Evolution on Purpose: The Inevitability of Intelligent Life?

(system) #1
Paleontologist Simon Conway Morris thinks the evolution of intelligent, conscious beings is no accident. In fact, it’s inevitable.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/kathryn-applegate-endless-forms-most-beautiful/evolution-on-purpose-the-inevitability-of-intelligent-life

(Kathryn Applegate) #2

Thanks for reading. What’s your favorite example of convergence? And what do you make of the idea that science itself may be pointing toward the inevitability of intelligent life? @Pablo_de_Felipe and I are both available for discussion.


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(sy_garte) #4

I fully agree with Eddie (Lord be praised); reading this essay was the spiritual equivalence for me of a long drink of cool water on a hot day. The opening paragraph about the mechanistic trap of biology compared to physics was beautifully stated, and is an issue I have (secretly) bemoaned for decades. Thank you for that.

The main part of the essay, about convergence, is especially timely following Kathryn’s previous post on genes as switches. The work of Andreas Wagner and others could (this is my own view, and the object of my current research) be related to the mechanism for convergence. The terms robustness, canalization or genetic buffering, are all consequences of complex gene regulatory networks, that tend to conserve phenotypes in the face of mutations and environmental changes. One consequence of such robustness is the possibility of finding innovative phenotypes as Wagner has discussed in his recent book The Arrival of the fittest.

I echo Eddie’s comment that this is an excellent path for Biologos to take at this point.

(Kathryn Applegate) #5

Thanks, Eddie. When I read @Pablo_de_Felipe’s essay I knew it was something we needed to post. We’ve needed more coverage of Simon Conway Morris and his ideas, so I’m glad this offering helps fill the void.

(Patrick ) #6

I too think this essay was excellent and clearly inline with Biologos’ mission to harmonize science with beliefs. Thanks for bringing it to us.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #11

I’ll add my gratitude to the heap here as well. Thanks for the expanded horizons.

(Oné R. Pagán) #12

I concur; one of the very best essays in here. I actually read Conway Morris’ latest book. Not perfect, but quite interesting!

(Larry Bunce) #13

I saw an example of convergent evolution at the UC Botanical Gardens at Berkeley in 1975. In the section on desert succulents were two identical-looking plants that were labeled as being from different families, but having made the same adaptations to an arid environment. All this before DNA sequencing.
I also love these posts that combine good science with theology.

(Pablo de Felipe) #16

Thank you for all the positive comments. I will be glad this short essay could spark interest on this topic. I find the reflection on convergence very stimulating intellectually and with interesting theological implications. However, I try to learn from previous ‘concordist’ efforts to avoid falling in well-known traps.
Keeping that in mind, it is worth thinking in the scenario that Conway Morris’ ideas suggest. In particular, I have been wondering about the idea that several animals are ‘just’… “a few million years behind ourselves”! Looking back to Genesis, what does it mean for the idea of the ‘image of God’? And looking forward to Revelation, what does it mean for a Christian eschatology?
On the scientific side, I see that most discussion on convergence is from the distance, looking how similar two living beings are or two structures in them, etc. I wonder how the deep physiology of these organisms compares, and further than that, the cell biology and genetics behind well-known and stablished examples of convergences…

(Dean Ohlman) #17

As a long-time “activist” in the Christian creation-care community,I find that the last sentence stands out as one of most important in the article: “What surely matters, however, is that what can be brought out of nothing might be either returned to nothing or otherwise utterly transformed”


My favorite instance of convergence is the saber-toothed animals, as in this magnificent saber-toothed cat

Of course, there were other saber-toothed animals, not closely related to this cat.
But saber-toothed animals no longer exist, so shouldn’t a new one be showing up?


I have some questions but am not trolling - just really struggling at the moment and trying to reason my way around things.
Firstly, why does convergent evolution imply that there are evolutionary niches to be filled? Does that even matter to Christians anyway? I read recently that current research suggests that a new species evolves every 2 million years or so, implying that genetic drift has a much greater influence than previously thought and that species don’t seem to stop evolving because niches are filled. They just keep coming.
Also, does it matter to Christians whether there is life on other planets. Is there anything in the Bible that would be undermined by extraterrestrial life? If there is intelligent life on planets outside of our solar system, surely the speed of light dictates that we wouldn’t spot them unless they had been sending out signals (intentionally or unintentionally) for a very long time already. Is there any reason why intelligent life on other planets should have evolved long before we did, even if it is common in the universe?

(Dean Ohlman) #20

C. S. Lewis in his science fiction/Ransom Trilogy has some fascinating thoughts on ET and the Christian faith. Also in “Religion and Rocketry.”


Thank you. Some well reasoned argument in the essay.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #22

@Pablo_de_Felipe wrote:

From our present stance it is difficult to see what data could more satisfactorily explain many cosmological observations than the Big Bang, but we should be cautious of two things. First, to assume that the Big Bang is the same as God’s Creation, and second to fool ourselves that Creation ex nihilo is actually in any useful way open to comprehension. What surely matters, however, is that what can be brought out of nothing might be either returned to nothing or otherwise utterly transformed.

I agree with what you say and disagree. Surely the Big Bang is not the same as God’s Creation, because it is a limited scientific understanding of God’s Creation. However neither is Genesis 1 the same as God’s Creation because it is a limited theological understanding of God’s Creation. However the Big Bang and Gen 1 are both looking as the same event through different perspectives. They are relational perspectives that we all need if we are going to have a well rounded understanding of our universe which is more than superficial.

To truly understand something we need more than one perspective. We also need a way to compare and contrast each perspective. For a person it is the mind between the eyes that performs this task. For the Culture it is philosophy that acts as a bridge or arbitrator between science and theology. Sadly the role of philosophy as an independent arbiter is lost in today’s world.

You say that creation ex nihilo is not “a useful way open to comprehension.” If it isn’t, we are in very deep trouble, because that is exactly where theology and science are leading us. That is what both the Big Bang theory and Gen 1 say, the universe emerged out of nothing. If scientists and Christians cannot accept this and develop a philosophy that enables them learn from each other and work together, we are lost.

Convergence is good if it indicates that evolution is guided by ecology. God created both Variation or genetics, but genetics determines the substance of evolution, but not the form… The form of evolution is created by Natural Selection or ecology, which God also created and created more directly than genetics. Genetics or Variation determines the substance of evolution. Studying this alone is like looking with one eye or working with one hand tied behind your back. This is what science has been doing in studying evolution, which is why there is so much misunderstanding and conflict around it.

(Pablo de Felipe) #23

Just a few reflections from the recent comments.
First on convergence and evolutionary niches. I guess that the repeated arrival to certain ‘solutions’ could be considered as indication that these solutions are showing us a particular niche. However, a niche is not a dead-end where evolution stops. Things keep moving, living beings keep changing (mutating), and niches are under constant physical modification. In addition, other living beings could arrive to the niche, others could become extinct, etc. producing biological modifications of the niche’s occupancy.
On the other question, I do not expect that this discussion has a necessary direct bearing on Christian Theology. A problem that I see when reading criticisms of Conway Morris’ views is that people tend to imagine that all what he says is motivated by shadow theological reasons. Much of what he says, and particularly on convergence, seems to be just science, and he is drawing information from the work of many scientists studying convergence in multiple organisms around the Earth.
Life on other planets! Many people think that if life were found somewhere else in the universe, this would be a death sentence for Christianity. I mentioned the topic of the antipodes in the article because there are many parallels on this Ancient and Medieval debate and the Modern and Contemporary debate that arose from the cosmic implications of Copernicanism. The antipodeans were in certain senses as the extraterrestrials of our debates, but just on the other (and at that time inaccessible) side of the Earth. In any case, the idea of other life forms, even intelligent beings, living in other planets (and even the Sun!) was already discussed with intensity in the Antiquity. Many Christians believed in the past that most, or even all, heavenly bodies were populated and they seemed rather comfortable with this idea. Of course, antipodeans and ET life suggested several interesting theological scenarios and they were vigorously debated. We just need to read old books! It is a quite a modern idea that only Earth is inhabited. Only ignorance of history could prompt anyone to believe that Christianity necessary requests life to be an exclusive property of planet Earth. Christianity can handle both scenarios.
To finish, just a brief comment on the creation ex nihilo and the Big Bang. I do not agree that the Big Bang is pointing us to a creation ex nihilo. This is going beyond science and science itself cannot cross that line. I had a reference in the article to Lemaître, the first proponent of the Big Bang and a Catholic priest. He already saw that clearly, and avoided implying that scientific cosmology could be used as an evidence for the theological idea of creation ex nihilo, that he differentiated from the idea of the beginning of the universe…

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #24


Thank you for your comment. You are so right in saying that the ecology changes. A new book, A New History of Life by Peter Ware and Joe Kirschvink tells how the ecology has changed radically through the ages and how these changes have shaped life on earth. Other scientists have developed the thesis that humans have been able to evolve and dominate the earth because they have learned how the adapt to many different ecological niches by using their minds and working together.

Thus God using the physical qualities of the earth and universe has shaped who we are without determining what we think and do.

God has also given us the ability to determine our own fate by setting up moral laws to guide our actions in a positive manner and physical laws which demand we cooperate or fail.


You are correct. John Polkinghorne discusses this matter in his book “Theology in the Context of Science.” People accepted the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe even since Galileo made it plain that the heavens are made of the same material as earth. The big question debated was whether the death of Jesus on earth would be sufficient to redeem aliens also. If not, would He have to redeem them by taking on their flesh also?

Personally, I think it would be very cool to discover life on other planets.

(system) #26

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