The Direction of Evolution

I had a fascinating and hugely enjoyable interview–several hours worth–with Simon Conway Morris, an outstanding paleontologist at Cambridge. Conway Morris did some of the main work on the Burgess fossils that Steven Jay Gould wrote about in Wonderful Life. Gould was celebrating the randomness of evolution, the sense he gained from the fossil record that evolution was throwing out new life forms in a splendid and arbitrary abundance–and that it was purely accidental which ones survived. Famously Gould suggested that if the tape of evolution were run again a thousand times, it would come up with a thousand different results.

Conway Morris takes a very different view. He thinks there is an inevitability in evolution–that life must go in certain directions because those are the only possibilities–and that those possibilities are actually quite narrowly limited. I won’t try to describe these views any further now, because it’s complicated, but this view naturally brings a very different macro view of evolution.

Conway Morris is a Christian, who came to a serious intellectual commitment while he was in graduate school studying the Burgess fossils. At that time he began to read C.S. Lewis and went on to Chesteron, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and others of that “Inklings” circle and their influences. (I know, I know, neither Chesterton nor Sayers were Inklings–we need a word for this loose circle of associates and influences.) Conway Morris is a voracious reader and a fascinating talker. The good news is that he is currently writing a book that will sum up the history of evolution as he understands it. I can hardly wait to read it.

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3 Responses to “The Direction of Evolution”

  1. timhensley Says:

    Does Morris’s macro concept boil down to death + time produced a being capable of becoming a living soul? If yes, this turns the Genesis account into an allegory (or a myth), and not a very reliable one, in that Genesis shows death being introduced to the world as a consequence of sin. Sure, it’s possible that Adam was the product of a four billion year breeding program. But what an improbable mechanism for a God who can instantly turn water into wine. Do we really want to imply that God has chosen to communicate through a kind of literary hoax?

    It’s too smart by half, I say. Moreover, when you start explaining away Genesis, the NT is soon to follow. To wit: a PBS interview with the novelist and minister, Frederick Beuchner:

    “LAWTON: Many Christians observe this great contrast with special services on Holy Saturday, with a late-night vigil, or in the pre-dawn of Easter morning. They gather in darkness and await the light of Easter.

    “Mr. BUECHNER: Darkness symbolizes that out of which faith can arise, that which faith must somehow confront. The great opponents, if you want, of darkness and light are brought together within a space of less than a week — the darkness of the crucifixion and the blaze of the resurrection, whatever that was. Out of this comes this triumphant hope.”

    “Whatever that was”–Lord, have mercy on us.

  2. JJ Says:

    Sounds like another brilliant find. This is the first I have heard of him. I am really looking forward to his new book, and yours as well.

  3. David Graham Says:

    This sounds like a fine book in the making – please let us know when it comes out. To date, I’ve not read anyone who has reconciled evolutionary theory with Christianity. Many have tried (including many fine Christians who write for the BioLogos website) but without (in my opinion) success. General theism, deism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Hinduism, or New Age pantheism are all compatible with evolutionary theory, but I’ve yet to see someone successfully combine Christian theology with evolutionary theory. I wish Simon Conway Morris well, but he has his work cut out for him…

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