Saturday, October 20, 2012

Simon Conway Morris at Norwich Cathedral. Part 1

Prof David Andrews introducing Simon Conway Morris at Norwich Cathedral

The following are notes I made during a lecture at Norwich Cathedral on the evening of 16th October by Simon Conway Morris Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at Cambridge University. The lecture was entitled “The Evolution of Intelligence – Christian Implications?” and organized by the Norfolk Science and Faith Group. (For comparison see my blog post on John Polkinghorne’s visit to Norwich Cathedral)
Prof Morris is a member of the Faraday Institute. The bill advertising the event told us that “He is best known for his work on the Burgess Shale Fossils and on evolutionary convergence. He frequently appears in public debate, arguing for evolution but against atheistic materialism”. The notes below must be treated with caution as they represent how I personally heard Morris.

Conway Morris in full flow.

David Andrews, professor of quantum chemistry at the University of East Anglia, introduced Simon Conway Morris. Morris Started his lecture by saying that he is not interested in Intelligent Design because ID is not science.

My Comment: Bad start in my opinion. I suspect that The Faraday Institute, like Biologos in America, wants to distance itself from the poor image that “ID” has amongst scientists. There seems to be a bit of playing to the gallery here as this sort of statement puts the scientific establishment at ease, something that Morris, as an establishment figure, is destined to do. My own opinion, as I have said before in this blog, is that ID is science (after a fashion) but it is not hard science. Many of the challenges to standard evolutionary theory coming from the homunculus ID community need careful consideration and should not be treated in an offhand way; but then I'm not part of the establishment so this is easy for me to say! But having said that I'm not happy with the way the de-facto ID community are handling the subject of ID; they seem to be working from a 'God did it' vs. 'Evolution did it' dichotomy. American ID seems to be motivated by an eagerness to promote a kind of 2001 Space Odyssey theory of evolutionary change. Moreover, there are times when it appears to be uncomfortably close to the crank science of the fundamentalists.

Darwin became centre stage in the science vs. evolution debate. Huxley (and others) seized on these ideas to bash the church, although Darwin himself was more cautious. Metaphysical interpretations were made of evolution e.g. that life is one big accident. Some thought evolutionary randomness implies that re-running the tape of evolution again would produce a completely different end result.
Morris said that he thinks the generation of life has a relatively high probability and therefore with the discovery of many new planets we are in for a major surprise within the next 30 years. (Presumably he means the discovery of alien life forms!)

My Comment: If he wants to stick his neck out this far it’s up to him!

Morris is optimistic about the likely evolution of intelligence because evolutionary convergent demonstrates that the independent evolution of “life’s solutions” can happen many times. However, Morris does concede we may be alone in the universe thus indicating that he actually doesn’t know, and that the foregoing is really just a gut feeling of his. The basic building blocks of life are a product of a fairly unremarkable chemistry and therefore they are likely to be universal. “Self-organization” may be a factor – consider for example the mathematical shell of the ammonite.

My Comment: Dodgy! The basic building blocks of life may not be a problem, but the apparent combinatorial explosion in the configuration space of these building blocks could be a huge problem for the evolutionary search engine unless somehow physics constrains this space considerably.

Convergence example: Dinosaur feathers have evolved at least three times on different branches of the evolutionary tree. For example; Archaeopteryx, microraptor and another dinosaur whose name I didn’t pick up all evolved feathers but all are on very diverse branches of the "tree of life".

My Comment: This is where Morris’ knowledge comes into its own: He knows the accepted evolutionary tree and what’s on it. If bog standard evolutionary processes have done as Morris suggests (i.e. produced the same solution several times) then this would require a configuration space that is highly constrained and appropriately organized.

One might expect that evolution would work well enough if organic functions were just good enough to get by, but examination shows that organic adaptations are highly optimized and not “just good enough”. They are finely tuned to “perfection”. However, in some cases the opposite seems to be true. A particular protein enzyme used in photosynthesis is very inefficient: The oxygen that the enzyme helps produce poisons the enzyme! There may be limits to evolution.

My Comment: If evolution is happening we might expect some functions to be on the road to perfection, and not yet at their optimum. However, perhaps evolution quickly finds the optimum solution and then stasis reigns from there on. This scenario is not unlike technological change where  one reaches a point of diminishing returns with the development of a particular technology as its room for improvement "maxes out"; an extrema is then reached and stasis is assumed.

Other examples of convergence: The bacterial flagellum (the ID icon) has evolved twice. The sabre tooth cat  parallels the marsupial sabre toothed “cat”. The camera eye has evolved separately in octopus and man. There are 40 different types of eyes. The camera eye has evolved 7 times. The compound eye has also evolved more than once.  The compound eye would have to be proportionally too large for a man sized animal and therefore the conclusion is that it is likely that man sized aliens would have camera eyes.
Ears and eyes have reached physical limits and therefore have reached optimum. The eye can detect one photon and ears are as sensitive as the noises created by thermal molecular motions allow.
On Intelligence: The part of the bird’s brain that deals with bird song has similarities with the part of our brain that deals with language – convergent evolution again! Dolphins and Man have similar neurological set ups but these have evolved on different parts of the evolutionary tree. Birds and apes use sticks as tools – once again a mental adaptation that has evolved in entirely different parts of the evolutionary tree.
When did we become human? When and why did we start liking pets, poetry and music?
Is there directionality in evolution? Consider mushroom genes: 30% of the genes that the nervous system uses can be found in mushrooms. Mushrooms are organisms that evolved long before the nervous system.

My Comment: How does this last comment by Morris differ from the following: One could argue that 50% (or whatever the figure is) of the elements in the periodic table can be found in the human body and these elements existed long before there were any living things. If one is to think of evolution as a case of constructing using a set of components then of course a large proportion of those parts must pre-exist prior to the structure's existence. Perhaps Morris is using this argument to hint at some kind of predestination. A retrospective view often gives one the subjective feeling of predestination; antecedents, in retrospect, somehow feel as though they are being put in to place for what the future is known to bring.

The question of consciousness – this has not been sorted. Materialism doesn’t work.

My Comment: On consciousness see here, for example. Consciousness is not just another observable object; it has an entirely different logical character in being the observer rather than the observed. Materialism is in one sense a department of conscious cognition in as much as materialism is a construct made within conscious cognition.

The humpback whale uses “music” – another convergent trait. There is a universal music. We discover music and mathematics rather than invent them.  Evolution discovers things.

My Comment: With this I would very much agree: Our world uncovers and reifies the potential objects taken from the platonic realm of possibility.

The imagination: Barfield and Tolkien talked about a mythopoeic humanity. We use Christianity to make sense of life.  We look at beauty and it somehow resonates with our emotions.
During the question and answer session Morris talked about the landscape of evolution and the fact that stable structures are few and far between. But he was reminded of the organization of the periodic table where the rules of physics imply a set of stable atoms. He also responded to one questioner by saying he had no idea where evolution is taking us.

My Comment: Morris response during Q&A was the nearest he came to talking about one of the themes of this blog. Viz: the question of the arrangement of viable organic structures in configuration space and the critical dependence of this arrangement on the given physical regime.


What was Morris trying to say and what are those Christian implications? One got the feeling he was trying to tell us something important but he was doing it implicitly rather than explicitly, perhaps hoping that his audience would draw out these implications. Consequently, there are issues with the above that I want to take a bit further and I hope to do so in my next post.


dimwoo said...

Nice summary!
As i recall from his book "Life's Solution" he does argue that the configuration space is highly constrained so that there are a limited number of solutions, but that in many cases (such as with DNA) the solution is almost perfectly optimised.

I'm not sure if he says it or implies it, but it kind of links in with the fine-tuning hypothesis: the laws of nature are such that there are only a narrow range of solutions. He speculates at the end of the book that aliens could be very much like us. (This could explain why in Star Trek all the aliens are exactly like us or mostly like us except for being a different colour/having weird shaped noses etc. It is nothing to do with a limited effects budget.)

I have Conway Morris on google alert and so found your blog post, I used to live in Norwich in the early 90s and liked it very much, somehow quiet and vibrant at the same time, and lovely clean air.

I find Conway Morris very interesting, he's a Barfieldian which is rare, and he's very open-minded and fascinated by the Weird: tells some brilliant stories in his lectures sometimes that would fit well into the Fortean Times.

Have subscribed to your blog :-)

Timothy V Reeves said...

Thanks very much for the comment!

Yes, standard evolutionary theory stands or falls by the arrangement of “survival” solutions in configuration space and that in turn is determined by physics. In my opinion it’s all an aspect of self organisation and is linked to the fine tuning hypothesis in that selecting the right physical regime is likely to be a computationally complex task.

So perhaps I would have developed more of an appreciation of Conway Morris if I’d watched Star-Trek rather than films like “Alien” and “The Thing”!

I don’t know much about Barfield, but his name cropped up in this blog post of mine.

Fortean experiences always seem to happen to other people and not me! However, like Conway Morris I’m interested in the paranormal and collect its anecdotes like I collect stamps! I’ve done some posts on the subject (See here3)