Evolution’s Place? 2 (RJS)

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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.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

  • http://pascalslager.wordpress.com Phil W.

    I don’t see why the inevitability of convergence is of any “theological comfort.” Then again, I don’t see why the apparent randomness of evolution is ever perceived as a threat. Lots of things that are completely under God’s sovereign control will appear to us to be random. This, I think, is simply a consequence of the limits of probabilistic thinking. What I think we need to abandon is the association random = purposeless. I’m not sure where this ever came from. The former adjective applies to a mathematical property of a material system, whereas the latter is a more philosophical or existential adjective.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    We tend to think of God as having set things in motion at beginning and that they are unfolding as he designed them. (Predestination.) I don’t remember who the author was I read sometime back but it was suggested that maybe God stands at a point in the future and is calling/drawing all things to himself … he is the destination toward which everything is being pulled, not pushed by preset design. I don’t have a good metaphor to illustrate this.
    The present seems certain to us and the future uncertain but if God is in the future calling all things toward him, then the future is certain and it is the present that is uncertain. Nature is operating with random selection but only within parameters as God draws it toward its destination. We are making free choices but only within parameters as God draws us toward our destination.

  • Travis Greene

    I think that was Brian McLaren.

  • Scot McKnight

    I’m eager to read this series, RJS. This whole idea of “inevitability” is an idea that captures my mind.

  • Rick

    “Can the study of evolution – as a mechanism of creation – lead one to take theology seriously?”
    I don’t know yet if it “leads” one in that direction, but as Morris, McGrath, Collins, etc… has shown is that it (at the very least) does not PREVENT one from taking theology seriously.

  • http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com Steve Martin

    Phil (#1): Here, here! Randomness and purpose are (mostely) independent concepts. I agree that Morris’s ideas may not necessarily provide theological comfort but they could provide theological appreciation. I’m going to be watching this series with great interest.
    Michael (#2): Ted Peters is a Lutheran theologian who discusses these ideas. Not sure if that is who you mean.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    You may be right. Wasn’t it McLaren who talked about it like an owner calling his dog toward him?
    Seems to me there was Presbyterian theologian I heard at some event years back who was along these lines but can’t recall who it was. Maybe Craig Barnes.

  • AHH

    I think a lot of theologians have talked about God drawing us (and all of creation) into his future. For some reason I associate that concept with Jurgen Moltmann, but I could be wrong. Steve M. mentioned Ted Peters, and I see Peters did write a book called “God — The World’s Future”.
    It is interesting that Conway Morris, while being opposed to the ID movement and affirming that evolution was how God did things, is in a sense saying that life is “intelligently designed”. It is just that the design comes in the fruitfulness of the evolutionary processes and the constraints that channel the processes toward certain outcomes (like us). Like the arguments discussed with McGrath’s book, this seems like something far short of proof, but something that can confirm the web of belief for those with eyes of faith (and serve in apologetics as another denial of the lie that evolution negates Christian faith).

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    #6 Steve
    “Michael (#2): Ted Peters is a Lutheran theologian who discusses these ideas. Not sure if that is who you mean.”
    Aha! I think you’re right. Probably “Evolution from Creation to New Creation.”
    One less thing for my feeble brain to ruminate on. Thanks.

  • Brian

    Some time ago we traded thoughts on the need for a post that explains what is meant by statistical randomness. I wish we had gotten to that before the present discussion. People who do not have a background in statistics need some input from that direction to understand the ways in which purpose and randomness can and cannot intersect.
    And theologically, we need to broaden beyond creation to consider the significance of statistical randomness for the whole of divine providence.

  • http://www.precipicemagazine.com Darren King

    I like this approach to the whole endeavor. Its a similar perspective to the one I was contemplating on this blog a couple of weeks ago.
    Also, when further developed, I think we can get to humans then imaging God in their evolved, creative natures, without having to resort to “front-loading” either.

  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com craig v.

    ‘Randomness’ is an overloaded term (to use a programming metaphor) and I think that creates a lot of the confusion. In Aristotle, from what I can remember, chance is the appearance of a purpose where there isn’t one. So if my house blows down after I did some evil deed I might conclude that the gods destroyed my house whereas one could say no, it happened by chance. Notice that chance here is relative to a specific explanatory framework. On the other hand ‘randomness’ in a mathematical sense is simply the application of probability logic.

  • RJS

    I need to think about how to go about a discussion of statistical randomness. What in particular are you thinking of?
    A key issue here is what we consider to fall under God’s sovereign control. Does God ordain and control details – such as when a sparrow will fall to the ground or the number of hairs on your head today, or is the sovereign control of God something that operates at a larger (perhaps even statistical) level? And what about when we consider humans – what does God’s sovereign control really mean?
    I think that evolution as a random process is determined – and the global results are inevitable. But does this mean that I was inevitable – and what makes me me … totally different set of questions.

  • Jason

    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.
    Perhaps developing a sense of purpose and morals was reproductively advantageous and those that didn’t develop such left no descendants to type on the Macs. Certainly not killing close members of our own species has a great many reproductive advantageous, if nothing else that he likewise doesn’t kill me and I can have children. Not surprisingly the farther away in relation to us the more likely it to be beneficial for us to compete with them for resources, and hence why “murder” is more rare then “war”, which seems so normal that those who think they have the highest morals don’t find it wrong to drop bombs on the cities of foreign countries. Or indeed, if another nation of people happen to be on the land we want, we might feel justified in killing them off, every man, woman, and child, and not only might we not find this immoral, but we might even claim it was a direct command from our deity.

  • RJS

    Jason -
    I think that Conway Morris would agree that development of a sense of morality and purpose is reproductively advantageous and thus an expected (even inevitable) product of evolution. This is the point – it is not blind random luck – there is an inevitability to the process.
    The real question is not if this is true – but is evolution and the inevitability entailed within consistent with creation by a personal God? I have not read ahead in the book … so I am quite sure where he is headed, but I think that it will be interesting.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    Why are humans “inevitable” Can we replace “humans” with “sentient beings?”
    I know of no scientific evidence to support any argument that humans are inevitable, but I could be wrong. Sentience is a different matter and make occur in a a variety of environments.

  • RJS

    Unapologetic Catholic,
    What makes us human?

  • Brian

    My thoughts on this are incomplete, but here are some.
    When it comes to statistical randomness, God could set the values of the parameters of significant distributions, without tweaking outcomes of individual events thereafter. But if God steps in to tweak outcomes then his intervention becomes observable via hypothesis testing. Sovereign control and randomness are compatible at the parameter level, but not at the event tweaking level. It is at the event tweaking level that I suspect lay people do not realize the difficulty of asserting God’s control over a process can be statistically modeled with predictive force.
    But of course, as you indicate, we must also sort through how the biblical data comes into play with things ranging from casting lots to human choices.
    In my experience I hear believers attribute all kinds of events to God in some special way, but when I back up and look at populations of events and the nature of how events are inevitably connected, I am not so sure that such interpretations are rock solid. This is another area in which there is a sizable gap between our world and that of the Bible.

  • eric

    a tangential thought.. consider reading “The Mind and the Brain” by jeffrey schwartz/ he shows how complex organized thought processes emanate from a “quantum” process at the neuronal level, something similar to evolution being “random” on a micro level, but perhaps more determined at the “macro” level. As a side item his book has made mind body emergent dualism again credible as a philosophical/biological model. forgive the digression.
    finally, could one not in effect argue that Morris is looking for an “anthropic” type principal in biology, similar to that which is argued at the cosmological level?

  • RJS

    I think that Morris may be finding an “anthropic”-type principle in biology. But I don’t think that the argument is a fine-tuning argument of the same sort as argued at the cosmological level. In fact I think that the argument would be that given the fine-tuned universe with the right elements and right constants for the right chemistry, evolution of humans (sentient beings capable of creative abstract thought and relationship with the creator) was inevitable. We’ll see where he goes.

  • RJS

    I know what you mean about all kinds of events attributed to God (meeting a spouse, avoiding an accident, recovery from illness and on).
    If we know the underlying probability distribution “tweaking” by God would be a testable hypothesis. This is one of the arguments made in some of the intelligent design literature. I am not sure how we would “know” the underlying distribution though. Don’t we determine the distribution from observation – which if there was tweaking would include that tweaking?
    This doesn’t mean that I think that “tweaking” is the right way to think about God’s interaction with the world or with people though. I tend to think more in terms of relationship.

  • pds

    I am delighted to agree with AHH in #8. Conway Morris seems to be speaking of evidence of design in biology. So he seems to accept evidence of design in biology except when he does not. ID proponents repeat over and over that they are not “anti-evolution,” but no one seems to want to listen to them.
    I think there is much stronger evidence of design elsewhere in biology and the fossil record, but reasonable minds will differ. I just wish the TE folks would show the same respect regarding these differences.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    “What makes us human?”
    Great question RJS!
    Are we “human’ because we belong to the species “homo sapiens?”
    Or does humanity is the sense used above mean ability to think, reason and have a certain level of self awareness of our own mortality and place in the universe?
    I have to agree with Gould that if the tape of our plant’s history was replayed, the appearance of sentient mammal primates is not a forgone conclusion. There could just as easily been some sentient reptile that evolved.

  • Danimal

    Phil #1
    I don’t know if I think of it as theological comfort either but if God choose to use evolution as the mechanism for the creation of life (and hence humans) and convergence is part of his grand plan it gives me reason to worship and marvel and the ingenuity of God.

  • Danimal

    sorry I meant “marvel at the ingenuity of God”
    I may have to break down and order this book to read along despite the fact that my list of books to read isn’t getting any shorter ;-)

  • Brian

    For sure, many distributions are known via observation. God’s tweaking of events will inform our observations about distributions as you say, but tweaks have different properties than randomness. With enough tweaks, departures from randomness will be leave a trail in some way or other. This is central to investigating the relationship between sovereignty, purpose and randomness.
    As an example, you can hand me a list of tweaked numbers that appear to be normally distributed based on a Chi-squared test. But if I start comparing subsets for correlations, check the distribution of consecutive pairs and so on, if the numbers are not random it will probably not take long to detect it.
    My main point is that there is a lot going on behind the word random. Lay people need some guidance in understanding its place in the conversation. The idea that God guides random events needs to be framed carefully if it is to withstand any scrutiny.

  • Brian

    That first paragraph should have read “departures from randomness will leave a trail in some way or other.”

  • RJS

    Unapologetic Catholic (#23)
    I think that there is good reason to think that warm-bloodedness is essential for getting to sentient being. But I also think what makes us human is the ability to think, reason, etc. not the form of our physical bodies.

  • RJS

    Tweaks have a different property than randomness. But it seems to me that we have to look at what we expect to be random and in what way. This may be what you are getting at.
    If I hand you a list of numbers that appear to be normally distributed and the set is large enough you can certainly tell with a known degree of certainty whether it is random or not.
    But within nature – looking at natural occurrence – such a test tells us whether the distribution is normal – not whether deviations from normality involve tweaking or an imperfect understanding of the underlying physics.

  • http://www.beyondcreationscience.com/ Norman Voss

    Concerning statistical probabilities.
    The probabilities of evolution producing life much less modern man was a problem to me for many years. The difficulty was that I was inferring a dead materialistic evolution without regard for the idea that matter and biology may not fall into that dead arena of the atheist evolutionist. Even Dawkins supposes that it may have taken Aliens to bring the first life to earth so even he holds out for some kind of jump start to the biological life process.
    I have not finished Morris’s book yet as I’ve been reading it off and on for several months but I firmly believe he is highlighting aspects of evolution that demonstrate a convergence that resembles the fine tuning of the physical material aspects of planet earth. When you combine the physical fine tuning and the biological fine tuning then there seems to be an intelligent pattern which cannot be denied.
    Let me address the biblical creation of “man” though for a moment. The creation of Man in the Image of God was a process that started out with Adam only receiving the likeness attributes of Gen 1:26 and not God’s full fledged Image (Gen 5:1) A theological investigation of being created out of the Dust is analogous to Adam being formed/drawn functionally for Covenant purposes (Dr. Waltons approach perhaps) out of mortal mankind. His failure to handle his priestly calling (the fall) resulted in his Image not being completed until the time of Christ when only then was this Covenant Created man imbued with God’s full image through Spiritual Christ. The Bible is the story of that process of Genesis 1:26 being fulfilled through faithful adherents to the one True God.
    One of the simplest illustrations of this changing of man from mortal to spiritual is the story of redemption of King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel.
    Dan 5:21 ESV He was driven from among the CHILDREN OF MANKIND, and HIS MIND WAS MADE LIKE THAT OF A BEAST, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. He was fed grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, UNTIL HE KNEW THAT THE MOST HIGH GOD RULES THE KINGDOM OF MANKINd and sets over it whom he will.
    King Neb’s mind was like that of a beast which is akin to being a mortal animal in relation to God. It was only through his coming back into the fold of the Children of Mankind by acknowledging the True God that he was returned. Many think Neb went insane but that story is just Hebrew apocalyptic style literature and has nothing to do with insanity but is strictly about living in harmony with God as a true creation rather than a beastly mortal animal.
    When we start to understand what the purpose of Genesis creation account is all about is when these difficult questions start to receive their answers. The story of the animals representing the outlying Gentile peoples in Genesis is a theme found throughout the bible especially in Ezekiel, Daniel and culminating in Peter’s vision of the animals representing the acceptance of the Gentiles in Acts 10. This is highlighted in Hosea in which Israel will be joined in Covenant with the Gentiles as illustrated by the animals. This Gentile inclusion is what Paul refers to as a mystery hidden until his time of evangelism to them.
    Hos 2:18 ESV And I will MAKE FOR THEM A COVENANT on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground …
    Act 10:11-12 ESV and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were ALL KINDS OF ANIMALS AND REPTILES AND BIRDS OF THE AIR.

  • Josh W

    I have been told that computational randomness is when a pattern for determining what happens is so complex that it is more efficient to just list the previous states than record the rule that governed them. The randomness of a Markov chain is that it’s current state is totally useless for predicting it’s future state.
    If you put those two together, then many systems may be so complex in their dynamics that it is impossible to predict them given all their previous history. It’s surprisingly easy to do that with only a few hidden variables. These systems would appear random to us.
    This is one way to look at randomness, apparent randomness, made of ignorance and overlaying real if unknown dynamics. Another is to just throw your hands up and say “it just happens sometimes”. You can compare this to the disagreements between different types of philosophers years ago, some of whom said that creatures were created from nothing at one time, and others who said that creatures could just pop into being at any moment! Some people look at randomness and see a black hole, but one to explore, and others prefer to stand further away and see it as a full stop!
    Whenever anyone asks a question, there will be those who say there is no answer, especially when the answer looks hard to find.