March 19, 2016


Headed toward Christ : The grand narrative of evolution (Ian Curran, 3/17/16, 

Simon Conway Morris's magisterial new book, The Runes of Evolution, presents a biologist's case for optimism about the human prospect. The author, a professor of earth sciences at Cambridge University and a professed Christian, was one of the original researchers to study the Burgess Shale in the 1970s and is a leading authority on its fossils. In an earlier publication, The Crucible of Creation, Conway Morris claimed that Gould had exaggerated the differences between the fossils and later phyla of the animal kingdom and took issue with Gould's idea that replaying the tape of evolution would lead to a significantly different set of biological outcomes. Conway Morris maintained that both genetic limitations and environmental pressures cause life to follow predictable lines of development. Far from being an accident, the human person (or at least some very similar example of a highly reflective, morally complex, and self-aware creature) is an inevitable product of evolution.

More recently Conway Morris has turned his attention to studying the phenomenon of convergence in evolutionary history. Convergence is the process by which life forms possessing different genetic markers and arising through independent lines of development acquire the same bodily structures. The Runes of Evolution provides hundreds of pages of examples of convergence in a variety of both present-day and extinct species. These include obvious features like the eye, arms and legs, teeth, skin, gonads, and brains. But there are also stunning parallels in the evolution, for instance, of the filtering systems of whales, sea birds, flamingos, sponges, and pterosaurs; the foraging techniques of woodpeckers and lemurs; the adhesive toe pads of tree frogs and gecko lizards; the defensive toxins of fish, birds, frogs, and snakes; the swimming and diving techniques of myriad ocean dwellers; and even the carnivorous behavior of certain plants (which include more than just the Venus flytrap).

Events in the history of evolution that appear to be marks of contingency, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs or the transition from sea to land, turn out to be largely predictable. They result from inherent genetic constraints on the kinds of biological creatures that can realistically arise and limits on the number of particular forms that can successfully cope with the earth's environment. Everywhere living beings discover similar adaptive solutions to the problems they face in the struggle to survive. Aquatic creatures developed the ability to breathe air at least 38 separate times in the history of evolution. All of the major steps in the evolution of human beings--multicellularity, tissues, sensory systems, immune systems, eyes, limbs, and brains--are convergent.

Furthermore, Conway Morris demonstrates that the more elusive properties of consciousness itself are indelibly written into the pages of evolutionary history. The complex nervous systems of higher mammals depend on genetic and cellular mechanisms that came into existence a billion years ago. A third of the genes behind the development of brains in animals, for example, also occur in plants and yeast. Conway Morris believes that the evolutionary roots of intelligence run deep: we see the "glimmerings of mind" not only in the higher mammals but also in birds, insects, some fish, and even slime molds (which have displayed the ability to navigate a maze). A number of species exhibit the capacity to play, use tools, communicate in sophisticated ways, and mourn the dead. They stand on the brink of reflective thought. The materialist notion that the mind is an accidental and insignificant product of the evolutionary process does not fit with numerous examples of intelligence in the animal kingdom. Life from its origins is hardwired for the emergence of some kind of reflective consciousness.

Evolution, to be sure, proceeds by fits and starts. Species arise and then disappear, and the history of life on earth is marked by far more failures than successes. Species can be destroyed by predators, disease, climate change, or, as in the case of the dinosaurs, a wandering comet. But despite the elements of chance and contingency in evolution, Conway Morris perceives an intelligent, law-like process at work, a deep structure unfolding in the emergence of living beings who eventually come to apprehend the very mathematical forms which made possible their evolution. The dawn of self-awareness in the universe, manifest in human intellectual reflection, moral action, and spiritual experience, is a promise woven into the fabric of life from the beginning.

Conway Morris's exploration of the phenomenon of convergence in biological evolution is rife with implications for Christian theology. It lends credence to a Christian view of God's providential action in history, and it supports an ecological view of the interdependence of all things in God's creation. It also fits with a scriptural account of a story-shaped world.

The history of life on earth, as many writers on theology and evolution have observed, has a narrative character to it. Theologian John Haught identifies three basic components to a compelling plot: an element of novelty or surprise, a principle of order that shows the connections between events in a story, and a sufficient amount of time for the drama to unfold. For Gould and the majority of contemporary biologists, the rise of new life forms through time is governed by chance and is always a surprise, with no apparent meaningful pattern or direction. For creationists, who cling to a pre-Darwinian belief in the special creation of all living beings, life is completely predictable, manifesting an absolute order imposed by its Creator. But neither pure flux nor pure stasis makes for a good story, and neither fits with the picture of evolutionary history that Conway Morris envisions. If he is right, the emergence of life is the product of both law and chance, necessity and possibility, and, for believers, the interaction between the providential intentions of a creative God and the free response of God's creatures.

As a purely scientific matter, it is not important whether Creationism can be proven or not.  The fact that it is perfectly compatible with Darwinism is fatal to the latter.

Posted by at March 19, 2016 7:49 AM