Stenger on evolutionary convergence

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.

h/t: Jon


  1. Matthew Cobb
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    What’s the betting on Conway-Morris for the TF Prize 2012?

    • Simon
      Posted April 9, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      Gotta be due soon. He’s already on their books, a relatively ‘big name’ in his area, and written popular books. Since 2011 went to a physicist I expect 2012 to go to a biologist.

  2. Greg Esres
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Your “Contingency or convergence?” link takes me to Conway’s article, rather than Stenger’s. That isn’t what I expected.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 9, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      Sorry; I fixed it. Thx.

      • stvs
        Posted April 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        Convergence of obsessiveness about masturbation:

        Jesus is in yur heaven, watching u masturbate.
        Ceiling cat is in yur ceiling, watching u masturbate.

        Therefore Jesus. You can’t explain that.

  3. Posted April 9, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    A New Republic article? That’s the New Republic article. The one that launched a thousand blog posts and burnt the topless towers of Mooneium.

  4. shmuel
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    mr. coyne, your sinus operation does not indicate that your consciousness itself is material, but that the cause of the consciousness is material. for example, if you put cello tape on the mouth of a human being, he will not be able to speak; but this doesn’t indicate that speech itself (the sounds) are an organic, biological organism, doesn’t it? suppose you are even able to control the sounds a human being makes by implanting electrodes in his throat. still, this would not make human speech a biological specie.

    scientists think that sounds are waves. Human beings, however are not. If according to scientists, sounds are waves, which (in case of speech) are caused by humans, it is a good example of the different nature between sounds and human beings. Even though you can say that one causes the other, in no way it means that they belong to the same category of phenomena.

    (however, I think philosophy has much more useful things to say about consciousness than religion).

    • Posted April 9, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Whoa, that’s really deep. So deep you should probably come up for air and get some oxygen to your brain.

    • Posted April 9, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      But, shmuel — all matter is comprised of waves!

      • stvs
        Posted April 9, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        Nope. Everything is particles. Feynman in QED:

        when instruments were developed that were sensitive enough to detect a single photon, the wave theory predicted that the “clicks” of the photo­ multiplier would get softer and softer, whereas they stayed at full strength-they just occurred less and less often. No reasonable model could explain this fact, so there was a period for a while in which you had to be clever: You had to know which experiment you were analyzing in order to tell if light was waves or particles. This state of confusion was called the “wave-particle duality” of light, and it was jokingly said by someone that light was waves on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; it was particles on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and on Sundays, we think about it! It is the purpose of these lectures to tell you how this puzzle was finally “resolved.”

        • Posted April 9, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

          Oh! You thought I was talking about particle-wave duality?


    • Josh Slocum
      Posted April 9, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Your allergy to capital letters is extremely irritating.

      • Posted April 9, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        He’s certainly no E. E. Cummings.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      1. It’s Dr. Coyne. I’m quite sure he’s earned it.

      2. Neuroscience as a LOT more to say about consciousness than either religion or philosophy. And the conclusion is inescapable — it’s all in your head. It’s neurons firing and interacting with other neurons. And that’s pretty much it. You can talk about pyramidal cells and other aspects of brain architecture; but the likelihood of consciousness being anything OTHER than 100% natural and brain-based, is … well … nonsense.

      3. Scientists “think” sound is waves? Really. They only “think” that? You mean, they haven’t actually measured the waves, characterized waves, discovered that indeed if a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound regardless of who’s there to hear it? Really?

      Go back to freshman debate class, sonny. You’re in way over your head here.

      • David
        Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, I read his post while out shopping and my wife would not let me stand there typing with my index finger for 20 minutes to post a reply.

        But you covered it far better than I could.

      • Posted April 11, 2011 at 4:56 am | Permalink

        Re #3: Well, I suppose that depends on your definition of “sound”. In _This Is Your Brain On Music_, Daniel Levitin answers George Berkeley’s (in)famous question in the negative, asserting that sound is simply the mental image created by the brain in response to vibrating molecules (of air, etc.).

    • Dan
      Posted April 9, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Shmuel, Your analogy of removing consciousness with gas and putting tape over a someone’s mouth to stop speech actually supports Dr. Coyne’s point, not yours. The only way that your analogy would work to disprove the material bases of consciousness is if human speech wasn’t natural, but based in something supernatural. Do you really think human speech can’t be reduced to natural causes like the human brain, structure of the ear, evolution, brain development, social interactions, the physics of sound waves, etc?

      Again, you analogy actually supports the contention that consciousness is a purely material phenomenon. I’m amused you would try to imply that silencing someone by putting tape over their mouth shows that speech and consciousness aren’t material. Does that really seem logical to you?

      • Tulse
        Posted April 10, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

        Of course consciousness has a material cause, but that doesn’t mean consciousness itself is material. How much does a thought weigh? What colour is the memory of you 5th birthday party? Does anger have a smell? Those questions would make sense if consciousness (and not just its cause) were material.

        There are plenty of things in this world that have a material cause but are not material themselves — Beethoven’s 9th doesn’t have mass, and destroying a CD of it doesn’t destroy the music. There is no flavor to the California Penal Code, and the rules of chess can’t be classified as a solid, liquid, or gas. Material can instantiate and even cause some types of things which are not themselves material.

        • Posted April 10, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

          I think it’s clear what I meant here, since I’ve been posting about my view for a long time. Consciousness is purely a result of material processes occurring in material cells and bodies. It’s not fruitful to argue whether consciousness itself is a “material” thing—that’s not the point of the argument. The point is whether you have to posit a God or a ghost in the machine to explain consciousness.

          • SAWells
            Posted April 11, 2011 at 3:34 am | Permalink

            Consciousness is “immaterial” in exactly the same way as “horsepower” or “velocity” are immaterial; they are descriptions of the activity of material things.

        • Posted April 11, 2011 at 4:29 am | Permalink

          If all CDs and other recordings of Beethoven’s 9th were destroyed, all manuscripts shredded, everyone who had ever heard it dead, how then would it exist?

      • shmuel
        Posted April 10, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        I misunderstood Dr. Coyne’s argument.

        He has clarified his intention bellow, so my example is no longer valid.

  5. pittige maki
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I am not a biologist and read spencer’s book “god, the failed hypothesis” but can somebody explain me what thoughts are ? the firing of neurons or something else ? i think what smuel wants to say is that the brain COULD be an interface, something like a computer, the code who are in fact intangible objects gets their life after putting in the hardware of a processor. This could be a ridiculous comparison. Nevertheless can somebody explain it ?

    • shmuel
      Posted April 11, 2011 at 5:09 am | Permalink

      My point is that whether thoughts are material, and whether the (material) brain is the only thing necessary to explain how they are produced are two different questions.

      While Conway Morris argues that the first is definitely not true, Dr. Coyne argues the second is true. There is no need to conflate them.

      I can grasp that my dreams are produced by my brain; but arguing that my dreams themselves are material is a different issue. Do they have mass?

      Dreams are first-person data. They are “subjective”. A brain is “objective”. Even using this language of subjective vs. objective can explain that there is a very strong conceptual problem in saying that dreams are material.

      And frankly, I do find it hard to think why would something objective cause something subjective. It seems to me to be a difference of quality; not quantity.

      I side with David Chalmers. And like the quote about the ‘hard problem’ that “it is the only major question in the sciences that we don’t even know how to ask.”

      I do not know enough of the subject to have an intelligent opinion as to how it _does_ work. But I wouldn’t like to see religious people with an agenda hijacking this to their own “godly” needs. Even because no one of them would really like to put god in the lab. If god has created consciousness, how and using what means? When? The holiness of the issue would obscure rational debate.

      • pittige maki
        Posted April 11, 2011 at 5:29 am | Permalink

        thanks. The holiness of the issue would obscure rational debate.

      • Posted April 11, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

        But why do you side with Chalmers. His formulation of the problem seems self-serving – a pretext for the panpsychism he favors (kind of like irreducible complexity is for ID).

        I was heartened that at least some philosophers, including Daniel Dennett, “argue that once we really come to understand what consciousness is, we will realize that the hard problem is unreal.”

        • shmuel
          Posted April 11, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

          Frankly, I do not even understand from which angle this attitude tries to tackle the problem. I think in the following way :

          1) Think of an example of what consciousness is. Like : a dream. Or : a thought.

          2) Analyze it’s properties. Are they physical? Is a dream composed of molecules? Do thoughts have colors? Do emotions have colors?

          The above helps me to draw boundaries: physical vs. consciousness. It seems that properties of one, are not the properties of another.

          Thus, I am led to substance-dualism. I am not in favor of souls, or whatever. I just think that what we call in daily life thoughts, or emotions, dreams and etc. has different properties from what I would call material.

          This all has nothing to do with brain research so far – just trying to understand what do we actually mean when we say consciousness __first__.

          And thus, I come to the conclusion consciousness is not material. Hence, the hard problem is real.

          Can you explain me how do you think, when you think of the problem?

          • shmuel
            Posted April 11, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

            I think that _first_, we should draw the boundaries for our terms – give examples of what we actually call consciousness, and then – try to give definitions that would be suitable for our examples.

            Only after that comes scientific research. First clarify our terms – then use them.

          • Posted April 12, 2011 at 4:38 am | Permalink

            It’s still not clear why you side with Chalmers – why you think the “hard problem” exists?

            SAWells’s comment re Darwin is a pertinent one. Gravity, electrical charge, magnetism, and so on aren’t “massive” (in a classical sense), yet are material, at least in the sense that they are properties of material things. (So I don’t know why you’re getting so hung up on consciousness not having mass.)

            There’s no need to appeal to, say, some kind of “panmagnetism” to explain how fucking magnets work. (Although the explanation is not straight-forward, as Feynman noted.)

            I don’t think of the problem, because I don’t think it exists (as irreducible complexity doesn’t exist): I can’t see a need to hypothesise consciousness as something that isn’t a contingent, emergent property of the wetware in your, my and others’ skulls. I don’t know how it arises, of course, but I see no evidence that consciousness exists anywhere else or arises from anything else.

      • SAWells
        Posted April 11, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        Darwin asked: why should thought being a secretion of brain seem more wonderful than gravity being a secretion of matter?

      • Posted April 11, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

        I do find it hard to think why would something objective cause something subjective. It seems to me to be a difference of quality; not quantity.

        I don’t think this is a dilemma at all. Objective events shape who we are through and through. Subjectivity arises from each person’s unique biology, development, and experience. These things prevent anyone from being the same as another person. Basically, no two people have the same brain at any point in their lives, so subjectivity should be expected.

        I can grasp that my dreams are produced by my brain; but arguing that my dreams themselves are material is a different issue. Do they have mass?

        Well, computer memory is material as are words in a book, so why should the stuff stored by our brain not be material, too? I mean, dreams have to come from something; surely that something is materially stored.

  6. TheRationalizer
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Convergence. Both tuna and Dolphins have tails and can swim in water, yet one moves horizontally and the other moves vertically – not one for attention to detail, god.

    • Marella
      Posted April 10, 2011 at 2:26 am | Permalink

      Like most psychopaths, god has a very low threshold for boredom. Hence earthquakes, volcanos etc.

  7. Frank
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    One wonders if Conway-Morris has ever read ANYTHING regarding the basis of consciousness (Dennett’s philosophical angle, modern neuroscience, etc.). He shows only his own ignorance when he asks if anyone could seriously believe that consciousness in material. Despite his background in science, he is no better than a ill-educated creationist by spouting off on a subject he does not understand.

  8. Spirula
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I think philosophy has much more useful things to say about consciousness than religion

    And neurobiology has shown both to be innaccurate and unnecessary in explaining consciousness.

    • Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink


      • Kevin
        Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        Here you go…just a sample, obviously.

        1: Vogt BA, Laureys S. Posterior cingulate, precuneal and retrosplenial cortices:
        cytology and components of the neural network correlates of consciousness. Prog
        Brain Res. 2005;150:205-17. Review. PubMed PMID: 16186025; PubMed Central PMCID:

        2: Yan H, Zuo XN, Wang D, Wang J, Zhu C, Milham MP, Zhang D, Zang Y. Hemispheric
        asymmetry in cognitive division of anterior cingulate cortex: a resting-state
        functional connectivity study. Neuroimage. 2009 Oct 1;47(4):1579-89. Epub 2009
        Jun 6. PubMed PMID: 19501172.

        3: Vanhaudenhuyse A, Noirhomme Q, Tshibanda LJ, Bruno MA, Boveroux P, Schnakers
        C, Soddu A, Perlbarg V, Ledoux D, Brichant JF, Moonen G, Maquet P, Greicius MD,
        Laureys S, Boly M. Default network connectivity reflects the level of
        consciousness in non-communicative brain-damaged patients. Brain. 2010 Jan;133(Pt
        1):161-71. Epub 2009 Dec 23. PubMed PMID: 20034928; PubMed Central PMCID:

        4: Min BK. A thalamic reticular networking model of consciousness. Theor Biol Med
        Model. 2010 Mar 30;7:10. PubMed PMID: 20353589; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2857829.

        5: Zhou J, Liu X, Song W, Yang Y, Zhao Z, Ling F, Hudetz AG, Li SJ. Specific and
        nonspecific thalamocortical functional connectivity in normal and vegetative
        states. Conscious Cogn. 2010 Nov 13. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 21078562;
        PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3056940.

        6: Boveroux P, Vanhaudenhuyse A, Bruno MA, Noirhomme Q, Lauwick S, Luxen A,
        Degueldre C, Plenevaux A, Schnakers C, Phillips C, Brichant JF, Bonhomme V,
        Maquet P, Greicius MD, Laureys S, Boly M. Breakdown of within- and
        between-network resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging connectivity
        during propofol-induced loss of consciousness. Anesthesiology. 2010
        Nov;113(5):1038-53. PubMed PMID: 20885292.

        7: Taylor KS, Seminowicz DA, Davis KD. Two systems of resting state connectivity
        between the insula and cingulate cortex. Hum Brain Mapp. 2009 Sep;30(9):2731-45.
        PubMed PMID: 19072897.

        8: Zhang HY, Wang SJ, Xing J, Liu B, Ma ZL, Yang M, Zhang ZJ, Teng GJ. Detection
        of PCC functional connectivity characteristics in resting-state fMRI in mild
        Alzheimer’s disease. Behav Brain Res. 2009 Jan 30;197(1):103-8. Epub 2008 Aug 22.
        PubMed PMID: 18786570.

        9: Cauda F, D’Agata F, Sacco K, Duca S, Geminiani G, Vercelli A. Functional
        connectivity of the insula in the resting brain. Neuroimage. 2011 Mar
        1;55(1):8-23. Epub 2010 Nov 24. PubMed PMID: 21111053.

        10: van den Heuvel MP, Hulshoff Pol HE. Exploring the brain network: a review on
        resting-state fMRI functional connectivity. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2010
        Aug;20(8):519-34. Epub 2010 May 14. Review. PubMed PMID: 20471808.

        11: Lombardo MV, Chakrabarti B, Bullmore ET, Wheelwright SJ, Sadek SA, Suckling
        J; MRC AIMS Consortium, Baron-Cohen S. Shared neural circuits for mentalizing
        about the self and others. J Cogn Neurosci. 2010 Jul;22(7):1623-35. PubMed PMID:

        12: Laureys S, Goldman S, Phillips C, Van Bogaert P, Aerts J, Luxen A, Franck G,
        Maquet P. Impaired effective cortical connectivity in vegetative state:
        preliminary investigation using PET. Neuroimage. 1999 Apr;9(4):377-82. PubMed

        • Posted April 9, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          Oh… you known what?

          I completely misread what Spirula wrote… as: And neurobiology has [been] shown [to be both] inaccurate and unnecessary in explaining consciousness.

          I apologize!

          I agree: Consciousness is a contingent property of the wetware.

          But that’s an impressive list of citations to produce at the drop of a hat.

          • Christopher Petroni
            Posted April 9, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

            Don’t apologize. It’s always a good idea to ask for a source, even when you agree. (Especially when you agree!)

        • Diane G.
          Posted April 9, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

          Nicely done, Kevin!

        • Posted April 9, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

          +5 🙂

  9. Simon
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    ‘mind’ is what the brain does, like software (incl. OS) is what a working computer does. Is software ‘material’? Not is the simple-minded sense. But it’s certainly not mystical – it’s just the action of material objects.

    Saying conciousness is not material (in the simple-minded sense) and then (spuriously) inferring religon is using a misleading premise (confusing ‘not hardware’ for ‘mystical non-material’) and faulty logic. An argument that is so bad it’s “not even wrong”.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 10, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      Is software ‘material’?

      That is the prediction of the Church-Turing thesis, “everything computable is computable by a Turing machine” (a mechanical machine, making mechanical state changes).

      “The Church–Turing thesis is a statement that characterizes the nature of computation and cannot be formally proven. Even though the three processes mentioned above proved to be equivalent, the fundamental premise behind the thesis—the notion of what it means for a function to be “effectively calculable” (computable)—is “a somewhat vague intuitive one”.[3] Thus, the “thesis” remains an hypothesis.[3]

      Despite the fact that it cannot be formally proven, the Church–Turing thesis now has near-universal acceptance.” [Wikipedia]

      So these darn materialists of computer scientists thinks for good reasons that everything is material. Their reasons seem to be a) this is how every test results b) if it wasn’t true, every problem would in principle be equally trivial (I think, based on that functions can’t be effectively computed by any method if CTT is true) c) it is an extremely useful assumption as I understand it.

      Maybe the best way to think of it, seeing that it can’t be proven by math, that it is possibly an empirically testable hypothesis involving soft- and hardware in combination. And then testable without involving consciousness as such.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 10, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        “based on that functions can’t be effectively computed” – based on that *some* functions can’t be effectively computed.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

        Also, I should say that the implication is one of correspondence to material systems. You can abstract away software if you will. (But not escape the correspondence that you can make a mechanical brain doing what our biochemical brain does, though maybe much slower.)

  10. Brian
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Who is this P.Z. Meyers that Stenger talks about?

    • Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Even brilliant physicists make ytpnig errors!

      • Brian
        Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        So it’s not only ordinary types who make mistakes? Ha ha! Take that Stenger, we’re equal as far as making typing errors! I’ll assume that means we’re equal on all subjects and get to writting my thesis on physics right now. 🙂

    • pittige maki
      Posted April 11, 2011 at 5:37 am | Permalink

      my post must be gone. PZ meyers is the blog autor for pharyngula at scienceblogs.I have already post this

      • Posted April 11, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

        I think you’ve missed the joke here, PM, and make the same typing/spelling mistake as Stenger: It is PZ Myers.

        • SAWells
          Posted April 11, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

          It’s also a long-running joke at Pharyngula that PZ is almost always called “Meyers” by creationists who send him weird emails; they seem to have a persistent difficulty in spelling Myers correctly.

          • Posted April 12, 2011 at 4:12 am | Permalink


            Having both a forename & a surname that have variant spellings, I sympathise.

            (Going by “Ant” avoids one potential misspelling – but few people outside the UK recognise it as a forename, and assume mine is “Allan”.) 

          • Posted April 12, 2011 at 4:12 am | Permalink


            Having both a forename & a surname that have variant spellings, I sympathise.

            (Going by “Ant” avoids one potential misspelling – but few people outside the UK recognise it as a forename, and assume mine is “Allan”.) 

  11. GroovyJ
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re all missing the point. Emergence is COMPLICATED. Magic is simple. Why learn long words like ‘supervenience’ and ‘material substrate’ when you can just invoke Jesus and solve all mysteries with a wave of your hand?

    Oooh, or leprechauns, which are like Jesus with a pot of gold and an adorable accent!

    • Posted April 9, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

      Yeah–but Jesus is easier to spell than Leprechaun…

  12. Posted April 9, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Of course, I’ll ever state: teleology- divine or otherwise- contradicts teleonomy- no wanted outcomes ,per Lamberth’s teleonomic argument, and per the ignostic-Ockham, God- agency ,intent- either means the useless tautology God wills what He wills : God did it, or else, Alister Earl McGrath notwithstanding is a useless redundancy!
    Teleonomy rather than teleology rules no matter what idealists, like Keith Ward, prattle!
    I dare take on those two theological twits and others! For fun read what Ward prattles at Gresham College transcripts!
    The original Carneades would have laughed heartily at these latter day Sophists!

  13. Diane G.
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Permalink


  14. Tim Martin
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    Wow, that New Republic article is great! I hadn’t seen it before.

    One question though- what was the editor thinking letting you pluralize octopus like that? It’s a Greek word, which means no Latin pluralizations.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted April 10, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink


    • Diane G.
      Posted April 11, 2011 at 2:16 am | Permalink

      Pedants, all! 😀

      Once a word enters a different language, all rules are off. Most American dictionaries list octopi as acceptable…

      • SAWells
        Posted April 11, 2011 at 3:40 am | Permalink

        No, no; everybody knows that barbarian words are indeclinable…

  15. Sigmund
    Posted April 10, 2011 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    Conway-Morris claims that the brain acts as a receiver or antenna for a non material mind. It is simply a version of classic dualism.

    • Posted April 10, 2011 at 5:34 am | Permalink

      Oh, so that’s where the mind cranks are getting that from! That has got to be one of the worst and most insidious analogies ever. It does nothing but muddle the minds of its hapless proponents.

    • SAWells
      Posted April 11, 2011 at 3:46 am | Permalink

      He actually claims that?… Wow, it’s worse than I thought. I knew him at Cambridge, he’s a nice enough guy but his thinking doesn’t seem to be improving.

      • Sigmund
        Posted April 11, 2011 at 5:45 am | Permalink

        A friend of mine went to a talk of his that was hosted by the Jesuit society of Dublin. He made the claim about the mind as an antenna right at the end, with the added aside that his scientist friends would probably think him a bit mad for claiming that!
        I tend to view this as the standard tactic of ‘sophisticated’ theists, namely saying one thing to scientists and another to the religious non scientist audience.

  16. Posted April 10, 2011 at 4:25 am | Permalink

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

    Wish someone would put their money where their mouth is and demonstrate this claim by getting their brain removed. After all, if consciousness isn’t reducible to brain activity then there’s nothing to fear.

    • Posted April 10, 2011 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      I wish to see the meat-puppet brigade do that, too! It’s the materialists’ version of Pascal’s Wager–with real dire consequences. 🙂

    • SAWells
      Posted April 11, 2011 at 5:00 am | Permalink

      Worth noting that if dualism were true, then anaesthetic and sedative agents would act to separate the mind from the body, whereas in fact they shut down the mind.

  17. Sigmund
    Posted April 10, 2011 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    Kel said:
    “Wish someone would put their money where their mouth is and demonstrate this claim by getting their brain removed. ”
    I have my suspicions that Michael Egnor might have tried this already!

  18. NickMatzke
    Posted April 10, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    Simon Conway Morris is Anglican not Catholic I think.

    I’ve seen him speak, he doesn’t really argue that human-level intelligence has convergently evolved, but rather that large-brained social critters have evolved independently a number of times, and that some of these would eventually go the hyperbrain route that humans did. Agreed that the second part of this isn’t the strongest argument.

    The thing I like about SCM’s convergence discussion is how it undermines the “randomness” meme that is so commonly attributed to evolution in an uncritical way.

    • Harry Varty
      Posted April 10, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Only creationists make the straw-man assertion that natural selection is random.

      • Posted April 10, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

        It depends, sometimes you will see scientists say something like environmental change is random, therefore natural selection which tracks environmental change is also random. I saw Bruce Tiffney, an immensely prestigious paleobotanist, say this once in a public talk at UCSB. With a suitably sophisticated idea of what “random” means (e.g. statistical random variables) then Tiffney’s statement is arguably true, but if the word “random” is taken in the popular sense of “totally unpredictable” then it’s not.

        Apart from cases like that, I think evolution=”that’s just random, dude” is widespread in the general culture, partially due to creationism and partially just general confusion.

  19. Dominic
    Posted April 10, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Conway Morris falls for the trap that even Rees in his Templeton acceptance speech did not – he implication is that humans are the end point of creation, the peak of what is, the pinacle of his god’s work. What breathtaking arrogance! Of course we have also probably screwed it up for the poor creatures that might follow us…

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 10, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    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.

    Nitpicking perhaps: that can’t be it, since the first sufficiently intelligent species would say that (assuming it isn’t happening too often). It seems to be a base rate fallacy if formulated thusly. (“judgments of probability based entirely upon specific information, leaving out the base rate.”)

    The problem must, as I understand it, be that it has happened only once in ~ 5 Gy (or ~ 0.5 Gy, depending on your preferred baseline in mono- or multicellulars). Observing it as a frequency removes the “observer effect”.

    Considering that the biosphere may last anywhere between 0.2 ~ 1 Gy from the increasing solar irradiation from the aging sun, it likely won’t happen again.

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