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Simon Conway Morris talks about six myths of evolution.


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Simon Conway Morris talks about six myths of evolution.

Description

The science of evolution in general has been solidified for a long time now, but there are still plenty of new discoveries and implications being drawn out of the specific details of how our world evolved. Among the scientists doing fascinating work in these areas is Simon Conway Morris, who has become relatively famous both in and outside the professional scientific community for his work on fossils from the Burgess Shale, the Cambrian Explosion, and convergent evolution. Morris’ new book, From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds: Six Myths of Evolution, draws from a number of these areas to make its claims. In this episode, we chat about the book, some of the well-established tenets of convergent evolution, and even some more controversial hypotheses on human uniqueness among animals and extraterrestrial intelligent life. While not all scientists agree with the conclusions Morris comes to, our conversation still brings clarity to the obscure limits of science and what these limits mean for us as Christians.

  • Originally aired on July 14, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

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Transcript

Conway Morris:

We’re homo sapiens, as Linnaeus described us. But in point of fact, we’re homo everything else—we’re homo silvaticus, we’re homo economicus, we’re homo religiosus. But most crucially, in my view, we are what is called homo narrans. We are the species which tells stories, we are the species which either finds itself in history or makes a history.

My name is Simon Conway Morris. I am now retired, which, oddly enough, makes me an emeritus professor of evolutionary paleobiology. And I’m speaking from the University of Cambridge where I still work.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump.

If you keep up with debates around evolution at all, our guest today may be familiar to you. Simon Conway Morris is a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and astrobiologist. He’s actually pretty famous for his work with fossils of the Burgess Shale and contributions to the study of the Cambrian Explosion, but for those of us less in the technical details of fossils from hundreds of millions of years ago and more into the bigger picture of what it all means, Simon Conway Morris is almost synonymous with convergent evolution. We’ll dive into just what that is in the conversation, and how it applies to some misperceptions people have about how evolution works. He has a new book just recently published, called From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds: Six Myths of Evolution. We hit on all six of these briefly in the conversation — the first four being pretty straightforward biological discussions. But the last two will push the boundaries of what some people are comfortable with. He takes the strongest stance on human uniqueness that you’ll come across among professional biologists, and then the last one about extraterrestrials is pretty wild. He admits that materialist scientists will only shake their heads at what he has to say, but he does a fine job of showing that science can’t answer all the questions we’re interested in as Christians.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Simon Conway Morris, I’m happy to talk to you. Welcome to the podcast.

Conway Morris:

Thank you very much, Jim. Thank you.

Stump:

So you have a new book out that digs deep into life’s history on our planet. And we’ll spend most of our time talking about it. But first, I’d like to dig into your own history, at least a little bit. Where did you grow up? What was your family like? What kind of kid were you?

Conway Morris: 

Well, thank you. I’ll make this as brief as possible. I was brought up in London. In an area near to Wimbledon called Raynes Park, I went to the local public school, I then went to the University of Bristol, which had a good reputation for geology, which is what I wanted to study. But more particularly, I knew from about the age of seven that I was particularly keen to study fossils. That came to fruition when I moved to Cambridge to do my PhD a long time ago, 1972. I was lucky enough to work with Professor Harry Whittington, who was a wonderful supervisor. And I was even luckier, perhaps, to work on a deposit in Canada known as the Burgess Shale. Since then, in all sorts of ways, either my work has been unraveling, or I prefer to think, getting ever broader in terms of exploring the implications for evolution.

Stump:

So as this seven year old, what was it that attracted you to fossils?

Conway Morris:

Well, it’s a rather trivial story, which I’ve recounted a few times in the past. But my mother, bless her, gave me a sort of stamp album whereby you had to tear out the stamps at the end of the book, they were large stamps much bigger than your standard postage stamp. On them, they had various ancient animals, I dare say there was a dinosaur there. And then you had to find the right place in the book to paste them in. Somehow this triggered my imagination. I’ve not kept the book, I’m afraid. But from then on, I used to fossick around sometimes with friends in famous localities in England, such as near Lyme Regis, to try and collect fossils. And like any school boy, I built up a collection of fossils, a few of which I still have.

Stump:

And what about your religious background? I see hints about this in your work, but I’ve never heard you talk explicitly about it.

Conway Morris:

Well, there’s not a great deal to be said, I’m afraid. My parents were effectively Christian. In fact, my mother was the daughter of a Scottish Minister of an academic bent. Late in life before my father died rather tragically and young, he was moving very firmly back, I believe, into the Christian fold. My own renaissance, if that’s the right word, was, I’m afraid, if that is again, the word to use, inspired by CS Lewis, as is so often the case with people such as ourselves. And that then spiraled off to understanding more about the Inklings and thereby into some elementary theology and the like. Since then, I suppose I’ve become more and more comfortable with the view of being a thoroughgoing supernaturalist, but also a thoroughgoing evolutionary biologist. Match those if you can.

Stump:

Do you ever have worries about the compatibility of those two? Or is that a peculiarly American worry?

Conway Morris:

I think that’s a worry I must leave to your countrymen.

Stump:

[laughs] Well, we may get back to some interaction of science and faith later, but let’s turn to the new book, which is called From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds, Six Myths of Evolution. I enjoyed reading through it. Tell us a little bit about how it came about or why you decided to write about myths of evolution?

Conway Morris:

Well, there were two reasons. One was rather selfish inasmuch as I’d written a much longer book called The Runes of Evolution, which was published also by Templeton Press. This is a book of such immense size that its most convenient use is as a doorstop. There were some flow overs from that which simply couldn’t be accommodated. In part, this sort of area flowed from an earlier interest, which I still maintain, which revolves around convergent evolution. This is the way in which the same things are reinvented again and again in the history of life, and we might return to that in due course. But I’m not quite sure because I don’t keep that sort of diary. But I became interested in the topic of so called astrobiology. As somebody has wickedly said, astrobiology is a study of things which do not exist. But one of my theses is, in principle, that in fact something like a human evolving is pretty probable. I’ll very happily unpack that if it’s of interest. If this was the case, then at least a number of other planets should be populated by human-like forms, and we would assume also they develop technologies and the like. That’s all fine and large. Indeed, I’m, in principle, very happy to defend that view. This however, and maybe we need to unpack this in due course, leads into what we call the Fermi Paradox, and that is that there is apparently a rather disturbing absence of any aliens. So that was one strand which I remain extremely interested in, and is one which, of course, is very actively progressing with the increasingly large number of so called extrasolar planets being detected. The other line, I think, may have had some sort of theological background, but if so I certainly can’t easily identify it. And this is my sort of realization, very much influenced by reading a number of papers and books by other people. I hasten to say that practically everything I write about and publish has to depend on the work of others. But in essence, the observation that clearly we are descended from primates, and we shared a common ancestor with something not too dissimilar to a chimpanzee in Africa, about 7 million years ago. Yet, as we begin to unpack what human cognition involves and compare it to the counterpart in animal minds, there is this extraordinary gap. And again, we can unpack that in various sorts of ways. So those are two strands. If I may, just to complete this very quick precis before we discuss or demolish should you prefer is the role of mass extinctions. Here, rather wickedly I propose it although, on the day itself, they’re extremely unpleasant and should be avoided at all possible costs, their long term significance is the exact reverse of destructive. Paradoxically, I would argue that they are, in fact, creative. A planet without mass extinctions is probably in rather serious trouble. So each one of these and a couple of others are what I call myths and myths is a tricky word to use for at least two reasons. By myths here, I’m using a very vague metaphor. But those of us who have interest in religion will realize that to use a term familiar to the Inklings, CS Lewis and his friends, the fact is that we are a mythopoeic species and myth is, in point of fact, an essential part of our world picture. So it’s a bit of a portmanteau word. But in any event, what I’m really trying to do is look at a series of areas of received evolutionary wisdom, and to put it in a very vulgar sense from an English perspective, give them a really good kicking.

Stump:  

Okay, so you’ve touched on three of the six myths that you talk about there. And I definitely want to come back and talk more about the human uniqueness and the extraterrestrials. The first four, in which included is the one on mass extinctions you pointed to, are other ones that seem, at least in my fairly novice mind, having to do much more specifically with convergent evolution that you talked about. So evolution has no limits. Evolution is random. These are two of the others, and as well missing links. Your name has become, I think, really strongly associated with convergent evolution. And I don’t think anybody doubts that that’s a thing anymore. But are these other myths, to some degree, at least a result of the failure to appreciate how convergent evolution works, such that it does bring about limits, that evolution is not random, that kind of thing? Talk a little bit more about convergent evolution and how they fit into these myths.

Conway Morris:

Well, thank you, I should say perhaps that the view first of all of limits is something which is less appreciated. In this book, very crudely, because the evidence, of course, is incomplete and to some extent, involves intangibles, I would suggest that by and large, the natural processes of evolution have pretty well done just about everything they possibly can. Part of this is because of the natural physical constraints, which would hem in any activity, things like the viscosity of water and all those sorts of things. To give one small example, and this is one which I have to say as I’m a natural historian I find totally fascinating, is the question of how insects obtain food where we see them jumping into leaves and those sorts of things. But some of them, of course, extract sap, sugary fluid which flows within the plant tissue. And indeed, sometimes the aphids and insects like that are harvested by ants. That’s all fine and large. Now, of course, as the sap goes from the leaves to the rest of the plant, so from the roots, it sends water, which of course ends up to be used as part of the process of photosynthesis. One would think that water flowing up the center of a plant is hardly something to make dinner. But amazingly, there are insects, which actually drink the fluid, which is technically within the tubes known as xylem. The organic concentration in this water, in this xylem, is fantastically low. I mean, apart from anything else, it just shows, you know, just the incredible range and sophistication of living forms. Who would dream of drinking water as a pastime? But it gets better than that, because it turns out that within these insects, they have these bacteria living in a sort of colony, if you like, it’s known as the bacterio. The degree of integration between these bacteria, and also with the insects such that the bacteria synthesize many of the essential amino acids, for example, necessary for the insect. This degree of integration, sophistication and complexity, I would suggest has really reached its limit, you can’t go any further and what these insects have managed. That’s as much as they ever will do for eternity. And I think this applies to many areas of evolution, they are pretty well banging against the limits of what is possible, with one of course crucial exception: ourselves. Because of course we, so to speak, think out of the box.

Stump:

So is the other side of the same coin of the limits myth, the second one you speak of which is randomness, that if convergence is really happening so often, that the solutions life brings about tend to look similar, rather than going off in just any different direction?

Conway Morris:

Yes, I think so. Again, until we find a genuinely independent biosphere, this has to remain, in a sense, a hypothesis. But I think to the first approximation, it’s really quite difficult to think of things which have only evolved once. Now in fairness, there is a very distinguished biologist who I know somewhat, Geerat Vermeij. He’s written a number of extremely important papers, pointing out, amongst other things, that there are particular combinations or particular strategies of biology, which you might expect to have evolved and either have only evolved extremely seldom or not at all. So I have to concede, of course, that there may be unimaginably different biospheres, which by chance, so many of my colleagues would argue, have not been visited. And it’s not what or sorry, please go on.

Stump:

Sorry, what are some examples?

Conway Morris:  

Oh, gosh, I guess I’d have to fish down the papers to remind myself of these. I do apologize. I mean, they’re there. I mean, from my perspective, and with the greatest respect to Geerat Vermeij’s work, I entirely agree that there are things which in principle ought to evolve which haven’t. But when I consider the overall ubiquity of convergent evolution, I’m more persuaded that in fact, the number of options available is really very small indeed. I say that in a context to do with sort of what’s called combinatorics. In other words, if you think about all possible alternatives in a biological system, the numbers turn out to be staggeringly big. I mean, cosmologists get very excited about the number of elementary particles in the visible universe, it is something like 10 to the 90. That from a biological perspective, is small change. No, no, no, we’re dealing with truly immense numbers, 10 to the 200 10 to the 250, these are unimaginably gigantic spaces, so to speak. The received view, possibly correctly, is that on any particular planet, perhaps because the starting conditions are slightly different, you’ll end up with a set of solutions, but they will be utterly unlike what we see on this planet. But all we can say so far as the Earth is concerned, is that it looks as if the number of habitable nodes is a minute fraction of all theoretical possible alternatives, it’s absolutely tiny. It’s, let us say, 10 to the 4 versus 10 to the 250. Anybody who’s familiar with orders of magnitude and so forth will realize that one is infinitesimally tiny and the other one is immensely enormous. My view would be reinforced to some extent with examples of convergent evolution which have evolved not 20 times but even 100 times or more, for instance, a system of photosynthesis known as C4 photosynthesis, and like, persuade me that overall, and I have to say, from a Darwinian perspective, rather unsurprisingly, but overall, the number of total solutions is a very, very small fraction of what in principle might evolve, but in point of fact, never can.

Stump:

Okay, so this raises a point that I see quite often with Christians now talking about convergent evolution as though it’s a new sort of fine tuning argument. That if we look closely enough at the science itself, you can see these such small probabilities, or at least possibilities of how things could have gone that they in fact, did go this one way, at least points toward a designer who must have made things so that humans would emerge out of this process of evolution. What do you think about that use of convergence?

Conway Morris:

I would be quite nervous. Partly because, of course, it stems from fine tuning in physics and cosmology. And nobody doubts that indeed, there are some very peculiar coincidences which allow the universe to exist as it does. The reason why I’ve been nervous of extrapolation, I think is first of all, of course, we end up with not just one solution, humans, but necessarily many, many ones. In other words, we end up within a very rich biosphere. I think in point of fact, from a Christian perspective, and the nature of creation and the beauty of creation, one should be extremely happy with that outcome. 

Stump:

That’s good. Right.

Conway Morris:

We don’t live in a desert, we live in an Eden, so to speak. But the other thing would be that I would certainly go so far as to say, and as I have tried to articulate in a very unsatisfactory manner, could it be that convergence is reflecting a deeper order of organization? I think probably a physicist or a cosmologist would agree to some extent, that there might be some underlying views. So when we talk about Martin Reese’s six numbers, which allow our universe to exist with stars and galaxies and gravity and all those sorts of things. Then in a way which I could not otherwise articulate, it would be possible to imagine the nature of the cosmos to be such as to be propitious to the evolution of life. Not only that but to ultimately allow the emergence of intelligences and ultimately, from my perspective and I think yours, somebody who wishes to worship. From an evolutionary viewpoint, one could point out, which I think is sometimes a little bit under appreciated, that a good part of the heavy lifting you need to make complex forms, or complex structures such as a nervous system, have actually evolved in relatively simple organisms I say relatively simple. So in other words, some of the building blocks for the nervous system have evolved in single celled creatures. There’s nothing very mysterious about this. They need these vesicles and things like that in the same way as we employ them as part of the operation of our nervous system. But, having said all that, I think that, although as I’ve argued in the past, I’m very happy to see a congruence between the nature of how we find ourselves to be, I would not myself wish to use these as arguments in any sense for a designer. I think that appreciation has to come from a metaphysics. And of course, you know, if one subscribes as I and you do to the Christian narrative, to indeed historical evidence and all the rest of it. But that is a property of humans, in other words, we can explore that in due course. It’s not to say the animals are, in some sense, irrelevant, in fact, rather than reverse. But even so, once you see a sort of fine tuning argument beginning to sort of wedge its way in here, I am not so much nervous as I just say, well hang on, let’s step back a minute and decide, what is the totality of what we’re trying to understand? And how come we ourselves have even the glimmerings of understanding it?

Stump:

Okay, so you at least suggested in the book and mentioned a little bit earlier that there very well could be deeper principles at work in biology than we have yet discovered. In the book you compare this even to something like the periodic table of elements in chemistry that gives this underlying order. What would this look like in biology? Or if we can’t answer that, what would a deeper order help us understand in biology?

Conway Morris:

Well, if only I could answer that question I’d probably have a telephone call in the next 10 minutes from the Nobel Committee in Sweden. 

Stump: 

Here’s your Nobel. [laughs]

Conway Morris:

Yes, sorry, I really must go, I do apologize [laughing]. The idea of a sort of something analogous to a periodic table, I think, goes back to a very remarkable Soviet biologist called Nikolai Vavilov, who actually basically perished in Stalin’s Russia in the Second World War. He was interested, in fact, in the evolution of grasses as it so happened. But again, he realized there were an awful lot of excluded forms which might exist, but don’t, and therefore saw a recurrence of pattern. And if you see a recurrent pattern, then you might, as you already have suggested, see something which hints at a deeper order. But how to articulate that order, of course, is much more difficult, because I can give an empirical description at some level, but the problem with biology, at least in part, is that it’s comparing apples and oranges, and one thing which really doesn’t look very similar to another. We can go and look at a cellular level, and where there is a basic identity, and we can look at convergences, so things which look rather dissimilar turn out, in fact, to be remarkably similar. But mixing that into a general theory… I, to date, have not been able to articulate it in any coherent fashion at all. It is almost an instinct, that underneath what life evolves along, there is, if you like, an underlying melody for want of a better word.

Stump:

Okay, we’ll keep moving toward humans and extraterrestrials. Let me get one more of the myths in here before we get there, though, which you’ve hinted at already, about mass extinctions and what these have done for life on our planet. And so take, for example, the extinction of the dinosaurs 65-66 million years ago, the kind of orthodox way of describing this is: that enabled larger mammals to thrive. There’s something that seems right about that, but something that’s at least incomplete about that sort of description of mass extinctions. Can you unpack that a bit more for us?

Conway Morris:

Well, as best as I can. You’re absolutely correct that historically, the evidence for extreme environmental trauma, most likely a combination of an impact by an asteroid, and also enormous volcanic eruptions on the opposite side of the world. And that actually may not be a coincidence, and again we can discuss that if necessary. But collectively, these lead to extreme stress, and indeed the disappearance of many, many species, including, so far as we can tell, all the dinosaurs with perhaps one critical exception, which we will also call the birds. That said, then the mammals take over, they radiate rapidly. I think it is pretty well an area of received wisdom, and it was articulated by Stephen Jay Gould probably as forcibly as anybody else, to describe that asteroid as our lucky star. In other words, if the dinosaurs hadn’t been obliterated, those little shrew like objects, with charming whiskers and sharp teeth, but around about an inch in length would have not, in due course, radiated into bats and whales, and primates. To the first approximation, that is correct — the mass extinction was serious, it led to major disappearances and all the rest of it. However, it seems to me, and this is true, I believe, of all mass extinctions. And although it will take us too far afield, in some ways, the events at the end of the so called Permian, about 250 million years ago, as against the 66 million years event you mentioned a moment ago, is in its own way even more dramatic, because the loss of life was as if anything greater. But back to the mammals. What I think is not appreciated so much are two things. First of all, the mammals themselves are already beginning to radiate in the time of the dinosaurs. It does appear that several of the major groups, which we ultimately recognize, for instance, as primates, are already beginning their evolutionary journeys, at the same time as the dinosaurs. The other point is that, although dinosaurs sort of obsess the public imagination, and I have no quarrel with that of course, it’s sometimes forgotten that worlds as they change, do become more and more modern. So if you go back into the Cretaceous times, a time when the dinosaurs were still flourishing, and up in the air with the pterosaurs and all the rest of it, in point of fact, in many other respects, the world was really a rather modern place. Not least, for instance, if you look at the plants. The flowering plants may have evolved actually not so long after the Permian. The fossil record clearly shows that by the beginning of the Cretaceous, pretty much, they are evolving rapidly. So towards the end of the Cretaceous, we have rainforests. Correspondingly, if you look at the insects, we see butterflies and ants, and all these sorts of things. So although in some respects the world is by no means as familiar to the one we see today as we would like, nevertheless, it is in many respects recognizable. My point here is that if we look at what’s happening in the evolution of mammals, we see that the fundamental split between what we call the marsupials and ourselves, the placental mammals, probably happened in the late Jurassic, preceding the Cretaceous. My argument in a nutshell is that the actors which are going to take over the world and will take over the world come what may, are already moving into position. What the mass extinction does is basically give you time for nothing. It shaves, let us say, 50 million years off the evolutionary agenda. It brings us ahead of ourselves in a way, which is in advance of if you like it’s scheduled time. Let’s suppose we go to the counterfactual world where, just for the sake of argument, the volcanoes are turned off. That’s quite difficult, but nevertheless, let’s suppose that happened, and the asteroid misses, well that happens all the time. In this counterfactual world, we enter another area of planetary familiarity called ice ages. These are things which happen periodically as well. There have been several major ice ages in the last 600 million years. Imagine now we’re now in a time called the oligocene, so we’re around 20 million years after the asteroid did not hit. The world is beginning to refrigerate, ice caps are beginning to form on the South Pole and therefore one is getting the steady development of sometimes drier, but more particularly cooler zones — not the sort of place where reptiles are really going to flourish. But most definitely the sort of place where warm blooded, socially adept, large brained, furry or feathered creatures will do well. Therefore there will be a different sort of opportunity, slower, but ultimately, inevitably, the dinosaurs would end up in one of three places. They’d end up in game parks, they’d end up in zoos, or they’d end up in high-end restaurants.

Stump:

In this counterfactual world is it compatible that we would have had primates and dinosaurs at the same time?

Conway Morris:

I think that’s perfectly reasonable. We must remember, of course, that especially in the tropics, there are plenty of reptiles around to the present day, lizards and snakes most obviously, and they do their own fascinating things. But again, in the particular history of this planet, yes, indeed, the primates that precursor them appear to be evolving already in the Cretaceous. But in the grand scheme of things from the perspective of convergence, I’m not desperately concerned whether we call them dinosaurs or reptiles or primates or mammals. What I’m particularly concerned about is a combination of characters which we associate with being a mammal, increasingly large bodied, within limits, warm blooded, insulation, until you move to something like a human, large brains, manual dexterity, especially in the primates. Again, we can unpack how it came about that we had such extraordinary dexterity, it basically means we’ve got to spend a bit of time in the trees, but that’s perhaps a parallel story, and so on and so forth. So yes, the point is that, by and large, the mammals and the birds are going to be evolutionarily more successful than their reptilian counterparts. Remembering, of course, that the birds themselves derive from theropod dinosaurs. And of course, it’s the most marvelous set of stories to do with the missing links, so called Archaeopteryx, and all the rest of it, which connect the theropod dinosaurs which were walking around on the ground to their counterparts up in the air.

Stump: 

Very good. So the missing link was myth number four, give us just a quick overview of that one for us.

Conway Morris:

I’m pleased to say it is not a myth in as much as I don’t believe in missing links any more than I don’t believe in mass extinctions; they both are there. Undoubtedly, the point which I think has been a little bit neglected with regard to missing links, and it’s something of a sort of journalistic cliche, is that if we look at classic examples of how we have major transitions, such as from a fish to a proto amphibian, or a walking theropod to a flying bird, it turns out in point of fact, that there are a whole set of parallel adventures if you like, whereby semi independently, within broadly the same group… So if we look at the fish, we see several groups of fish pretty well independently developing not so much limbs, but also limbs with fingers, even though they’re still in water. Or if we look at the theropod dinosaurs, we see parallel after parallel of dinosaurs getting successively smaller, developing feathers. So you can make an argument that, and this doesn’t include the gliders as well as the actively flying birds, that the invasion of air by the theropod dinosaurs could have occurred as many as eight times independently. So the myth the missing links is not that there aren’t any missing links, of course there are. But again, it’s an argument for a strong probability if not inevitability of certain evolutionary outcomes.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. We wanted to take a quick break from the episode to tell you about the BioLogos resource centers found at our website, biologos.org. You’ll find articles, videos, and other resources curated for pastors, educators, youth ministry, campus ministry and small groups. Help bring the science and faith conversation to the places that are important to you. Just click the resources tab at the top of the page. Now back to the conversation. 

Interview Part Two

Stump: 

Well, let’s spend the rest of our time here talking about myths number five, and six. So number five was my favorite chapter of your book. It was the longest chapter of the book. It’s called “Animal Minds”, but more generally addresses the claims that human beings are only slightly modified apes or some such. Which, since at least the time of Darwin, we’ve heard this claim that we differ only in degree from other creatures. And we here at BioLogos did a six part series on the podcast on this topic last year, calling it Uniquely Unique, which echoes the Dobzhansky quote that you give in the book, all species are unique, but the human is the uniquest. So let’s be clear, right up front that in discussing this, you’re not calling evolution into question, right? You do believe that Homo sapiens evolved from earlier species, and have common ancestors with other life on the planet today, right? 

Conway Morris: 

Absolutely correct. Thank you. 

Stump:

So what is the claim here then about the uniqueness of human beings that stands in such stark contrast to the way many people understand the evolutionary story of ours?

Conway Morris:

Yes, thank you. I wouldn’t put it so much as a claim, it’s just a set of observations. And that is that to the very first approximation, although I do not dispute for a second the evolutionary continuity which you mentioned, and as Darwin put it, in his view, was a matter of degree, not kind. As I look at the evidence from the people who work on animal behavior, it seems to me that there really is a genuine gulf. This is, to begin with, controversial. I understand that. And there will be many people who say, as you hinted, that we are basically nothing more than skin deep difference from a chimpanzee. But there are a number of things which we show, which I think increasingly, we can show beyond reasonable doubt we never find in animals. And I’ll start actually with an anecdote which I only came across very recently. It was a paper, which has hardly been noticed at all, published by Bill McGrew and a colleague. The title of the paper is something like “Parting is such sweet sorrow”, from Shakespeare if I remember correctly. What they point out is social species such as chimpanzees and dolphins, if they’re separated for some time, and this often happens, because their so-called fission-fusion communities lend themselves to dispersal and re aggregation over perhaps a period of weeks, if not longer. When they meet up with each other, they’re all delighted to see each other. And in the case of the chimpanzees, I’m informed they hug each other, they kiss and, you know, everybody’s delighted to see each other. It’s a wonderful homecoming. But then, when one or other of these chimpanzees disappears back into the jungle, they never say farewell. They never say goodbye. 

That sounds perhaps to you, as well maybe to most of your listeners, an utterly trivial observation. I don’t think it is, I think it tells me something highly significant about how these animals see their place in the world. In a sense, it’s that they do not anticipate a future. And this is linked to a whole set of observations, which, despite endless experimentation, do suggest that there’s something which animals simply don’t get. So let me give you another example if I can, and do stop me if I’m going off at too many tangents. 

Stump:

No, keep going.

Conway Morris:

One of the nice things about convergent evolution is that if you can show the similar property in a group distantly related to ourselves or mammals, then you have some security, that this is something which is likely to evolve. When we go to the crows and the parrots, and those sorts of birds, we do indeed see evidence of cognitive sophistication. Famously, New Caledonian crows, for instance, make tools, which is sometimes regarded as a hallmark of higher intelligence. Actually, for another reason that’s not quite true. But anyway, what we’ve got here is a riff on on the famous Aesop’s fable, whereby in the fable there’s a thirsty Crow, there’s a pitcher full of water, but the water itself is inaccessible, because it’s too low for the beak to reach. The Crow, being intelligent, drops stones into the water which displaces the water so that ultimately the crow can assuage its thirst. Splendid. That crow is on the way to becoming Archimedes. Indeed, we can do similar experiments where you have tubes of water, and you have to train the birds — I’ll come back to that in a moment — and they dropped stones into the water. And on the top of the water, there’s a tasty morsel so everybody’s satisfied. There’s applause from the human observers. But then you begin to play tricks, and for instance you set up a set of tubes, only some of which are connected by a U bend, which unfortunately, is invisible to the crow itself standing on a platform. And it turns out that, ultimately, the crow can work out what’s going on, but it does this by trial and error. It is now I think, very clear, indeed, that these crows, and I would argue this pretty well applies to all animals, do not understand cause and effect, they cannot join the dots. In other words, they live in a world which from their perspective, lacks all rationality. In point of fact, we need, I think, almost to step back straight away and not get ourselves in such a tizz about what these animals fail to do. The real peculiarity is us. We’re the odd ones. Somehow, we have an understanding of cause and effect and of physical invisible influences. Linked to this is that of course these animals don’t speak, they have no language, so we can’t ask them to do anything, we have to demonstrate. Now the animals aren’t stupid. And unfortunately, if they succeed, they don’t sit around saying, well, would you like a gin and tonic? Or should we play a game of chess? They want more food, and that’s perfectly reasonable. That’s what drives these animals, a bit more chow. But to do this, we have to train them. I think it is underappreciated the amount of training you have to do before the animal gets it. In point of fact, I tend to step right back and say, well, hang on a moment, didn’t we used to do this in the circus tricks. 

So again, to give one of my favorite examples, one of the things is that animals, to the first approximation, do not dance, they don’t have a sense of rhythm. Now, I know there are claims for exceptions, but even so generally speaking, I think that remains the case. So these particular investigators wanted to discover, using a metronome, whether some rhesus monkeys would be able to entrain this signature, such that they could display an understanding of rhythm, and change of a pitch and all this sort of business. So they spent an entire year trying to train these rhesus monkeys to deal with a metronome. And the project is a failure. Now, what does this tell us? Well, it tells us two things. One is trivial, rhesus monkeys are not interested in metronomes. But it also tells us that here is an extraordinary species, which is willing to devote a year of its time to seeing whether a rhesus monkey has any interest in a metronome. We are the peculiarities, not the animals. To in a sense to cap off this part of my account, and this, again, is no insult to the animals. The animals, in their own context, are as intelligent as you could possibly like they have minds. I’m sure they’re conscious, they have emotions, I dispute none of that. But as often as not, a particular animal, let’s call him Roger, he’s really good at some trick. Then you try and teach him another trick, and he hasn’t got a clue. So he might be a genius at one thing, but he’s absolutely hopeless at any other aspect. That of course then segues into questions of teaching and questions of language.

Stump:

Yeah, so let’s talk about language in particular here. I find this really fascinating. And throughout this whole chapter, and I should add its 311 endnotes…

Conway Morris:

I’m sorry.

Stump:

You discuss lots of these experiments that have supposedly shown that for some capacity we have other animals have at least a little bit of it. This is the attempt to show the continuity between us, the change in only in degree between other animals and us. So let’s talk about language in particular, because everything communicates to some degree, right? Even plants communicate with each other. But what is it that’s so different about human language that it’s not legitimate to call what other species do language in that sense?

Conway Morris:

You are indeed correct that communication is essential. All organisms talk. In fact, there is a roar of conversation going on between bacteria communicating the whole time, plants, as you say, are exchanging chemical signals, and the like. There are indeed people who talk about plant neurobiology, and at one level, I have no quarrel with that. With regard to language, I think the essential difference is to look at forms of animal vocalization which are claimed to be akin to language. As ever, when you look more closely, these examples of analogy seem to fail rather quickly. The most celebrated example is to do with birdsong. Now, birdsong can be quite complicated, and of course in a number of the cases of songbirds in particular, but actually convergently as it so happens, the young learn the song from their tutor parent, quite often the male, I believe, and indeed, they can reorganize their songs and they can show melodies and all the rest of it. But most significantly, as has been pointed out many times, as the young bird learns to sing, it goes through a so-called babbling phase where in a sense, it’s experimenting with the notes, which ultimately will crystallize into a series of songs sometimes very various, sometimes rather monotonous. Now, this babbling stage has a direct counterpart to what we see in our own children. I remember with my own children and now with my grandchildren, as language sort of bubbles all over the place and a gabbing away and they find everything they say immensely funny. We no idea what they’re talking about at all. And yet, within a month or two, the first words come and within a few more months, the sentences pour out, and there’s no stopping them, thank goodness.

But on further analysis, this analogy, I think, is entirely superficial. And effectively for the following reasons that, first of all, the bird will never use that song to do something else, it will never use those ‘words’ in inverted commas, song notes, into conveying a different set of meanings. It won’t suddenly use the songs and say, let’s go and build a nest over here or something like that. In other words, they’re not conveying anything other than to the first approximation, aggression, go away, or sexual attraction come here, I want your eggs, more or less. The second point is that this and all other animal vocalizations are effectively flat. That is, they have no recursion to them, they have no meaning embedded within meaning within embedded within meaning. People, in my view, say, well, yes, we agree with all that at least up to a point. But isn’t this somehow a nascent language? My view is no, for the very simple reason that language is much more than just strings of words. Language is completely cognitive, you can’t do your language without your thinking. Now, this is not to say that all thinking is dependent on language, far from it. We know that perfectly well in various sorts of ways of abstract communication, say through mathematics, or music. But any more than no animal can do mathematics, so too one can argue that what we call animal music is actually not really the same as human music at all. To take another example, away from birdsong, one of the classic ones was to do with the vervet monkeys, and indeed they have alarm calls, one is for Eagle, one is for snake, and one is for leopard. Yes, indeed, that alarm call is a word, which means leopard. But further investigation shows and this is not pointing fingers at anybody at all, is that that is an entirely erroneous view for a whole set of different reasons, not least is that sometimes these so-called words are used in completely different contexts. Yes, they might well have a way of communicating something that may be important. But the idea that they’re communicating a sense and understanding, I think is is very unlikely to be correct. That, of course, then goes back to how on earth did language evolve? And this is an area I only put my toe into very nervously indeed. But if one steps back in a way to how we describe ourselves, one of the things I point out in the book, taken again, and I’m sorry, I can’t remember the author. But he pointed out that from one perspective, we’re no longer a species. We’re homo sapiens, as Linnaeus described us. But in point of fact, we’re homo everything else. We’re homo silvaticus, we’re homo economicus, we’re homo religiousis. But most most crucially, in my view, we are what is called homo narrans. We are the species which tells stories, we are the species which either finds itself in history or makes a history. Actually only the other day, I was in a university library, looking at a short chapter on memory. It’s this business of where were you on 911? Or where were you when Kennedy was assassinated? It turns out, in fact, that when you interview people in this respect, it’s not that their memories are false, far from it. But what they think they remember about what actually happened on the day are often modified. In effect, what’s happened is that in all of these cases, we turn it into a story. This is because we live in a world of metaphors. This is a world where we live in the context of analogies. We’re always comparing apparently unlike things and end up with this very rich, descriptive landscape. In my view this as something which is totally opaque to any animal at all, language is much more than just strings of words which say, could you please put a bit less tonic in my gin next time?

Stump:

Okay, lots more to talk about with regard to human uniqueness there. I find this endlessly fascinating, but I think we may have to save that for another time because I very much want to get to the last of the myths you discussed in your book about extraterrestrials. So in your 2003 book Life Solution, the subtitle is Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, and there you made the case that it’s just us. Since then, I think you made reference to this earlier in our conversation, there have been 1000s of exoplanets discovered, many of which are in the so-called habitable zone. That doesn’t change your estimation at all of the likelihood of life developing elsewhere?

Conway Morris:

Well, when I’m giving a lecture, I don’t do many at the moment partly because of this wretched COVID nonsense, but also because retiring I think what I did, I did well enough, I don’t have to keep on doing it. But in any case, was I actually giving a lecture I’d lean forward in a slightly confidential way and say, loudly enough to be heard but softly enough to make an impact. “I changed my mind.” Oh, dear, we can’t do that. No, no, no, no, no, no. In part, it is the paradox that as you say, the number it seems that basically every star has a planetary system. To be sure, many of them will have planetary systems which are utterly unlike ours with their super Jupiter’s and all the rest of it. But so far as I understand the physics, the number of Earth-like planets is enormous. They’re much more difficult to detect at the moment for well known reasons, but if you extrapolate in what appears to be a sensible way, there are billions of them. And we don’t have to allow everyone to have its position in the habitable zone such as fortunately enough as the Earth, nor need they necessarily all have plate tectonics nor need they necessarily develop an atmosphere of oxygen, and so on and so forth. Even so, so many are these planets, one would argue surely, even if only one in 1000, which develops an intelligent form, and of those any one in 10,000, ultimately develops a capacity for interstellar travel, then is it not surprising that we have no evidence of aliens? The reason why I think it is so surprising perhaps, draws again on other people’s work. There are several lines of evidence. One is based in part on work by a chap called Charlie Lineweaver, he’s an American but in Australia, and he and others have pointed out that in point of fact, our solar system is dated at about 4.6 billion years. And that dating depends particularly on very precise data and meteorites. If you’re a young earth creationist, maybe they’re there still, just have a look at the evidence for those meteorites, it’s stunning. Be that as it may, there are evidently many solar systems which far far predate ours. Indeed, the first solar systems may have formed only a billion years after the Big Bang, and things akin to our own solar system predate our solar system by three plus billion years. So what does that mean? Well, it seemed to me that such civilizations, if indeed they emerge, have got a head start of 2 billion years. Thank you very much. As I’ve written elsewhere, what happens is they arrive in the time of the Burgess Shale, there they are on the lagoon, its beatingly hot, and swimming in the lagoon is these little fish like objects, let’s call them pikaia shall we. And these are traveling gourmets, they really enjoy sampling the food on different planets. So they scoop them up, they’re fried, and they get out a really nice chablis to go with it, delicious. Of course the only problem is that those little pikaia animals are our ancestors. So our history stops there. We would have been colonized perhaps in the Precambrian times. In other words, in principle, we shouldn’t be there, they’ve got this headstart. So that gives me very considerable pause for thought. And we can think of all sorts of escape clauses like the origin of life is more difficult than we realize. Interstellar travel is impossible, discuss, discuss, discuss. The other aspect which I find at the moment extremely telling, other than if you like what David Brin called the great silence, and indeed, Enrico Fermi before that said, where are they? The Fermi Paradox. And the many many explanations which have been presented for why we don’t have apparently contact with extraterrestrials is that there are surveys of anomalous infrared objects in the sky, and astronomers are very familiar with infrared astronomy, it’s a very powerful technique. And the argument goes that in principle, super civilizations will begin to harness most of the sunlight, and this is a so-called Dyson sphere.These will be anomalous in terms of the nature of the star versus the infrared, infrared radiation, and searches are being done for such Dyson spheres. So far, without any success at all. Well, this is going not quite science fiction, but in principle, if you can harness the energy of a star, before too long, probably 200 million years, you could harness the energy of an entire galaxy. This is a so-called Kardashev civilization type three. The advantage of looking for that sort of super Dyson sphere in galaxies is there’s a vast number you can investigate. And such investigations have been done. Although indeed there are some anomalous objects, again, in each case, it seems that there’s a natural explanation. So this gives me very serious pause for thought. As Enrico Fermi said in 1950 I think it was, where are they? And as Steven Webb has written in a lovely book about the Fermi Paradox, things just don’t add up. It’s far too quiet out there. What on earth is going on?

Stump:

Okay, so there are a couple of other suppositions people who have made to answer that question, one of which is that we’re actually living in a simulation that that has not been laughed out of supposedly respectable circles and I just finished reading the novel myself, Anomaly, which has that supposition at its core. You’re attracted to a slightly different understanding, though that goes by the name of the transension on hypothesis, which is that life forms when they become more advanced can slip into other dimensions of reality, and thus become invisible to us. Give that bit of defense or explanation what am I missing there if I’m mischaracterizing it?

Conway Morris:

I think attraction would probably be slightly too strong a description. I think, in this case, and in a way, even when you questioned me gently about the deeper patterns of evolution, one does as a scientist, try and keep one’s mind as open as possible as to what might actually be the explanation. The transcension hypothesis, as you say, is affected that one slips away into other parallel universes, or indeed, as you also mentioned, that we live in a virtual universe. Well, I’ll look out for that book called Anomaly, I haven’t heard of it. But it’s a similar one called Touching Centauri by Steven Baxter, which is a very exciting novella, whereby they demonstrate that indeed, the universe we live in is virtual and things actually unraveling in a sort of eschatological way. There are actually ways you can test at least the virtual hypothesis, which suggest fairly convincingly that that explanation isn’t going to work. Transcension, well, I see we’re almost at the end of our interview, I can go off piste, as we say. This is a time when I wish I could see some of my materialist friends, what they do is they hold their head with their hands, and then the head slowly lowers. And then they shake their head from side to side and say, I don’t believe I’m hearing this. But what we may have some interest in, make of it what you will, is that amongst the people I’ve met in your country are a number of military pilots in one way or another. I haven’t met these particular people, but of course, over the last few years, the US Navy pilots have identified these unexplained aerial objects, which sort of zoom around the sky and do impossible things. I know the Pentagon has some interest in them, and indeed, I read very recently, so does NASA. Now most people call these UFOs or something like that. I have no idea what they are by the way, all I can say is that US Navy pilots generally are not given to exaggeration, they are going at very high speeds and are most anxious to stay alive. They’re fantastically professional people, like helicopter pilots as well. So what on earth is going on there? Well, I have no idea at all. Most people say either they’re made up or they’re a Chinese technology. I don’t know, there are lots of possible explanations. But I just wonder, almost going full circle, whether in the way in perhaps the world is made of things visible and invisible, as indeed the Creed in the Christian churches will say, is in point of fact, there are many other orthogonal realities, which sometimes we intersect and sometimes make contact with. Now, none of that need necessarily carry any theological weight. I think it could. One of the most difficult things in this area, apart from the look of sheer disbelief on most people’s faces, is that collectively, whether you’re dealing with various so called paranormal phenomena, poltergeists, things like that, which are perfectly well attested but make no real sense, is that collectively there’s no coherence to them. They are phenomena which are well attested, but fall completely outside any materialist, I think any materialist explanation. They will often be dismissed as simply hysteria, or pretending to see things which don’t exist. I don’t want to unpack this in any particular detail for the very simple reason that I don’t really understand these things at all. But I just wonder whether at the back of the Fermi Paradox, there’s something other about the nature of the universe we live in, which to us is comfortably three dimensional with an added dimension of time. This is the way of course, we have to see the world in a sort of day to day basis. But in point of fact, almost anybody I think of theological religious outlook, will realize, in point of fact, they’re really standing on the edge of almost complete imponderables. The Christian tradition is perfectly familiar with this with things such as, for example, the transfiguration and the resurrection. This, again, is a time for a different sort of conversation. But if one sort of keeps one’s mind that these things happen, then one should not necessarily close one’s mind to other sorts of possibilities.

Stump: 

Well, we’ll leave it there. That’s pretty fascinating. We like to end these interviews by asking what you’ve been reading lately.

Conway Morris:

Oh, dear. Well, I’m getting into very bad habits. I’m reading a lot of children’s stories, especially ones written in the 50s and 60s, when children were allowed to read those sorts of stories, I find them extremely imaginative. In fact, I’ve come across, let me recommend, there’s a wonderful book by Theresa Whistler, an English woman, called The River Boy. If you haven’t read it, it was republished by Oxford University Press. It’s superb. I spend a lot of time reading ghost stories. So once again, some real, some made up, I don’t really care. I read the wonderful books by oh gosh, the name’s already escaped me. But no matter. Sylvia Townsend Warner, and a little bit of science fiction, some theology. I’m reading about the Powys brothers, Lulu and Theodore and John Powys who wrote A Glastonbury Romance—fascinating people. I read as much as I possibly can.

Stump: 

Well, very good. Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to us.

Conway Morris:

Thank you, Jim.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Simon Conway Morris

Simon Conway Morris is a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and astrobiologist at the University of Cambridge. He is know for his work on the fossils of the Burgess Shale and study of the Cambrian Explosion and his name has become synonymous with convergent evolution. He has written several books including, From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds: Six Myths of of Evolution.


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