Thursday, August 20, 2009

How Dare You, Simon Conway Morris!

Thanks to the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) listServ, I was directed to Simon Conway Morris's1 short article, from last February, Darwin was right. Up to a point. Sorry for being late to the show.

I enjoyed and largely agreed with the Conway Morris article. I like his style.

First of all, he praises Darwin's theory:
But perhaps now is the time to rejoice not in what Darwin got right, and in demonstrating the reality of evolution in the context of entirely unexceptional natural processes there is no dispute
And even though you know there is a pregnant but about to give birth, this praise of Darwin's legacy is genuine and sincere, not faint and damning. Evolution really does provide a powerful framework for understanding the diversity of life. We may differ on whether the engine under the hood is powered by purely natural fuel (fossil fuel?) or by (or at least initiated by) God. But there can be no question that the scientific data tell, overwhelmingly, a story of common descent. There is no viable scientific theory challenging evolution in the whole, although there are plenty of internecine skirmishes.

When the but is realized, it is in the sense that however good evolution is, it doesn't explain everything. There is, in Conway Morris's words, unfinished business.

Of course saying so will land Conway Morris in a situation akin to: I can say my brother is an oaf, but you keep your damn mouth shut! When a theistic detractor asserts that "evolution is unfalsifiable; it can be made to explain anything"2 evolution proponents rightly point out that evolution is a bona fide scientific theory replete with unanswered questions, internal squabbles, predictions, and tests. But if a theistic supporter (a TE) points out that evolution is a bona fide scientific theory with unanswered questions, internal squabbles, etc., the tendency of the atheist proponents is to circle the wagons. We can say that—but not you. We have our cake, and it is quite tasty thank you very much.

Conway Morris faces that sort of response, as the comments to his article attest.

Conway Morris questions the predictability of evolution. It is a question of degree. Evolution certainly makes predictions: the fusing of the human chromosome, where to look, geologically and geographically, for transition fossils, what those fossils will look like, etc. But it does not make grand predictions about the future—rather many of its predictions are similar to anthropic predictions in physics. Here we are at time C. There we were at time A. Given that we didn't supernaturally hop from A to C, we can predict what we might find in the fossil record or the DNA paper trail at intermediate time B. Like the anthropic predictions, much is dependent on the observation that we are here. Conway Morris points out, however, something quite true: evolution is not so good at answering: what will this all be like at future time D? Evolution is good at interpolating. But extrapolating? Not so much.

Regarding this weakness in future predictability, Conway Morris reminds us that there is a tension arising from the fossil record and the extant taxon. The standard explanation is: life's too complex to allow for predicting the future. That fly in the ointment in this explanation is Conway Morris's signature drum: evolutionary convergence, i.e., when organisms evolve strikingly similar solutions long after they have diverged from their last common ancestor. Convergence seems to indicate that the solution space is not, as one might imagine, semi-infinite, but rather it is limited. That should make evolutionary predictions easier.

A fair question, at least to this non-biologist—but not one that should be asked by a theist. (Again, I refer you to the comments.) No, you must present your street creds before you ask such a question.

Conway Morris asks additional questions concerning complex cellular biochemistry, consciousness, and a human intelligence so overpowered that it leads us to the so-called "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" conundrum. He then, and I'm paraphrasing, suggests that some of these deeper questions may transcend the theory of evolution. Perhaps evolution, grand and successful as it is, is not a comprehensive framework.

Never mind that scientists already acknowledge this on the front-end of the time line. Ask about the origin of life and you will be smothered with refrains of: that's not evolution, that's abiogenesis. Conway Morris suggests that on the high end evolution may also reach its limit as a scientific theory, writing:
Of course, Darwin told us how to get there and by what mechanism, but neither why it is in the first place, nor how on earth we actually understand it.
It is an observation that is manifestly true, and yet Conway Morris is criticized for making it, more so for what he is rather than what he says. Evolution does not tell us how life started. And evolution does not tell us how it is that we understand evolution.

None of this should be controversial, and none of it should be subject to "Goddidit" criticisms. For while Conway Morris may well believe that God did it, he does not advocate giving up research into any of these questions. And he does not advocate teaching Goddidit in public school science class. But derisive cries of Goddidit are the first line of attack if a theistic evolutionist dares to say that evolution doesn't explain everything about life.

The bottom line is: any scientist attacked by atheists, Ken Ham Inc.3 and Team Dembski just has to be doing something right.

1 Simon Conway Morris holds an Ad Hominem Chair in Evolutionary Palaeobiology, at the University of Cambridge. He is a Fellow of St John's College, and also of the Royal Society. I admit that I do not know what an Ad Hominem Chair is. But I like the sound of it.

2 No, that's evolutionary psychology, not evolution. Evolutionary psychology really does explain everything, like why blonds have more fun.

3 In truth I don't know that the YEC crowd has ever attacked Conway Morris, but we can safely assume that he is not be on AiG's Christmas card list.


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