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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 257

Simon Conway Morris on Design in Evolution & the Possibility of Purpose in the Cosmos

From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds: Six Myths (book cover)

In his latest book Cambridge professor Simon Conway Morris challenges six assumptions — what he calls “myths” — that too often pass as unquestioned truths amongst the evolutionary orthodox. These include the idea that evolution is boundless in the kinds of biological systems it can produce. Not true, he says. The process is highly circumscribed and delimited. Nor is it random. This popular notion holds that evolution proceeds blindly, with no endgame. But Conway Morris suggests otherwise, pointing to evidence that the processes of evolution are “seeded with inevitabilities.”

If that is so, then what about mass extinctions? Don’t they steer the development of life in radically new directions? Rather the reverse, claims Conway Morris. Such cataclysms simply accelerate evolutionary developments that were going to happen anyway. And what about that other evolutionary canard: the “missing link”? Plenty to choose from in the fossil record but what is persistently over-looked is that in any group there is not one but a phalanx of “missing links”. Once again we underscore the near-inevitability of evolutionary outcomes.

Turning from fossils to minds, Conway Morris critically examines the popular tenet that the intelligences of humans and animals basically are the same thing, a difference of degree not kind. A closer scrutiny of our minds shows that in reality an unbridgeable gulf separates us from even the chimpanzees, so begging questions of consciousness and Mind.

Finally, Conway Morris tackles the question of extraterrestrials. Surely, the size and scale of the universe suggest that alien life must exist somewhere beyond Earth and our tiny siloed solar system? After all, evolutionary convergence more than hints that human-like forms are universal. But Dr. Conway Morris has serious doubts. The famous Fermi Paradox (“Where are they?”) appears to hold: Alone in the cosmos—and unique, but not quite in the way one might expect.

Simon Conway Morris is the Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Morris is well known for his work on the early evolution of metazoans (popularly referred to as the “Cambrian Explosion”) and his extensive studies on convergent evolution. He is the author of more than 100 scientific articles and is the author or editor of 7 books. These include The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals (Oxford University Press, 1998), Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge University Press, 2003), and The Runes of Evolution: How the Universe became Self-Aware (Templeton Press, 2015). Dr, Morris has received the Walcott Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, the Charles Schuchert Award from the Paleontological Society, and the Lyell Medal from the Geological Society of London. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1990. He has spoken extensively at the intersection of science and religion, including giving the Gifford Lectures in 2007 at the University of Edinburgh.

Shermer and Morris discuss:

  • If extraterrestrial intelligences exist, will look anything like us?
  • Are we alone in the cosmos?
  • If we reran the tape of life, would humans appear again?
  • convergent evolution and directionality in evolution
  • chance, contingency, and law in evolution
  • Is there purpose in the cosmos?
  • theistic evolution and teleology in nature
  • why Morris is a Christian but rejects Intelligent Design creationism
  • Are there good reasons to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?
  • Are there good arguments for God’s existence?
  • free will and determinism.

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This episode was released on March 26, 2022.

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