Simon Conway Morris

Simon Conway Morris

Paleobiologist

’ Is it actually sufficient merely to get some fantastically clever machine with gigabytes of data, if in the end we don’t actually know the question we wish to ask?’

FULL INTERVIEW 34 min

What is convergent evolution?

‘If we were to rerun the tape of life, my estimation would be that there would be something pretty similar to a human, in fact, something pretty similar to this conversation.'

Transcript

WHAT IS CONVERGENT EVOLUTION?

Ard: One of the questions we’d like to ask you, Simon, is if you were to reel in the tape of life again, rerun evolution again, would something like ourselves grace the replay or nothing like us at all?

SCM: Well, the simple answer is we don’t know, because the tape of life has only been run once. So far as animals are concerned, the story more or less begins in the Cambrian explosion, about half a billion years ago, and the conceit of rerunning the tape of life goes back to at least Stephen J. Gould. He said, ‘Look, if any one of them had gone extinct, rather than another one, then it’s just as likely that our ancestor would have gone extinct, rather than somebody else, and therefore we would not be there.’ Therefore, his argument was, rerun the tape of life, there would be life, there would be animals, but nothing like ourselves. And I think this is wrong.

Ard: Okay.

SCM: The number of opportunities, if you like, the number of solutions by which biology arranges itself are surprisingly limited. So, if we were to rerun the tape of life, my estimation would be that, indeed, there would be something pretty similar to a human, in fact something pretty similar to this conversation, but there would also be an entire biosphere. So I’m not restricting the argument merely to intelligent bipeds with skills in manipulation and higher cognition. There would be animals in the sea, there would be plants in the forest, but in each and every case, the sort of end from which we see today, from the beginnings of the Cambrian explosion, would be surprisingly predictable.

David: Given what you said about the traditional view, how does your view then take issue with it? How is it different?

SCM: Well, in one sense, the views of biology are unified, in as much as everyone agrees to the first approximation – Darwin was right: evolution happens, evolution is reality, and all the rest of it. Really the difference, I think, is those… such as most of my colleagues who emphasise the degrees of randomness in evolution, the uncertainties, the unpredictability about it. And at first sight, this seems very reasonable: mutations are more or less random, perhaps; correspondingly, mass extinctions are meant to be more or less by chance, and the survivors are the lucky ones. And there is certainly a lot of truth in that, I wouldn’t deny it for a moment, but on the other hand, if you stand back slightly, there seems to be recurrent patterns.

One has to also point out that not only is there recurrence in biology – this is what we call evolutionary convergence – but there is also evidence that, in a broad sense, things are becoming more interesting, almost more complex. So there are, if you like, trends towards greater complexity. But beneath that there is a sort of drum beat which more or less says, ‘How many ways can you do something? How many ways can you fly? How many ways can you swim? How many ways can you breathe? How many ways can you think?’ And it then turns out that if you look at evolutionary convergence, there might be a rather limited number.

David: Is convergence then… if you were to try and give it a definition, is it natural selection finding the best solution to a physical problem or an engineering problem?

SCM: Effectively, yes. I mean, the point about convergence is that one can show by mathematical modelling that it can, in principle, happen by chance. After all, evolution has to go somewhere. And you can also make the observation, in fact, if you’ve got a certain, what we call a body plan, then there are constraints on what you can possibly do.

Most people argue that it, in a sense, reinforces our idea of Darwinian adaptation. Some things work, other things don’t. I think the crucial difference is two things. First of all, convergence is ubiquitous. I can’t think of anything which has only evolved once – or very, very few exceptions. And the corresponding point is that if you look at the total number of alternatives that biology in principle could throw up – as Ard will know as a mathematical physicist – the numbers are stupendously, stupidly big: far, far more than the number of particles in the visible universe.

David: Ah, right.

SCM: And yet out of this immensity of possibilities, at least on this planet, the total number of solutions is a handful.

David: That’s essentially what caught your attention, is answering that. How come out of all those possibilities, it’s just these few over and over again?

SCM: Absolutely right. The degree of similarity, and the possibility of alternatives which have never been realised, begins to sort of tweak the imagination. It’s a sort of ‘what if… ?’ experiment.

David: So it’s random, but because certain solutions are just the solutions that work, then natural selection will randomly find them.

SCM: Yes, there’s nothing wrong with randomness: the world won’t work without it. But the world is also ordered, and it’s, in a sense, a paradox of how do you get this self-order emerging from what is originally, of course, just this sea of early particles and coalesces not only into planets and galaxies, and all those good things, but also life-forms which in a certain sense begin to step out from physics and chemistry into new worlds.

Examples of convergent evolution

'There’s a rule of engagement here which says there’s nothing wrong with a compound eye, and on those alien biospheres there will be compound eyes. Don’t worry: it’s not rocket science, it’s evolution.'

Transcript

EXAMPLES OF CONVERGENT EVOLUTION

Ard: So what would be an example of convergence? What would be a classic example of something that’s converged more than once?

SCM: If you think of the classic example of convergence, it has to be the eye. You and I look at each other, and we are using what’s called a camera eye. In other words, we’ve got a double chamber; in the middle there’s a lens that focuses the light and impinges on the retina and then goes into the back of our brain, and the rest is history.

Now, it also turns out that something like a camera eye has evolved independently about seven times. I took the precaution of bringing along an octopus.

Ard: Okay.

SCM: And if I show you this octopus, then what we have here is an animal which is now, unfortunately, dead. You’ll see there are many familiar things about it, including its body here. And although we’re not going to dissect it, just about here there’s a brain, and of course it’s got the famous tentacles. And I could tell you stories about convergence throughout this animal.

It is in many ways almost an honorary fish, but let’s concentrate just on the eyes. Now the eyes are located just about there. To cut a long story short, if I was to dissect out this eye and look at it, its construction is almost identical to ours, but, and this is the crucial thing: this is an octopus; this is a mollusc, and in fact one of its close relatives is an earthworm.

Ard: Okay.

SCM: You and I are chordates, and some of our closest relatives, and I don’t have them here because they’re not very edible, are starfish. If we consider the common ancestor of ourselves and the octopus, it probably had extremely simple eyes, what in the trade we call ‘icebots’, but it would have had nothing like the complexity of this, the camera eye. So in essence we can say that these arrived at the same solution completely independently.

David: How long ago was our common ancestor?

SCM: That’s a very good question. Most likely, it would have been a worm-like creature, and it would have been living perhaps 500, 600 million years ago.

David: So they diverged, and then they developed eyes and we developed eyes completely separately?

SCM: Precisely: they diverged, and the eyes converged.

SCM: But, in fact, when you go into what are the associative properties of camera eyes, one of the most interesting is intelligence. And it is no accident that the octopus is arguably by far the most intelligent of all the invertebrates.

David: Is there more than one kind of eye that natural selection has converged on?

SCM: Yes. There are many, many sorts of different eyes, and in many cases they show convergences, but there are some nuances to this. Perhaps I can briefly explain.

Here, for example, we’ve got eyes – models, I’m pleased to say – which are from different sorts of mammals, as it so happens. But if we look amongst these sorts of eyes, they have the same arrangement as ours. They’re sort of effectively camera eyes, but there are all sorts of differences. Some, for instance, have a reflective layer at the back. You see that in a cat: it’s call the tapetum. In certain cases they can see into areas of the electromagnetic spectrum which we can’t, including ultra-violet light and so on and so forth. And all of these are convergent. So in other words, there’s much more to an eye than an eye. So convergence rules.

But there are more, wide points to make. If we look at this shrimp here, now this is a relative of the insects: it’s an arthropod; it’s technically a crustacean – and, by the way they’re delicious – but at the front we’ve got eyes, and these are very different from the camera eye. They’re so-called compound eyes – that is they have very many lenses. And there are two things which matter about this. First of all, this so-called compound eye arrangement is also convergent. It’s evolved independently four or five times in different groups of animals.

And there’s another point which is, in its own particular way, the compound eye is very economic. Really all you have to do is make a lot of lenses, put them on a hemisphere and plug it into the brain. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but what matters is you can say, look at the amount of light which this compound eye can collect. Yes, the eye is quite small, but if we scaled it up to the size of our eyes, it turns out that the compound eye, if we had to have a compound eye, rather than a camera eye, would be an enormous balloon-like structure, which would be several metres across, above our heads.

Ard: Like this?

SCM: Exactly, colossal.

David: Not terribly practical.

SCM: Not terribly practical. And this matters again, because if we’re looking at intelligent aliens, for the sake of argument, then if they ever visit us, which I think is very unlikely, then they will have camera eyes. They will not have compound eyes.

David: Right. This gets back to your engineering solutions again, doesn’t it?

SCM: That’s right. There’s a rule of engagement here which says there’s nothing wrong with a compound eye, and on those alien biospheres there will be compound eyes. Don’t worry.

It’s not rocket science; it’s evolution.

A deeper structure

'When Richard Dawkins refers to ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, I absolutely agree with him. Evolution, per se, does not know where it’s going. But that does not necessarily rule out the possibility that the organisation of the universe at large is predisposed to life.'

Transcript

A DEEPER STRUCTURE

Ard: Do you think convergence strengthens the case for Darwinian evolution?

SCM: I hope so.

Ard: Yeah, exactly.

SCM: Absolutely. I think the slight risk for Darwinian evolution is that – unlike physics, where I’m told that those that practice cosmology have successfully lost most of the visible universe in the last 20 years, busy looking for dark matter and dark energy, and suspect strongly that as and when this ‘material’ turns up, it’s going require a radical rethinking of our understanding of the basic structure of the universe – biology, I think, without sounding offensive, is slightly rested on its laurels. Whereas, in point of fact, the things I’ve been hinting at, with regards not only to convergence, but the integration of form, and the possibility that the number of outcomes is much more restricted, might point to a deeper structure of biology.

What I’m arguing is that natural selection, by in large, is a process. There’s this interconnection – this inter-conversation of different parts of the organism with each other. But there’s another aspect of this which only now is coming into full fruition: it’s a topic of so-called self-organisation. So, for instance, if you look at the way an embryo develops, of course you can see which genes are being turned on and off, which proteins are being made, which cells are dying, which cells are proliferating. But in point of fact, there’s a sort of… almost a flow in the way in which the embryo creates itself.

Now, I think that’s almost as far as people have got, because biologists don‘t tend to say, ‘Well, what makes self-organisation possible?’ It doesn’t happen by accident, and one can only assume that there are physical or chemical factors which are governing these outcomes in biology.

Ard: And these are giving the deep structures?

SCM: That’s the real possibility.

David: And that’s something outside of just the textbook version that the genes are a recipe for everything that happens? This is saying there’s some other level of organisation which constrains the genes, perhaps?

SCM: It’s very likely so. We can’t manage without genes, thank you very much indeed.

David: Well, of course.

SCM: But, of course, one’s also entitled to say, ‘Well, what is a gene?’ And we do know perfectly well that a gene is much more than simply a strand of DNA. The same gene can do different things at different times; the same part of the DNA can do different things at different times as well. So, this rather particulate view of evolution is one which, in a way, is too reductionist.

David: Again that would be contrary to the standard textbook that it’s all random, and there’s absolutely no direction. You’re suggesting there may be, not the idea of a purpose or a goal, but a direction? Would you tell us a little bit more of what you mean by that? I think I know what you mean by it.

SCM: This is tricky territory. To begin with, of course, there’s always a danger of trying to smuggle in a sort of teleology, and this is an area which biology actually struggles with continuously. I think what one can say with some fairness is that there are trends and there are a number of interesting observations suggesting that there are limits to what can be actually achieved.

Ard: You were saying earlier that there’s a directionality towards higher complexity. That’s a trend.

SCM: Yes, I think there is very good evidence that through geological time things become more interesting, if you like, more complex. The reason why people are so suspicious about trends is that, to begin with, there is this older idea of so-called orthogenesis: that evolution was doomed to go in certain directions. I mean, point of fact, that patently isn’t the case in as much as one sees a sort of self-fertile system from a rather uninteresting biosphere some 3 billion years ago to now one which is coruscating with diversity.

Correspondingly, when you see animals in particular, but in fact the argument does extend to plants at least: it’s difficult to avoid the idea that they’ve got some sense of intentionality. They know what they’re doing, and it’s tempting to extrapolate this into ideas of purpose, and I think the problem here is that it’s a philosophical discussion.

So far as biology is concerned, so far as Darwinian evolution is concerned, it is completely and utterly blind. When Richard Dawkins refers to ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, I absolutely agree with him. Evolution, per se, does not know where it’s going. But, that does not necessarily rule out the possibility that the organisation of the universe at large is predisposed to life, is predisposed to evolution, and as I’ve said in a number of other contexts, in one way, evolution is simply the mechanism by which the universe becomes self-aware.

David: So that major trend you’re talking about… when you talk about trends, it’s the trend towards greater complexity and greater mind, isn’t it? That’s the one you keep coming back to.

SCM: In part, but I think Ard, as a physicist, would agree that if we look at the physical organisation of the universe, it is very, very highly ordered indeed. And the paradox, and I think it’s actually an interesting question, is what is it about life, what is this thing, this sort of extraordinary thing which hovers between being chaotic, gas-like behaviour, where nothing ever settles down, to an immobile crystalline-like form?

And life, in this sort of metaphor, sort of describes this incredibly narrow line. It’s sort of tip-toeing all the way along like this.

David: Yeah.

SCM: And yet it’s that expression of the universe which then looks back at the stars and says, ‘What on Earth are we doing here?’ And this is non-trivial.

David: That description of life being in between too rigid and too chaotic… that obviously appeals to you as a biologist. Does it work for you as a physicist?

Ard: Life is very different from anything we see in physics. So in physics we have things like crystals that are solid and gases that are chaotic and other chaotic systems, and life is kind of on the edge of chaos and order. And there is something amazing, really completely in a different category than anything we have in the physical sciences, which is what makes it beautiful and interesting.

So I think we understand some really important things, like the Darwinian way it develops over time, but there are bigger questions of, why did it develop this way not that way? Convergence does point towards there being some kind of deeper structure; it has to. There’s no way, given the number of possibilities that it could theoretically go down, that there isn’t some other principles that are…

David: Yes, I was going to say… both of you keep using this ‘deeper structure’. What do you mean by this ‘deeper structure’? It’s like you two know something that I don’t.

Ard: Well, we don’t. I got that word from Simon. The ‘deeper structure’ basically means we know something is there, but we have no idea what it is.

David: But that it has rules or structure, or rules that we haven’t discovered yet? Is that what you’re saying?

Ard: I think it tells us that we don’t know the whole story yet, but we know parts of the story.

David: It’s more than that, though?

SCM: Well, in my limited experience, the rules are the things you formulate at the end. Scientists don’t go out there and say, ‘This is a rule and now I’m going to set out and prove it.’ And if we think about what life is, as Ard says, it’s got this sort of fantastic balance between total disorder and over-order.

Discovering music, maths and mind

‘The brain may be very good at encountering mind, but it may, and here I speculate completely, only be very good at encountering certain aspects of mind.'

Transcript

DISCOVERING MUSIC, MATHS AND MIND

Ard: So another question that you were hinting at a little bit… We might unpack this one step at a time, so we’ll start with music. You’ve written a little bit about animals who do music, like humpback whales or nightingales, and you say they may be discovering music rather than evolution creating it itself. Did I get that right?

SCM: Well, thank you, yes. I need to first of all emphasise that the observations on the convergence of animal music, and potentially some of the metaphysical implications, derive directly from a wonderful essay written by Patricia Gray and colleagues which was published in Science some years ago.

In essence, what we know is many animals can vocalise, and there’s a major question whether our language is simply an extrapolation of that vocalisation. I rather think it’s not, but that’s very, very controversial, of course. But undoubtedly many animals can sing, and of course the songbirds are the most famous; the humpback whale, they too have a music in the males and so forth. And in many cases music is probably linked to sexual selection. In other cases, I believe, even with the humpback whale, it’s not entirely clear why they have this music. But the point about it, which as Patricia Gray and colleagues point out, is first of all this music is alarmingly analogous to our music, in as much as it uses melodies and harmonies, and they can exchange songs between different groups, for instance amongst the whales and so forth.

And what I found so extraordinary about this particular essay is that they then had this wonderful leap of imagination. I mean this in the most positive way. And they said, well, it’s all very well explaining these convergences in terms of vibration of columns of air. That’s fine – a bit like a bassoon or a trumpet. But supposing, as they said, there’s a ‘universal music’ out there, and in a sense the music is discovering this universal music.

And as I’ve said in many other contexts, this is not a universal ‘hmmmm’ – it’s the music of Mozart. And I’m not saying that birds and whales are Mozarts, or on their way to becoming Mozarts, but there’s something deeper about the music and why it’s so essential to us. It’s not just a tune.

David: Are you suggesting that certain kind of ideas, like music or mathematics, that they exist separately from the stuff of the universe.

SCM: That’s a possibility, yes.

David: Well, what do you mean by ‘it’s discovering’? To discover something makes it seem like it was there in some sense before. So here’s evolution blindly doing something, and you’re saying there’s things out there just waiting for evolution to get to, and it goes, ‘Ah ha!’

SCM: Well, I suspect that the processes of mathematics, of which I have no skill at all… the ability to play music, I can’t even manage a kazoo.

David: You and me both.

SCM: Those things are, in reality, realities: they are absolutes which we, in a sense, discover. The problem about describing this is two-fold. First of all, because we’re such spatial creatures, in the same way as ancient theologists thought God was just out there, somewhere behind a cloud, this is dealing with a different set of orthogonal dimensions.

David: You don’t mean it’s just past Australia.

SCM: Exactly, yes. Or it’s not on that carousel in the airport with the last bag going round and round at three in the morning waiting for someone to pick it up – precisely. And the other aspect about it is we may only be scratching the surface of what’s actually there. And that, I think, is very encouraging, because it gives us the sense that we’re dealing with unfinished business. Because the danger in science, too often, is to sort of clap your hands like that and say, ‘All sorted out, nothing to worry about. We got it right, give us the medals.’

Ard: So do you think evolution also discovers minds?

SCM: Perhaps.

Ard: Perhaps, okay. Or are our minds simply created by evolution? Is that it? Or do you think that evolution is discovering something that’s already out there somehow?

SCM: My intuition, again, is that the mind is something which is discovered.

SCM: The general idea, of course, is that the brain and the mind are basically the same thing.

SCM: I mean, it’s pretty clear to all of us that you don’t have a mind without a brain.

Ard: Yeah.

SCM: But is the brain the entire explanation of what is mind? And you could point out, so far as we know, that when you die, then you stop thinking and so on and so forth. But on the other hand, you can regard the explanations of consciousness which depend merely on neurological complexity as woefully inadequate. The analogy which I prefer is rather than brains making mind: brains facilitate minds, brains filter mind. But the idea here is the mind, again, is part of an orthogonal reality.

David: Ah ha.

SCM: And once you’ve got a sufficiently complex nervous system, and once you begin to interrogate it, then it seems to respond to you.

David: So that gets back to your idea that there may be certain kinds of ideas or truths that are out there – that they were true before we came along. So, in other words, the brain is such that it can discover those ideas or those realms of ideas. Is that right? Is that what the mind is?

SCM: I think it is. But there is this danger that the brain may be very good at encountering mind, but it may, and here I speculate completely, only be very good at encountering certain aspects of mind. So our neurological substrate is such that there may be some things about which it is literally impossible to think. Which sounds very paradoxical, but of course as soon as you think about the impossible, then you allow about how you might think your way in to it. And this again gives me encouragement that the nature of mind is something far, far different than merely a secretion of a neuron.

David: Are you saying, getting back to your brain and mind, that evolution may have certainly crafted the mind? Are you saying that beyond that there’s a whole realm of ideas which you have to include in your story of what it is to be human? You can’t just pretend that they don’t have an influence?

SCM: I think first of all that evolution has crafted brain, and brain encounters mind.

David: Encounters mind?

SCM: Yes. And the point about the way in which evolution is understood is that in some circles it’s regarded more or less as a closed argument. And yet that’s actually rather curious, because of course in certain ways it depends on the physics and chemistry. And we know that our understanding of physics, in particular, is incomplete. So if we had a completely water-tight theory of physics, we might have more security that one extension of it, which we call life, is also entirely understood. And I think our problem at the moment is to confuse mechanisms, such as Darwinian mechanisms, versus, if you like, the substrate of possibilities.

To say there’s only one way of thinking would be a ridiculous way of compressing a huge area. But if mind is mind and we encounter mind, then potentially any life form would encounter one area of mind. But, again to stress, what we encounter may be an infinitesimally small fraction of what there is.

Unfinished business

'It’s all very well saying the world is beautifully organised in a very sophisticated way and we can think about it. But everything else I know about the world, including many areas of science, is always unfinished business.'

Transcript

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

David: One of the guiding things that runs through the series is saying, well, what does it mean? And it’s this question, whether things mean things, whether there’s meaning at all in the universe. Because there are people who we’re talking to in the series who say, ‘Well, look, there are facts, but they don’t have any meaning. There are facts and rules, that’s it.’

SCM: If I may adopt a very Don-ish hue, my dear boy, facts are not neutral.

David: Do you feel that the insistence that science says there is no meaning to anything… Do you agree with that view of science, or those who say that is the only view you can have if you’re a scientist?

SCM: Some scientists say that. I don’t think science says that for a moment at all. In a way, it’s a sort of version of Pascal’s wager. If one is saying, right, everything is meaningless, then that’s still a metaphysical statement. It may not be one which is designed to give comfort to the great majority of people. It may also be true, of course, we don’t know.

But, on the other hand, the more I understand about the way we understand things, and the way in which we explore, and the sense of delight, and the sense of beauty, and I’m no expert on art, but there are some areas of art that I’m quite interested in, including 20th century art as well as 19th century: Samuel Palmer might be one example. I just sort of look at these things and think, how on earth did he do that? Turner’s another obvious example. It’s easy to get carried away with these classic examples of painter or musicians like Mozart, or Wagner, or Bach and so forth. But every one of those people hints at a transcendence, and you can just say, ‘Right, that’s a misfiring neuron… a little too much dopamine. Up the serotonin a bit more, old boy.’ Or you can say, ‘Right, this means something.’

Ard: And so, do you think that science will one day explain all of these things as it progresses? Will it also explain things like all sorts of values? Or do you think that science is somehow limited in what it can answer?

SCM: Well, many people claim that it will, but, with respect, I don’t like the formulation that science will explain everything. I’m not first of all sure there is a total explanation available. I think we are actually dealing with unlimited knowledge, as it happens. I don’t really understand why, but that seems to be my intuition.

But to put it slightly differently, if and when we begin to understand consciousness, which in my view is the problem of problems at the moment, there will be a science of consciousness, absolutely, but it will be completely unrecognisable from our perspective. So the trick is, of course, to be one step ahead of the curve and think, right, how are we going to define that new science?

In that sense the Germans have an advantage on us in referring to wissenschaften. You know, it’s knowledge and science as human experience, rather than science will explain morality. And, of course, you can point to many such examples whereby morals are employed for local advantage. Undoubtedly, it would be mad if they weren’t. But are you persuaded that the absurd examples of moral values are just a Darwinian expression? Most of us would be suspicious of that. They seem to be resonating with something much deeper.

Ard: So you’ve written that you’re suspicious whether a naturalistic program would be sufficient to encompass all of human reality. By naturalistic, I think you mean one assumes that there’s only atoms and molecules and nothing else. Do you want to elaborate on that? What does that mean? Are you saying basically we need God to explain this?

SCM: We don’t need God to explain this. It might be useful to have God, I don’t doubt, but I think the program runs into the buffer – the naturalistic program – in my opinion, with the question of consciousness.

Ard: Okay.

SCM: It seems to be that once again the mind goes full circle. It goes what is the nature of mind? What are our brains actually doing? As we’ve discussed in other contexts, you can either say, all mind is a product of the brain, but everything I know about the discovery, even in scientific contexts, persuades me that there is an intuition of adventure. There is an intuition that one is moving always into new territory.

There’s a very famous essay, of course, by Eugene Wigner, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics. And as I recall, but please don’t quote me, he even uses words like ‘miracle’. Not in a theistic sense, but the uncanny effectiveness of mathematics. How is it that completely abstract concepts, which so far as we know should only exist in our brains, and by implication our minds, have such extraordinary traction? So they are not just formula on a page: you apply them, and things happen in the real world.

Ard: Yeah.

SCM: Other people say, no, no, mathematics is merely a human invention, and there’s no decision here, but it’s more or less what program do you want to start to subscribe to? What do you think is going to be the most fruitful? It’s not that that view is right and this view is wrong – certainly not. It’s more, where are we going to get the most exciting advances? And my suspicion is that the naturalist program takes you a very long way, but it doesn’t take you far enough.

In terms of science, one could hardly blame people for being so enthusiastic about it, because it opens completely new doors into the way the universe is organised. And my only complaint with some of my colleagues is to say, ‘Oh well, is that sufficient?’ It’s all very well saying the world is beautifully organised in a very sophisticated way and we can think about it. But everything else I know about the world, including many areas of science, is it’s always unfinished business. And I’m just always nervous to apply, and this would apply with equal force to any religious faith, as it would to science, to say, ‘Everything’s been sorted out. I don’t have to worry about things.’ I think, in fact, in that way, the mystics, perhaps, in certain aspects of religious experience, and the greater scientists – and Einstein I think is a sort of example of this – always have the sort of feeling of sort of, ‘Oh my goodness me. I never knew that.’

David: So is it less a division between the religious and the scientists and more a division between those who proclaim that they already have all the certainties they need, and those who say, ‘Hmm, maybe not, maybe there are still things we don’t know.’?

SCM: I’m a little nervous about the word division. And I’m also very nervous to deny people security. It’s not a thing where one simply storms in and says, ‘You, feeble, feeble-minded individuals. Surely you realise it’s nothing like that at all.’ But I think really all the time one has to keep asking one’s self, how is the world organised as it is? Why is it like this?

The cliché is, why is there something rather than nothing?

But what strikes me so forcibly, especially in the last 50 years, is that in many ways the rate of progress in biology has been unbelievably staggering. But I get the impression these days that many of my colleagues are almost drowning in data.

SCM: They have so much data, they hardly know what to do with it.

Ard: They hardly know how to think about it.

SCM: Exactly. And so the problem is, again, one just needs to step back and say, ‘Right, you know, can we remember what we’re trying to ask?’ Is it actually sufficient merely to get some fantastically clever machine, which will provide gigabytes of data, if in the end we don’t actually know the question is we wish to ask?

Simon Conway Morris

Simon Conway Morris is professor of evolutionary paleobiology at the University of Cambridge. As a graduate student, his work studying the Burgess Shale fossils played a critical role in helping understand the nature of the Cambrian explosion. His own analysis of its significance led him to become a key proponent of the idea of evolutionary convergence: that evolution seemed destined to follow a certain path. His books include: The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals (1998); Lifes Solutions: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (2003); The Runes of Evolution: How the Universe Became Self-Aware (2015).

Quotes from interview

If we were to rerun the tape of life, my estimation would be that, indeed, there would be something pretty similar to a human, in fact, something pretty similar to this conversation, but there would also be an entire biosphere. So I’m not restricting the argument merely to intelligent bipeds with skills in manipulation and higher cognition. There would be animals in the sea, there would be plants in the forest, but in each and every case, the sort of end form which we see today from the beginnings of the Cambrian explosion would be surprisingly predictable.
When Richard Dawkins refers to ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, I absolutely agree with it. Evolution, per say, does not know where it’s going. But, that does not necessarily rule out the possibility that the organisation of the universe at large is predisposed to life, is predisposed to evolution, and as I’ve said in a number of other contexts, in one way, evolution is simply the mechanism by which the universe becomes self-aware.
One just needs to step back and say, ‘Right, you know, can we remember what we’re trying to ask?’ Is it actually sufficient merely to get some fantastically clever machine, which will provide gigabytes of data, if in the end we don’t actually know the question is we wish to ask?
I’m just always nervous to apply with equal force to any religious faith, as it would to science, to say, ‘Everything’s been sorted out, I don’t have to worry about things.’ I think, in fact, in that way, the mystics, perhaps, in certain aspects of religious experience, and the greater scientists, and Einstein I think is a sort of example of this, always have the sort of feeling of sort of, ‘Oh my goodness me. I never knew that.

Simon Conway Morris Full Interview Transcript

WHAT IS CONVERGENT EVOLUTION?

Ard: One of the questions we’d like to ask you, Simon, is if you were to reel in the tape of life again, rerun evolution again, would something like ourselves grace the replay or nothing like us at all?

SCM: Well, the simple answer is we don’t know, because the tape of life has only been run once. So far as animals are concerned, the story more or less begins in the Cambrian explosion, about half a billion years ago, and the conceit of rerunning the tape of life goes back to at least Stephen J. Gould. He said, ‘Look, if any one of them had gone extinct, rather than another one, then it’s just as likely that our ancestor would have gone extinct, rather than somebody else, and therefore we would not be there.’ Therefore, his argument was, rerun the tape of life, there would be life, there would be animals, but nothing like ourselves. And I think this is wrong.

Ard: Okay.

SCM: The number of opportunities, if you like, the number of solutions by which biology arranges itself are surprisingly limited. So, if we were to rerun the tape of life, my estimation would be that, indeed, there would be something pretty similar to a human, in fact something pretty similar to this conversation, but there would also be an entire biosphere. So I’m not restricting the argument merely to intelligent bipeds with skills in manipulation and higher cognition. There would be animals in the sea, there would be plants in the forest, but in each and every case, the sort of end from which we see today, from the beginnings of the Cambrian explosion, would be surprisingly predictable.

David: Given what you said about the traditional view, how does your view then take issue with it? How is it different?

SCM: Well, in one sense, the views of biology are unified, in as much as everyone agrees to the first approximation – Darwin was right: evolution happens, evolution is reality, and all the rest of it. Really the difference, I think, is those… such as most of my colleagues who emphasise the degrees of randomness in evolution, the uncertainties, the unpredictability about it. And at first sight, this seems very reasonable: mutations are more or less random, perhaps; correspondingly, mass extinctions are meant to be more or less by chance, and the survivors are the lucky ones. And there is certainly a lot of truth in that, I wouldn’t deny it for a moment, but on the other hand, if you stand back slightly, there seems to be recurrent patterns.

One has to also point out that not only is there recurrence in biology – this is what we call evolutionary convergence – but there is also evidence that, in a broad sense, things are becoming more interesting, almost more complex. So there are, if you like, trends towards greater complexity. But beneath that there is a sort of drum beat which more or less says, ‘How many ways can you do something? How many ways can you fly? How many ways can you swim? How many ways can you breathe? How many ways can you think?’ And it then turns out that if you look at evolutionary convergence, there might be a rather limited number.

David: Is convergence then… if you were to try and give it a definition, is it natural selection finding the best solution to a physical problem or an engineering problem?

SCM: Effectively, yes. I mean, the point about convergence is that one can show by mathematical modelling that it can, in principle, happen by chance. After all, evolution has to go somewhere. And you can also make the observation, in fact, if you’ve got a certain, what we call a body plan, then there are constraints on what you can possibly do.

Most people argue that it, in a sense, reinforces our idea of Darwinian adaptation. Some things work, other things don’t. I think the crucial difference is two things. First of all, convergence is ubiquitous. I can’t think of anything which has only evolved once – or very, very few exceptions. And the corresponding point is that if you look at the total number of alternatives that biology in principle could throw up – as Ard will know as a mathematical physicist – the numbers are stupendously, stupidly big: far, far more than the number of particles in the visible universe.

David: Ah, right.

SCM: And yet out of this immensity of possibilities, at least on this planet, the total number of solutions is a handful.

David: That’s essentially what caught your attention, is answering that. How come out of all those possibilities, it’s just these few over and over again?

SCM: Absolutely right. The degree of similarity, and the possibility of alternatives which have never been realised, begins to sort of tweak the imagination. It’s a sort of ‘what if… ?’ experiment.

David: So it’s random, but because certain solutions are just the solutions that work, then natural selection will randomly find them.

SCM: Yes, there’s nothing wrong with randomness: the world won’t work without it. But the world is also ordered, and it’s, in a sense, a paradox of how do you get this self-order emerging from what is originally, of course, just this sea of early particles and coalesces not only into planets and galaxies, and all those good things, but also life-forms which in a certain sense begin to step out from physics and chemistry into new worlds.

5:04 - EXAMPLES OF CONVERGENT EVOLUTION

Ard: So what would be an example of convergence? What would be a classic example of something that’s converged more than once?

SCM: If you think of the classic example of convergence, it has to be the eye. You and I look at each other, and we are using what’s called a camera eye. In other words, we’ve got a double chamber; in the middle there’s a lens that focuses the light and impinges on the retina and then goes into the back of our brain, and the rest is history.

Now, it also turns out that something like a camera eye has evolved independently about seven times. I took the precaution of bringing along an octopus.

Ard: Okay.

SCM: And if I show you this octopus, then what we have here is an animal which is now, unfortunately, dead. You’ll see there are many familiar things about it, including its body here. And although we’re not going to dissect it, just about here there’s a brain, and of course it’s got the famous tentacles. And I could tell you stories about convergence throughout this animal.

It is in many ways almost an honorary fish, but let’s concentrate just on the eyes. Now the eyes are located just about there. To cut a long story short, if I was to dissect out this eye and look at it, its construction is almost identical to ours, but, and this is the crucial thing: this is an octopus; this is a mollusc, and in fact one of its close relatives is an earthworm.

Ard: Okay.

SCM: You and I are chordates, and some of our closest relatives, and I don’t have them here because they’re not very edible, are starfish. If we consider the common ancestor of ourselves and the octopus, it probably had extremely simple eyes, what in the trade we call ‘icebots’, but it would have had nothing like the complexity of this, the camera eye. So in essence we can say that these arrived at the same solution completely independently.

David: How long ago was our common ancestor?

SCM: That’s a very good question. Most likely, it would have been a worm-like creature, and it would have been living perhaps 500, 600 million years ago.

David: So they diverged, and then they developed eyes and we developed eyes completely separately?

SCM: Precisely: they diverged, and the eyes converged.

SCM: But, in fact, when you go into what are the associative properties of camera eyes, one of the most interesting is intelligence. And it is no accident that the octopus is arguably by far the most intelligent of all the invertebrates.

David: Is there more than one kind of eye that natural selection has converged on?

SCM: Yes. There are many, many sorts of different eyes, and in many cases they show convergences, but there are some nuances to this. Perhaps I can briefly explain.

Here, for example, we’ve got eyes – models, I’m pleased to say – which are from different sorts of mammals, as it so happens. But if we look amongst these sorts of eyes, they have the same arrangement as ours. They’re sort of effectively camera eyes, but there are all sorts of differences. Some, for instance, have a reflective layer at the back. You see that in a cat: it’s call the tapetum. In certain cases they can see into areas of the electromagnetic spectrum which we can’t, including ultra-violet light and so on and so forth. And all of these are convergent. So in other words, there’s much more to an eye than an eye. So convergence rules.

But there are more, wide points to make. If we look at this shrimp here, now this is a relative of the insects: it’s an arthropod; it’s technically a crustacean – and, by the way they’re delicious – but at the front we’ve got eyes, and these are very different from the camera eye. They’re so-called compound eyes – that is they have very many lenses. And there are two things which matter about this. First of all, this so-called compound eye arrangement is also convergent. It’s evolved independently four or five times in different groups of animals.

And there’s another point which is, in its own particular way, the compound eye is very economic. Really all you have to do is make a lot of lenses, put them on a hemisphere and plug it into the brain. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but what matters is you can say, look at the amount of light which this compound eye can collect. Yes, the eye is quite small, but if we scaled it up to the size of our eyes, it turns out that the compound eye, if we had to have a compound eye, rather than a camera eye, would be an enormous balloon-like structure, which would be several metres across, above our heads.

Ard: Like this?

SCM: Exactly, colossal.

David: Not terribly practical.

SCM: Not terribly practical. And this matters again, because if we’re looking at intelligent aliens, for the sake of argument, then if they ever visit us, which I think is very unlikely, then they will have camera eyes. They will not have compound eyes.

David: Right. This gets back to your engineering solutions again, doesn’t it?

SCM: That’s right. There’s a rule of engagement here which says there’s nothing wrong with a compound eye, and on those alien biospheres there will be compound eyes. Don’t worry.

It’s not rocket science; it’s evolution.

10:17 - A DEEPER STRUCTURE

Ard: Do you think convergence strengthens the case for Darwinian evolution?

SCM: I hope so.

Ard: Yeah, exactly.

SCM: Absolutely. I think the slight risk for Darwinian evolution is that – unlike physics, where I’m told that those that practice cosmology have successfully lost most of the visible universe in the last 20 years, busy looking for dark matter and dark energy, and suspect strongly that as and when this ‘material’ turns up, it’s going require a radical rethinking of our understanding of the basic structure of the universe – biology, I think, without sounding offensive, is slightly rested on its laurels. Whereas, in point of fact, the things I’ve been hinting at, with regards not only to convergence, but the integration of form, and the possibility that the number of outcomes is much more restricted, might point to a deeper structure of biology.

What I’m arguing is that natural selection, by in large, is a process. There’s this interconnection – this inter-conversation of different parts of the organism with each other. But there’s another aspect of this which only now is coming into full fruition: it’s a topic of so-called self-organisation. So, for instance, if you look at the way an embryo develops, of course you can see which genes are being turned on and off, which proteins are being made, which cells are dying, which cells are proliferating. But in point of fact, there’s a sort of… almost a flow in the way in which the embryo creates itself.

Now, I think that’s almost as far as people have got, because biologists don‘t tend to say, ‘Well, what makes self-organisation possible?’ It doesn’t happen by accident, and one can only assume that there are physical or chemical factors which are governing these outcomes in biology.

Ard: And these are giving the deep structures?

SCM: That’s the real possibility.

David: And that’s something outside of just the textbook version that the genes are a recipe for everything that happens? This is saying there’s some other level of organisation which constrains the genes, perhaps?

SCM: It’s very likely so. We can’t manage without genes, thank you very much indeed.

David: Well, of course.

SCM: But, of course, one’s also entitled to say, ‘Well, what is a gene?’ And we do know perfectly well that a gene is much more than simply a strand of DNA. The same gene can do different things at different times; the same part of the DNA can do different things at different times as well. So, this rather particulate view of evolution is one which, in a way, is too reductionist.

David: Again that would be contrary to the standard textbook that it’s all random, and there’s absolutely no direction. You’re suggesting there may be, not the idea of a purpose or a goal, but a direction? Would you tell us a little bit more of what you mean by that? I think I know what you mean by it.

SCM: This is tricky territory. To begin with, of course, there’s always a danger of trying to smuggle in a sort of teleology, and this is an area which biology actually struggles with continuously. I think what one can say with some fairness is that there are trends and there are a number of interesting observations suggesting that there are limits to what can be actually achieved.

Ard: You were saying earlier that there’s a directionality towards higher complexity. That’s a trend.

SCM: Yes, I think there is very good evidence that through geological time things become more interesting, if you like, more complex. The reason why people are so suspicious about trends is that, to begin with, there is this older idea of so-called orthogenesis: that evolution was doomed to go in certain directions. I mean, point of fact, that patently isn’t the case in as much as one sees a sort of self-fertile system from a rather uninteresting biosphere some 3 billion years ago to now one which is coruscating with diversity.

Correspondingly, when you see animals in particular, but in fact the argument does extend to plants at least: it’s difficult to avoid the idea that they’ve got some sense of intentionality. They know what they’re doing, and it’s tempting to extrapolate this into ideas of purpose, and I think the problem here is that it’s a philosophical discussion.

So far as biology is concerned, so far as Darwinian evolution is concerned, it is completely and utterly blind. When Richard Dawkins refers to ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, I absolutely agree with him. Evolution, per se, does not know where it’s going. But, that does not necessarily rule out the possibility that the organisation of the universe at large is predisposed to life, is predisposed to evolution, and as I’ve said in a number of other contexts, in one way, evolution is simply the mechanism by which the universe becomes self-aware.

David: So that major trend you’re talking about… when you talk about trends, it’s the trend towards greater complexity and greater mind, isn’t it? That’s the one you keep coming back to.

SCM: In part, but I think Ard, as a physicist, would agree that if we look at the physical organisation of the universe, it is very, very highly ordered indeed. And the paradox, and I think it’s actually an interesting question, is what is it about life, what is this thing, this sort of extraordinary thing which hovers between being chaotic, gas-like behaviour, where nothing ever settles down, to an immobile crystalline-like form?

And life, in this sort of metaphor, sort of describes this incredibly narrow line. It’s sort of tip-toeing all the way along like this.

David: Yeah.

SCM: And yet it’s that expression of the universe which then looks back at the stars and says, ‘What on Earth are we doing here?’ And this is non-trivial.

David: That description of life being in between too rigid and too chaotic… that obviously appeals to you as a biologist. Does it work for you as a physicist?

Ard: Life is very different from anything we see in physics. So in physics we have things like crystals that are solid and gases that are chaotic and other chaotic systems, and life is kind of on the edge of chaos and order. And there is something amazing, really completely in a different category than anything we have in the physical sciences, which is what makes it beautiful and interesting.

So I think we understand some really important things, like the Darwinian way it develops over time, but there are bigger questions of, why did it develop this way not that way? Convergence does point towards there being some kind of deeper structure; it has to. There’s no way, given the number of possibilities that it could theoretically go down, that there isn’t some other principles that are…

David: Yes, I was going to say… both of you keep using this ‘deeper structure’. What do you mean by this ‘deeper structure’? It’s like you two know something that I don’t.

Ard: Well, we don’t. I got that word from Simon. The ‘deeper structure’ basically means we know something is there, but we have no idea what it is.

David: But that it has rules or structure, or rules that we haven’t discovered yet? Is that what you’re saying?

Ard: I think it tells us that we don’t know the whole story yet, but we know parts of the story.

David: It’s more than that, though?

SCM: Well, in my limited experience, the rules are the things you formulate at the end. Scientists don’t go out there and say, ‘This is a rule and now I’m going to set out and prove it.’ And if we think about what life is, as Ard says, it’s got this sort of fantastic balance between total disorder and over-order.

17:47 - DISCOVERING MUSIC, MATHS AND MIND

Ard: So another question that you were hinting at a little bit… We might unpack this one step at a time, so we’ll start with music. You’ve written a little bit about animals who do music, like humpback whales or nightingales, and you say they may be discovering music rather than evolution creating it itself. Did I get that right?

SCM: Well, thank you, yes. I need to first of all emphasise that the observations on the convergence of animal music, and potentially some of the metaphysical implications, derive directly from a wonderful essay written by Patricia Gray and colleagues which was published in Science some years ago.

In essence, what we know is many animals can vocalise, and there’s a major question whether our language is simply an extrapolation of that vocalisation. I rather think it’s not, but that’s very, very controversial, of course. But undoubtedly many animals can sing, and of course the songbirds are the most famous; the humpback whale, they too have a music in the males and so forth. And in many cases music is probably linked to sexual selection. In other cases, I believe, even with the humpback whale, it’s not entirely clear why they have this music. But the point about it, which as Patricia Gray and colleagues point out, is first of all this music is alarmingly analogous to our music, in as much as it uses melodies and harmonies, and they can exchange songs between different groups, for instance amongst the whales and so forth.

And what I found so extraordinary about this particular essay is that they then had this wonderful leap of imagination. I mean this in the most positive way. And they said, well, it’s all very well explaining these convergences in terms of vibration of columns of air. That’s fine – a bit like a bassoon or a trumpet. But supposing, as they said, there’s a ‘universal music’ out there, and in a sense the music is discovering this universal music.

And as I’ve said in many other contexts, this is not a universal ‘hmmmm’ – it’s the music of Mozart. And I’m not saying that birds and whales are Mozarts, or on their way to becoming Mozarts, but there’s something deeper about the music and why it’s so essential to us. It’s not just a tune.

David: Are you suggesting that certain kind of ideas, like music or mathematics, that they exist separately from the stuff of the universe.

SCM: That’s a possibility, yes.

David: Well, what do you mean by ‘it’s discovering’? To discover something makes it seem like it was there in some sense before. So here’s evolution blindly doing something, and you’re saying there’s things out there just waiting for evolution to get to, and it goes, ‘Ah ha!’

SCM: Well, I suspect that the processes of mathematics, of which I have no skill at all… the ability to play music, I can’t even manage a kazoo.

David: You and me both.

SCM: Those things are, in reality, realities: they are absolutes which we, in a sense, discover. The problem about describing this is two-fold. First of all, because we’re such spatial creatures, in the same way as ancient theologists thought God was just out there, somewhere behind a cloud, this is dealing with a different set of orthogonal dimensions.

David: You don’t mean it’s just past Australia.

SCM: Exactly, yes. Or it’s not on that carousel in the airport with the last bag going round and round at three in the morning waiting for someone to pick it up – precisely. And the other aspect about it is we may only be scratching the surface of what’s actually there. And that, I think, is very encouraging, because it gives us the sense that we’re dealing with unfinished business. Because the danger in science, too often, is to sort of clap your hands like that and say, ‘All sorted out, nothing to worry about. We got it right, give us the medals.’

Ard: So do you think evolution also discovers minds?

SCM: Perhaps.

Ard: Perhaps, okay. Or are our minds simply created by evolution? Is that it? Or do you think that evolution is discovering something that’s already out there somehow?

SCM: My intuition, again, is that the mind is something which is discovered.

SCM: The general idea, of course, is that the brain and the mind are basically the same thing.

SCM: I mean, it’s pretty clear to all of us that you don’t have a mind without a brain.

Ard: Yeah.

SCM: But is the brain the entire explanation of what is mind? And you could point out, so far as we know, that when you die, then you stop thinking and so on and so forth. But on the other hand, you can regard the explanations of consciousness which depend merely on neurological complexity as woefully inadequate. The analogy which I prefer is rather than brains making mind: brains facilitate minds, brains filter mind. But the idea here is the mind, again, is part of an orthogonal reality.

David: Ah ha.

SCM: And once you’ve got a sufficiently complex nervous system, and once you begin to interrogate it, then it seems to respond to you.

David: So that gets back to your idea that there may be certain kinds of ideas or truths that are out there – that they were true before we came along. So, in other words, the brain is such that it can discover those ideas or those realms of ideas. Is that right? Is that what the mind is?

SCM: I think it is. But there is this danger that the brain may be very good at encountering mind, but it may, and here I speculate completely, only be very good at encountering certain aspects of mind. So our neurological substrate is such that there may be some things about which it is literally impossible to think. Which sounds very paradoxical, but of course as soon as you think about the impossible, then you allow about how you might think your way in to it. And this again gives me encouragement that the nature of mind is something far, far different than merely a secretion of a neuron.

David: Are you saying, getting back to your brain and mind, that evolution may have certainly crafted the mind? Are you saying that beyond that there’s a whole realm of ideas which you have to include in your story of what it is to be human? You can’t just pretend that they don’t have an influence?

SCM: I think first of all that evolution has crafted brain, and brain encounters mind.

David: Encounters mind?

SCM: Yes. And the point about the way in which evolution is understood is that in some circles it’s regarded more or less as a closed argument. And yet that’s actually rather curious, because of course in certain ways it depends on the physics and chemistry. And we know that our understanding of physics, in particular, is incomplete. So if we had a completely water-tight theory of physics, we might have more security that one extension of it, which we call life, is also entirely understood. And I think our problem at the moment is to confuse mechanisms, such as Darwinian mechanisms, versus, if you like, the substrate of possibilities.

To say there’s only one way of thinking would be a ridiculous way of compressing a huge area. But if mind is mind and we encounter mind, then potentially any life form would encounter one area of mind. But, again to stress, what we encounter may be an infinitesimally small fraction of what there is.

25:19 – UNFINISHED BUSINESS

David: One of the guiding things that runs through the series is saying, well, what does it mean? And it’s this question, whether things mean things, whether there’s meaning at all in the universe. Because there are people who we’re talking to in the series who say, ‘Well, look, there are facts, but they don’t have any meaning. There are facts and rules, that’s it.’

SCM: If I may adopt a very Don-ish hue, my dear boy, facts are not neutral.

David: Do you feel that the insistence that science says there is no meaning to anything… Do you agree with that view of science, or those who say that is the only view you can have if you’re a scientist?

SCM: Some scientists say that. I don’t think science says that for a moment at all. In a way, it’s a sort of version of Pascal’s wager. If one is saying, right, everything is meaningless, then that’s still a metaphysical statement. It may not be one which is designed to give comfort to the great majority of people. It may also be true, of course, we don’t know.

But, on the other hand, the more I understand about the way we understand things, and the way in which we explore, and the sense of delight, and the sense of beauty, and I’m no expert on art, but there are some areas of art that I’m quite interested in, including 20th century art as well as 19th century: Samuel Palmer might be one example. I just sort of look at these things and think, how on earth did he do that? Turner’s another obvious example. It’s easy to get carried away with these classic examples of painter or musicians like Mozart, or Wagner, or Bach and so forth. But every one of those people hints at a transcendence, and you can just say, ‘Right, that’s a misfiring neuron… a little too much dopamine. Up the serotonin a bit more, old boy.’ Or you can say, ‘Right, this means something.’

Ard: And so, do you think that science will one day explain all of these things as it progresses? Will it also explain things like all sorts of values? Or do you think that science is somehow limited in what it can answer?

SCM: Well, many people claim that it will, but, with respect, I don’t like the formulation that science will explain everything. I’m not first of all sure there is a total explanation available. I think we are actually dealing with unlimited knowledge, as it happens. I don’t really understand why, but that seems to be my intuition.

But to put it slightly differently, if and when we begin to understand consciousness, which in my view is the problem of problems at the moment, there will be a science of consciousness, absolutely, but it will be completely unrecognisable from our perspective. So the trick is, of course, to be one step ahead of the curve and think, right, how are we going to define that new science?

In that sense the Germans have an advantage on us in referring to wissenschaften. You know, it’s knowledge and science as human experience, rather than science will explain morality. And, of course, you can point to many such examples whereby morals are employed for local advantage. Undoubtedly, it would be mad if they weren’t. But are you persuaded that the absurd examples of moral values are just a Darwinian expression? Most of us would be suspicious of that. They seem to be resonating with something much deeper.

Ard: So you’ve written that you’re suspicious whether a naturalistic program would be sufficient to encompass all of human reality. By naturalistic, I think you mean one assumes that there’s only atoms and molecules and nothing else. Do you want to elaborate on that? What does that mean? Are you saying basically we need God to explain this?

SCM: We don’t need God to explain this. It might be useful to have God, I don’t doubt, but I think the program runs into the buffer – the naturalistic program – in my opinion, with the question of consciousness.

Ard: Okay.

SCM: It seems to be that once again the mind goes full circle. It goes what is the nature of mind? What are our brains actually doing? As we’ve discussed in other contexts, you can either say, all mind is a product of the brain, but everything I know about the discovery, even in scientific contexts, persuades me that there is an intuition of adventure. There is an intuition that one is moving always into new territory.

There’s a very famous essay, of course, by Eugene Wigner, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics. And as I recall, but please don’t quote me, he even uses words like ‘miracle’. Not in a theistic sense, but the uncanny effectiveness of mathematics. How is it that completely abstract concepts, which so far as we know should only exist in our brains, and by implication our minds, have such extraordinary traction? So they are not just formula on a page: you apply them, and things happen in the real world.

Ard: Yeah.

SCM: Other people say, no, no, mathematics is merely a human invention, and there’s no decision here, but it’s more or less what program do you want to start to subscribe to? What do you think is going to be the most fruitful? It’s not that that view is right and this view is wrong – certainly not. It’s more, where are we going to get the most exciting advances? And my suspicion is that the naturalist program takes you a very long way, but it doesn’t take you far enough.

In terms of science, one could hardly blame people for being so enthusiastic about it, because it opens completely new doors into the way the universe is organised. And my only complaint with some of my colleagues is to say, ‘Oh well, is that sufficient?’ It’s all very well saying the world is beautifully organised in a very sophisticated way and we can think about it. But everything else I know about the world, including many areas of science, is it’s always unfinished business. And I’m just always nervous to apply, and this would apply with equal force to any religious faith, as it would to science, to say, ‘Everything’s been sorted out. I don’t have to worry about things.’ I think, in fact, in that way, the mystics, perhaps, in certain aspects of religious experience, and the greater scientists – and Einstein I think is a sort of example of this – always have the sort of feeling of sort of, ‘Oh my goodness me. I never knew that.’

David: So is it less a division between the religious and the scientists and more a division between those who proclaim that they already have all the certainties they need, and those who say, ‘Hmm, maybe not, maybe there are still things we don’t know.’?

SCM: I’m a little nervous about the word division. And I’m also very nervous to deny people security. It’s not a thing where one simply storms in and says, ‘You, feeble, feeble-minded individuals. Surely you realise it’s nothing like that at all.’ But I think really all the time one has to keep asking one’s self, how is the world organised as it is? Why is it like this?

The cliché is, why is there something rather than nothing?

But what strikes me so forcibly, especially in the last 50 years, is that in many ways the rate of progress in biology has been unbelievably staggering. But I get the impression these days that many of my colleagues are almost drowning in data.

SCM: They have so much data, they hardly know what to do with it.

Ard: They hardly know how to think about it.

SCM: Exactly. And so the problem is, again, one just needs to step back and say, ‘Right, you know, can we remember what we’re trying to ask?’ Is it actually sufficient merely to get some fantastically clever machine, which will provide gigabytes of data, if in the end we don’t actually know the question is we wish to ask?

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