Simon Conway Morris

British palaeontologist

Simon Conway Morris (born 6 November 1951) is a British paleontologist, who became noted for his studies of the Burgess Shale fossils. He is Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge.

Evolution is true, it happens, it is the way the world is, and we too are one of its products. This does not mean that evolution does not have metaphysical implications; I remain convinced that this is the case.

Quotes edit

  • In a stroke of imaginative genius our understanding of consciousness was radically transformed, but in an entirely unexpected way. Critical clues came from diffuse nerve nets and, even more extraordinarily, plant neurobiology. Banished forever was the idea that the brain alone was the seat of consciousness. Rather, it is an 'antenna' embedded in a hyperdimensional matrix. The depths of reality are only now being uncovered, but now the springs of imagination, intuition, abstraction and even pre-cognition are revealed. What was once called the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics was simply a clue to a superbly structured universe where mind is an integral component, instantiated at the big bang or maybe even before? Future exploration offers dizzying prospects, but we are not the first to venture forth. Far in advance of the emergence of human consciousness, innumerable galactic civilisations had slipped into what we now call the Mortimer Manifold.

The Crucible of Creation (1998) edit

The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals (1998) ISBN 0192862022
  • Perhaps a suitable analogy to explain the short-falls of Dawkins's account of evolution is to think of an oil painting. In this analogy Dawkins has explained the nature and range of pigments; how the extraordinary azure colour was obtained, what effect cobalt has, and so on. But the description is quite unable to account for the picture itself. This view of evolution is incomplete and therefore fails in its side-stepping of how information (the genetic code) gives rise to phenotype, and by what mechanisms. Organisms are more than the sum of their parts, and we may also note in passing that the world depicted by Dawkins has lost all sense of transcendence.
    • p9.
  • Again and again Gould has been seen to charge into battle, sometimes hardly visible in the struggling mass. Strangely immune to seemingly lethal lunges he finally re-emerges. Eventually the dust and confusion die down. Gould announces to the awestruck onlookers that our present understanding of evolutionary processes is dangerously deficient and the theory is perhaps in its death throes. We look beyond the exponent of doom, and there standing in the sunlight is the edifice of evolutionary theory, little changed.
    • p. 10.
  • The underlying ideological agenda of Gould has always been fairly clear. Even where there has been a shift in thinking, it might be argued that in general the discussions were reflecting a particular world-view that at the least was sympathetic to the greatest of twentieth-century pseudo-religions, Marxism.
    • p. 11.
  • Gould's arguments on the quirkiness of human intelligence are not only presented as part of an evolutionary argument, but also I believe to buttress an ideological viewpoint. In brief, his assessment of Man as an evolutionary accident is to lead us into a libertarian attitude whereby, by virtue of a cosmic accident, we, and we alone, have no choice but to take responsibility for our own destiny and mould it to our desire.
    • p. 14.
  • The fact that we arrived here via an immensely long string of species that originated in something like Pikaia rather than some other crepuscular blob is a wonderful scientific story, but it is hardly material to our present condition.
    • p. 14.
  • If one compares the sequence of amino acids that go to form the protein haemoglobin, it becomes apparent that humans and chimps are identical and do not differ in a single site ...
    • p. 151.
  • ... nevertheless, as I never tire of pointing out to my students in Cambridge, chimpanzees do not play the piano, drink dry martinis, or erect temples to glorify the Creator.
    • p. 151.
  • The underlying reason for convergence seems to be that all organisms are under constant scrutiny of natural selection and are also subject to the constraints of the physical and chemical factors that severely limit the action of all inhabitants of the biosphere. Put simply, convergence shows that in a real world not all things are possible.
    • p. 202.
  • The long history of mankind is studded with convergences, perhaps most notably in social systems and the use of artefacts and technology. But for human history, set in the arrow of time, there appears to be one intolerable stumbling-block. This is the catastrophic failure in human values and decency.
    • p. 205.
  • The list is almost endless: the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, the destruction of Baghdad in 1258, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the Nazi Holocaust are only some among the infamous epochs in the litany of disaster.
    • p. 205.
  • If there were a clear prospect that such evils were part of a barbarian past, then at least we might find a small crumb of comfort. No such prospect exists: no scientific analysis can even remotely answer or account for past and present horrors of human behaviour.
    • p. 205.
  • It is my opinion that human history can make no sense unless evil doings are recognized for what they are, and that they are bearable only if somehow they may be redeemed.
    • p. 205.

Life's Solution (2003) edit

Life’s Solution: Inevitable humans in a Lonely Universe (2003) ISBN 0521827043
  • Evolution is true, it happens, it is the way the world is, and we too are one of its products. This does not mean that evolution does not have metaphysical implications; I remain convinced that this is the case.
    • p. XV.
  • I am driven to observe of the ultra-Darwinists the following features as symptomatic. First, to my eyes, is their almost unbelievable self-assurance, their breezy self-confidence.
    • p. 314.
  • Second, and far more serious, are particular examples of a sophistry and sleight of hand in the misuse of metaphor, and more importantly a distortion of metaphysics in support of an evolutionary programme.
    • p. 314.
  • Richard Dawkins is arguably England's most pious atheist.
    • p. 315.
  • Third, as has often been noted, the pronouncements of the ultra-Darwinists can shake with a religious fervour. Their texts ring with high-minded rhetoric and dire warnings—not least of the unmitigated evils of religion—all to reveal the path of simplicity and straight thinking.
    • p. 315.
  • Notwithstanding the quasi-religious enthusiasms of ultra-Darwinists, their own understanding of theology is a combination of ignorance and derision, philosophically limp, drawing on clichés, and happily fuelled by the idiocies of the so-called scientific creationists.
    • p. 316.
  • It seldom seems to strike the ultra-Darwinists that theology might have its own richness and subtleties, and might—strange thought—actually tell us things about the world that are not only to our real advantage, but will never be revealed by science.
    • p. 316.

Miscellaneous edit

  • When serious scientists with huge beards aren't looking, I jocularly refer to these fossils as my alien goldfish. Picture the scene: the giant spaceship is parked on a wide beach, and kicking pebbles Commodore Grafnik is in a filthy mood. Yet another planet with hundreds of millions of years to go before intelligence evolves, not even at the zorkquaan stage, for Threga's sake! And as for his pet vlantans!! Purchased at huge expense, all they do is feed voraciously and then fall asleep. Still fuming, Grafnik carries the bowl down to the lagoon edge and (contrary to every regulation in the AIPC [Access to Inhabited Planets Code]) tips the vlantans out. They dart away and several months later enter the fossil record of a planet where they have no right to be.
    • Astronomy and Geophysics: Vol. 46, No. 4: "Aliens like us?"
  • Convergence is, in my opinion, not only deeply fascinating but, curiously, it is as often overlooked. More importantly, it hints at the existence of a deeper structure to biology. It helps us to delineate a metaphorical map across which evolution must navigate. In this sense the Darwinian mechanisms and the organic substrate we call life are really a search engine to discover particular solutions, including intelligence and—risky thought—perhaps deeper realities?
    • Astronomy and Geophysics: Vol. 46, No. 4: "Aliens like us?"

The Boyle lecture (2005) edit

  • And the other world-picture?, one based not just on science but wedded to a scientistic programme. Well, you know it as well as I do. Here all is ultimately meaningless.
  • A world-picture that encompasses science but also the deep wisdom of theology may help us to explain how it is we can think, how we discover the extraordinary, but so too it may warn us of present dangers and future catastrophes . . .
  • It is the knowledge and experience of the Incarnation, the wisdom and warnings given by Jesus in the Gospels, and not least the Resurrection that in the final analysis are all that matters.
  • It was G.K. Chesterton who trenchantly reminded us that, if one was going to preach, then it was more sensible to expend one's energies on addressing the converted rather than the unconverted. It was the former, after all, that were—and even more so are—in constant danger of missing the point and sliding away from the Faith into some vague sort of syncretistic, gnostic, gobbledegook. Chesterton, as ever, was right and should you think this is just another of his tiresome paradoxes may I urge you to re-read him: his prescience concerning our present situation and, worse, where we are heading is astounding.
  • ... not only that, but it can instruct us as to what may be the limits of desirable knowledge and risks of unbridled curiosity. This world-picture could also show that far from being a series of mindless accidents, history has directions and conceivably end-points.
  • The relative moral merits of any of us are in the final analysis only relevant to exponents of the theistic world picture; to those of scientistic inclination they might be socially useful but in the grand order of things can have no meaning in a soulless world.

Quotes about Conway Morris edit

  • Life’s Solution builds a forceful case for the predictability of evolutionary outcomes, not in terms of genetic details but rather their broad phenotypic manifestations. The case rests on a remarkable compilation of examples of convergent evolution, in which two or more lineages have independently evolved similar structures and functions.
    • Nature: Vol. 425, p. 767.
  • I am puzzled that Conway Morris apparently doesn't grasp the equally strong (and inevitable) personal preferences embedded in his own view of life.
    • Stephen Jay Gould
    • Natural History: Vol. 107, No. 10: "Showdown on the Burgess Shale".
  • The way Conway Morris goes about biting the hand that once fed him would make a shoal of piranha seem decorous.
    • Richard Fortey
    • London Review of Books: Vol. 20, No.19: "Shock Lobsters".

External links edit

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