FAITH Magazine July – August 2012
Convergence and Mind
Simon Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary palaeobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge is featured in the Cambridge alumni magazine for Lent 2012. A Christian, he has been interested in the science and religion debate, arguing against the Intelligent Design school on the one hand and materialism on the other. He believes that evolution may be compatible with belief in the existence of a creator God.
Convergent evolution is the acquisition of the same biological trait in unrelated evolutionary lineages, for example the wing. Flying insects, birds, and bats have all evolved the capacity of flight independently; they have thus "converged" on this useful trait. Most biologists agree that convergence is a common occurrence; but Conway Morris goes further, believing that evolution converges on the best possible solution, rather than on the best random solution. Complex structures are at least to some extent constructed from pre-existing molecular building blocks. It seems that the same environmental function can be fulfilled by unrelated building blocks, meeting the same evolutionary need.
Conway Morris argues that convergence is a dominant force in evolution, related to an "optimum" body plan towards which life will inevitably evolve. In this view, evolution was bound eventually to stumble upon animal "intelligence". Indeed, the requirement for very precise initial conditions necessary to produce a habitable universe implies that the emergence of intelligence was inevitable, involving a far greater degree of determinism in evolution than had previously been thought. According to this view, evolution is not a random process. If one were able to rewind time and run it again, intelligent life would result. Second, it suggests that there may be another biological principle at work, in addition to those invoked to explain natural variation and selection. Third, it suggests thatalien life is both probable, and likely to be surprisingly familiar.
Conway Morris proposes that there is an orientation towards the evolution of certain structures, such as the "camera eye", resulting in a greater likelihood of such structures being developed in unrelated branches of the evolutionary tree. He states: "A good part of organic systems rely on self-organisation...that things click together...yet there is no general theory to explain how that happens."
This view of convergence as something non-random and non-reductionist would seem to be consistent with a hierarchical view of natural being. It lends itself to a philosophical affirmation of the analogy of being in which "higher" forms of complex life are more real, more a unity-in-being, precisely because of their specific dynamic relationships to their environment. This is in opposition to the often strident, dogmatic pronouncements against any possibility of true purpose or direction in evolution made by many evolutionary biologists. Conway Morris is part of an increasingly prominent school in the philosophy of biology which offers a refreshingly new stance, one in which the biological universe is not merely an inert petri dish in which purely random genetic diversity andmutation have resulted by Darwinian "survival of the fittest".
This writer would suggest that this must be precisely because the universe is that sort of environment in which there is a dynamic and purposeful relationship of being. It is at the heart of the philosophy and theology of the Faith movement that there is a directing, controlling force in nature such that "higher" being educes and evokes "lower" being as part of the very fabric of the universe itself. In this view, pure "self-organisation" is impossible since all material reality is a unity-in-relationship, the relationships with other existing objects being an essential part of that object's definition and meaning.
It is certainly the case that any view of evolution which recognises the emergence of intelligence as a sort of destiny, written in the script of nature, is welcome. The somewhat tired arguments in which evolution, and our place within it, is seen as purely random need to be challenged. Conway Morris points out that we don't actually know what life is at all; although we can study and describe it in detail, we don't really understand how it coheres. He writes: "I do sense that biology in particular is running into something of an impasse, especially when it comes to consciousness. We have a whole set of explanations, and I don't think any of them work at all. Which may mean that these things are beyond our comprehension. I have a sort of sneaking sense that this is not true, and thatmeans that the world around us is organised in a rather interesting fashion."
His comments on "scientific" views of consciousness are also timely because populist evolutionary biologists and "physicalist" philosophers of mind often portray the conscious mind, indeed the "self", as nothing other than the sum total of the chemical and biological parts of the brain and central nervous system. The theological dogma of the human soul being a spiritual creation of God is often ridiculed as a concept that has been rendered unnecessary by science. However, human intelligence surely outstrips purely material, evolutionary requirements. This begs the question: how could human intelligence evolve to its present form by purely material evolutionary forces alone?
In the synthesis of philosophy and science presented by Faith, the evolution of the human brain at a critical juncture, the first homo sapiens, requires an external principle of control, one not determined by material forces, but controlling and directing them. This is the spiritual soul, the seat of true human intelligence and free will. As Holloway states: "The real distinction between matter and spirit... is a key concept to the right understanding of the evolution of forms and of their history."
As to whether intelligent alien life exists, certainly Holloway found that idea "thrilling" but there is already more than enough to consider concerning terrestrial life, its evolution and the nature of the human self to warrant its discussion here.