Evolution, God and Martian Invasions.

In first semester I took an inorganic coordination chemistry class. (Not a catchy way to start a blog post, I know, but bear with me here). In this course, I learned that a ligand is the chemical species that donates a pair of electrons to a specific type of chemical bond (called a coordination bond, if anyone is interested). I also learned that the words “religion” and “ligand” both originate from the same Latin word, ligare, which means “to bind”. This is probably the most interesting tidbit I will retain from that class–unless, of course, my former professor reads the Terry blog, in which case I remember absolutely everything in the syllabus and have developed a deep and abiding love of coordination chemistry.


Where was I? 

Right. Religion and Ligand. I love how they both come from the same root because science and religion often seem so tangled, twisted  and, well, bound up in one another, often in conflict. It’s an interesting dichotomy. When Simon Conway Morris was here last week, he gave a very interesting lecture on evolution wherein he suggested the possibility that evolution is pre-determined. That is, no matter how many times we were to rewind the tape of life and start over, we would end up in exactly the same place, with exactly the same biological structures as before. The opposite view, which is taken by some evolutionary biologists/paleobiologists including Stephen Gould, is that evolution is random, a game of chance, and if we were to roll the evolutionary or genetic dice again, we would end up with a whole new slew of life forms.

Morris’s hypothesis was in large part based on the phenomenon of  convergent evolution, that is, the separate evolution of the same structural and functional unit multiple times. According to Morris, this suggests that there is indeed an optimal path for nature to take in each situation and, as evolution progresses, nature will come up with the same solution over and over again because it is the best solution. He had pages full of anecdotal evidence. For instance, we have the same type of eye structure as our friends the octopus, the woodpecker, and most humbling of all, a type of dinoflagelate. This convergence extends to more basic units of function as well, including enzymes–Morris referenced one carboxylase in particular that has evolved in the same way independently at least 5 times. (I suppose I should add a disclaimer here that I’m repeating this from memory so any mistakes are probably mine).

Of course, Morris’s theory is just that, a theory. I was talking to a friend about Morris’s talk the other day, and he suggested that perhaps evolution is more like one of those chose-your-own-adventure stories, where one choice you make then determines or limits the choices that come after. So, it is not that the same eye has evolved multiply times because it is the best possible structure nature could chose if starting from first principles every time, but rather, because a choice made farther back on the evolutionary chain (for instance, the use of DNA as an information storage system) has determined the course of evolution the eye will take. If that were the case, if nature were to start from first principles again and randomly evolve a different storage system, a different, and perhaps more efficient, type of eye would evolve. Also, just because a particular form has evolved multiple times does not mean that it is the only form. There are both organisms with camera eyes and organisms with compound eyes. 

I’m not an expert on evolution so I’m not really qualified to judge Morris’s theory one way or another. If it were true, however, it would have huge implications. Think about it. If evolution is not random, but will always follow the same path, then is there such a thing as free will? Does that make our universe a deterministic one, where everything is a matter of fate and the passage of life is essentially all planned out from the beginning?

I thought Morris’s talk was interesting because it waded into such deeply metaphysical territory towards the end. Plato’s idea of ideal forms and the shadows on the cave wall was mentioned at one point. He referenced both Sir Thomas Aquinas and Descartes. Morris only became hesitant when he put forth the idea that there was some sort of “deeper structure” underlying evolution and biology.  When asked for clarification, he refused to commit to or refute the teleological interpretation of his words. Can you blame him? It seems to me that in the scientific community of today, just saying the word “god” is enough to blacklist you as a nut-job or flake. Mention religion as anything other than complete hooey, and bam!–the next thing you know you find ten scientists outside your house waiting to cart you off to the nearest new age rehab centre.

Okay, maybe not. 

But the point is this: is it so bad to consider the greater understanding of the world that science gives us in terms of a larger picture? Don’t get me wrong here, I am aware of the dangers of using religion as a force to obscure the cold hard proof of science. I believe in the importance of rigorous proof and hypothesis-based testing as much as the next guy…er, girl. But could it also be important to keep an open mind? I remember a few months ago,  a friend of mine in psychology telling me about this seminar on consciousness she had attended. Consciousness is a hot topic in psychology and neurology right now. It is also a nebulous one. Is consciousness solely contained in the brain? Is it more than that? There have been some interesting studies done recently on that particular question. In any case, one of the researchers at this seminar spoke about  how no one was willing to consider the possibility of consciousness encompassing something other than what is contained in the physical brain because they are all too afraid of not being taken seriously.

To me, that is a problem. Nothing in science should be done or not done because someone doesn’t want to look foolish. If the question is addressed and the evidence points to a solely physical basis for consciousness, great. But isn’t it irresponsible not to test all possible explanations before coming to conclusions. We accuse religion of causing bias, but what about its antithesis–the overzealous desire to avoid the metaphysical at all costs? Some of the questions posed by theoretical physicists and cosmologists are pushing the boundaries of what we know and how much we can know about the world around us. Doesn’t that merit some discussion, aside from the purely analytical?

While we’re on the subject, Morris went on to say a bit about consciousness. He mentioned that some scientists–and philosophers–consider consciousness to large extent to be the collection and interpretation of sensory information. That being the case, he put forth the argument (for any english language majors out there, it was in the form of a syllogism)  that since convergent evolution has produced the same type of sensory organs multiple times, i.e. that there is one dominant form for each desired function, that there is also one form of consciousness. That would mean that elephants, dolphins and any martians that happen to evolve on another planet would share the same type of consciousness as ourselves (which, I suppose, could be good or bad in the case of  a martian invasion). One type of consciousness. Again, if you dare to get metaphysical, it brings to mind things like the Hindu Brahman or the Tao, some sort of universal mind. I’m sure I’m going to get some flak for putting that out there, but I’m a fan of philosophy so I’ve thrown caution to the wind.

Honestly, I think if you do fundamental scientific research long enough, you become somewhat of a philosopher. Look at Einstein. Bohr. Oppenheimer. Even Richard Dawkins admits to an awe of nature. 

The Greeks broke their study of the world into physics and metaphysics, but the two were equally as important and (I think) complementary. As they should be.  

But enough of my own rambling. Religion and science together usually provoke some interesting responses. Anyone?

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Sarah Andersen is both a wave and a particle.

4 Responses to “Evolution, God and Martian Invasions.”

  1. Brenda

    This is fantastic, and the kind of subject synthesis that I read this blog for. Thanks.
    Perhaps the metaphysical is dismissed because it’s not verifiable, and we’re scared of what we can’t study.
    However, do you believe that our current scientific paradigm allows for research into the metaphysical? I’ve heard an acquaintance, double-majoring in psychology and philosophy, call experimental philosophy psychology. How we’ve discussed matters of determinism, creation (not necessarily in the 6-days, strict biblical interpretation sense), consciousness, spiritual forces, and what have you, indeed include some kind of consideration to a metaphysical dimension which encompasses the physical realm that we know. As my friend once asked me, “do you really believe there’s a metaphysical, all mighty being in another dimension?” How can we ever test that? No wonder it’s called “faith.”

  2. Nicholas FitzGerald

    @Brenda –
    The problem with non-verifiability is not that we are “scared of what we can’t study”, but that an unverifiable theory adds absolutely nothing to our understanding of the world. If your theory can’t be tested or proven, it is no more valuable than anything else I could just come up with off the top of my head. What is “faith” other than an irrational attachment to an arbitrary idea?

    As I say here my problem with metaphysical theories is not so much that they are unconvincing as that they are entirely incoherent. If there exists some non-physical dimension, separate and apart from the physical plane, how can this extra dimension possibly causally effect on the physical world? Can someone give me even a hypothetical mechanism by which that would work? Without waving your hands.

    Likewise, I reject the theory of an all-powerful, purpose-giving being not primarily because of the complete dearth of evidence, but because the theory is logically impossible and adds nothing to our understanding of the universe. If your answer to “How did the universe come about?” is “God”, then how do you answer “How did God come about?”. I’m willing to bet that answer involves hand-waving or circular logic. That’s not to say that I have a better answer, but I’m more willing to admit “I don’t know” than make something up for the sake of peace-of-mind.

    This is where Morris lost me. His discussion of convergence was fascinating, but once he began to wade into metaphysical waters (however reluctantly), he lost the plot.

    I’m all for open-mindedness in research. I wholeheartedly believe that we haven’t even begun to grasp the full majesty of the universe, and we likely will never know all her secrets. But please, let’s not throw the logical and empirical Baby out with the close-minded Bathwater.

  3. Sarah Andersen

    Perhaps I should clarify:

    I by no means think that we should take things purely on “faith”, especially in science, BUT I do think we should be open to testing hypotheses or considering theories that do not fit our current conventional view of what encompasses the physical world…..which is what you said above, Nick. So I guess that means we agree after all. 😛

    I personally do not believe in a being or what-not that exists beyond the universe, but that there are almost certainly realms of the physical world about which we are unaware. Perhaps what I was trying to say is that I think it is arrogant to assume that we know all there is to know about the physical world and its phenomena. For instance, in terms of consciousness, how do we know that there is not a component that rests outside the physical brain (brain, not world). There have been studies done suggesting that people who survive near death experiences can report details they could not have known based on their state and location. (see http://publicparapsychology.blogspot.com/2007/10/guest-blog-can-ndes-reveal-something.html)

    Not saying that they’re correct, but who am I to discredit research in a field I know little about. 🙂

  4. David

    I also saw Morris’ talk “Dawin’s compass: how evolution discovers the song of creation” the other week and the least I can say is that I am not convinced about what I’ve heard.

    In my opinion, Morris doesn’t even have a theory, only “anecdotal evidence” (which is cute, but you don’t prove things with examples). There is something very interesting with all these examples of evolution converging – the eye, the woodpecker or some enzyme things – but showing off some examples doesn’t “prove” that evolution does converge. This is why I guess Morris’ current work is to gather the thousands known examples of evolution convergence in some comprehensible database.

    And then the best part of the talk is the following argument: if there is convergence, then there is predictability! I’m not saying this is wrong, I’m saying that there is no reason why the first one should imply the second one. If this is so, you need to explain what makes it predictable. But Morris doesn’t seem to bother about that part and just bluntly claims that the whole thing has to be predictable (out of thin air I would say). He liked it so much he wrote a whole book “Life’s solution: Inevitable humans in a lonely universe” which contains a very nice list of examples of evolution convergence but then argues that if you replayed history, human beings would emerge anyway.

    This is really surprising and unorthodox. Well, all good ideas are surprising and unorthodox at first, but so are bad ones. There is more to investigate on the question and since I am not at all in the business of life sciences, I’ll have to wait further work from other researchers. I only hope that further research might try to develop a theory about evolution convergence that explains the current observations. Predictability, if true would have gigantic consequences, the greatest of which would be a terrific “intelligent design” argument for the religious crowd out there.

    When asked about the possible use of his claims to construct a new intelligent design argument, Morris just answers that it is impossible because he doesn’t believe in intelligent design. It is unclear what is Morris’ point of view on the question, what is clear though, is that he doesn’t want to discuss it any further. Furthermore, Morris’ work on evolution convergence is funded by the Templeton Foundation (that Dawkins despise, saying that the Templeton Prize is “a very large sum of money given…usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion”).

    The only prerequisite of a good controversial scientific theory is for it to be scientific. I hope we’ll see more of this and less of non-sense logic when discussing evolution convergence in the near future, otherwise, all the nice related metaphysics that is mentioned in previous posts is of much lesser interest.

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