For the (fossil) record

From a schoolboy fossil-hunter on a Dorset beach to a world authority scouring sites in Canada and China, Simon Conway Morris has seen his career evolve. The Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at Cambridge University talks to Nigel Bovey about his discoveries in the worlds of faith and science.

Professor Conway Morris, when did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

When I was about eight or nine years old, my mother gave me a book of stickers of prehistoric animals. It fired my imagination and from then on I decided I wanted to work on fossils. My parents were generous and took me fossil-collecting to places such as Charmouth. I studied geology at Bristol University and then did a PhD at Cambridge.

What is evolutionary palaeobiology?

Palaeobiology is the study of extinct organisms. In On the Origin of Species Darwin presented many lines of evidence to show that evolution is a fact. One of those lines of evidence is the fossil record.

The main argument in palaeobiology is that the major transitions – for example, the origin of humans – can be investigated only through the fossil record. We can infer that we are very closely related to chimpanzees but if you want to learn what the common ancestor looked like, then you will have to employ a palaeontologist.

For years people have been looking for a ‘missing link’ as conclusive evidence that humans are descended from apes. Is there a missing link?

I am not an expert on human evolution, but the term ‘missing link’ is freighted with all sorts of expectations and assumptions.

If we mean finding fossil remains which are reasonably interpreted as intermediate between ourselves and some set of ancestors, then that is a missing link. It may be that at certain times, things happened rather rapidly – for instance, the invasion of air or the invasion of land – and that the fossil record is not perfect.

The fossil record is incomplete, but – as in all science – there often comes a point where we can say beyond reasonable doubt what we will discover next.

Sometimes we find something unexpected, such as the ‘Hobbit’ – Homo floresiensis – from 20,000 years ago, who were discovered in 2004 on Flores Island in Indonesia. They were about a metre high, had a brain the size of a chimpanzee’s, yet seem to have been fully human.

If ten years ago you’d asked any archaeologist if they expected to find some extremely primitive hominoids living in almost historical memory in the Indonesian archipelago, they would have thought you were crazy.

The discovery of the ‘Hobbit’ did not render previous discoveries redundant. There are gaps in our knowledge. There will always be gaps but we are not in need of a defining ‘missing link’.

What does the fossil record say about the age of the Earth?

The oldest minerals recovered from this planet come in at just under 4.4 billion years old – within 200 million years of the formation of the solar system. The reason we don’t have the original record is because the Earth’s crust has been continuously recycled so these little minerals – zircons – have been recycled into younger rocks.

After extracting the zircons from the rocks, scientists put them into a mass spectrometer, which calculates the relative ratio of the radiogenic isotopes, and get a reliable date of 4.4 billion years.

The issue of the fossil record is controversial as to the first definite signs of life, but it is generally accepted that there was life on Earth around 3.5 billion years ago.

How did life on Earth start?

One idea is that the first cells formed in deep-sea vents. Another is that life arrived on meteorites from elsewhere in the solar system – Mars, for instance. At the moment, we simply don’t know.

To what extent is the biblical account of how life started in conflict with a scientific explanation?

The Bible is not a scientific textbook and I’m not a theologian. Genesis is a description of a creative activity. All of us, scientists or not, are dealing with incomplete truths and trying to find ways to explain who we are. Some atheists and agnostics would explain life in dry, reductionist, bleak terms – there is nothing around us; life is an accident.

I think that God creating the world out of nothing – ex nihilo – as Genesis states, is a perfectly reasonable supposition. The idea that creation was extremely good but the world has gone badly wrong is a metaphysical statement which, when put alongside the idea of salvation, is the best you could possibly want.

Genesis talks about humans being made ‘in the image of God’. What do you understand by that phrase?

It speaks to me of the fact that humans can know and communicate with God, that the world is rationally organised, and that the world is not an accident. The fact is we know the world, we understand the world, we think the world is beautiful and we love it. These are things we share in common with God and that is the image we mirror.

To what extent are scientific and faith perspectives incompatible?

Science is about learning new things. When we learn new things we may need to reconsider what we believe to be the truth. New ideas do not mean that previously held beliefs are necessarily false, but they need to be reviewed.

If one subscribes, as I do, to a particular theology of Creation or to the idea of the Incarnation, then anything science tells us will not change that basic belief. It may be, though, that the world we see is configured in a way which surprises us, and we will only know that through science.

When people entrench themselves in a particular set of assumptions, it is difficult for them to have a dialogue with others. If you always deal in one metaphysic, then you are likely to see the world only through one set of lenses. Theologically, I disagree with Richard Dawkins but through his writings I sense his enthusiasm and enchantment with the world.

How viable is the claim by some atheists that science has all the answers?

It would be a very strange metaphysic that explained everything. Religious fundamentalists do the same. They say they have sorted it all out. This is a very odd approach to the complexities of life.

Since Darwin published his ideas, the theory of evolution has been a battleground. Some Christians believe evolution is unbiblical; some atheists claim evolution shows that God is redundant. Why has this scientific theory attracted so much non-scientific attention?

Thomas Henry Huxley, an atheist and contemporary supporter of Darwin, was very sceptical of any theology. Huxley, who in his day was as articulate as Dawkins is today, managed to persuade many people that Darwin’s idea on natural selection obviated the need for God.

Today’s young Earth creationists are fundamentally following in the footsteps of those people who resisted Huxley.

The idea that humankind is merely a twig on Darwin’s tree of life in the middle of a meaningless cosmos is one that Christians find unacceptable. Christians believe that life is a gift from God and has purpose, that good exists and that things matter.

But if science is saying that the world is more wonderfully made than maybe we at first realised, then we should recognise that.

If we only look at the world either through faith or through science, our view will remain impoverished.

Do you believe that God created the Universe?

Yes. Evolution is simply the method by which the Universe becomes self-aware. The question is: ‘Why are we self-aware?’ Even organisms far simpler than an animal are sentient. They are complex in terms of their ability to register signals from outside. That could mean that they are mere robots, but they are not. Where, then, does this self-awareness come from, let alone ethics or morality, if not ultimately from a creator?

Do science and Christianity each have questions the other is not designed to answer?

Science and faith have been described as non-overlapping magisteria – two completely separate entities. That to me is unsatisfactory. There are areas of overlap.

But there is a great deal of unfinished business. Do you believe in an afterlife? As it happens, I think there is good empirical evidence for the afterlife, but I certainly can’t describe the exact details!

The problems come when people of faith say that the claims to which they subscribe are so overwhelmingly important that they will not consider those claims in the light of scientific insight.

Science can tell us the ‘how?’ about the world but it doesn’t tell us the ‘why?’.

Are humans the end of the evolutionary process?

Astronomers are discovering planets outside our solar system that orbit other stars – exoplanets. They are particularly interested in the possibilities of life on any Earth-like planets. In my view the study of evolution is like any other science – it is predictable. I now have a very good idea about what we would find on any other planet, simply because all the mechanisms of evolution have been learnt on this planet and have re-evolved repeatedly – the phenomenon known as convergent evolution.

What is convergent evolution?

It is simply the observation that the same biological solution has evolved independently. So, for example, the eye of the octopus is effectively constructed in identical fashion to our own eye – the ‘camera eye’. The common ancestor did not possess that camera eye.

Convergence suggests that the number of solutions is much smaller than people realise – that in many cases organisms which look remarkably unalike are actually doing the same thing. For instance, the way insects and mammals walk is basically the same.

Can science prove the existence of God?

No. The way the world is constructed is consistent with the existence of God but that is not proof; it is evidence. Seeing is not believing. The evidence can stare you in the face and you don’t recognise it.

How and when did you become a Christian?

I was baptised in the Church of England as a child. I was confirmed. When I married I purposely wanted to marry in church to feel I belonged to a wider faith community.

The main motor in my faith is similar to that of people such as CS Lewis – an intellectual assent rather than an emotional response to the gospel, though I understand the nature of the personal claims in Christianity.

What convinces you that Jesus is who he says he is?

The evidence of the witnesses to the resurrection. The individual accounts are consistent. These were not stories that were worth making up. The gospel narrative hangs together. There is, what scientists call, an internal consistency.

If you then buy into the idea of the Trinity and of Creation ex nihilo plus the notion that Jesus was neither mad nor bad when he said he was God, then it rings true.

To what extent does your faith affect your science?

Some atheists will say that my faith has corrupted my science, but I would remind them that they too bring a metaphysic to their work.

Does science explain miracles?

Miracles are beyond the realm of current science. Jesus didn’t perform miracles as a kind of firework display; he did them for a completely different reason.

There is something about us and our world that allows some very odd things to happen. These aren’t ‘scientific’ occasions, but there are few people who don’t have at least one occasion in their lives that is uncanny. This would be consistent with the fact that miracles can happen – that the world operates in a way that we don’t fully comprehend.

Photo: Nigel Bovey

This article first appeared in The War Cry and is reprinted with permission