Victor Stenger is PuffHo‘s skunk in the religious woodpile, a bracing antidote to the nausea-inducing posts of Michael Ruse. Stenger’s latest post in the Religion section, “Contingency or convergence?“, takes on paleontologist Simon Conway Morris’s claims that the history of life proves Jebus.
Conway Morris’s claims rest on evolutionary convergence, the observation that evolutionarily distinct lineages can sometimes converge on similar “solutions” to similar environmental problems. Ichthyosaurs, dolphins, and tuna are from independent lineages, but all have the fusiform shape necessary for swimming in the sea. We all know the remarkable similarity (with a few telling differences) between the “camera eyes” of octopi and vertebrates—eyes that evolved completely independently. Conway Morris has a whole book on these, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, and he now runs a big project, the “Map of Life,” that collects lots of examples of evolutionary convergence.
Stenger dissects Conway Morris’s connection between convergence and Jebus and, as would anyone with a lick of sense, finds it wanting. What amazes me about Conway Morris’s argument, something I banged on about in a New Republic piece, is that not only are there good biological and physical reasons for convergence (Stenger concentrates on the physics), but the phenomenon is completely irrelevant to Conway Morris’s claim that the evolution of humans was inevitable. (He uses this “inevitability”, of course, as evidence for God.) Humans are not an example of evolutionary convergence, for our big, reasoning brain—the brain that Conway Morris sees as enabling us to apprehend and worship The Big Man in the Sky—is an evolutionary one off. That is, it evolved exactly once. If convergence is used to show evolutionary inevitability, by showing that natural selection channels organisms into similar phenotypic pathways, why on earth would he apply that notion to an evolutionary singleton? A singleton like Homo sapiens is the worst way to show evolutionary inevitability.
This is a terrible flaw in Conway Morris’s logic. I can understand it only in light of the desire of a Catholic scientist to find the needle of Jebus in the haystack of evolution.
Stenger highlights an article in the Guardian that Conway Morris wrote in 2009, which I criticized at the time. After arguing that Darwinism is completely inadequate to explain evolutionary convergence (it’s not), Conway Morris goes on to tout religion and bash atheists:
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.
(Jerry raises his hand here, “I do!, Dr. Conway Morris. I really, seriously believe that consciousness is material.” Some proof: when I had my sinus operation, they gave me gas that instantly removed my consciousness. When they turned the gas off, my consciousness returned.)
Who funds Conway Morris’s work on convergence and his Map of Life project? Templeton, of course! For those misguided souls who insist that Templeton has no intention of using its money to pollute science with woo, just have a look at the connection between the well-funded work of Conway Morris on convergence and what he says it shows about God. It’s a blatant attempt to hijack the respectability of evolutionary biology in the service of faith.