You’ve probably heard of Simon Conway Morris if you’re a layperson interested in science, and you’ll certainly have heard of him if you’re an evolutionary biologist. He’s a very famous paleobiologist who works out of Cambridge University, and is renowned for his work on the Burgess Shale fossils. If you’ve read Steve Gould’s famous book on those fossils, Wonderful Life, you’ll know that he touts Conway Morris as a young hero, someone who discovered a group of early fossils that were not the precursors of anything now living, but which went extinct without issue. Gould used this to show the contingency of evolution: if we rewound the “tape of life,” perhaps the Burgess Shale animals would have persisted instead of dying out, and modern life could be very different.
Conway Morris originally agreed with the view that the Burgess Shale animals were not members of any lineage now existing, but subsequently changed his mind based on closer inspection of the fossils. He later placed many of them in extant groups, showing that they could have been related to things still living, and that therefore evolution might not be quite so contingent on the vagaries of environmental change and extinction. Conway Morris and Gould had a heated debate about who said what when (see their exchange here).
Conway Morris is also known for being a devout Christian, one who tries to show that the evidence from paleobiology and evolution supports the existence of God. As Wikipedia notes,
Conway Morris is active in the public understanding of science and has done extensive radio and television work. The latter includes the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures delivered in 1996. A Christian, he is also actively involved in various science and religion debates, including arguments against intelligent design on the one hand and materialism on the other. In 2005 he gave the Second Boyle Lecture. He is an increasingly active participant in discussions relating to science and religion. He is active in the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion and has lectured there on “Evolution and fine-tuning in Biology.” He gave the University of Edinburgh Gifford Lectures for 2007 in a series titled “Darwin’s Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Song of Creation”. In these lectures Conway Morris makes several claims that evolution may be compatible with belief in the existence of a God.
He is a strong critic of materialism and of reductionism:
“That satisfactory definitions of life elude us may be one hint that when materialists step forward and declare with a brisk slap of the hands that this is it, we should be deeply skeptical. Whether the “it” be that of Richard Dawkins’ reductionist gene-centred worldpicture, the “universal acid” of Daniel Dennett’s meaningless Darwinism, or David Sloan Wilson’s faith in group selection (not least to explain the role of human religions), we certainly need to acknowledge each provides insights but as total explanations of what we see around us they are, to put it politely, somewhat incomplete.”
“the scientist who boomingly — and they always boom — declares that those who believe in the Deity are unavoidably crazy, “cracked” as my dear father would have said, although I should add that I have every reason to believe he was — and now hope is — on the side of the angels.”
In March 2009 he was the opening speaker at the “Biological Evolution Facts and Theories Conference” held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, as well as chairing one of the sessions. The conference was sponsored by the Catholic Church.
In recent years, Conway Morris has been studying evolutionary convergence, the phenomenon whereby unrelated groups of animals (and plants) develop similar adaptations. Two examples are the remarkable similarity between the vertebrate and the cephalopod “camera eye,” and the similarity in morphology between a protists that’s an intestinal parasite (Haplozoonpraxillellae), and a tapeworm (cestode). Both have similar attachment structures, transverse segmentation of the body that breaks off new individuals, and a hairy covering. The photos below show their similarity.
A tapeworm (from PS Micrographs):
Conway Morris and his associates have a large project devoted to documenting evolutionary convergences, the Map of Life Project. If you go to the link, you can find many fascinating examples of evolutionary convergences (it’s a great teaching resource). Many other examples are documented in a 2010 paper in Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. (reference at bottom, free download) and his 2003 book, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe.
I learned a lot from that big book, but it was marred, for me, by its ultimate goal of showing not only that evolution goes along predictable pathways (that’s why there’s convergence), but also because one of those pathways was that leading to Homo sapiens, the only species that can apprehend and worship God. To Conway Morris, as a devout believer, the evolution of humans could not have been contingent, but must have been inevitable, and he tries to show this by documenting the many evolutionary “inevitabilities” instantiated by convergence.
The problem is that complex human intelligence—and certainly religious belief and practice—is not convergent on anything! It is an evolutionary one-off, like the elephant’s trunk, and hasn’t evolved in any other group, though some groups, like dolphins and crows, do show abilities to solve problems and communicate in a fairly complex way. I have never understood how documenting evolutionary convergences says anything about the inevitability of a feature that arose only once, and this is the fatal flaw in all of Conway Morris’s convergence work.
I discuss this further in my article in The New Republic in 2009: “Seeing and believing,” which reviews books by Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller. Both Giberson and Miller, heavily influenced by Conway Morris’s arguments, adopted the view that the evolutionary appearance of humanoid creatures was inevitable. For various reasons documented in my New Republic piece, I don’t think we can say this at all. If you take Conway Morris’s path, you might as well say that the elephant’s trunk was the ultimate goal of God’s creation (after all, though God created humans in His image, perhaps God is a Celestial Pachyderm).
Some people have doubted that Conway Morris’s work on convergence was either conditioned by or heavily influenced his views on God. For these doubters, I urge them to check out an article I read yesterday, “Creation and evolutionary convergence” (pp. 258–269 in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, J. B. Stump and A. G. Padgett, eds. 2012, Blackwell Publishing). I am publishing two excerpts from the book (leaving out the section on “Predictable evolution?” since I’ve already discussed that idea), to show how Conway Morris’s belief has slanted his science. It is an example of religionism (the opposite of scientism): my neologism for the tendency of religion to overstep its boundaries and claim that science gives evidence for God or the supernatural.
From the section “The Emergence of Cognition,” here’s Conway Morris claiming that the emergence of mind from matter testifies to the transcendent (i.e., Jesus):
There seems to be no a priori reason why mind should emerge from matter. The solution (if that is the word) is to postulate that mind is identifiably different. This need not lead to dualism. Consider this alternative, that whilst mind is certainly embodied in one sense, we serve as receptacles, or perhaps better an “antenna” for mind. From this perspective, we should be neither surprised that we have access to truths that are themselves immaterial, nor immediately dismiss “out-of-body” experiences.”
But it is the theological implications that are even more intriguing. Talk of mind as a real property invites consideration of a whole spectrum of issues, such as the nature of free will (the emergence of which from a materiality which is oblivious to intentionality seems to be incoherent), the sense of purpose, and the likelihood that whilst our minds are necessarily embodied (although near-death experiences suggest this is not essential), in other agencies mind could still be very much part of the universe but from our mundane perspective immaterial. (p. 265-266)
And, from the section “And Christianity?,” Conway Morris justifies miracles (p. 266):
What then of Chistianity?. . . The idea of a god may be bad enough, but to have him wandering around in an out-of-the-way nook of the Roman empire, with a raggle-taggle band of followers, then fizzling out in an all too common method of execution, and to cap it all to claim he was God incarnate seems risible. They might, however, benefit from a refresher course in theology rather than sitting at the feet of the village atheist.
What we seem to see is an interpenetration of worlds with the unavoidable conclusion that much lies beyond our mundane expectations. Such is evident from the Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension. Science in its present primitive state has very little useful to say about any of these events: just because they are inexplicable does not mean that they did not happen.
It is sad that such an accomplished scientist has gone this route: I wonder if his religiosity preceded or followed his scientific studies. What’s even sadder—and annoying as well—is that Conway Morris goes around purveying this kind of “evidence” for God in public venues, such as the Gifford Lectures and talks at the infamous Faraday Institute at Cambridge University. (Cambridge is fast becoming a hotbed of mush-brained accommodationism).
Inevitably, Dr. Conway Morris’s work on evolutionary convergence was supported by The Templeton Foundation ($983,253 from 2006-2009), and his work on the emergence of biological complexity, along with that of five other principal investigators, was also sponsored by Templeton ($3,584,147 between 2005-2008). For my previous posts on Conway Morris, including his evolutionary views and connection to Templeton, go here, here, and here. I predict that within a decade Conway Morris will nab the Templeton Prize.
Simon Conway Morris
Conway-Morris, S. 2003. Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. UK.
Conway-Morris, S. 2010. Evolution: like any other science it is predictable. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. 365:133-145.