Evolving Truth

by Amos Kenigsberg

Photo Copyright Behavioural Ecology ResearchGroup, Oxford University

Religious scientists find a paradoxical yet satisfying middle ground in the evolution debate.

Each week Simon Conway Morris spends a few hours looking for signs of God’s work in the last place you might expect to find it: the latest scientific literature. He pores over research on everything from anatomy to biochemistry to paleontology, the field in which he is a preeminent researcher. Conway Morris invests this time to try to find cases of “convergent evolution” – where one organism has evolved to become similar in some way to a distantly related one. Although a dolphin is a mammal, biologically more similar to a human than a shark, sharks and dolphins have evolved to look and swim alike. Conway Morris adds three or four examples to his catalog of convergences in an average week. With each addition, he becomes a bit surer that “there are some very intriguing deep structures in the universe – that this is a true Creation, with a capital C.” And behind the Creation is a Creator who has steered the development of species: the Christian God.

Conway Morris’ belief irks some supporters of Darwinism because it mingles science and religion. They worry that it might lend support to intelligent design, the theory that is challenging evolution in American schools, courtrooms, and minds. But Conway Morris adamantly opposes intelligent design, even though his idea posits an intelligent designer. If this distinction has you a bit mixed up, you’re far from alone. Conway Morris’ subtle idea – one form of a view called “theistic evolution” – is rarely heard over the more straightforward positions on either side of his. But balanced precariously between intelligent design and the pure Darwinists, Conway Morris is part of a group that thinks science actually reveals signs of God. Their approach, they say, points toward a way that we can reconcile evolution and divine creation, science and religion.

Conway Morris and his ilk are advancing this idea at a particularly important time for evolution. Darwin’s critics have launched efforts around the country to lessen the sway of evolution in public schools. This effort has come farthest in Kansas and the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania, where the school board mandated that science classes present intelligent design as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. Eleven parents sued the school board for allegedly bringing religion into public-school science classes, and a federal judge is expected to rule on the challenge within the next few months. Kansas went even further: not only did the state recently adopt a curriculum that casts doubt on evolution, it also changed its official definition of “science” so that it now includes the study of supernatural causes.

Intelligent design emerged in the 1990s and has quickly become the most influential critique of Darwinian evolution. The theory is often thought to trace back to theologian William Paley, who in 1802 proposed the “watchmaker’s analogy” – if you find a watch sitting in a field, its function is so clear, its performance so effectual, that someone must have designed it to keep time. (In fact, people had made nearly identical arguments since before the time of Jesus; Cicero proposed the same analogy in 45 B.C.E., although he wrote of “a sundial or a water-clock.”

Likewise, say intelligent-design advocates, living organisms’ bodies work so well that they most likely did not evolve by chance. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University and key witness in the Dover trial, uses as an example the bacteria’s flagellum, which acts like an outboard motor. Behe says the flagellum couldn’t have evolved by natural selection because it is “irreducibly complex” – it has many different parts that have to work together to be of any use, such as a propeller, a shaft, and connecting pieces. All of the different parts must have emerged at the same time for the motor to function, and that, he says, is extremely unlikely to have happened without guidance. Although intelligent design makes no outright claim about who did the designing, the argument draws the bulk of its support from religious people who believe it was God of the Bible.

Pure Darwinists disagree, saying that with natural selection acting over enough generations, even completely random mutations produce amazingly complicated and competent organisms. There is no guiding force beyond randomness and natural selection, and a long fossil record shows many examples of how organisms change gradually over time. Moreover, they say intelligent design is not even science because it makes no specific claims that could ever be disproven – a key quality of modern science.

Simon Conway Morris falls between the two camps. Scientifically he agrees with the pure Darwinists, believing that random mutations couple with natural selection, a non-random process by which the fittest survive, to produce all of the organisms on Earth. For this reason, Conway Morris emphatically demands that science classes teach that evolution is the only creator of species. But he also argues that the pervasive nature of convergence points toward a deeper truth: that God has laid out the universe to lead to certain generally desired outcomes, that evolution is fated to produce certain types of life. (The Kansas board of education, in contrast, criticized evolution for being an “unpredictable and unguided natural process that has no discernible direction or goal.”) Conway Morris says this is a religious and philosophical belief that should be discussed in homes, places of worship, and almost anywhere but science classrooms.  

For Conway Morris, one of the most important convergences is around intelligence, as evidenced by traits such as tool-using. Chimpanzees, for instance, have long been known to use sticks to catch termites (apparently, quite a delicacy). Chimps sometimes choose and prepare the sticks an hour before using them, and they develop their own personal techniques over a lifetime of termite-catching. Recent studies have shown that tool use is more widespread among animals than we previously realized. Female dolphins teach their young to hold sponges in their mouths to protect their snouts as they poke around the sea floor to find fish to eat. In laboratory studies, New Caledonian crows have fashioned hooks out of straight pieces of wire and used them to snag hard-to-reach food. These animals, which come from much different lineages, evolved convergently to have the intelligence that allows for tool use.

Conway Morris says such findings suggest that animal evolution tends toward intelligence, and that human-level brainpower was inevitable. If one repeated the history of the Earth, he says, it would again produce intelligent, sentient, religious beings – but with the randomness of evolution, they might be dolphins, crows, or even trees next time. Conway Morris says God created the “landscape” through which evolution flows like a river. The river might take any number of paths, but it will certainly end up at God’s ocean. Whereas intelligent design says the designer must break the laws of science to create, theistic evolutionists say the Creator works through those laws.

Judging by the Dover trial – not to mention many similar cases ready to erupt – the theistic evolutionists have not exactly attained universal acceptance. A central sticking point is that intelligent design’s many religious supporters believe that if mutations are really random, that leaves no room for God to influence the creation of life. No one agrees more strongly than their diametrical opposites, the hard-core Darwinists. Daniel Dennett, an atheist professor of philosophy at Tufts University, speaks of Darwin’s idea as a “universal acid”: it eats through all of the traditional philosophies that try to contain it, leaving only the perfectly impersonal, random logic of natural selection. Dennett says he sees majesty and beauty in this process, and that people can construct new, secular morality systems to take over for religious ones. Creationists – including the great majority of intelligent-design supporters – and atheistic evolutionists agree that no mix of science and religion can explain the diversity of life on Earth. How can evolution be both random and guided?

Conway Morris and company argue that “God’s honest truth” is that these questions have no pat answers; the natural and the supernatural are connected by a complex relationship. “This view that there’s some kind of black-and-white answer – it greatly misses the point,” he says. Theistic evolutionists say religion in an era of modern science demands modern theology as nuanced as quantum mechanics and chaos theory. “I have no more time for the certainty of [outspoken opponent of religion] Richard Dawkins than I have for the certainty of the creationists,” Conway Morris says.

The feeling is mutual. Pure Darwinists and creationists and voice respect for each other’s unstinting drive for consistency, and they both dismiss theistic evolutionists as fence-sitters. “Religious liberals are in one sense even farther in spirit from scientists than are fundamentalists and other religious conservatives,” wrote Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg in his book Dreams of a Final Theory. “At least [conservatives] have not forgotten what it means really to believe something.” Conway Morris cautions against such certainty: “W e’re just in the foothills of our understanding,” he says. “We’re still just stumbling around.”

So in the tussle over evolution, stark lines emerge not only between religion and science, but between clarity and humility. We hear most often about the extremes in the debate: two potent mindsets that explain the origin of species with straightforward, simple logic. In the middle, theistic evolutionists request that we grant science unfettered reign in science classes without letting that erode our faith that our lives and our universe have a greater meaning. Whether they win the hearts of Americans depends on if people want to accept a tough solution, working always to arrive at a subtle truth combining the world they physically see and the one they spiritually feel. “Many people hold inconsistent beliefs in some kind of tension. I think of myself as more remorselessly logical,” says Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, the godfather of intelligent design. “Maybe anybody’s logic becomes scary if you follow it all the way out.”

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