Simon Conway-Morris, eminent paleontologist, is a theist, and he's got (ahem) a few bones to grind with evolutionary biologists who think that they have buried God. And he has his critics, who think that his God is already all-but-buried. Meanwhile, in the middle, here I sit, profoundly unimpressed by either side's choice of target.

You might think I regard Conway-Morris as a sympathetic figure and a fellow-traveler, given that I am one of the so-called "God-botherers" in my private life. Conway-Morris has written an article for the Guardian that takes non-believers in his field to task, and PZ Mwa-ha-ha, as you might expect, has a detailed takedown here.

That Conway-Morris is motivated by theism is not immediately obvious from his tortured prose, but essentially he argues that the massively-convergent nature of much evolution argues against the radically-contingent view promoted by the late Stephen Jay Gould, particularly in his book Wonderful Life, which contains this memorable passage:

Run the tape again, and let the tiny twig of Homo sapiens expire in Africa. Other hominids may have stood on the threshold of what we know as human possibilities, but many sensible scenarios would never generate our level of mentality. Run the tape again, and this time Neanderthal perishes in Europe and Homo erectus in Asia (as they did in our world). The sole surviving human stock, Homo erectus in Africa, stumbles along for a while, even prospers, but does not speciate and therefore remains stable. A mutated virus then wipes Homo erectus out, or a change in climate reconverts Africa into inhospitable forest. One little twig on the mammalian branch, a lineage with interesting possibilities that were never realized, joins the vast majority of species in extinction. So what? Most possibilities are never realized, and who will ever know the difference? Arguments of this form lead me to the conclusion that biology's most profound insight into human nature, status, and potential lies in the simple phrase, the embodiment of contingency: Homo sapiens is an entity, not a tendency.

Now part of C-M's animus at Gould's point of view is personal, rather than professional. Many years ago Gould publicized examples of work by C-M and other paleontologists studying the Burgess Shale rather broadly because they seemed to lend support to Gould's views on contingency, particularly with regards to exotic fossils like Anomalocaris or Hallucigenia. As it turns out, the interpretation that Gould favored on the basis of C-M's earlier work turned out to be troubled, and was eventually repudiated by C-M himself. I'm not an amateur psychiatrist, and neither was the late Gould, but in a debate available on-line the latter pointedly criticized C-M in personal terms, as follows:

Conway Morris has chosen, less in this article than in his book, to be imperiously dismissive of my ideas, as if no sensible or experienced person could ever advocate such prejudiced nonsense. But he never tells us that Wonderful Life treats him, in his radical days as a graduate student, as an intellectual hero. I developed my views on contingency and the expanded range of Burgess diversity directly from Conway Morris's work and explicit claims, and I both acknowledged my debt and praised him unstintingly in my book....Conway Morris is certainly free to change his mind, as he has done. Indeed, such flexibility can only be viewed as admirable in science. But it is a bit unseemly never to state that you once held radically different opinions and to brand as benighted, in some obvious and permanent sense, a colleague who holds the views you once espoused. I do therefore object to Conway Morris's strategy of working out his own ontogenetic issues at my expense.

That's just the tip of an iceberg of emnity, but those who want more in that department can do their own research. Anyway, this essay is a brief response to PZ's critique of C-M's Guardian piece. PZ's critique has three parts: he thinks C-M writes poorly, he thinks C-M's evocation of 'convergence' as something like an explanatory principle within evolution is overblown and he has a low opinion of C-M's motives, which he reads as being all but indistinguishable from garden-variety creationism. I'll try to tackle all those points. Leave now if you're squeamish!

First of all, having read 'Life's Solution', I have to agree that in terms of style, Conway-Morris's prose often leaves much to be desired. He seems at times to write for an audience of precisely one, routinely confusing density of sentence structure with erudition. The following parody exaggerates but a little:

To wit, a certain grandeur in some of the book's baroque opacities melds an aside, however witty, with that which follows, which does not seem to.

So, I can't blame PZ for faulting C-M there. If anything, the Guardian article is in greater need of an editor.

As for C-M playing coy about his beliefs, this is also true. Time and time again I attempted to get some sense of how C-M might've felt that the results that he ascribes to convergence might've been 'built-in' to the whole system. Other than brief riffs repudiating the obvious inadequacies of garden-variety creationism, C-M says nothing you can hang your hat on. Allusions to cosmic 'fine-tuning' arguments which could be interpreted as pointing towards a certain general outcome are 'balanced' by C-M's repeated assertion that the initial conditions favoring the Metazoa are (unlike the prokaryotes) unlikely.

Finally, I find it more than a little odd that any Darwinian would believe that the case for God's demise is made one way or another by the observation that Darwin got some pretty important things right. The cutting remarks at the expense of folk like Richard Dawkins, which are also found in 'Life's Solution', largely detract from whatever scientific merit C-M's line of argument might otherwise carry. They rather smell of some mixture of professional envy and personal animus, as with C-M's running feud with Gould.

To summarize, I find C-M's prose style obnoxious and even deliberately obsfucatory, his rhetoric unhelpful and his general approach unsatisfying. PZ's critique is a marvel of clarity and brutal honesty by comparison.

But there is a point to be made here: namely, we simply don't know enough about the probability of evolving systems to draw any particular conclusions about Gould's 'tape of life'. There is simply not enough evidence to conclude, as Gould did, that if we rerun that tape, we would get a completely different outcome. Nor is there enough evidence to go with C-M, who would have us believe that life, even intelligent life after our own fashion, is reasonably convergent given the appropriate initial conditions, albeit rare. With apologies to Huxley (who I am pretty sure would agree with me), I will remain agnostic on such propositions at the present time.

1 comment:

R. Moore said...

Did you notice that Conway-Morris riffs quite the same as Dr Ken Sample in a few areas -- is there a daily talking point for ID'ers?