Posted by jlwile on February 18, 2010
Simon Conway Morris is a Professor of Evolutionary Paleobiology at the University of Cambridge. Some would call him a “theistic evolutionist,” while others would simply call him an evolutionist who is also a Christian. I would call him an evolutionist who thinks the laws of chemistry and physics were “set up” (by God) to produce evolution, which would end up producing people. While I have never met him, that is the impression I get from reading his book, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe.
The book presents his rather unique views on evolution in an interesting, entertaining way. Even though he says early on:
…if you happen to be a ‘creation scientist’ (or something of that kind) and have read this far, may I politely suggest that you put this book back on the shelf. It will do you no good. (p. xv)
On the contrary, this book did me a great deal of good. For example, it helped me see how uncertain virtually everything in evolution is. Some of it comes from Morris’s own frank descriptions of just how little is understood in the field of evolution. As just a sample, he says things like:
One such ambiguity is how life itself may have originated. As we shall see (in Chapter 4), there is no reason to doubt that it occurred by natural means, but despite the necessary simplicity of the process, the details remain strangely elusive. (p. 4)
I thought that in Chapter 4, I might see some evidence that life could have formed by natural means. However, that evidence was lacking. Instead, I found a detailed discussion of the origin-of-life research to date, and all of it indicated just how unlikely it is that life originated by natural means. Indeed, throughout Chapter 4, he continues to show how every experiment in origin-of-life research produces pitifully small yields of only some of the simplest chemical building blocks of life, along with a ‘goo’ (his term) of chemicals that would hinder the formation of life. In the end, here is how he summarizes Chapter 4:
Francis Crick can write ‘An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle’…More than two decades on from Crick’s ruminations, however, it still remains the case that the notion of an infinitesimally unlikely series of chemical reactions – that from our perspective can be described only as a ‘near miracle’…remains the unbidden and silent observer at much of the discussion of how life originated. Yet, as Iris Fry (note 85) reminds us, such terminology is effectively that of creationism. Put this way, nearly everyone will ask that the now unwelcome guest should vanish through the adjacent wall…(p. 67)
Once we get into his discussion of how life evolved, it gets even murkier. His main thesis is that there is an enormous amount of convergent evolution in nature. In other words, earth is simply teeming with life forms that look like they are related, but aren’t actually related. When this happens, an evolutionist is forced to reach for some way to “explain around” this fact, since a major tenant in evolutionary theory is that similar appearance implies common ancestry. The explanation typically reached for is that evolution independently produced these similarities along different evolutionary lines. Thus, while similarities are usually indicative of common ancestry, sometimes they are not. When similarities are not the result of common ancestry, they are said to be the result of convergent evolution, which is often called “convergence.”
How does the evolutionist know whether similarities between two organisms indicate common ancestry or just convergence? That’s easy. If evolution can accommodate the idea of common ancestry, the similarities are evidence for common ancestry. If evolution cannot accommodate the idea of common ancestry, the similarities result from convergence. Obviously, this is special pleading. Nevertheless, special pleading doesn’t necessarily mean a hypothesis is wrong. Many good theories contain some amount of special pleading. The problem is, as the amount of special pleading increases, the likelihood of the hypothesis being true diminishes rapidly.
Well, the entire point of this book is neatly summed up by the author himself:
…my thesis is that both the extent and importance of convergence have been consistently underestimated. (p. 285)
Indeed, he makes his case very strongly. He gives example after example of biological structures that are incredibly similar in organisms that cannot be related by a common ancestor with a prototype of that structure. The most widely-cited example is that of the camera eye in people and cephalopods (pp. 151-154). These two camera eyes look remarkably the same, even though no one posits a common ancestor (with a prototype of that eye) between people and cephalopods. Indeed, Morris even pulls in the eye of the alciopid polychaetes (a group of marine worms), showing how incredibly similar their eye is to the human eye and the cephalopod eye. Once again, however, evolution cannot accommodate an appropriate common ancestor for all three.
The striking thing about this book is the vast number of cases of convergence that Morris catalogues. Chapter 6 has roughly 19 pages discussing such examples, many of which caused evolutionists to mistakenly assume evolutionary relationships that Morris claims can’t possibly exist. Chapter 7 spends 50 pages detailing convergence in sensory systems. Chapter 8 spends 32 pages discussing convergence in behavior. He makes it very clear that convergence is ubiquitous in nature.
Of course, the very fact that he argues so persuasively for his thesis undermines evolution in a serious way. After all, we are told confidently that we know evolution occurred, since there are so many similarities between species, and those similarities clearly indicate common ancestry. However, Morris catalogs many, many cases in which similarity doesn’t mean common ancestry – it means convergence. So how do we know when similarity comes from common descent and when it comes from convergence? If there really are so many examples of convergence, we can’t continually rely on special pleading. There must be some way to independently determine when similarities are the result of common ancestry and when they are the result of convergence.
You might think one way to do this is to look at molecular similarities. Indeed, Morris seems to think this is the approach to take. After all, just as organisms can have structural similarities, they can also have molecular similarities. We can look at common proteins, for example, and see how similar these proteins are between two organisms. Since proteins are determined by DNA, this is closer to comparing the DNA of the two organisms, which should be closer to determining evolutionary relationships. Thus, while some structural similarities might be the result of convergence, molecular similarities can’t be the result of convergence, can they?
Oh yes they can. Two recent studies published in Current Biology, 1,2 show that the protein sequences encoded by a specific hearing gene (Prestin) are very similar in bats and bottlenose dolphins. No evolutionist would suggest that there is a common echolocating ancestor between these two organisms, yet the protein sequences show remarkable similarity – similarity that would be used to suggest an evolutionary relationship if it were possible to accommodate one.
Given that Dr. Morris has done a great job of cataloging so many similar biological structures and behaviors that are the result of convergence and not common ancestry, and given the fact that we know it is also possible for molecular similarities to be the result of convergence and not common ancestry, it is hard to cite either as evidence for common descent. Of course, some scientists will continue to do so, because they want evolution to be true. Those of us who make our decisions based on the data, however, will not be so naïve.
Before ending this review, I do want to point out one other thing about this book. As it’s subtitle suggests, Morris thinks that convergence is such a strong trend that in the end, even if we “reran the tape” of evolution, essentially the same results would occur over and over again – if life were to actually form. At the same time, however, he thinks that the chance of life forming is pitifully low. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, he catalogs all the problems associated with forming life from nonliving chemicals. In addition, he also catalogs how ridiculously improbable it is that a life-sustaining planet could form. Putting these two arguments together, he says it is likely that we are the only life in the entire universe – which is why the subtitle of the book ends with “in a lonely universe.”
This conclusion shows that Morris is at least a self-consistent thinker. I have always marveled at evolutionists who think that there is life elsewhere in the universe. After all, as this book surely demonstrates, life is so ridiculously improbable in a materialistic evolutionary framework that we should be shocked that we even exist. To think that such a ridiculously improbable event occurred twice (no matter how large the universe) seems to be sheer nonsense. At least Morris doesn’t buy into that level of evolutionary nonsense.
At the same time, I must point out that I have always marveled at creationists who think that there cannot be life anywhere else in the universe. I find that just as absurd. After all, if God created once, He could create again, again, and again. Now whether or not He chose to do that is still unknown. However, it seems to me that multiple instances of life in the universe would be easier to understand in the creationist framework than in the materialistic evolutionary framework.
1. Yiang Liu, et al., “Convergent sequence evolution between echolocating bats and dolphins,” Current Biology 20:R53 – 4, 2010
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2. Ying Li, et al., “The hearing gene Prestin unites echolocating bats and whales,” Current Biology 20:R55 – 6, 2010
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