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Simon Conway Morris Down Under


This week, Simon Conway Morris visited Australia. The following are extracts from a talk he gave in Sydney on Monday 21 Sept. They indicate how he sees ID and Dawkins.

“I suspect, having re-read the Origin from cover to cover, that the Origin is as much to, not only attempt, but in fact to destroy creationism irrevocably. In as much as, as a young man Darwin was hugely influenced by Paley, who we can describe if you like, as the grand daddy of creationists, in as much as he is the person who points to biological structures and organisation and says “look these things are so ludicrously complex, that they must surely represent the hand and authority of a designer.” Paley was of course was referring to the action of God. This is effectively the position which remains to the present day in intelligent design, which I think is non sense.

What I think is interesting is that at each point Darwin simply says “Look nobody is going to accept this as evidence for a creationist argument.” But he does it with enormous subtlety, and he doesn’t have this belligerent sort of “How could you be so stupid as to believe something like that?” But I think it is as clear as I can make out that Darwin really did want to undermine permanently the notion that God was involved, if you like on a day to day action. He had perhaps in the end an almost deistic view of the world which revolved around the primary laws so established that then led to as he said himself “this grandeur of life”.

I think these attitudes, if you like really go very deep and these tensions remain with us today.”

Q. How do you differ from Dawkins?

 “I mean on one level we don’t differ at all. In as much as we are both Darwinian biologists. We are both admirers of adaptation, and those sorts of things. I suppose that there are really two differences between us. Overall though these would perhaps not be applied universally. He’s more of a reductionist. And I suppose this is seen in the selfish gene. ….. I think his best book is “The Extended Phenotype”. …… Of course, the other area where we differ dramatically, is that he is materialist and I’m not. …… And I think the reason why that matters is because, as indicated, I think materialism itself is ultimately self defeating. It gives us no warrant for knowing anything at all. You just have to say “well it’s brute fact”. ….. I believe that Mind is not necessarily wholly (the product) of matter. He (Dawkins) is effectively scientistic. He thinks all aspects of the world around us will ultimately be explained by science. Where as my argument would be well no! Science is terribly good at some things, but when it comes to the matter of the imagination, I think that there is some consensus, that when Richard Dawkins decides to address questions of poetry, and so forth, he might be a bit out of his depth, which is no problem because he’s not trained as a literary scholar. He’s trained as a scientist.”

Audio here

absolutist: I have seen similar polls . . . I was just thinking that 140 years ago, just to pick a time, much, much, much less than 40% of the US population would have accepted evolution. So, even if the recent trend has been flat, over the last 140 years many, many, many more people accept evolution. I wonder how many accept quantum mechanics? :-) ellazimm
Simon Conway Morris is no ID advocate. "In unguarded moments some biologists will gladly admit that the way an organism is put together is remarkable. It is not the point that we understand that biochemical cycle, this enzyme, or that hormone, it is the way systems interact and have a dynamic interdependence that is – unless one has lost all sense of wonder – quite awe-inspiring. Nor should we dismiss this as an unworthy emotion. From this perspective it is easy to appreciate the intellectual attraction of the quasiscientific / quasi-theological movement known as Intelligent Design (ID). Consternation! “Order! Order!!” Gavels pounding, the Chairman with flushed face and hectic expression, swooning in the aisles with others hurriedly stepping over the recumbent and senseless bodies as they stumble to the doors, fresh air (well, of a sort), and the reassuring thunder of a busy London street. Get me out of here! Intelligent Design? What, another recruit? Please revive yourselves, please return to your seats. Not a bit of it. In my opinion, Intelligent Design is a false and misleading attraction. Tonight there would be little point in reiterating the many objections raised against Intelligent Design, especially those made by the scientific colleagues, but opponents, of Michael Behe and Bill Demski, perhaps the two principal proponents of Intelligent Design. Rather it seems to me that Intelligent Design has a more interesting failing, a theological failing. Consider a possible analogy, that of Gnosticism. Where did this claptrap come from? Who knows, but could it be an attempt to reconcile orphic and mithraic mysteries with a new, and to many in the Ancient World a very dangerous, Christianity? So too in our culture, those given over to being worshippers of the machine and the computer model, those admirers of organized efficiency, such would not expect the Creator – that is the one identified as the engineer of the bacterial flagellar motor or whatever your favourite case-study of ID might be – to be encumbered with a customary cliché of bearing a large white beard, but to be the very model of scientific efficiency and so don a very large white coat. ID is surely the deist’s option, 19 and one that turns its back not only on the richness and beauty of creation, but as importantly its limitless possibilities. It is a theology for control freaks. To question Intelligent Design might generate a ripple of applause from any neo-Darwinians present, until they recall that this is a Boyle Lecture and theology is not a fad, a pastime for eccentrics, but in fact central to our enterprise. And now I want to persuade you that just such an approach may not only be consistent with evolution, but can also resonate with orthodox Christian theology – the Fall, the Incarnation and the End Times. Surely not; well let us see." idnet.com.au
ellazimm, You may be interested in this poll for what it's worth. absolutist
Keep in mind that while Conway Morris is not a fan of ID, he's also not a fan of Dawkins and (clearly) materialism. He actually argues, if I take him right, that design and purpose is evident in evolution. I think, by usual UD standards, he would not be called a "Darwinist". Even if he takes that name himself. nullasalus
I am pretty sure that Darwin was arguing against a strawman- the fixation of species. Also it is a strawman to say ID sez that things are sooooo complex they must have been designed. Dang Steve beat me to that one... Joseph
Now that Conway Morris has read Darwin, he might try reading (or 're-reading') Paley. Paley usually tries to show exactly why it is reasonable to conclude from the actual formation of creatures that they were intelligently designed. It is not an argument from 'ludicrious complexity', as suggested in the Conway Morris quote. It was the directness with which Paley and other natural theologians wanted to infer God's hand from nature that made their stuff controversial amongst pious Christians who would have been more comfortable with an argument from 'ludicrous complexity' that stopped science beyond a certain point. Steve Fuller
I have seen statistics tracking the support for evolution over the last couple of decades but not over the last century and a half. I doubt reliable statistics exist for the 19th century but surely over 150 years the percent of the American population accepting evolution has gone up. And I would think the effect would be even more dramatic if only those with a college level education were considered. Has acceptance of evolution changed much in the general population in the last 20 years? I don't think it has. ellazimm
...Paley, who we can describe if you like, as the grand daddy of creationists, in as much as he is the person who points to biological structures and organisation and says "look these things are so ludicrously complex, that they must surely represent the hand and authority of a designer."... This is effectively the position which remains to the present day in intelligent design, which I think is non sense.
It is interesting that even in Paley's day enough was known about living systems that design seemed like the most plausible explanation of their origin. If a purely materialistic, Darwinian process were the true explanation, the more we learned the more credible this explanation would become. But the exact opposite has occurred. The increasingly complex, functionally integrated, information-based nature of these systems has resulted in a divergence from, rather than a convergence on, the credibility of the Darwinian thesis of chance and necessity. If anything is showing itself to be increasingly nonsensical, it is precisely that thesis. GilDodgen

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