Simon Conway Morris’s new book on evolutionary convergence. Does it give evidence for God?

The eminent paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris, who did seminal work on the Burgess Shale Fauna, has a new book out. Published on January 19, it’s called The Runes of Evolution: How the Universe Became Self-Aware. And it was published by Templeton Press, which should tell you something about its contents.41O9HaXoi1L


Now the subtitle does seem to be a bit wooish and Deepak-ish: in fact, more than a bit, for the Universe is certainly not self-aware, at least in the sense that it has a Big Mind that can produce awareness. Unless, that is, if you believe in God, which Conway Morris certainly does (he’s a devout Christian). And I suspect, and am willing to bet, that the message of this book is that the evolutionary phenomenon of convergence—its nominal topic—gives evidence for the deity. Like Conway Morris’s previous book, it is probably a work of natural theology.

In 2003 Conway Morris produced a fat book called Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Much of the book was quite good, for it was the first concerted attempt to document the phenomenon of “evolutionary convergence.” This is the phenomenon whereby unrelated species evolve similar traits in response to similar selective pressures, so they “converge” in the way they look.

There are lots of examples of such convergence; one of the most famous is the way that marsupial and plancental mammals, though their ancestors diverged about 160 million years ago, have produced species that look very similar. Here’s a picture of several convergences from The Roaming Naturalist; I have a similar picture in Why Evolution is True and give more examples below:


The problem with Conway Morris’s Life’s Solution was not its catalogue of remarkable convergences, which I found fascinating, but in its aim: to claim that evolutionary convergence gives evidence for God. That is, he used the phenomenon of convergence to argue that there are certain favored paths for evolution (which, indeed, there almost certainly are)—but that one of those paths must lead to Homo sapiens or a similarly self-aware creature (I call them “humanoids”) that can apprehend and worship God.

Lest you doubt that this is where Conway Morris was going in that book, read my post about it from 2012. (You can read about Conway Morris’s religious beliefs and denigration of atheism here.)

As I said, I haven’t yet read the new book, and I will, but the description at the Templeton Press site suggests that it’s a popular version of Life’s Solution, and with the same message—with added “self-awareness of the universe”:

How did human beings acquire imaginations that can conjure up untrue possibilities? How did the Universe become self-aware? In The Runes of Evolution, Simon Conway Morris revitalizes the study of evolution from the perspective of convergence, providing us with compelling new evidence to support the mounting scientific view that the history of life is far more predictable than once thought.

A leading evolutionary biologist at the University of Cambridge, Conway Morris came into international prominence for his work on the Cambrian explosion (especially fossils of the Burgess Shale) and evolutionary convergence, which is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

In The Runes of Evolution, he illustrates how the ubiquity of convergence hints at an underlying framework whereby many outcomes, not least brains and intelligence, are virtually guaranteed on any Earth-like planet. Conway Morris also emphasizes how much of the complexity of advanced biological systems is inherent in microbial forms.

In anticipation that this new book will mirror the old one, including its message of human inevitability, let me reproduce something I wrote a while back criticizing the ideas that a). the evolution of humans (or humanoids) was inevitable and b). that evolutionary convergence gives us evidence for a Divine Plan. My article in the 2009 New Republic, “Seeing and believing,” reviewed two books on evolution by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Both of them use arguments similar to Conway Morris’s for why evolutionary convergence gives evidence for God. Rather than rewrite my argument (which I’ve already done in the upcoming Faith versus Fact), I’ll just reproduce a bit of what I wrote five years ago:

To support the inevitability of humans, Giberson and Miller invoke the notion of evolutionary convergence. This idea is simple: species often adapt to similar environments by independently evolving similar features. Ichthyosaurs (ancient marine reptiles), porpoises, and fish all evolved independently in the water, and through natural selection all three acquired fins and a similar streamlined shape. Complex “camera eyes” evolved in both vertebrates and squid. Arctic animals such as polar bears, arctic hares, and snowy owls either are white or turn white in the winter, hiding them from predators or prey. Perhaps the most astonishing example of convergence is the similarity between some species of marsupial mammals in Australia and unrelated placental mammals that live elsewhere. The marsupial flying phalanger looks and acts just like the flying squirrel of the New World. Marsupial moles, with their reduced eyes and big burrowing claws, are dead ringers for our placental moles. Until its extinction in 1936, the remarkable thylacine, or Tasmanian wolf, looked and hunted like a placental wolf.

Convergence tells us something deep about evolution. There must be preexisting “niches,” or ways of life, that call up similar evolutionary changes in unrelated species that adapt to them. That is, starting with different ancestors and fuelled by different mutations, natural selection can nonetheless mold bodies in very similar ways–so long as those changes improve survival and reproduction. There were niches in the sea for fish-eating mammals and reptiles, so porpoises and ichthyosaurs became streamlined. Animals in the Arctic improve their survival if they are white in the winter. And there must obviously be a niche for a small omnivorous mammal that glides from tree to tree. Convergence is one of the most impressive features of evolution, and it is common: there are hundreds of cases.

All it takes to argue for the inevitability of humanoids, then, is to claim that there was a “humanoid niche”–a way of life that required high intelligence and sophisticated self-consciousness–and that this niche remained unfilled until inevitably invaded by human ancestors. But was its occupation really inevitable? Miller is confident that it was:

“But as life re-explored adaptive space, could we be certain that our niche would not be occupied? I would argue that we could be almost certain that it would be–that eventually evolution would produce an intelligent, self-aware, reflective creature endowed with a nervous system large enough to solve the very same questions we have, and capable of discovering the very process that produced it, the process of evolution…. Everything we know about evolution suggests that it could, sooner or later, get to that niche.”

Miller and Giberson are forced to this view for a simple reason. If we cannot prove that humanoid evolution was inevitable, then the reconciliation of evolution and Christianity collapses. For if we really were the special object of God’s creation, our evolution could not have been left to chance. (It may not be irrelevant that although the Catholic Church accepts most of Darwinism, it makes an official exception for the evolution of Homo sapiens, whose soul is said to have been created by God and inserted at some point into the human lineage.)

The difficulty is that most scientists do not share Miller’s certainty. This is because evolution is not a repeatable experiment. We cannot replay the tape of life over and over to see if higher consciousness always crops up. In fact, there are good reasons for thinking that the evolution of humanoids was not only not inevitable, but was a priori improbable. Although convergences are striking features of evolution, there are at least as many failures of convergence. These failures are less striking because they involve species that are missing. Consider Australia again. Many types of mammals that evolved elsewhere have no equivalents among marsupials. There is no marsupial counterpart to a bat (that is, a flying mammal), or to giraffes and elephants (large mammals with long necks or noses that can browse on the leaves of trees). Most tellingly, Australia evolved no counterpart to primates, or any creature with primate-like intelligence. In fact, Australia has many unfilled niches–and hence many unfulfilled convergences, including that prized “humanoid” niche. If high intelligence was such a predictable result of evolution, why did it not evolve in Australia? Why did it arise only once, in Africa?

This raises another question. We recognize convergences because unrelated species evolve similar traits. In other words, the traits appear in more than one species. But sophisticated, self-aware intelligence is a singleton: it evolved just once, in a human ancestor. (Octopi and dolphins are also smart, but they do not have the stuff to reflect on their origins.) In contrast, eyes have evolved independently forty times, and white color in Arctic animals appeared several times. It is hard to make a convincing case for the evolutionary inevitability of a feature that arose only once. The elephant’s trunk, a complex and sophisticated adaptation (it has over forty thousand muscles!), is also an evolutionary singleton. Yet you do not hear scientists arguing that evolution would inevitably fill the “elephant niche.” Giberson and Miller proclaim the inevitability of humanoids for one reason only: Christianity demands it.

Finally, it is abundantly clear that the evolution of human intelligence was a contingent event: contingent on the drying out of the African forest and the development of grasslands, which enabled apes to leave the trees and walk on two legs. Indeed, to maintain that the evolution of humans was inevitable, you must also maintain that the evolution of apes was inevitable, that the evolution of primates was inevitable, that the rise of mammals was inevitable, and so on back through dozens of ancestors, all of whose appearances must be seen as inevitable. This produces a regress of increasing unlikelihood. In the end, the question of whether human-like creatures were inevitable can be answered only by admitting that we do not know–and adding that most scientific evidence suggests that they were not. Any other answer involves either wishful thinking or theology.

One final note: I argue that the contigency of evolution means that the appearance of humans wasn’t inevitable. How do I reconcile that with my view of physical determinism—that, barring truly indeterminate quantum effects, everything that happens in the universe obeys physical laws, and thus is in principle predictable? Doesn’t that view mean that if the tape of evolution was rerun, humans would appear again, simply as a result of physical law? In Faith Versus Fact, I argue “no,” and for two reasons. First, the raw material for evolution—mutation—is likely to be a quantum phenomenon, both in the nature of replication errors in the DNA and in the cosmic rays that can also cause mutations. Both of those may be fundamentally non-deterministic phenomena, and hence unpredictable in principle. And if the raw material for evolution is unpredictable in principle, then so are its products. That means that if we reran the tape of life, one couldn’t say with any certainty that humanlike creatures would appear.

Second, or so Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll tells me, many of the cosmic bodies produced after the Big Bang also resulted from quantum phenomena in the early universe. That means that the Earth and its physical conditions were likely not a result determined at the moment of the Big Bang. Now that doesn’t mean that there isn’t life on other planets—in fact, I suspect there is. But it means that the inevitability of humans evolving on Earth (a tenet of Christian evolutionists like Conway Morris and Miller) isn’t a result of the inevitability of the laws of physics.

If humans really are an inevitable product of evolution, we could in principle test that by looking at life on other planets. For if there is life in those places, it must have been life that evolved. And if it’s life that evolved, then, according to Conway Morris, there will be “humanoid” creatures there, with intelligence similar to ours (or even more advanced), as well as some belief in and worship of God. You can rerun the tape of life on planets other than ours!


  1. John J. Fitzgerald
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    If memory serves, this thesis was promulgated by the Jesuit priest and archaeologist Teilhard de Chardin back in the 1950’s. He wrote a book entitled _The Phenomenon of Man_.
    Chardin also was involved with the “Piltdown Man” hoax.

    Happy Darwin Day!

    • Posted February 8, 2015 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      That was required reading at the college I attended. First term, freshman year, everyone in the college had to read it.

      I thought it was rubbish. I can’t recall my reasoning. It was ten years before I encountered Gould.

      • grasshopper
        Posted February 8, 2015 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

        Sir Peter Medawar’s review of The Phenomenom Of Man.

        Sir Peter won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1960 for work on tissue transplantation which helped make organ transplants possible.

        • grasshopper
          Posted February 8, 2015 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

          Re-reading Medawar’s review of The Phenomenom Of Man leads me to suspect that Medawar would regard

          Deepak Chopra as a worthy acolyte of Teilhard de Chardin. Here are a few paragraphs from the review

          taking de Chardin’s use of language to task.

          These are trivialities, revealing though they are, and perhaps I make too much of them. The

          evolutionary origins of consciousness are indeed distant and obscure, and perhaps so trite a thought

          does need this kind of dressing to make it palatable: ‘refracted rearwards along the course of

          evolution, consciousness displays itself qualitatively as a spectrum of shifting hints whose lower

          terms are lost in the night’ (the roman type is mine). What is much more serious is the fact that

          Teilhard habitually and systematically cheats with words. his work, he has assured us, is to be read,

          not as a metaphysical system, but ‘purely and simply as a scientific treatise’ executed with

          ‘remorseless’ or ‘inescapable’ logic; yet he uses in metaphor words like energy, tension, force,

          impetus and dimension as if they retained the weight and thrust of their specific scientific usages.

          Consciousness, for example, is a matter upon which Teilhard has been said to have illuminating views.

          For the most part consciousness is treated as a manifestation of energy, though this does not help us

          very much because the word ‘energy’ is itself debauched; but elsewhere we learn that consciousness is a

          dimension, or is something with mass, or is something corpuscular and particulate which can exist in

          various degrees of concentration, being sometimes infinitely diffuse. In his lay capacity, Teilhard, a

          naturalist, practised a comparatively humble and unexacting kind of science, but he must have known

          better than to play such tricks as these. On page 60 we read:

          The simplest form of protoplasm is already a substance of unheard-of complexity. This complexity

          increases in geometrical progression as pass from the protozoon higher and higher up the scale of the

          metazoa. And so it is for the whole of the remainder everywhere and always.

          Later we are told that the ‘nascent cellular world shows itself to be already infinitely complex’. This

          seems to leave little room for improvement. In any event complexity (a subject on which Teilhard has a

          great deal to say) is not measurable in those scalar quantities to which the concept of geometrical

          progression applies.

          • grasshopper
            Posted February 8, 2015 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

            Format fail!! 😦

    • Daniel Engblom
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      Related anecdote, Dawkins always mentions that the negative review by Peter Medawar of that book changed his mind.

  2. kevin7alexander
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    If all you know is Jesus and toast then you will see Jesus in your toast. If you are a highly trained biologist then you will see him in your work, especially if the Templeton $$$ are part of your data.

  3. Jeffery
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    It almost seems as if our “niche” is to overpopulate, destroy our own environment, and murder each other for the most trivial of imaginary reasons- if that’s the case, then I’d say we’ve “filled our niche” pretty well!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Smith, is that you? 😉

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:47 pm | Permalink


  4. Sastra
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    In fact, there are good reasons for thinking that the evolution of humanoids was not only not inevitable, but was a priori improbable.

    So improbable … that it had to be a miracle!!!

    And it’s head’s they win, tails they win, too because with God all things are not only possible, they’re a dead certainty.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, isn’t that the ID argument? We’re so improbable, God must’ve created everything, especially us! 🙂

      • gluonspring
        Posted February 8, 2015 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        And the same argument Elijah made to the prophets of Baal.

        No, wait. That’s not the argument he made. He called down fire from his god while mocking the fact that their god wasn’t bringing down any fire.

        What happened to that kind of evidence? God sure has turned into a pale shadow of his former self.

        In any case, Elijah has showed us how we should react to people whose god doesn’t show himself. Mock them! ” “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”

        • Posted February 8, 2015 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

          I was thinking about this bible story just recently for pretty much the reason you brought it up. You’ve motivated me to go read it again.

      • frednotfaith2
        Posted February 10, 2015 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        Of course, improbable does not mean impossible and a miracle would have to be an impossible event not simply an improbable event. Someone with a limp being “healed” is improbable but someone whose legs have ben amputated growing a new pair of legs qualifies as impossible and so far no “healing” preacher has gotten god to grow anyone a brand new limb.

  5. Ken McKeen
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand this line of reasoning. If there is a niche that inevitably leads to a self aware being, what is the role for God? Isn’t this really a naturalist argument. Wouldn’t it make more sense for apologists to argue that humans are extremely unlikely and therefore in need of a supernatural explanation?

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      Ah, but they aren’t trying to make the most sense. Just not the goal here at all.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Good point. But perhaps his mind is more like that of a deist. It does seem to be a kind of natural theology, as PCC points out.

      We are in an ancient, ~14 byo universe. Life evolves and adapts by natural selection, but its course is steered and planned by laws set in motion by some sort of uber-being. The culmination of which will be ebola viruses 2.0 that feed on the flesh of naked apes.

    • Posted February 8, 2015 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      I suspect that the argument is that God created the niches in advance, or set up things so they would appear (He can do that, you know!). That is, the world was pre-ordered so that some day there would be an evolutionary advantage to having a big brain, and then evolution would fill this God-given niche. But that’s just my interpretation of a convoluted argument.

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    While reading the Templeton description:

    How did human beings acquire imaginations that can conjure up untrue possibilities? How did the Universe become self-aware?

    Sound of tires screeching to a stop. What?! They are just asserting the universe is self aware? And “universe” has a capital “u” like the “g” in the Christian “God”? Hmmmmm, I’m suspicious.

    • M Janello
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      Ravens, when hiding food, if they see other ravens watching them, they’ll only pretend to hide it and then go put it somewhere else. Where did they get this imagination to conjure up untrue possibilities? Clearly from the all-powerful Raven God. Makes sense to me.

    • Posted February 8, 2015 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps we who are gods averse should refer to Simon Conway Morris’s Universe as the Godiverse.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 8, 2015 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        Ha ha. I like using Firefly’s “the ‘verse”.

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 8, 2015 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

        While secretly thinking of it as the Perverse.

  7. Christine Janis
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Actually Australian possums are remarkably primate-like (or, at least, prosimian-like). There’s even a parallel in the striped possum with the aye-aye (a lemur) of morphology to poke grubs out of tree bark. I’m always surprised that primatologists generally ignore possums — they don’t like comparing primates with anything that isn’t a primate (or perhaps they just don’t know about non-primate mammals).

    However, there certainly is no equivalent among marsupials to the anthropoid apes. Then again, there is no equivalent among placentals to the marsupial “lion” (an extremely weird beast and not at all “cat-like”).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      And, as Jerry tirelessly points out, no elephant. What would the world be without the trunk?

      Better yet, there has never been anything like the blue whale before. Clearly (for diverse religion’s versions of ‘clearly’) it is the grandest result of evolution!

  8. Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Jebus sure has a long-winded way of going about telling us how special we are. The only thing “inevitable” was this bit of retrospective, apologist-driven, tendentious plea-bargaining.

  9. Explorer
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    It was interesting to read your example of there being a niche for a mammal which glides from tree to tree.

    I feel it worth noting that there is an advantage to saving energy, and avoiding ground predators, by being able to accurately glide from one tree to another. Being a mammal, or even having limbs, isn’t required to fill that niche.

    The draco lizard, or flying dragon, manages the trick by extending ribs, as opposed to limbs.

    The flying snake also manages such glides without using limbs.

    The flying dragon and flying snake are even stronger evidence that evolution will allow species to arise which fill a niche, without any inevitability regarding that species’ attributes outside of those directly related to the niche. The flying snake being able to
    “spread” its body in the same way the flying squirrels do just shows that evolution will favor those who can add some measure of control to their tree hopping.

    • Posted February 8, 2015 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      Don’t forget the flying frogs!

  10. Randy Schenck
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    So where in the library does this book sit? Is it in Science or do we look in Religion.

    • EvolvedDutchie
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      I suppose it’s in Accommodationism, between Karen Armstrong and Chris Stedman.

      • Jeffery
        Posted February 8, 2015 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

        My local library has Velikovsky’s, “Worlds in Collision” in the science section.

  11. M Janello
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    this sentence from the Templeton blurb stuck out to me:

    “Conway Morris also emphasizes how much of the complexity of advanced biological systems is inherent in microbial forms.”

    “Inherent” is such a loaded dishonest word here: it implies inevitability and even purpose (which I’m sure is why they use it).

    I guess ‘later forms are descended from and therefore derived from earlier ones just as would be expected with unguided, unplanned, nontheistic evolution’ doesn’t get the big Templeton bucks.

  12. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    If either the inflationary multiverse or Everettian (“many worlds”) quantum mechanics turns out to be true, then there’s a very reasonable sense in which human-like intelligence must eventually appear somewhere, and by anthropic reasoning, we naturally find ourselves in that place and time.

    But that has nothing to do evolutionary convergence, or with God either, as far as I can see.

    • Kevin
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      I am not sure I would use the word ‘must’. Although saying something like, ‘Given QM + cosmoslogy means that it is highly improbable that life would not emerge’, is basically the same thing as saying ‘must’.

  13. Kevin
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Conway Morris: Life, the universe, and everything is too complex to understand, ergo the Divine.

    What’s the point in thinking? Or maybe breathing? The answer is so clear, how could I have missed It.

    Is It Divineness? Like Hitchens recommended for the persons labeled ‘reverend’, when the term ‘divine’ is ascribed to anything it should be treated with the same respect as sour feces.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      The answer is 42. Thus, there’s no need for anyone ever again to spend any money on religion.

  14. Posted February 8, 2015 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    The universe did seem to become self-aware in the form of human consciousness at least (maybe other beings who realize they’re products of the universe). There’s nothing necessarily wooish about that. It’s hard to escape that conclusion unless you’re willing to accept there’s a fundamental difference between human consciousness and matter, which seems to me to be more of a religious move. Of all the many material manifestations we’re the ones who recognize we’re exactly that. We are the same stuff that makes up the universe non?

    • Posted February 8, 2015 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      The universe is self-aware in the same way that the state of California is orange because there’s an orange tree in my back yard.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted February 8, 2015 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        I’d say that the universe is self-aware in the same way that humans are self-aware. After all, it’s not your liver or your quadriceps that are self-aware. It’s not even your brain; it’s some specific circuitry in your brain that enables self-awareness. But we have no problem saying that self-awareness is a property of humans, by virtue of some specific arrangements of matter that they contain.

        So I don’t see why self-awareness can’t be a property of universe by virtue of some specific bits of matter that it contains, namely the very same bits of matter than make us self-aware.

        I grant that the book blurb probably doesn’t mean it in this narrow sense, or at least not only in this sense. It’s a deepity: the universe is self-aware in the sense of containing bits of matter that are aware of the whole, that much is uncontroversial; but they want us to take the next step and infer that there’s some sort of grander self-awareness immanent in the universe at large. And that’s where the woo comes in.

        • Posted February 8, 2015 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

          I’d say that the farther you dilute the self-awareness the less sense it makes. Oranges are orange. Orange trees are partly orange. California is partly orange, but much less than an orange tree is. The universe is partly orange too. But it really makes no sense to say that the universe is orange, and it does make somewhat more sense to say that an orange tree is orange.

          • Posted February 8, 2015 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

            But it might make sense to say the universe has as one of its attributes, consciousness.

            • Posted February 8, 2015 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

              “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
              ― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

              “We are the cosmos made conscious and life is the means by which the universe understands itself.”
              ― Prof. Brian Cox

              So, not in itself a woo-ish sentiment.


              • Posted February 8, 2015 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

                Just because Carl Sagan said it doesn’t mean it makes sense. And it doesn’t mean it isn’t wooish. I am not impressed.

                Does California have “orange” as one of its attributes? Would anyone say that?

              • Posted February 8, 2015 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

                You seem to be making a categorical error here.. it’s not clear. California is an arbitrary designation for an area of land. If you were to ask if that land itself had the colour orange as one of its attributes of course one would say yes. But if you refer to the political idea of California, then no this would be nonsense.

              • Posted February 8, 2015 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

                See my reply to JP — and JP’s comment that I replied to — elsewhere on this page.


            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted February 8, 2015 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

              You could suppose it but you still need some evidence.

              Christer Koch has suggested that perhaps this could be the case as an emergent property of a highly structured system, but he acknowledges that there is no evidence to support such a musing.

              • Posted February 8, 2015 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

                Wouldnt you say that the evidence is consciousness itself? Unless you are suggesting that consciousness is something special that escapes the material world and as such doesn’t belong to one of the physical universe’s many manifestations? That would be verging on woo non?

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 8, 2015 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

                I think going from human consciousness to the entire universe having a consciousness is a big leap, unless I’m misunderstanding what you mean by the universe being conscious.

              • Posted February 8, 2015 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

                Well I won’t speak for the others here, but in my comments I spoke of consciousness as one of the attributes of the universe. I’m not sure how one can get away from this unless they’re willing to posit that consciousness isn’t part of the material universe, ie it has supernatural properties.

                I do not mean that the universe taken as a whole has what might be called a single super-consciousness or meta-consciousness. Nevertheless the universe has produced conscious minds and thus might be said to be conscious of itself. It is really quite a naturalistic take on the relationship between mind and matter. A theist would no doubt reject this way of viewing the relationship. It’s important for them to show that mind is anything other than the stuff that makes up the universe, ie, a soul.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 8, 2015 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

                I figured you were saying that the universe had a sing consciousness so it could have a feeling of what it is like to be the universe.

              • Posted February 8, 2015 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

                Which is the sense of the Sagan and Cox quotations I posted elsewhere on this page.


          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted February 8, 2015 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

            As I see it, the difference between orangeness and awareness is that in the last century or two, our awareness has expanded far beyond our own bodies and immediate surroundings to the very limits of the observable universe. There is now a part of the universe that is aware of the whole; the universe contains knowledge of itself on a scale that is (as far as we know) unprecedented. This is what Sagan and Cox are talking about, and I don’t think we need to jettison the poetry of that realization in order to combat Chopraesque woo about “universal consciousness”.

            California’s orangeness (or lack of it) is a red herring because there’s no comparable sense in which orangeness drives an expansion of knowledge.

      • Posted February 8, 2015 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

        The universe is self-aware in the same way that the state of California is orange because there’s an orange tree in my back yard.

        I agree. I’m embarrassed for Carl Sagan getting this thing started.

  15. Posted February 8, 2015 at 2:17 pm | Permalink


  16. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Very good rebuttal.
    The whole argument of his would be something brought up by Professor Pangloss if Voltaire had thought of it.
    He could just as well whip out any beautifully true fact of evolution and hold it up as evidence for God. Besides convergent evolution, what about divergent evolution? Of course Goddidit. Parasites in every conceivable body orifice in every species? Goddidit. Predators with nasty big teeth? Goddidit. No matter what is, is of course evidence for God.

  17. Posted February 8, 2015 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    One of the frustrating things about a religious explanation like this is that it allows them to have it both ways. If we were to discover life similar to our own on other planets, they will simply claim that the inevitability of humanoid life is true. If we never discover life on other planets, they can just claim that that’s further reason to believe God created humans specially on Earth. So frustrating…

  18. Posted February 8, 2015 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I may be wrong here, but with regard to the contingency of evolution and your argument against inevitability of self aware creatures, could we not say, as additional evidence, that the tape has been, at least partially erased and rewound? The mass extinction 65mya at the K/T boundary wiped out the dinosaurs (except birds of course) which had previously been evolving for about 160 million years, without producing an intelligent or self aware species.

    Many dinosaur species were essentially bipedal, with forelimbs available for manipulation so they would not be morphologically barred from toolmaking. I guess that there are many other factors that need to be considered and perhaps the right environmental conditions just never occurred.

    Still, I would think that if the evolution of intelligence was inevitable, it would have occurred at least once before.

    • Explorer
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      There are so many things which can viewed as evidence of intelligent life.

      I’m not sure one can state definitively that intelligent life *didn’t* evolve before.

      I’m not sure how much fossilized evidence would survive of tool use, in the way that birds use tools.

      There are also forms of life which don’t use artifacts which are likely to be preserved for such a long time period. Dolphins using sponges on their beaks is an example of tool use and intelligence which wouldn’t have left traces.

      What proof could someone give that species in the deep past didn’t use tools, hadn’t domesticated other species as ants have, and so on?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted February 8, 2015 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

      I would think that if the evolution of intelligence was inevitable, it would have occurred at least once before.

      I’ve never found this argument very persuasive. Even if it were inevitable, somebody has to be first. So you can’t really use firstness as an argument against inevitability.

      The heat death of the universe may be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we should expect it to happen soon, or more than once.

  19. Posted February 8, 2015 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Do some scientists from non-Abrahamic religions go to this much trouble to claim that their god(s) are sciency? Or that that their science is goddy.

    Is there a book that posits that evolution demonstrates the truth of, say, Hinduism?

    • derekw
      Posted February 9, 2015 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Well any good apologist for their faith should be attempting to show reconciliation between science and revelation if they are promoting truth claims. Failure (for instance the Hindu belief of an oscilaating universe @ 8.6 billions of years old against Big Bang cosmology) is a hit against those truth claims.

  20. Hempenstein
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Here iz my book. Can I haz prize now?

  21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Biology may converge, but some biologists (Morris) do not…

    In other news, I think Jerry’s view has evolved since the -09 “the Catholic Church accepts most of Darwinism”.

    How do I reconcile that with my view of physical determinism—that, barring truly indeterminate quantum effects, everything that happens in the universe obeys physical laws, and thus is in principle predictable?

    I would say that quantum effects are in principle predictable too, it is just that the state progression is on stochastic distributions and do not tell us about individual outcomes.

    In fact, it is harder to predict classical systems than quantum systems due to chaos, the fundamentally exponential vs fundamentally linear divergence of states. Here again the practical problem of picking individual outcomes in stochastic distributions of many outcomes rears its hydra head.

    And of course emergence, inevitable in large systems such as the current universe, means loss of “in principle” predictivity too. (Chemistry, biology, society, …)

  22. kurtzs
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 4:41 pm | Permalink


    What is your position on infinite unknowns and the notion of emergence in complexity theory?

    Seems those are other hurdles for “everything…is in principle predictable”

    “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”

    –Neils Bohr, Nobel laureate in Physics


  23. kevin7alexander
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    There may be something to Conway Morris’ thesis.
    Have you noticed that every continent has some kind of food that is made from cereal paste?

    • Posted February 8, 2015 at 7:27 pm | Permalink



      • kevin7alexander
        Posted February 9, 2015 at 7:50 am | Permalink

        I picture a scientist making ramen on her Primus stove. So, His Noodly Appendage has touched Antarctica too.

    • Explorer
      Posted February 9, 2015 at 2:20 am | Permalink

      I endorse Rice Crispy treats.

  24. John Nunes
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    There is this one:

    Note who wrote the forward.

  25. Keith Cook or more
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    After reading Jonathan Kingdons excellent book ‘Lowly Origin’ I now hold that we are in no way inevitable and should on the whole consider ourselves very, very lucky.
    In saying that we are a versitle primate with a curious mix of traits that probably went some way to making our own luck.
    A link to Kingdons book:

  26. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    but the description at the Templeton Press site suggests that it’s a popular version of Life’s Solution, and with the same message—with added “self-awareness of the universe”

    Oh well, that resolves my qualms.
    I was thinking that SCM is a respected enough palaeontologist that his opinion is at least worth reading. OTOH, since I brought and read Life’s Solution when it came out (and wasn’t convinced by his basic argument, after the descriptive parts of the power of convergence), I don’t feel any compulsion to rush out and buy this one.

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