Chance or Constraint?

lifes-solutionThe results of evolution (including us!) are the results of chance. That’s the standard view anyway. The great, late Stephen Jay Gould wrote engagingly about this in his fascinating book, Wonderful Life.  But, this view has been challenged by Simon Conway Morris, particularly in his book Life’s Solution. In this he argues that, once life starts, something like humans are basically inevitable.

This is quite a different understanding of evolution! One of the few things that Gould and the new atheists like Dawkins agreed on was the understanding that, to use Gould’s metaphor, if you rewound the tape of life and played it forward again then something very different would happen. Web_by_John_WyndhamThat sort of understanding is summed up in John Wyndham’s Web (1979:102):

Mind is only a phenomenon which distinguishes the present dominant species. … Mind, for all we know, is just a flash in the pan, interesting as a phenomenon but unnecessary. Dominate today, gone tomorrow.

But, Conway Morris has put forward a very different understanding. He is Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at the University of Cambridge. He argues that evolution is actually highly constrained, that there are only a limited number of paths that animals can take. He explores the parallel, independent evolution of significant features

Consequently he argues (p196):

We may be unique, but paradoxically those properties that define our uniqueness can still be inherent in the evolutionary process. In other words, if we humans had not evolved then something more-or-less identical would have emerged sooner or later.

West of EdenThis sort of understanding is summed up in Harry Harrison’s West of Eden trilogy, which imagines a world where the dinosaurs had not been wiped out by a meteorite, but rather had continued evolving. In this parallel universe both humans and a hominid reptile have evolved, which all the problems which that lead to…

The interesting part of Conway Morris’ understanding of evolution is the theological implications of this, which he he explored in various contexts. the last chapter of Life’s Solution is entitled ‘Towards a Theology of Evolution’. I hope to blog about this in more detail. At the end of this (p330) he rightly notes that “None of it presupposes, let alone proves, the existence of God, but all is congruent.”

However, In his review of Life’s Solution, Michael Ruse, argues:

There is more between Gould and Conway Morris than facts, and also there is more between them than scientific interpretations. Gould was an agnostic, thinking that no ultimate meaning can be gained from the study of nature. Things just happen. He made this clear in one of his last books, Rocks of Ages. Conway Morris is a Christian (an Anglican, what Americans call Episcopalian), and he clearly thinks that the emergence of humans (or something human-like) was no mere chance. In such a universe as we have, something made in the image of God was bound to happen. At least, it was bound to happen once life got going.

Ruse disagrees with both of them, arguing that Gould over-stated the role of contingency and that Conway Morris has not been able to clearly demonstrate the level of convergence required for his arguments.

I think that Ruse has some very important caveats. But, I think that one of the important things that Conway Morris has done is clearly show that the facts of evolution are open to a variety of interpretative frameworks. This is a clear challenge to the interpretation that Dawkins and the other new atheists are trying to impose on evolution (perhaps often without realising that is what they are doing).


2 thoughts on “Chance or Constraint?

  1. Fascinating stuff Graham, sounds like I might that Conway Morris book. I shall see if they have it in the library. :)


    • Thanks! Hope things are going well!
      It is good, although most of it is a fairly dense discussion of examples of convergence. A better introduction to his thought (without the detailed biology and palaeobiology!) is the Boyle Lecture he gave in 2005:
      He’s also edited a collection of papers on his thought called ‘The Deep Structure of Biology’ (2008) which includes a couple of papers on the theology.
      I hope to blog about them soon!


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