Evolution’s Place? 5 (RJS)

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Several weeks ago we began a series looking at Simon Conway Morris’s book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. After a brief hiatus I  will come back to this book with two final posts; today a discussion of the force of his argument from convergence (Ch. 6-10, pp. 106-310), and in the next post a discussion of his chapter: Towards a Theology of Evolution.

Conway Morris is the Professor of Paleobiology at Cambridge University.  His research is focused on “the study of the constraints on evolution, and the historical processes that lead to the emergence of complexity, especially with respect to the construction of the major animal bodyplans in the Cambrian explosion.” His work is published in all of the major journals of the discipline including Science and Nature.

The central chapters of Conway Morris’s book outline (in a rather rambling fashion) the evidence for his hypothesis that evolutionary convergence is ubiquitous and that the progress of evolution, far from being random and highly contingent on chance events, is in broad brush strokes predictable.  This is not farfetched wishful thinking and others are thinking along similar lines. As an example Conway Morris quotes an article in the journal Evolution discussing the evolution of body size and its tendency to increase. The authors of this article state: “We suggest, however, that Gould’s … emphasis on randomness be replaced with an emphasis on deterministic outcomes that result largely from the role of ecological processes in speciation and extinction.” (p. 306).

Here are the questions I would like to consider today:

Is there room for randomness in your understanding of God and creation?

How much of what happens is predetermined and controlled by God? Is a process that is random in detail but globally deterministic consistent with the sovereignty of God?

In Ch. 6-10 Conway Morris looks at range of different topic and surveys convergence in biology. Convergence means that the same feature or function has developed independently multiple times. He is looking for similarities and themes. In a rather breathtaking trek (or what sometimes seems like a weakly directed random walk) he spans the range from molecular cofactors to proteins to structures to behaviors to intelligence to culture.

Simple laboratory experiments on E. coli bacteria and on Drosophila flies suggest that evolutionary change is dependent on adaptation to new circumstance not chance or history. That is, it is neither highly contingent nor chaotic.

Molecular cofactors are convergent, chlorophyll for light harvesting, retinal/rhodopsins for vision (among other things).

Protein structures and enzyme active sites are convergent.

Skeletal structures are convergent and it appears that all possible arrangements have been used.

Eyes are convergent.  They have evolved several times in only a few related forms, primarily camera eyes and compound eyes.

The sensory nervous structure for processing complex sensory signals is convergent.

Vocalization and intelligence are convergent.

Social behavior in animals is convergent – cultural behavior in hominoids is likely convergent.

So what is the big picture?

1. The evolutionary mechanism of adaptation and natural selection is an incredibly powerful method for searching the realm of biological possibility. It has an “uncanny ability to find the short cuts across the multidimensional ‘hyperspace’ of biological reality.” (p. 309)

2. Evolution is progressive, it has a global directionality.

What we do see through geological time is the emergence of more complex worlds.  Nor is this a limiting view. It might be premature to suppose that even the bacteria of today are some sort of ‘honorary fossils’, unchanged relics from the Archaean pond-scum. Nor need we imagine that the appearance of humans is the culmination of all evolutionary history. Yet, when within the animals we see the emergence of larger and more complex brains, sophisticated vocalizations, echolocation, electrical perception, advanced social systems including eusociality, viviparity,  warm-bloodedness, and agriculture – all of which are convergent – then that sounds to me like progress. (p. 307)

3. The envelope of possibilities in biology expands as building blocks become available and as the biosphere develops. Evolution is not simply mutation, it is co-option , gene duplication, and recruitment and more. Existing structures are often used for new and distinct purposes. We cannot predict the future, but we are on a directed path to the future.  Some of the ideas of emergence may come into play here.

What evolution can not do is see into the future diversification so far as the envelope of possibilities is concerned, … What we can say is that whenever the known edge of the evolutionary envelope is reached, be it in terms of intelligence or agriculture, then it will be explored independently several times. (p. 307)

4. Ultra-Darwinist fundamentalism, belief in the selfish gene alone is at best incomplete, at worst wrong; it represents an oversimplification of a complex reality.  In the writings of some it almost seems as though the genes are gods – described as ‘molecular agencies that are immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, and even immaterial.’ (p. 323)  But think about it – does this really make sense?

Outside its cellular milieu the DNA is biologically inert, if not useless. Genes may provide a switchboard for life, but the complexity of life will depend on something else: how the same genes may be recruited to make different products, how the developmental networks change and evolve, and how apparently trivial events such as gene duplication and protein isoforms open immense new territories for biological exploration. Life may be impossible without genes, but to ascribe to them powers of intentionality misses the mark. (p. 324)

5. Once life on earth began the appearance of something very like us was essentially inevitable.  Conway Morris suggests that a program of research that explores not only the results of evolution, but also the phenomenon of evolution itself, will discover just this (and he is not in the majority, but also not alone in this belief).

It is my suspicion that such a research programme might reveal a deeper fabric to biology in which Darwinian evolution remains central as the agency, but the nodes of occupation are effectively predetermined from the Big Bang.

One such node is, of course, that of the humanoid, and from the present evolutionary perspective we are undeniably unique. Yet, as I have already argued, if we had not arrived at sentience and called ourselves human,  then probably sooner rather than later some other group would have done so, perhaps from further afield, even from much further afield. (p. 309-310)

In the next post I will conclude with Conway Morris’s reflections on theology, but for now I will rephrase the questions above.

What does it mean to be human? Did God design details (five fingers, one liver, and wisdom teeth) or is it enough to have designed sentience, consciousness and intelligence, capacity for love and relationship?

Is ‘deterministic’ evolution consistent with a robust theology?

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

  • http://www.communityofjesus.blogspot.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    I have to believe that in some way God is in control, but in that control, while there is a directive, or goal God will realize, there is a sense of letting things play out. And if this is problematical in the evolutionary sphere, than it would be in any other, as well. God does allow and work within my own free will. Yes, there is a limit to my free will, but what I do or do not do does make a difference, and yet somehow in that, God is still in control, and the end and outcome is secure. So it must be in evolution as well.
    Just thinking.

  • http://creation.com/creation-compromises richo.fan

    It is immensely comforting to know that God has done miracles, such as the miracle of creation, and that we as Christians do not need to imagine how God used evolution–a horrible, inefficient, wasteful process.

  • http://www.FaceTheQuestion.com Anette Ejsing

    I don’t think we can divide events into A) predetermined and B) random. This question – How much of what happens is predetermined and controlled by God? – therefore strikes me as the wrong question to ask.
    There are different levels of intensity to divine involvement in creational processes, but I think we would be as hard pressed to find complete divine control as we would be to find no divine control.

  • Theo

    Christians are not deists. God did not just create the cosmos and then leave everything to run on its own. He upholds his creation every single nanosecond, and without him doing so we would cease even to exist. I do not think it proper to look for God’s hand only in some elements of his creation. This I think is the error of the proponents of intelligent design. God is the author even of what we take to be randomness.

  • RJS

    Author in what way though.
    John Piper reflected on his prostate cancer awhile back – among other things that he should take it seriously as a call to reflect on God (something I agree with). But … here is a question. Does God cause cancer to appear as part of his plan or does God allow cancer to appear? (This is actually related to the question of “randomness” and evolution in my mind.)

  • JKG

    There is much to think about and respond to in this post, but for the sake of a busy day I’ll restrain myself. It might get a little technical, though…
    As an engineer working with complex systems, I’ve had lots of opportunity to model, test, and evaluate chaotic behaviors. I have very seldom, if ever, seen systems behave purely randomly. At molecular levels and above, what we perceive to be randomness is virtually always due to the (mathematically) chaotic behavior of systems that are pushed beyond their (mathematically) linear domains of operation. If we were able to look closely enough, we would see that what appears to be a random occurrence can be explained mechanistically.
    In the processes that we bundle and label “evolution” we have both the random changes, operating at the level of DNA replication errors or radiation damage, and the chaotic/systemic changes from asteroid strikes and global climate change. The changes we see from generation to generation are results of both the direct genetic changes and the survivability of individuals against the external system changes.
    Convergence is to be expected in this scheme, because function is driven by interaction with the environment, independent of how the function arises. Said another way, it doesn’t matter how the genetic code was changed to induce development of intelligence; the environment in which intelligence provides individual advantage would facilitate its development.
    So, to your questions… what does it mean to be human? did God design the details? can the concept and action of evolutionary processes be consistent with what we know of God? To me, yes. I am content to believe that the universe was created by God for his own purposes, at least one of which was for humans to embody His image. The details of how that was accomplished are a beautiful combination of systemic action and seeming randomness. God works through laws, grace, and mercy.

  • pds

    I think that this is pretty much speculation beyond what you can derive from the evidence. The wide variety of views in this area make it clear that there is no scientific consensus. Gould disagreed with Conway Morris. So do many others.
    Evolution is both random and directed. Random mutations and variation create changes. Natural selection for survival benefit keeps the changes that help. Speculating about which is more dominant seems to be just that- speculation.
    RJS, is he saying that there is some other natural force at work besides 1. random mutation and variation and 2. natural selection?
    If evolution shows a “directedness,” how do we know what caused that? Can we know that the apparent directionality of evolution was caused by material forces or something else? Can science tell us this? How can you delve into this without getting into metaphysics?
    If God acted in evolutionary history (which I believe he did), wouldn’t that mess up any analysis that considers only material forces relevant? If we want to figure out what really happened, isn’t it irrational to assume that only natural forces were at work? What do we want, “the best natural explanation” or “the truth”?
    As for me and my household, we will seek the truth.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com/blog dopderbeck

    To have this discussion, we need to define terms. If “random” means “metaphysically random” — without “purpose” — then I don’t think “randomness” in creation is consistent with a Christian understanding of God’s sovereignty. But if “random” is properly restricted to mean “stochastic” — without any observable statistically predictable pattern — then “randomness” in creation is entirely consistent with a Christian understanding of God’s sovereignty.
    It’s obvious that there are stochastic events in our universe, such as the rolling of dice. This is no threat to God’s providential sovereignty. In fact, Biblically, God is seen as providentially acting through stochastic processes — such as the “casting of lots” in Acts 1:26 to choose an Apostle to replace Judas. (Think about this for a moment: an Apostle was chosen basically by a roll of the dice!)
    Likewise, even if the process of biological evolution in some respects looks to us like nature is rolling dice, we can affirm that God is providentially sovereign over it.
    Concerning the question of someone getting cancer: that gets into some fine distinctions between God’s “perfect” and “permissive” will, the nature and timing of His decrees, and other scholastic finery. Ultimately, I think we need to affirm that (a) God is sovereign and that nothing happens outside the sphere of His providence; (b) at the same time, God provides for a freedom in creation, particularly at least in human and angelic free will, in such a way that what God might otherwise offer as “first” or “best” in a particular situation can be rejected; (c) when God’s “first” or “best” is rejected, God often allows the consequences of that action to cascade to the detriment of “innocent” parties; (d) even given b and c, God often allows suffering for reasons that are not apparent to us and have no evident connection to sin (“why do the righteous suffer,” the Psalmists often asked); and (e) God’s love, justice and wisdom are such that the universe He providentially created ultimately will result in the “best,” the “good,” the “just” and the “right” without remainder.

  • pds

    Theo #4
    You said:
    “I do not think it proper to look for God’s hand only in some elements of his creation. This I think is the error of the proponents of intelligent design.”
    ID proponents do not “look for God’s hand only in some elements of his creation.” They scientifically detect design in certain features of the natural world. Seeing God’s hand experientially or theologically is a different matter and gets at the implications of ID.
    ID misrepresentation #27. You are in good company.

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

    I guess where I land is that its presumptuous for us to assume we could ever know. “God’s ways are above our ways”. I take that to mean, among other things, that some aspects of creation are far beyond our ability to know – or even to comprehend in theoretical form. So the question is not just one of evidence, but of theory. Do we even have the sophistication to imagine a model complex enough to do this justice? My guess is no.
    Perhaps when we peel away layers (like on an onion), we discover what looks like clarity at an individual level. But peel away another layer and that reverses itself; in terms of where the evidence leads us. What makes us assume we’re close to the inner core? Perhaps we’re a long ways off. My guess is that we are.
    I’m all for continued scientific pursuit. But I think we seriously overstep when we think we’re close to really understanding this kind of complex detail.

  • RJS

    pds (#7)
    This is an evolving field – so consensus is something of a moving target.
    On one level evolution is a search engine that uses adaptation and natural selection with specified operation (mutation, co-option, recombination, recruitment, …) to identify effective solutions to problems.
    We use search algorithms modeled on evolution in our research, as do many colleagues at various institutions. I have a colleague at another university who argues at length that this is stupid because one is searching for a needle in a haystack and finding it by this method is at best a fluke, he contends we need systematic search algorithms. I have another colleague at yet another university who claims that he can prove mathematically that for a certain set of problems subject to certain criteria it will “always” work. The latter also thinks it likely that biological evolution falls under the “always works” criteria.
    I find some of Conway Morris’s thinking interesting because it meshes with ideas I’ve been wrestling with in other contexts.
    To this point though theology and metaphysics are out of the picture. This is a discussion of the “natural” progress of evolution as a search algorithm.
    But when we move to metaphysics and theology things start to resonate on a different level in my thinking. The idea that evolutionary creation is globally deterministic just makes sense to me. This is an elegant method of creation.

  • JET

    Is there room for randomness in my understanding of God and creation?
    Here are some of the conclusions that my small brain has inducted:
    1. Creation is a dance between chaos and order, randomness and patterns, etc.
    2. Randomness serves divine purposes, including:
    (a) Beauty: The world is more interesting, more poetic, more beautiful with a certain amount of randomness than it would be without it; and
    (b) More importantly, the possibility of a God-World relationship: If God wants to relate to Creation, God must create a “space” or “distance” between Godself and Creation. Randomness is that “space” which makes Creation “other than” God. Theistic determinism is tantamount to pantheism.
    3. Randomness in creation is a type of “lower order” freedom that makes possible the “higher order” freedom that is necessary to choose love. The world has enough randomness to avoid pantheism. Yet out of this randomness has emerged intelligence which, when combined with divine revelation (in whatever form), results in creatures who are capable of choosing love and who are morally responsible for their choices.

  • pds

    I’m pretty much with Darren (#10)
    As one philosopher put it:
    The more you see the less you know
    The less you find out as you go
    I knew much more then than I do now
    The more you know the less you feel
    Some pray for others steal
    Blessings are not just for the ones who kneel . . . luckily
    In the city of blinding lights . . .

  • Brian

    The relationship between randomness and God’s direction becomes more difficult to describe when the concept of statistically independent events is introduced. Thoughts on this, anyone?

  • RJS

    What role do you think “statistically independent” plays in thinking about this?

  • Brian

    I see statistical independence as a complication in asserting any broad concept of divine providence. Independence seems better connected to coincidence than to planning. When events from two independent processes converge to alter the state of the world it seems that some other pairing of events from those processes could have just as well led to some other state.
    It’s another angle on our previous discussion about what activities would be detectable when tinkering with what are otherwise viewed as random processes.

  • dopderbeck

    Brian (#16) – I’m not following. Say we find a correlation between two or more independent variables, and other facts lead us to infer that this correlation reflects some degree of causation. Had the variables and/or surrounding facts been different, we would not have reached the same inference of causation. How does this negate Divine Providence? If anything, a low probability that the particular variables we observe exist in a context that permits an inference of causation seems to be consistent with the providential arrangement of the relationship of those variables.
    A homey example: 20 years ago I met my wife-to-be at a church meeting. We easily could both have been at different places at that time, meaning we would never have met, fallen in love, and gotten married. I see God’s providence in this “chance” (and happy!) meeting of contingent variables.

  • RJS

    Consider a casino. Each event is statistically independent – each flip of the coin, each roll of the die (assuming a fair operation) has a chance of H or T, or 1,2,3,4,5,6 with equal weight. Even if there are 10 heads in a row, the next coin flip has a 50-50 chance of heads (given 10, a 50-50 chance of 11 heads in a row).
    Yet the global outcome is guaranteed, the house will win. It’s owners will make money.
    Now making the leap to evolution the question is this – is the world we see a fluke relying on “coincidence” or is it like the house in a casino – statistically independent selections will converge on the predetermined result.
    Now I think that Conway Morris’s argument is that the design, the fine-tuning of the universe guaranteed the result. (Although as we have no clue how life began, it is possible that this was a “fluke” or divine intervention — take your pick).
    The kind of divine providence dopderbeck brings up is another issue – and one worth considering as well.
    All of this leads me to think about how God is active in his world. I don’t think a deist view is correct, but I don’t think a tinkerer view is either, and I am even less comfortable with the puppet master view.

  • Brian

    Independent random variables are necessarily uncorrelated. The general populace uses statistical vocabulary without understanding how it is used at a technical level. That is a complication in asking how providence and randomness are related.
    The problem with interpreting events is that the occurrence of unusual events is not unusual. For example, if enough people flip 10 coins at the same time, it becomes nearly certain that someone in the group will flip 10 heads. Someone else will get 10 tails. Someone else will alternate heads and tails. Someone else will alternate tails and heads. There are so many events occurring that unusual things will eventually happen.
    People often assign significance to unusual events that are seen to be only random once a large enough sample of events are observed. This is sometimes called the law of small numbers.
    Thus the interpretation of providence is problematic. If you had not met your wife, you might well have eventually married someone else through some other combination of events and then make the same anecdotal argument about a different woman. If we put enough men and women in the same room, some of them will eventually marry someone that they met in that room. I don’t see that any special act of providence is required for that result to occur. If that room is in a church the probability of weddings likely increases because of the orientation of the people who are likely to enter the room. (But I am nonetheless glad for your marital happiness, as well as my own.)_

  • Brian

    I follow you. This is what is meant by a genetic algorithm. Say that a problem has a solution, and a random process can be put in place to find it. A second random process with a different starting point may also arrive at the same solution. This works fine for understanding some aspects of how evolution may be goal oriented. Making it work for a detailed and individualized providence is more difficult. But within the Bible we at times see precisely that described.

  • RJS

    Exactly – making it work for a detailed and individualized providence is much more difficult. This is why I posed some of the questions I did in connection with this post.
    I have no problem with the idea of an evolutionary algorithm getting us from life to man (and here we have to ask what it is that makes us human).
    But we enter, perhaps, a different realm when we discuss the relationship of God with humans and the possibility of providence in this relationship.

  • dopderbeck

    Brian — ah, I see. I think what you’re saying is that it’s difficult if not impossible to infer “divine providence” from nature because so many things we might want to attribute to “providence” result from independent (uncorrelated) variables. If that’s what you’re saying, I tend to agree. A robust natural theology can’t be derived from the operation of “natural” (“secondary”) causes alone. Revelation is required to make sense of it all.

  • pds

    RJS (#18)
    You said:
    “Now I think that Conway Morris’s argument is that the design, the fine-tuning of the universe guaranteed the result. (Although as we have no clue how life began, it is possible that this was a “fluke” or divine intervention — take your pick).”
    This sounds exactly like “front-loaded” evolution. This is a variation of intelligent design, and is distinguishable from purely Darwinian evolution, which is limited to random mutation and natural selection.

  • RJS

    Darwinian evolution is adaptation and natural selection. One of the operations available to allow adaptation is random mutation. It is not the only operation available however. There are other mechanisms for modification and many of them are very important to the process.
    There is a chemical and physical landscape that defines the feasible space on which evolution operates. I cannot make a polar liquid out of silicon and hydrogen. We need heavy elements, we need an energy source … This landscape controls possibility.
    All of the above could be purely natural, material. Or we could speculate on the fine-tuning indicating design. Theology in the post tomorrow …

  • pds

    “the design, the fine-tuning of the universe guaranteed the result”
    Are you saying that could be “purely natural, material” too?
    I agree that it could be, but it is still “intelligent design.”

  • RJS

    Well, Dawkins would not agree that it is intelligent design. I tend to think that it is “evidence” for design, although not proof. Many Christians certainly agree, … Keller, Wright, Collins, McGrath, etc.

  • david thurman

    My guess is that Christianity will flip hard on this topic once it sinks in. We don’t have a emperical proof for start but the faith community does have a framework. The parent/child ordering is correct according to christian scriptures, we currently don’t have a first cause by the nature of science still developing, but Cognitive and evolutionary science are both in the process of locking out science from very deep levels and that is going to be a difficult thing for science to accept and in some ways even the faith community. There is no control this is an absolute that it makes it deterministic absolutely. Science has no lock out for logic, so it’s weak and all over the place, but in reality there is a depth that we as humans can grasp but can’t define and that is consistent with the faith community as well. God is a creative God but God just might be creating in a way that is very familiar to us all and to call God, father or mother is not as far fetched and may be a literal rather than a figurative or metaphorical. I am convinced from the new testament that Jesus used this term literally and for good reason.