In the words of Job, in one of the oldest pieces of literature in the world, I now speak of wonders beyond my comprehension.
In the world of Stephen Jay Gould, life evolves unpredictably. Creatures adapt to ever changing situations in whatever ways are most successful. If an asteroid hits the earth and dramatically changes the climate, the trajectory of the world is likewise changed, with species adapting and evolving as conditions warrant. It is unpredictable and subject to random chance. If we could rewind the clock back to the beginning and start over, we would get a completely different world. In this purely materialist, random, and accidental world, there is little room for God. Certainly, this worldview seems to conflict with the concept of a relational God that seeks some interaction with humans (or other species for that matter). This is the predominant worldview in the post-Christian modern world.
In the world of Simon Conway Morris, evolution follows far more predictable patterns. Creatures still evolve and adapt to changing conditions, but they do so in predictable ways, repeating patterns over and over again. Different unrelated species, faced with similar conditions, converge upon the same solution to an astonishing degree of detail (which is the main focus of this blog). In this world, if an asteroid hits the earth and dramatically changes the climate, the trajectory of the world does not change significantly. Sure, creatures die and others evolve, but the asteroid is merely a bump in the road of an inevitable journey. Eventually, there will be birds (or flying mammals, or insects, or something else) that look like meadowlarks and longclaws and live in weedy fields, possibly even singing from fence posts put there by humans (or some other species).
Many merge Gould’s and Morris’s worlds, pointing out that they are not necessarily in conflict. Species converge upon similar patterns because they work. These are the solutions which species evolve into repeatedly. It is both random and predictable. Gould might shrug and say, so what, there is convergence. Morris might jump up and point at the rewinding clock, saying, see, the world would not turn out differently.
If every pasture must have its meadowlark, every wetland its black bird with red shoulders, and every open plain its banded plover or wagtail, then the biological world is a predictable place. There is order. Evolution has directionality—even inevitability. That is, it may be inevitable that a species like a meadowlark evolves to fill that ecological space. This implies that the unique role of humans, with intelligence and extensive developed societies, may be part of that inevitability. Either that or we dismiss humans to a one-off event, or perhaps we interpret humans as a replacement for elephants, fulfilling an inevitable ecological niche. But perhaps humans, or a dominant species with similar traits, domesticating animals and managing the landscape, are in fact inevitable. Note we need not be primates. We could have evolved as human-like versions of marsupials or even dinosaurs (were in not for one particularly large asteroid).
When it comes to imagining God, anything, of course, is possible. Gould’s random accidental world may have a God, or Morris’s well-ordered universe with convergence and inevitability may just be the way of things without a God. If, however, we define God as specifically interested in a relationship with humans (or any other part of creation), then we can say that Gould’s random world is potentially not consistent with such a God (unless that God were willing to relate to whatever random life forms evolved, which I suppose is possible). At the very least we can say this: If the biological world has convergence, directionality, predictability, and inevitability, a relational God may exist. Without those things, any God that may exist seems far removed from life on Earth. Thus, a world with convergence and predictability, where meadowlarks and humans are inevitable, is at least consistent with the concept of a relational God. It is certainly not proof of such a God, but it does rule out the random accidental world where everything is chance and God seems irrelevant.
For more on this topic, see the following books:
- McGhee, George R. 2011. Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful
- Morris, Simon Conway. 2015. The Runes of Evolution: How the Universe became Self-Aware
- Morris, Simon Conway. 2008. The Deep Structure of Biology: Is Convergence Sufficiently Ubiquitous to Give a Directional Signal?
- Morris, Simon Conway. 2004. Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe