One of the more famous scientific texts of the past few decades has undoubtedly been Richard Dawkin’s The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design. As the title may suggest, the thesis of his work maintains that teleological explanations are ruled out under Darwinian evolution. Dawkins, of course, goes one step further. Darwinism, he claims, enlightens the consciousness to recognize that the perceived purposiveness in all nature, not simply biology, is simply illusory. Hence, Darwin has made it possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Theism has lost its most powerful warrant.
Many (including some Christians) have even claimed that Darwinism entails an atheistic universe. While evolutionary theory also presents concerns for the Christian regarding hermeneutics and theodicy, this challenge to teleology is perhaps most significant since it seemingly challenges a core theistic doctrine: the intentional and purposive nature of the cosmos. The question then must be asked: Is Dawkins correct in claiming Darwinism entails an unguided, purposeless universe, or can Christians still affirm some sense of intentionality in biology?
The answer is a resounding yes, and in the next series of posts, I will outline not only why current evolutionary biology can adopt teleology but also why it must. In other words, my task, as atheist philosopher Michael Ruse puts it, is to “revamp the argument to design by making a virtue of evolution.” I begin with the work of Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, whose titles have inspired a renewed interest in a phenomenon known as convergent evolution.
The Cambridge Renegade
Any suggestion of identifying a “direction” to evolutionary development will inevitably meet with screams of vitalism and pseudoscientific intrusions. Nevertheless, the view has had its fair share of defenders throughout history. The most interesting and influential contemporary defender of this position has been the renowned paleontologist Simon Conway Morris. Having originally risen to fame through his work on the Burgess Shale formation (and with no small help from world famous biologist Stephen Jay Gould), Conway Morris initially embraced the radical contingency of life’s evolutionary history. Many are familiar with Gould’s statement that if one were to “wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale [and] let it play again from an identical starting point . . . the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like a human intelligence would grace the replay.” What is far less known is that Gould credits his conclusion to the work of Conway Morris. Even the analogy of “rewinding the tape” of life is directly taken from Conway Morris’s writings.
In a rather shocking turn of events, Conway Morris’s 1998 tome The Crucible of Creation was written as a direct rebuttal to Gould’s statements—statements that were near paraphrases of Conway Morris’s own earlier work. The paleontologist did not pull his punches. In fact, the work was so severe toward his former benefactor, one review commented, “The way Conway Morris goes about biting the hand that once fed him would make a shoal of piranha seem decorous.” What was it that led to such a radical shift?
Conway Morris had now become convinced the history of life told a tale not of radical contingency, where any small change would lead to radically different effects, but one of remarkable constraint. He further contends the sheer ubiquity of evolutionary convergences reveals the process to be highly constrained and even predictable. While this initial work failed to draw much of a theological conclusion from this fact, his later writings would throw caution to the wind. In 2003, Conway Morris published what has become his most famous work: Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Like a bad joke, the title exposes the book’s punchline right from the start.
Through a breathtaking gluttony of cases, Conway Morris presents his argument, demonstrating the independent arrival of virtually identical traits in distinct evolutionary lineages (see, for example, the Thylacosmilus and the Smilodon). Most remarkable of all has been the tendency toward increasing cerebralization in creatures as diverse as corvids, great apes, octopi, and cetaceans.
One could, of course, pretend this is the product of cosmic chance. However, a more natural reading, according to Conway Morris, would be to view this end as something favored by the evolutionary process itself. In the final chapter, entitled “Toward a theology of evolution?”, the Cambridge don presses for the continued reunification of science and theology, seeing each as necessary for the other. His own work, he offers, might be viewed as an effort in that direction, for while he shies away from seeing the book as apologetical, it nevertheless makes a teleological reading of natural history more digestible.
A Change in Strategy
His most apologetically oriented work, however, would arrive in 2015 with the publication of The Runes of Evolution. Against what he calls the oxymoronic triumphal aridity of the ultra-Darwinists,” a new, “post-Darwinian” paradigm is needed that will account for the ubiquity of convergence in life—most notably the simultaneous rise of advance cognitive abilities in vastly diverse creatures. While Conway Morris shies away from ever truly outlining what a post-Darwinism would look like, he is more than ready to hint.
The new paradigm, he argues, ought to view mind itself as a telos of the evolutionary process. He writes, “Evolution is not only a search engine by which the universe becomes self-aware but also one that perceives its deep order. As importantly, if such an order is invariant, then it is hardly surprising that the routes of discovery turn out to be strikingly convergent.” What is the deep order he refers to? Apparently, it is the “orthogonal worlds” of mathematics and language. In other words, the brain does not create consciousness but rather receives it like an antenna. Mind is, in his own words, an “attractor” for life.
The most obvious evidence for this, he believes, can be found in the remarkable convergences in animal song (whales, birds, etc.). It is as if distinct species are picking up on a “universal music awaiting discovery.” If one traces hints of Platonism in his account, she would be right. Conway Morris himself asks the reader to imagine “two figures ascending from opposite directions and greeting each other: Plato and Darwin embrace.” This vibrant image bespeaks a new theory of life—one that truly incorporates the reality of mind.
Undoubtedly, Conway Morris’s works have stirred controversy, and legions of scientists and philosophers have assembled both to defend and to dismantle his proposed views. What are we to make of his claims? It is difficult to arrive at the same place Conway Morris does from the evidence of convergent evolution alone, unfortunately—namely, that the evidence demands a new, teleological theory of life. Other scientists, including Richard Dawkins, have agreed with the Cambridge paleontologist on the highly constrained nature of evolution yet have not drawn the same teleological conclusions from it.
A more modest approach would be to state that convergent evolution demonstrates the compatibility of divine teleology and biological evolution. This is more in keeping with Conway Morris’s 2003 proposal in Life’s Solution. Such a claim seems undoubtedly true, but the case seems to do little for apologetics. In fact, it is arguably true that Darwinism without convergent evolution is compatible with divine teleology. Thus, the presence of convergences would be inconsequential. A via media between these two stances would be to regard convergent evolution as suggestive of a teleology within the evolutionary process. In other words, the intensity and ubiquity of convergences in biological evolution are more likely given theism than atheism. This is a promising position, but, as of yet, it has not been developed into anything like a sophisticated argument (at least not by Conway Morris himself). Conway Morris himself actively (and wisely) avoids attempting advanced philosophical engagement, leaving the argument inchoate. However, given the resurgence of interest in the possible metaphysical and theological implications of convergent evolution, such an argument might soon enter the mainstream of philosophical and apologetic conversations. One can, at least, hope that this will be the case.
As Conway Morris himself once provocatively asked, “What if evolution is the entirely unremarkable mechanism that ensures that the universe becomes self-aware?” I propose that answering this question might be one of the most interesting and promising tasks for apologists of the 21st century.