Why do we do these crazy things? The difference between humans and animals

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Extreme ironing © b1ue5ky, creative commons BY-NC-SA 2.0

Life may be ubiquitous in the universe, forms and structures may crop up independently in very similar forms, but at the moment it seems as if human life is unique on our planet. The Cambridge Palaeobiologist Professor Simon Conway Morris made a name for himself by studying the Burgess shale, which is one of the earliest records of soft-bodied animal forms. From this work, he developed an interest in convergent evolution – the idea that independent evolutionary processes hit on the similar solutions again and again. Now that convergence has blossomed into a field of its own, Simon has turned his attention to human and animal intelligence. At this year’s Faraday Institute summer course he described some of his findings so far, which I will summarise here in my own words. Continue reading

Imagination and Incredulity: The evolution of the eye

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“To suppose that the eye…could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet…”

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

The ‘yet’, in Darwin’s introduction to ‘Organs of Extreme perfection and complication’ is very telling. The ideas that follow this oft-quoted sentence remind me a little of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians Continue reading

A Dentist’s Guide to the Map of Life

By Eric Kilby from Somerville, MA, USA (Clouded Leopard Mouth Open) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Clouded Leopard Mouth Open By Eric Kilby from Somerville, MA, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Imagine two people from two different tribes, separated by space or time, coming up with the same idea or way of doing something. If it is a good invention it will surely spread within each of their families and communities. Is this a coincidence, or would it make more sense if Continue reading

Some Very Extraordinary Animals: The Burgess Shale Fossils

Hallucigenia © Apokryltaros, Creative Commons 3.0 license
Hallucigenia © Apokryltaros, Creative Commons 3.0 license

I want to share with you some of what must be the most odd-looking animals of all time. Of course they only look strange because most of us have never encountered them before. They lived in the sea more than 500 million years ago, were preserved in the mud that engulfed them at their death, and ended up as part of the Rocky Mountain Range, northern Greenland, and south-east China.

The creatures in question are named after the place where they were first found, the Burgess Shale, which lies between Mount Field and Wapta Mountain in Yoho National Park, Canada. They are thought to have lived in fairly deep water a short distance from the ancient continent of Laurentia. [1] At that time there was very little life on the land, but the oceans were Continue reading

Echoes of a Voice

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Cologne Cathedral. © Rudy Tiben, freeimages.com

What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?

The Christian writer J.W. Sire quoted this line from Annie Dillard[1] in Echoes of a Voice, a new book that explores the phenomenon of spiritual or ‘transcendent’ experiences. What are they, why do they happen, and do they mean anything?

I have written about the more numinous side of science many times on this blog (see Transcendence and Transcendent Science). Scientists often speak of a reality beyond the objects they are studying, and for some this is encountered in powerful – if rare – experiences of wonder and awe. Perhaps my experience in the Smithsonian Museum that I described last week also comes into that category?

I found Sire’s analysis of these experiences helpful. He describes moments that are Continue reading

Inevitable Humans?

© Ruth Bancewicz

Last weekend, the Faraday Institute ran a course on ‘Science, Religion and Atheism’. The aim was to examine questions of science and religion from both theistic and atheistic positions. The speakers were more than usually candid about their own views, which was both refreshing and a fascinating sociological exercise.  (See the Faraday website for recordings when available).

To continue last week’s theme of biology raising questions that in the past have been left to cosmologists, I will focus on Simon Conway Morris’s presentation at the course. I have already written on biochemical fine-tuning but the related theme of convergence, which is the focus of Conway Morris’s research, is also an important one.

Simon Conway Morris is one of those thinkers who prefer to limit themselves to the most risky fields of investigation. He is genuinely interested in upsetting the applecart of received dogma, and getting closer to the truth. As a PhD student, Conway Morris worked with Harry B. Whittington on the Burgess Shale in British Columbia, and was part of the huge revival of interest in the Cambrian Explosion.

At first the Burgess Shale fossils seemed to point to the randomness of the evolutionary process – a point that Stephen Jay Gould elaborated on in his book ‘Wonderful Life’. It has become something of a convention in the biological world to avoid using teleological language, and Gould famously suggested that if you ‘reran the tape of life’ you would get something completely different. That strikes at the heart of who we are, and the theological consequences are enormous. Is the existence of human beings a happy accident? How could people of faith even consider evolution if the implication is that intelligent beings such as ourselves are an accidental dot on the cosmic landscape, rather than lovingly created by God?

But as Conway Morris proceeded in his career in palaeobiology it seemed to him that evolution had repeatedly navigated towards similar solutions in different contexts. An example of this is the sabre-toothed cat. In North America this deadly cat was a placental mammal, and in South America it was marsupial – sabre-toothed cats evolved at least twice. Other examples include the ‘camera eye’ that has evolved many times independently, and the octopus’s tentacle that bends in a similar manner to a jointed arm.* The conclusion that can be drawn from the vast number of examples of convergent evolution is that there seem to be a limited number of ways of solving the same problem. One could describe these solutions as points towards which evolution navigates. So if you reran the tape of life, the emergence of intelligent beings like us might actually occur every time.

In his seminar Conway Morris took his thesis further, speaking about extraterrestrial intelligence, consciousness, and language. The fact that we can see beyond the limits of our inbuilt sensory systems, and have capabilities way beyond any other animal species has prompted many to ask questions about humanness that sound like religious questions.  I realise that this is a vague theological ending to a largely scientific piece, but Conway Morris is often tentative in his theological conclusions. Hopefully another book is on the way that will take this line of thinking further.

*You can see these and many other examples of evolutionary convergence at mapoflife.org.

Biological Fine-Tuning

© Sharlene Jackson, freeimages.com

It’s reasonably common to hear physicists and astronomers talk about ‘fine-tuning’, or the ‘anthropic principle’. The idea is that a large number of physical properties (such as the strength of gravity, or the forces within the atom) need to be at very, very precise values or life as we know it would not exist. The numbers are incredible – probabilities with more decimal places than there are atoms in the universe!

Is there any evidence of fine-tuning in biology? Biology is a much newer science than astronomy and the systems involved are far more complex, but even so, there are a few glimmerings of fine-tuning on the biological horizon. There has been a good deal of interest in Cambridge Palaeobiology Professor Simon Conway Morris’s research on convergent evolution. In his popular level book, ‘Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe’ (CUP, 2003), he describes how the course of evolution navigates towards fixed points in the total space of biological possibilities. This winding path towards higher levels of complexity, and ultimately intelligent life, is entirely consistent with the Christian belief in the purposeful sustaining of the universe by its Creator.

So has anyone else approached the subject of fine-tuning in biology, or is Conway Morris a lone voice? Theologian and biochemist Alister McGrath has spent time on this subject (see A Fine-Tuned Universe and a less technical reworking of similar material in Surprised by Meaning). The main point McGrath makes is that the biological world relies on the same fine-tuned physical and chemical properties that astronomers spend so much time discussing.  Without compounds such as carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and phosphorus, life simply wouldn’t exist.

McGrath also points to an interesting paper in the April 2003 issue of the International Journal of Astrobiology. In it, astronomers Bernard Carr (St Mary’s, London) and Martin Rees (Cambridge) give an account of a 2002 conference on biological aspects of the anthropic principle. Even in a conference with this title, issues of chemical evolution took up part of the proceedings, but what was most interesting was the section on ‘evolution of biological fine-tuning’. The research in this area was all too tentative to be published more fully, but covered areas such as robustness in biological networks, and the ‘choice’ of DNA and proteins as information carrying molecules in biological systems.

Biological systems are enormously complex, which is why it’s taken us so long to get around to even beginning to understand things at the level of whole organisms. But there is a trend, in that although the total ‘space’ of possibilities (for example, for the sequence of a protein of a particular length) is usually enormous, in reality the number of variants present in nature is relatively small. At times it is possible to pinpoint why certain solutions have been arrived at – for example, the camera eye is quite simply the best way to see light. At other times the reason why a particular solution has been arrived at is less clear, as in the origin of biochemical systems and cellular life.  Whether the existing systems we see are an accident of history (i.e. where a number of potential solutions could work) or are another example of fine-tuning, is yet to be determined. What is clear to me, however, is that the astonishingly fertile chemistry of life and evolvability that we see is entirely consistent with the existence of the God revealed in the Bible who provides us with a rich source of teaching and guides us though the process of learning by our mistakes.