- (Photo: Dudley Simons)
Can a world-renowned expert in evolution be a top supporter of the Christian worldview? As a man of faith, Simon Conway Morris, a British paleontologist and professor of evolutionary paleobiology at Cambridge University, is showing that it can be done.
The leading Christian Darwinist has been a mainstay in the scientific community, especially with his extensive research looking at the Burgess Shale fossil fauna and similar deposits in China and Greenland. Yet at the same time, he understands the merit of theology alongside science. Against what many scientists may think, Morris has stressed that science cannot answer everything, and there is more to the world than what we can just see with our naked eye.
During an interview with The Christian Post, the British professor revealed the limits of science and faith, the problems with materialism, and his thoughts on life in general.
CP: I first want to just congratulate you on receiving the Trotter Prize (an award given to those that have excelled in “origins” studies) on Apr. 23. It shows how influential you are in evolutionary and origins thought.
Morris: Well, thank you.
CP: I first wanted to address how science relates to your faith. You are world renowned for your work on early evolution, specifically on fossils during the Cambrian “explosion” (an era in time where life began to expand rapidly and “explode”). Some religious people might say that this kind of research work does not mix well with religion. What is your take on that? Do you think that science has helped you understand your faith more, or helped prove God to you? Or do you feel that the two things are more just complimentary to one another?
Morris: Much more of the latter. I mean, it’s complimentary as much in that we live in a highly organized universe, which rather mysteriously we can actually understand some parts of. So one’s really interested in the way in which the structure of the universe and the way they fall out, especially in biology which is being regarded, I suppose, as a little more intractable than physics and chemistry which says “we’ll look at the periodic table or the Big Bang and those sorts of things.” One can see some correspondence to theological discussion whereas biology of course has been regarded as more immune to general rules and principles. Of course the irony is that is the only part of the universe that can understand itself, and it leads onto a discussion beyond that. So yes, in a nutshell, what I’m not trying to do is ‘find proof’ in the way that, for example, colleagues in intelligent design are trying to do. I think that’s a complete waste of time.
CP: In the past, you’ve been a huge opponent against materialism and looking at things only from a materialistic viewpoint. What do you think is the downside of having that kind of outlook?
Morris: I think, in a nutshell again, the people that seem to be espousing that viewpoint have seemed to have run out of things to say. They keep on saying the same things again and again. Honestly, the materialistic colleagues of mine would say that’s a bit unfair, but I think that in the case of areas that lead into metaphysical discussions and metaphysical insight, one is presented with a richer and richer world to investigate.
As a number of people have stressed over the years, I think it would be premature to assume science itself will explain everything. Scientists have wonderfully explained the organization of the universe, but that’s really all it claims to do, and I think it does that very successfully. But of course there are many other questions that have to do with the human condition.
For example, I’ll censure the numenists and the like, which again the materialists would say is some misfiring ion channel or there is too much peptide here or something like that. But that doesn’t really ring true with the majority of people who feel there is a great deal of ‘other’ in the world. The fact that some things are mysterious or that they touch on mystery isn’t in some way a capitulation and one should realize that there are some things that we may never understand and to that extent should be humbled by that.
CP: There are many theories out there trying to explain the origin of man from a biblical perspective. Of course, one of the growing ones you already mentioned was intelligent design (a theory that argues life is a result of an ultimate “designer”). Why do you feel the way that you do about intelligent design as being “nonsense.”
Morris: Well, as again I’ve written elsewhere. I don’t think its science, per se, and I entirely agree with many of my other colleagues who just see that the scientists and the nature of hypotheses and the nature of proofs and the effect of developing ideas toward some approximation of what’s really happening. Whereas intelligent design effectively says, ‘Well, you’ll never know, because for all intensive purposes, God did it.’ If that were the case, as I said elsewhere, one could imagine where that could be the case; it’s certainly not the universe we live in.
But more specifically, my quarrel with them … is more of a quarrel in that intelligent design is bad theology. Again as I’ve said in many contexts, it’s effectively replacing a metaphorical God with a big white beard to a metaphorical God with a huge white coat. They are making him into a super engineer, so he spends his time tinkering around with flagella motors.
And what one reads in the Bible and other religious traditions, we’re looking at another game. This is not the way to complain about the quality of the riveting of some cell. We’re really asking different questions. So as I say, just in its theological content and its theological implications, I think it falls woefully short of where most of the interesting theology is lying in terms of area of discussion.
CP: I read that you gave a series of lectures at this year’s Gifford Lectures at the end of February.
Morris: That’s right. It’s a very prestigious set of lectures that was organized in slightly different ways in what they call the ancient universities of Scotland. The ones I was doing were in Edinborough. So that’s correct. There were six lectures, and they’re called the Giffords after Lord Gifford who endowed them some time ago.
CP: Your sequence was titled “Darwin's Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Song of Creation.” What was it like to be able to be the keynote speaker at this type of event? Is it much different than say the other scientific presentations that you give throughout the year?
Morris: Yes, it was in as much as that I give specific scientific presentations to very specific scientific audiences, and I’m very happy to talk, for instance, about the Cambrian explosion. Obviously, the Giffords are an invitation for the speaker to dwell on the broad topic of ‘natural theology.’ And I think that’s what I aimed to do, and I think we managed to get the story across quite effectively.
Of course one is fully aware to begin with that it’s a public occasion, so literally anybody is welcome to attend, which is the way it should be. And you know, from the discussion in particular, it’s quite clear that some people were somewhat alienated by my view, and others were very much supportive as indeed one would suspect, because that’s what we see across the spectrum of opinion in the West in any case.
But I don’t have any sort of embarrassment about talking about these things. I think, going back to your first question about the way the world is organized, if one wants to dwell on such things, which I did in the Giffords in one lecture on the sort of emergence of humanists, it’s so far as I can see it’s not the exact process where the son or daughter of some particular couple suddenly were human whereas their parents weren’t.
But there are some intriguing bits of data amongst other things that would suggest that being fully human is very late in terms of hominid history. It’s possibly only about 150,000 years ago. There’s a great deal of discussion; again, this is scientific evidence, and you can interpret it any many different ways. Simply thinking through the implications of this, what happens when you emerge into true humanness? As we used to say to our friend, ‘How did it feel?’ What are the contexts and to what extent should we regard our fairly closely related species in homo even as being basically bipedal apes?
I think there’s some very intriguing evidence about child development, about tool use, about cultural development and so forth. One of the things that I stumbled across that I found extraordinarily interesting is that there’s been a great deal of discussion with regard to the so-called Cultural Revolution in the Paleolithic. I know there have been some people that have been banging back and forth about this, and it’s been all sorts of fun to watch.
For example, there is a controversial example within the Neanderthals where a number of people have suggested that they stumbled on ‘full humanness’ independent of us. That is very controversial. I think that they did, but my colleagues here think otherwise. But on the other hand, in terms of the arrival of humans in Australia, which is about 60,000 years ago and these are completely modern humans, they’re just like us. But actually, their Cultural Revolution only took place about 7,000 years ago.
There are very interesting parallels when suddenly they move into a very impressive species into genuinely complex societies with organized religion. And you can approach this from a sociological viewpoint or indeed a naturalistic viewpoint and that’s fine, but if we are listening to a different type of drumbeat due to a received tradition and religious insights, then you can say, ’Yes, that’s exactly what you’d expect.’
CP: Have you ever made some discoveries that have ever tested your faith?
Morris: Well no, because I think that it’s unfortunate that people want definite answers. You have to remember what happened on that early Sunday morning in April AD 33.
I mean, yes - I don’t mean to be flippant about it - I will never be sure, at least on this side of the grave. I think the intellectual consistency of Christianity in historical evidence is frankly overwhelming, but my materialist colleagues regard me as a slightly sad case. But I can’t understand, given that there is a structure there and indeed a record; I don’t think it’s easy to explain it away.
But in that sense, I very much approach my own Christianity from the same intellectual traditions that were set out so clearly by Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis for example. Of course, there are many ways of arriving at these conclusions in ways that may be far closer to what the founder of Christianity aimed to do.
CP: On just a more general scale, I recently attended a lecture in which the presenter explained how today’s science discoveries are trying to prove the legitimacy of the Bible more and more, especially with astronomy and things like that. Looking at science as a whole, would you agree that there are links that you can make between the Bible and some instances in science?
Morris: Well, I wouldn’t say specifically science. I mean, there are often a lot of one-offs in the Bible; and one-offs, like the resurrection, are generally things that scientists have some trouble with and that’s perfectly legitimate. I think there are good ways to approach this like Tom Wright, amongst many others have shown, or [Francis] Collins for that matter.
There was an interesting book that was just published arguing thatthe gospels, actually, are genuine eye witness accounts, and correspondently so far as one can get some confirmation from archaeology, there are a couple of instances where the archaeology has indeed confirmed what the people wrote down. Clearly, they are texts and they are true human agents and one must be aware of how things might be interpreted.
But again, I am just sort of wary about being one-to-one, a little bit echoing your query about intelligent design versus evolution or any other sort of science. It just seems that clearly things happened in the past, but most of the things we will never know about inevitably. But one should just stand back a little bit and say, ‘Well, hang on a moment, what kind of creation are we imbedded in?’ In particular, for what reason should we think that the material world around us is in any way but the tip of the iceberg?
I mean, if your senses can’t detect invisible worlds, you’ll never know about them unless of course there are other methods of making access to those of what we would regard as invisible worlds. Alchemy might say science would be able to access this as well, but if that was the case, I think that would be a science that we would regard as completely unrecognizable.
By all means, there are very specific claims, particularly made in the New Testament, and most of them deal with the action of people rather than geographical localities or particular arrangements of say the temple or other positions. But one can still find some correspondence.
I myself am reading, as many other people have pointed out reading the gospels, they were not made up. And I don’t think there’s much exaggeration in them either in fact. I’m very happy that methods of investigation may well confirm some aspects of the narratives given in the New Testament, but the likelihood that somebody quickly scribbled on a piece of papyrus that ‘I just saw Lazarus today. He’s not feeling too bad,’ is rather unlikely. We don’t have to worry. They saw that happen, and we can take those views as reasonable.