain inevitability in the array of organisms that exploit the resources of particular environments, but it’s not terribly exact: on any continent-sized piece of land in the mid latitudes since the Mesozoic you’ll have a tetrapod herbivore, but a kangaroo is quite different from a bison. Because of what we know about adaptive radiation and convergence (and have known for some time), evolutionary biology today is not nearly as Gouldian as Conway Morris seems to imagine.

    But given there’s lots of convergence, and even predictability of community structure, I just don’t see how you get from there to God. Conway Morris doesn’t even offer an argument: just “convergence, ergo God exists”. And, as Coyne has pointed out more than once, human intelligence has got nothing to do with convergence!! I think Conway Morris may be asking for what that odd review of WEIT in the Huffington Post asked for: he wants biology (or Coyne in the case of the HP review) to provide an alternative mythology for him, which will provide him with meaning in his life, to redress the “bleak nihilism” he apparently sees in nature. But, of course, that’s not biology’s business (or Coyne’s, unless he wants to). It’s ironic that Conway Morris should mention Huxley, because Huxley made it clearer than anyone that if you desire morals and meaning, you’re going to have to look beyond the way nature is: the cosmic process contains no moral lessons.

    Conway Morris offers the “God of the gaps” argument on consciousness in so blatant a form that he should be ashamed of himself, as a scientist, and as a Christian. Such arguments are the death of science, and God doesn’t do too well by them either, because they identify the divine with ignorance, and thus God is continually on retreat before the advance of knowledge. I also don’t see how anyone remotely familiar with the behavior of animals could think that consciousness is some miraculously different quality of mankind. Hell, you don’t even have to be familiar with the literature: all you need is a pet cat (a pet toad and pet turtle, for comparative observations, are helpful).

  20. H.H.
    Posted February 15, 2009 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    NakedCelt wrote: “Morris’s argument, following C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and ultimately Descartes, is that rational thought cannot arise reliably from non-rational antecedents.”

    Yes, Morris isn’t the only creationist using this argument:

    “If evolution is true, you could not know that it’s true because your brain is nothing but chemicals. Think about that.” – Kent Hovind

    I see evedyahu agrees.

  21. Posted February 15, 2009 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    “The wonderful lesson to come out of biology in the last five years is the same genes, the same parts, turn up again and again, from one species to another,” she said. “The important lesson to realize is that we’re all made of the same fabric, we’re part of the same web, and there is some humility in the idea that is appropriate.” – Victoria Foe

    http://tinyurl.com/aspjrv

    (NYT Aug 10, 1993)

  22. David Thomson
    Posted February 15, 2009 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    In UK English Conway Morris would be said to believe in a creator, but not be a creationist (that term on this side of the pond implying disbelief in and antagonism towards evolution as a mechanism operating on a created world). IMHO it would be helpful to maintain the distinction. If anyone believing in a creator, even of the sort that essentially sets evolution in motion, is called creationist we’ll just muddy the waters.
    Oxford English Dictionary – sense b. is the relevant one: “Creationism: A system or theory of creation: spec. a. The theory that God immediately creates a soul for every human being born (opposed to traducianism); b. The theory which attributes the origin of matter, the different species of animals and plants, etc., to ‘special creation’ (opposed to evolutionism).

  23. Posted February 15, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    A common claim against ID advocates is that they produce no peer-reviewed papers supporting their claims.
    I claim that thousands of papers are written each year supporting ID. The support is in the data, not in the interpretation.
    Now I’m NOT saying that Dr. Foe (who I greatly admire) is a proponent of ID, but I am saying that the data in this paper clearly supports that conclusion:
    Foe VE, von Dassow G.

    The Center for Cell Dynamics, University of Washington, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA. vicfoe@u.washington.edu

    The cytokinetic furrow arises from spatial and temporal regulation of cortical contractility. To test the role microtubules play in furrow specification, we studied myosin II activation in echinoderm zygotes by assessing serine19-phosphorylated regulatory light chain (pRLC) localization after precisely timed drug treatments. Cortical pRLC was globally depressed before cytokinesis, then elevated only at the equator. We implicated cell cycle biochemistry (not microtubules) in pRLC depression, and differential microtubule stability in localizing the subsequent myosin activation. With no microtubules, pRLC accumulation occurred globally instead of equatorially, and loss of just dynamic microtubules increased equatorial pRLC recruitment. Nocodazole treatment revealed a population of stable astral microtubules that formed during anaphase; among these, those aimed toward the equator grew longer, and their tips coincided with cortical pRLC accumulation. Shrinking the mitotic apparatus with colchicine revealed pRLC suppression near dynamic microtubule arrays. We conclude that opposite effects of stable versus dynamic microtubules focuses myosin activation to the cell equator during cytokinesis.

    PMID: 18955555 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

    PMCID: PMC2575787 [Available on 2009/05/03]

  24. Aquaria
    Posted February 15, 2009 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    The perception of the colour “red” cannot be explained by wave length only. There may be a whole field of science to be explored here.

    I take it you’ve never read Steven Pinker.

    Neuroscience and cognitive psychology are but two of the fields dealing with the way the brain is the source of mind.

  25. Martin
    Posted February 15, 2009 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Can evolution explain a radio wave?

    Laws of mathematics, have been “discovered” through the ages, implying they must have always existed. How did they originally come into being?

    Can we give the creationist some wiggle room here?

  26. Martin
    Posted February 15, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Oophs! Drop the comma after “mathematics.”

  27. Posted February 16, 2009 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Can we give the creationist some wiggle room here?

    Wiggle room? Like some sort of demiurge created everything, blah blah blah? They can already claim that, and it can’t be disproven, so sure. Of course, it’s an utterly useless hypothesis, but parsimony goes out the window when religionists need to cram their beliefs somewhere into their empirical worldview.

  28. Posted February 16, 2009 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Gould, as he often did, was arguing against a caricature or straw man of adaptationism. Against this he occasionally made some overambitious claims about the role of chance in evolution.

    Conway Morris is a distinct case. If there is any real life exemplar Gould’s caricature of an adaptationist who sees evolution as a deterministic process, Simon Conway Morris is it.

  29. Posted February 16, 2009 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Mr Morris is a very mild directed-evolution theist, but the hypothesis is – at least in theory – testable: all you have to do is locate or build a suitable planet, ensure that life arises or is introduced, and watch for a few hundred million years. The idea is falsifiable, at least in principle. It may not seem like a necessary hypothesis to most students of evolution, but parsimony is a rule of thumb, not a natural requirement. Still, the hypothesis really doesn’t explain much and is currently impractical.

    Sadly, the only real point in debating this sort of idea is to get it’s advocates so worked up that they repel people who aren’t already committed to their ideas. After all, if you report observing something other than what a serious creationist knowns to be “the truth” (and by definition “the truth” cannot be either dogma or in error) you are either
    (1) Mistaken.
    (2) Deceived by a malevolent supernatural being or its minions or
    (3) Intentionally supporting said being in its attempts to lure people away from God.
    Creationists consider it easy to avoid (1) and (2); all you need do is accept the “truth” which they are “clearly” presenting and which you are obviously reading since you’re responding to them.
    Ergo anyone reporting evidence supporting evolutionary arguments is either a deluded fool or a voluntary part of said evil powers conspiracy to condemn other people (including both the creationists children and their own offspring), to some horrific fate.

    Similarly, any attempt to make direct arguments, or to direct a creationist to physical evidence, observations of evolution in action, rational discussions, or explanations of how evolution works, is useful only to persuade the occasional browser who has doubts since – from a creationist’s viewpoint – this is tantamount to saying “go listen to the powers of evil for awhile and see if they can’t persuade you”. Even if a creationist can be persuaded to look at such material, it will simply be to look for places where the “conspiracy” looks weak to them.

    Attempting to argue with a conspiracy theorist simply makes you part of the conspiracy.

    From a creationists point of view they’re being incredibly tactful and tolerant in simply shouting names and trying to discredit the “obvious falsehoods” of evolution instead of burning its proponents at the stake for their admitted collaboration with the powers of darkness. They’re offering you a chance to turn away from your allegiance to evil and save your immortal essence from some horrific fate, and you ought to be grateful for it.

  30. glor
    Posted February 16, 2009 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    Is anyone discussing the parallels between Conway-Morris’ views and those of the early 19th century paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn? Osborn invented the term “adaptive radiation” partly to describe the replicated patterns of diversification seen in isolated mammalian radiations. He later went on to coin the term aristogenesis to describe the evolution of optimal functional solutions that are expected to evolve inevitably in isolated instances of adaptive radiation. His views, and their strong anti-Darwinian tone, were partly an outcome of his own attachment to God. I suspect Conway-Morris’ views will fair about as well as Osborn’s.

  31. Stan Pak
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    As an addition to the problem of definition of consciousness it is worth to point out that it is not material thing but the PROCESS. Jerry Coyne is correctly saying that it is in that sense material that it is caused by matter, just like “driving” a car is a process caused by laws of physics and chemistry interacting in context or within boundaries of material car. So the process is not strictly speaking material but it is rather complex relationship.

  32. Posted February 17, 2009 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    lol, my fav:

    “does anybody seriously believe consciousness itself is material? Well, yes,”

    great lead in there.. doh!

  33. windy
    Posted February 19, 2009 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    As C. S. Lewis explains, on the materialistic view, all beliefs must ultimately be attributed to a non-rational cause, namely natural selection.

    He and Plantinga and all the rest making this argument are being misleading. Beliefs are not products of natural selection. Beliefs come from the interaction of sensory input with the brain. So theistic evolutionists who don’t believe that God beams rational ideas directly into brains also must accept that beliefs in the brain form through non-rational steps (nothing rational about the way photons in the retina produce nerve impulses).

  34. Occam
    Posted February 20, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    One of the more challenging and punishing assignments to students in Cambridge would be to present the arguments of Prof. Conway Morris in a coherent, self-consistent logical structure.
    An example: “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.”
    Here, Conway Morris is implicitly quoting the title of Eugene Wigner’s famous 1960 lecture, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”. Wigner’s point, however, was his epistemological sense of unease about the adequation of mathematical structure to physical reality, and how both relate to consciousness and the multitude of observables (as exemplified by quantum and relativistic physics, which achieve extraordinary precision in their respective domains, but fail to yield a coherent world-view). Remarkably, Wigner does not sustantiate, nor indeed repeat, the charge of ‘unreasonable’ effectiveness of mathematics anywhere whithin the body of his lecture. Nor does he ‘intuitively sense’ the universe as the ‘product of a rational Mind’ and evolution as our implicit path to worship of a rational Creator. Indeed, he is worried about the possibility of contradicting theories for which no valid proof may exist:
    “In order to obtain an indication as to which alternative to expect ultimately, we can pretend
    to be a little more ignorant than we are and place ourselves at a lower level of knowledge than
    we actually possess. If we can find a fusion of our theories on this lower level of intelligence,
    we can confidently expect that we will find a fusion of our theories also at our real level of intelligence. On the other hand, if we would arrive at mutually contradictory theories at a somewhat lower level of knowledge, the possibility of the permanence of conflicting theories cannot be excluded for ourselves either. The level of knowledge and ingenuity is a continuous variable and it is unlikely that a relatively small variation of this continuous variable changes the attainable picture of the world from inconsistent to consistent.”
    He adds this footnote:
    “This passage was written after a great deal of hesitation. The writer is convinced that it is useful, in epistemological discussions, to abandon the idealization that the level of human intelligence has a singular position on an absolute scale. In some cases it may even be useful to consider the attainment which is possible at the level of the intelligence of some other species. However, the writer also realizes that his thinking along the lines indicated in the text was too brief and not sub ject to sufficient critical appraisal to be reliable.”

    Would that Prof. Conway Morris had achieved the same level of self-critical insight as expressed in the last sentence. Clearly he has either misread or misconstrued Wigner; a more charitable assumption would be that he has not read him at all.

  35. Occam
    Posted February 20, 2009 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Martin: (@ Posts 25, 26)
    “Can evolution explain a radio wave?”
    Wrong domain, Martin: what we understand about a radio wave, and, by extension, about physics and chemistry, can help us understand the formative constraints of biomolecular evolution.
    Your other question is far more fundamental: why and how do we discover mathematical laws of nature?
    A) Have they been set out by a Mathematical Creator?
    B) Are we structured in such a way that we cannot help but perceive and conceive mathematical patterns and relations?
    The tricky part is that A) and B) are not necessarily on the same level. A) is a matter of belief – actually, a pyramid of beliefs; B) is a matter of scientific inquiry.
    The question is whether our Universe is indeed mathematically structured, and we begin to perceive its structure precisely because we, as a product of evolution within a mathematically structured universe, are isomorphic with its basic structures.

  36. Posted December 30, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    It’s amazing that one can scoff at the problems associated with a material mind, while not mentioning the greater difficulties that come from positing an immaterial one.

  37. Frank
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    On the other hand:

    “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!”

    The plea ‘God made it” can be seen as a ludicrous solution. But “..another century of work on the brain, for good ness sake” merely demonstrates the absolute arrogance of [some] scientists that one day they’ll be able to explain everything – just given enough time. No modesty, no hint that there might be limits to how far science can explain reality, no admission that the human mind, itself, may be limited in its capacity to interpret what (increasingly complex) solutions science tries to develop. Is not consciousness an example of this? We have something (or we don’t – who knows?) trying to explain itself. Subject is Object; the Perceived is the Perceiver. Something cannot be both at the same time. Or maybe ‘Another millenium of work on the brain would be enough.’

  38. David Preston
    Posted September 9, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Its been fun reading all the comments above.

    Why do we need to be so rude to each other?

    We are discussing things that cannot be fully known. Assuming stupidity to one’s intellectual opponent is always a sign of arrogance – a dangerous attribute in a scientist.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:13 am | Permalink

      Why do people have to tone troll instead of contributing to the discussion?

      It is, ironically, rude.

      We are discussing things that cannot be fully known.

      Speaking of rudeness, why make arrogant and obviously false claims? (And, again ironically, claim arrogance.)

      We know for example that there are no creators.


16 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Simon Conway Morris becomes a creationist [...]

  2. [...] then he will be immune from the accusation that he is a creationist?  Ha!  Not so!  Consider this article reacting to Morris’s article in the Guardian, titled… you guessed it: “Simon Conway Morris becomes a [...]

  3. [...] man who seemed to be coping despite the handicap of religious delusion. Until recently, that is – Simon Conway Morris becomes a creationist To be honest, if you have a point it is far from apparent to me. And hermits are contented with [...]

  4. [...] really wonder why Jerry Coyne seem to just discover that Simon Conway Morris is a creationist. SCM believes at a Creator of the universe, as any christian. That classifies him in the [...]

  5. [...] Simon Conway Morris becomes a creationist In yesterday’s Guardian the famous paleontologist Simon Conway Morris (describer of many of the Burgess Shale [...] [...]

  6. [...] an interesting piece in the UK guardian which is fairly critical of Neo-Darwinism which the likes  Jerry Coyne who is an advocate and defender for evolution is basically claiming he’s a creationist [...]

  7. [...] thèses non-scientifiques est la spécialité de la JTF, et heureusement les propos de ses poulains commencent à susciter de plus en plus de réactions [...]

  8. [...] qui arrive à Simon-Conway et Françis Collins tant qu’on y est, c’est qu’ils finissent par admettre [...]

  9. [...] Big creationist mess in L.A. Today’s L.A. Times reports that the California Science Center is being sued for cancelling a showing of a creationist film, “Darwin’s Dilemma: The Mystery of the Cambrian Fossil Record.” The film, heavily touted by the Discovery Institute and featuring their work,  looks pretty dire on paper, featuring, along with creationists Stephen Meyer, Jon Wells, and Paul Nelson (the latter a young-earther), the dupes James Valentine and Simon Conway Morris (who officially came out as a creationist this year). [...]

  10. [...] comme Staune est créationniste), Ken Miller le créationniste façon catholique, et Conway Morris, le dernier à avoir fait son coming-out. Templeton Foundation qui pour préserver une image clean a su changer sa mission de rapprochement [...]

  11. [...] And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out who’s behind the movie, for if they’d merely Googled the movie producer, Illustra Media, they’d find very quickly that it appears to be identical to Discovery Media, an explictly creationist/religious outfit.  Lesson to scientists: don’t agree to appear on film unless you have absolute confidence in who is making the movie.  But Conway Morris, for one, does appear to have some sympathies for creationism, since he’s  having floated the argument that evolution is driven by God. [...]

  12. [...] 21, 2010 par Oldcola Heh ! Simon Conway-Morris, faisant sa promotion du soft-créationnisme à la John Templeton Foundation, suggère que son téléologisme théiste est justifié par la [...]

  13. [...] moments et je rigole doucement quand les américains finissent par s’en rendre compte. Voir Jerry Coyne étonné qu’un chrétien comme Simon Conway-Morris affiche son créationnisme me fait sourire, [...]

  14. [...] is specious, and I’ve discussed it several places before (see, for example, here and here). It’s telling that people like Vernon, Miller, and Conway Morris spend a lot of time arguing [...]

  15. [...] highlights an article in the Guardian that Conway Morris wrote in 2009, and which I criticized at the time.  After talking about the inadequacies of Darwinism to explain convergence (it’s not [...]

  16. [...] est étonnant que la John Templeton Foundation, qui compte dans ses écuries aussi bien Collins, Conway-Morris, Miller et Staune, deux darwinistes et deux qui ne le sont pas donc, et qui a l’habitude [...]

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