For the next few days my posts will be focused on science and religion, as I’m lucky enough to be spending the next five days in Cambridge, England at a conference put on by the Templeton Foundation on evolution and the brain.
The morning’s speaker is an evolutionary paleontologist named Simon Conway Morris, who expressed a controversial minority viewpoint in the evolutionist world. Most evolutionists, known as “neo Darwinians,” believe that the path of evolution was random. If you rewound the tape and ran it again, the outcome would be different..

Morris, however, argues that throughout nature you see creatures that started off on very different branches of the tree of life but nonetheless evolved similar features and functions. The doctrine is called “convergence.” Hummingbirds and certain kinds of moths end up with the same attributes even though they didn’t have a recent common ancestor. Giraffes and cockroaches walk in a virtually identical manner. It wasn’t just one type of dinosaur that attempted flight, but three – in different places, at different times. Huge numbers of creatures, otherwise unrelated, developed the same type of eye.
In other words, faced with certain circumstances, natural selection seemed to point toward similar solutions. Morris concludes from this that, “Evolution is much more predictable than most people say now…There are only a few particular ways in which they can possibly work.”
“The tree of life is there from the beginning. All evolution does is fill in the gaps. It’s painting by numbers.”
This view is challenging to “intelligent design” advocates, who say some creatures are so extraordinarily complex that only God’s intervention can explain them. Not so, says Morris. Evolution smartly explains the origins of life, showing a natural tendency towards certain solutions. But his view is also challenging to Neo-Darwinian because it posits that evolution is not random. Indeed, though Morris doesn’t aruge this explicitly, his theory is quite compatible with a spiritual world view.
After all, if the tree of life is there from the beginning, isn’t it possible that it was created by something — or Someone?
I’ve oversimplified his fascinating argument. If you’d like to explore more, here’s his book: Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cathy Grossman of USA Today, also attending, gives her take here
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