Evolution’s Place? 2

Today I start in earnest a series focused on Simon Conway Morris’s book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. This book is an exploration of the evidence for evolutionary convergence – the idea that there are islands of stability and that evolution will identify these islands. Conway Morris is  Professor of Evolutionary Paleobiology at Cambridge University. He is also a Christian and puts some effort into integrating his science with a Christian world view. Maggie McDonald commenting on his book in The New Scientist  had no quarrel with his science or the plausibility of his arguments, but …

…It’s his next step that is difficult to contemplate calmly. If you accept that a sentient species would evolve, then “it is reasonable to take the claims of theology seriously. The choice is yours,” he says. I found myself forced to resort to the old “define your terms” tactic to escape the grip of his logic. Read twice.

Dawkins famously claims that the understanding of evolution makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. But can this be turned around?

Can the study of evolution – as a mechanism of creation – lead one to take theology seriously? Can it lead to an appreciation for theology as a window on reality rather than an outgrown superstition with natural explanation?

This book does not deal with the scriptural issues that many have with the idea of evolution as God’s mode of creation.  These concerns are real, especially when it comes to the nature of inspiration and the theological significance of the Adam-Christ link (Genesis 3 – Romans 5). This book does, however, address the other major concern active in the debate between science and faith – the idea that evolution elevates a role of chance and contingency to an unacceptable level and that as such it is inconsistent with the notion of God as creator. Perhaps this objection can be successfully put to rest. Evolutionary creation is not an oxymoron. Conway Morris begins his argument as follows:

I am a bipedal hominid, of average cranial capacity, write my manuscripts with a fountain pen [but no mention of a Mac], and loathe jogging. Thanks to years of work by innumerable biologists I, or anyone else, can tell you to a fair degree of accuracy when the ability to walk upright began, the rate at which our brain increased to its present and seemingly astonishing size, and the origin of the five-fingered forelimb whose present versatility allows me to hold a pen,…

…In every case – whether for hand or brain – we can trace an ancestry that extends backwards for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years. Yet for all that, both the processes and implications of organic evolution remain controversial. (p.1)

He goes on to discuss what he perceives as the primary reason for the controversy –

The heart of the problem, I believe, is to explain how it might be that we, a product of evolution, possess an overwhelming sense of purpose and moral identity yet arose by processes that were seemingly without meaning. If, however, we can begin to demonstrate that organic evolution contains deeper structures and potentialities, if not inevitabilities, then perhaps we can begin to move away from the dreary materialism of much current thinking with its agenda of a world now open to limitless manipulation. (p. 2)

The goal Conway Morris sets is to explore the ubiquitous convergences observed in evolutionary history.  These convergences lead to a hypothesis that the possibilities in evolution are not limitless – but in fact quite constrained. The selection of amino acids is inevitable, and even the precise amino acids largely constrained by chemical possibility (some significant percentage of our 20 some would be found in any useful set). There is an inherency in evolution and an eerie perfection in the genetic code.

The evolutionary processes is compared to finding Easter Island.  It seems incredible that the Polynesians found this remote and isolated speck of land. And yet they did, some 1500 years ago or so. Their sophisticated search strategy made this discovery not luck, but inevitable.

Conway Morris proposes that there are islands of “biological possibility in an ocean of maladaptedness.” The evolutionary strategy is an ideal search algorithm guaranteed to find these islands, these regions of possibility, not in any one generation or any one event, but over time with an unerring direction.

Evolution is not blind random chance – a Blind Watchmaker to use Dawkins’s expression. Rather …

It is as if the Blind Watchmaker takes off her sunglasses and decides to visit her brother Chronos. Off she sets … she arrives at Chronos’ front door at 4 p.m. prompt, just in time for a relaxing cup of tea. (p. 19)

And later…

The net result is a genuine creation, almost unimaginably rich and beautiful, but one also with an underlying structure in which, given enough time, the inevitable must happen.(p. 20)

One element of the inevitable is the development of sentient beings – from a Christian point of view the development of beings capable of relationship with the creator.

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