The phenomenon of convergence has been recognised in external morphology (e.g. the streamlined shape of sharks and porpoises), structural detail (e.g. the camera-like construction of the vertebrate eye and the octopus eye), and in many other functional aspects of organisms (e.g. the echolocation systems used by bats and whales). In textbooks and popular science writing, convergence is often explained in a Darwinian way, invoking the amazing powers of natural selection. However, far from being a curiosity that pops up from time to time, convergence appears to be a pervasive feature of the living world. Championing this perspective is Professor Simon Conway Morris, an evolutionary palaeontologist from Cambridge University, who is actively contributing to debate and constructing an online database of specific examples.
Similarities between different types of animal and plant are examples of convergence (source here)
Triggering this blog is an opinion piece in EMBO Reports, where Conway Morris draws attention to remarkable examples of convergence drawn from the field of molecular biology. Whether we consider systems for sight or sound or smell, the molecules that are crucial for converting stimuli into electrical signals have some fundamental similarities. To enable vision, for example, opsins are employed throughout the animal kingdom.
"[N]ot only do [opsins] belong to the vast family of G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), but it is no accident that, in ears and noses, related transmembrane proteins with the canonical seven helices are also poised to transduce noise and smells into electrical signals and ultimately awareness."
But the main point drawn by Conway Morris relates to the olfactory systems found in insects:
"One component, concentrated in the coeloconic sensilla, is tasked with detecting molecules such as alcohol and ammonia. Here, the machinery depends on the ionotropic glutamate receptors. This appears to be a classic case of co-option because not only are these receptors ancient, they also show fascinating links to synaptic receptors. However, the bulk of the olfactory capacity looks to a series of transmembrane proteins. At first glance, complete with their seven helices spanning the sensory membrane, they look reassuringly like the ever-reliable GPCRs. Except they aren't! Blink twice and then notice that these proteins are back to front so that the amino-terminal is cytoplasmic and the carboxy-terminal extracellular. This is completely opposite to the GPCRs, but surely it represents a trivial difference? On the contrary. Lurking in the insect 'nose' is a ligand-gated cation channel that at first sight looks practically identical to a GPCR but is completely unrelated."
Insects, then, display a "near perfect mimic" in this element of their olfactory systems. For Conway Morris, the interesting corollary is that replaying the tape of life does not lead to something radically different, for the end results are "very much the same". This is the first of the messages to emerge from convergence.
"With respect to the receptor protein, frankly who cares if it is a GPCR or a ligand-gated ion channel protein? They are completely unrelated, but the far more remarkable fact is that, in terms of transduction, the system evidently has no alternative. The molecule must be a seven-helix transmembrane protein; this is the molecule of choice. Evolution meets design: Darwin and Plato embrace."
Setting Darwin alongside Plato is unusual in contemporary science literature. The comment "Evolution meets design" is similarly noteworthy. What is intended here? Darwinian evolution is normally presented as a full explanation of apparent design, so most Darwinists will scratch their heads and question whether Conway Morris really understands Darwinism. An example of this follows later.
Nevertheless, the implication of Darwin embracing Plato is that these two have been apart for too long and the route to achieve reconciliation is via convergence. Darwinists have developed a perspective on evolutionary transformation that looks like a random walk. There is no direction, no goal, no over-riding architecture. The tensions between this approach and the perspective developed by Conway Morris are well expressed in his opening paragraph:
"How best to describe evolution? A drunkard's walk; a shambling billion-year spree punctuated with prat-falls, accompanied by a Beckettian mumbling? Or a sleek greyhound rippling with suppressed energy, racing along the narrow highways of the Darwinian landscape? "Mumble and shuffle" would be the answer of most biologists, but perhaps next time we open our Darwin we should also turn up The Ride of the Valkyries."
So what relevance is Plato for evolutionary biology? Plato's philosophy invoked a transcendent intelligence, and rationality was associated with mind rather than matter. Although chance and necessity have their place in the world, they are part of a bigger picture goverened by the ultimate wisdom. Plato spoke of ideal Forms which represent the essence of what we see around us. The ideal Forms represent reality; the observed objects are transient derivatives. To a critic who stated: "I see particular horses, but not horseness", Plato replied: "That is because you have eyes but no intelligence." This, then, is Plato's contribution to evolutionary biology: convergence points to an essence beyond the particulars. There is a bigger picture that can easily be missed by those who are unaccustomed to contemplating transcendence or who are ideologically opposed to the concept.
It follows that there is no substance to Gould's famous claim that replaying the tape of life would lead to a different set of organic forms. For Conway Morris, replaying the tape of life brings out the same essences - the same ideal Forms. The ubiquity of convergence guarantees it. Even if life were on other planets, it would follow the same patterns:
"Rest assured that on Threga IX - that charming little planet just to the left of Arcturus - eyes will flicker and noses will swivel beneath an alien sun. We can save ourselves all the fuss of an extremely expensive extraterrestrial excursion. In those alien eyes and noses, we can be quite certain that a seven-helix transmembrane protein will be busy telling its owner that the sunset is red and dinner is almost ready."
These issues are highly significant for two reasons. The first concerns the entrenched way Darwinians advance the concepts of randomness, accidents and improbability. At the time of writing, the New Scientist has just published an article on a gene duplication in the hominid lineage that is said to be crucial for understanding human intelligence. The accompanying editorial warms to the idea that humanity's existence is the result of accidental gene duplications. As the excerpt below shows, there is no hint here of Darwin meeting Plato. Instead, this is an example of Darwin slamming the door in Plato's face and insisting that our humanity is all in our genes.
"The more we learn about our evolutionary journey from ape to human, the more astonishing it seems. Around 3.5 million years ago, a gene involved in brain development duplicated itself in one of our ancestors. Around a million years later it did it again. The duplicate genes now play a crucial role in the design of our big, powerful brains. The double duplication joins a handful of other mutations - notably in FOXP2, also known as the "language gene" - that appear to have endowed us with uniquely human traits. It is no exaggeration to say they are the genes that make us human. On one level that is not hugely surprising. The differences between humans and chimps are obviously encoded in DNA, most likely in genes that determine brain architecture. But on another it brings home the sheer improbability of our existence. The essence of humanity largely boils down to a bunch of random mutations, every one of them happening by chance." (Source: We are the improbable ape)
The second reason for saying the issues are significant is because they have educational implications. How are teachers to handle big questions that are actively being discussed in the scientific community? These includes ultimate questions about meaning and purpose, how to understand design in the cosmos, the significance of mankind, the basis of morality and ethics, our experience of consciousness and free agency, and a host of related issues. All of these are receiving attention within scientific disciplines. Focus for a moment on the nature of humanity. Are we improbable accidents of history? Is consciousness explained (in principle) by genetics. It is not difficult to find affirmative responses to these questions coming from scientists. However, any scientists who answers with a "No!" is faced with the charge that they are religiously motivated and that their religious views have no place in the classroom. This has actually happened to Conway Morris. In 2009, he wrote a popular piece in The Guardian, saying things like:
"How to explain mind? Darwin fumbled it. Could he trust his thoughts any more than those of a dog? [. . .] After all, being a product of evolution gives no warrant at all that what we perceive as rationality, and indeed one that science and mathematics employ with almost dizzying success, has as its basis anything more than sheer whimsy. If, however, the universe is actually the product of a rational Mind and evolution is simply the search engine that in leading to sentience and consciousness allows us to discover the fundamental architecture of the universe - a point many mathematicians intuitively sense when they speak of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics - then things not only start to make much better sense, but they are also much more interesting. Farewell bleak nihilism; the cold assurances that all is meaningless."
This received several vigorous responses from scientists committed to naturalism (i.e. nature is all there is). One of these was Professor Jerry Coyne, who wrote a blog with the title: Simon Conway Morris becomes a creationist.
"Contra Conway Morris, there are many people who feel that consciousness is "material" in the sense that it arises from purely material causes in a material object: the brain. Understanding how and why consciousness evolved are hard problems, but to throw one's hands up in despair and say, "God made it" is a ludicrous solution. Give biologists another century of work on the brain, for goodness sake! [. . .] Conway Morris is straying from the scientific path here, but he simply can't help himself. He is a committed Christian, and has to find some way to show that the evolution of humans was inevitable."
It is not my purpose here to analyse these comments, but rather to show their relevance to education. At present, we have Coyne's view regarded by legislators and policy-makers as "science" and Conway Morris' view regarded as "religion". The truth is that both Coyne and Conway Morris have developed positions that can be defended as science, and both bring a religious worldview to their science (Coyne's is atheism, Conway Morris' is Christianity). The real problem is that atheistic scientists have gained too much influence, because they have secularised science and turned it into an instrument for promoting their naturalistic philosophy. This leaves them wide open to confirmation bias - all evidences confirm their naturalistic worldview. Education should not be a battle-ground for worldviews. Let the evidences be taught and teachers should be free to help their students examine all hypotheses with intellectual merit that address these evidences. This means a change of direction for many countries, certainly in the US and certainly in the UK. For more from Conway Morris, a short video clip is here. He argues that the world around us shows abundant signs of being structured, and invites us to consider whether we can identify worldviews that are congruent with these evidences.
Molecules of choice?
Simon Conway Morris
EMBO reports, 13, 281 (28 February 2012) | doi:10.1038/embor.2012.21
[First paragraph is quoted above]
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