Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Conway Morris Musings

Since 1972 Simon Conway Morris has explored the outcrops of fossil-bearing rocks from the Middle Cambrian geologic period. He has championed human understanding of some of the most astonishing discoveries in paleontology ever made. Knowledge of the so-called Cambrian Explosion (CE), a geologically sudden profusion of novel phyla, has been known since Darwin expressed concern that the phenomena did not fit with his gradualistic concept of evolution. Conway Morris highlighted the rapid time frame of the Cambrian event along with the wonder of Cambrian diversity still being discovered by today’s paleontologists. The world recognizes Conway Morris as a foremost expert on the startling Cambrian event.

Conway Morris is a Christian, an unusual qualification among today’s evolutionary paleontologists. He was at odds with evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould concerning the fossilized Cambrian animals of the Burgess Shale. Gould recognized their uniqueness and their geologically sudden appearance on earth, but essentially argued that if the tape of life were rerun from Cambrian time, we would end up with an entirely different world which would include the absence of human beings. Conway Morris, on the contrary, stated evolution is not random and unpredictable, but may be the result of “convergent evolutionary processes.” Convergence describes unique anatomical or functional features appearing in completely unrelated species. Creation scientists view the origin of convergence as the work of a creator using the same design ideas multiple times. Conway Morris’s concept of convergence may or may not signify God’s use of a common design. It may signal a mysterious outcome of evolution.

In 2005 Conway Morris was interviewed via telephone by Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana who guided 40 participants of Reasons to Believe’s August 2013 “Burgess Shale Adventure” to Lake Louise and Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies. In the RTB interview Conway Morris denies being a creationist. For some creationists, Conway Morris’s disavowal of the creationist label may be at odds with his Christian claims. The interview was conducted in the spirit of dialogue, not as a debate. Likewise, an interview with The Christian Post was conducted in 2007. Many points made by Conway Morris in such interviews have been made by virtually all theistic evolutionists. My personal quest has been to understand the viewpoint of theistic evolutionists, if not to agree.

Conway Morris seeks to probe the theological implications of science and in particular, the process of evolution. He pronounces the Ediacaran (Pre-Cambrian) roots of the Cambrian Explosion to be “reasonable.” He claims that many other evolutionary radiations such as the later sudden appearance of flowering plants were not unique. Questions about the triggering mechanisms for the Cambrian Explosion (oxygenation, snowball events) are “not worth asking.” He acknowledges metaphysical or theological implications of convergence, especially the rise of human intelligence, to be worthwhile, but also claims acknowledgement of such events “too simple a reading.” Conway Morris does not object to philosophers “jumping in,” but claims “science is uncertain,” (a claim with which professional scientists would concur). To the question of detection of the “Creator’s signature,” Conway Morris answered that “we have scientific questions and scientific answers,” therefore, belief in God’s signature “is a matter of personal belief.”

Is God a sort of “engineer?” Does man’s sometimes humorous imagery of God wearing a white beard transfer to an imagery of God wearing a white (lab) coat? Conway Morris finds such imageries are useful to neither scientists nor theologians. How could scientists answer such questions? With respect to special timing of events on earth, he counsels we could make such conclusions if we wish.

Conway Morris would not, per se, ascribe convergence phenomena to a divine mind. There is no one to one correspondence, because God is completely “other.” God can be known through the Incarnation. But conflation of science and theology does not do service to either one. We need to exercise deeper thinking instead of recognizing a “metaphysical finger.” Conway Morris believes evolution is true. Creation accounts in the Bible are peoples’ efforts to “get hold of reality.” In so doing, we impoverish both science and theology, he says.

In The Christian Post 2007 interview Conway Morris thought science and faith were more complementary to one another rather than helping him understand his faith and “prove God.” He views biology as “a little more intractable than physics or chemistry” with their reliance on the periodic table and the Big Bang. Therefore, science “wonderfully explain(s) the organization of the universe, but that’s really all it claims to do, and I think it does that very successfully.” Conway Morris does not see intelligent design as science. Intelligent design theorists claim, for all intents and purposes, “God did it.” He says, “One can imagine where that could be the case; it’s certainly not the universe we live in.” In the Christian Post interview, he repeats the idea that intelligent design is bad theology and bad science. But he enjoys various opportunities to speak about the broad topic of natural theology.

Conway Morris claims alienation from many colleagues owing to his negative view of materialism and what he sees as intellectual consistency in Christianity and its “frankly overwhelming” historical evidence. He counsels us to “remember what happened on that early Sunday morning in April AD 33.

Professional scientists are wedded to the principle of separation of the realms of science and theology. They counsel us that, “Science works that way.” They do not espouse being informed by theists that God may have entered our dimensions to miraculously initiate new life forms--to reorganize genetic molecular arrangements to “create” something new, for example. To do so would be “unscientific” by definition. Theistic evolutionary scientists may acknowledge this possibility or reality, but would not incorporate it under the purview of their professional operational guidelines. To do so would alienate them from colleagues, among other realities. The “rules of the game” of science have been firmly set in stone.

An interesting sidelight is the scorn heaped upon theistic beliefs of brilliant scientists like Simon Conway Morris by fellow scientists who possess no theistic beliefs whatever. In such cases it appears their real objection transcends their operating principles as scientists. They have a strong aversion, even disdain for all theistic belief. Symptoms of this aversion are evident in the written and verbal abuse often heaped upon theistic scientists. We must be careful to avoid disparaging the faith of those we do not agree with, whether the disagreement relates to scientific interpretations or the finer points of scripture interpretation.