Simon Conway Morris: Wikis


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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Simon Conway Morris FRS is a British paleontologist. He was born on 6 November 1951 in Carshalton, Surrey and brought up in London, England.[1] He made his reputation with a very detailed and careful study of the Burgess Shale fossils, an exploit celebrated in Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life, though Conway Morris' own book on the subject, The Crucible of Creation, is somewhat critical of Gould's presentation and interpretation. Conway Morris is a former student of Harry Blackmore Whittington. He is Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge. He is renowned for his insights into early evolution and his studies of paleobiology. He gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1996. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at age 39, was awarded the Walcott Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1987 and the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1998.



Date Position
1969-1972 University of Bristol: First Class Honours in Geology (B.Sc.)
1975 Elected Fellow (Title A) of St John's College
1976 University of Cambridge: PhD
1976 Research Fellowship at St John's College, University of Cambridge
1979 Appointed Lecturer in Department of Earth Sciences, Open University
1983 Appointed Lecturer in Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge
1987-1988 Awarded a One-Year Science Research Fellowship by the Nuffield Foundation
1990 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society
1991 Appointed Reader in Evolutionary Palaeobiology
1995 Elected to an ad hominem Chair in Evolutionary Palaeobiology
1997-2002 Natural Environment Research Council


He is based in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge and is best known for his work on the Cambrian “explosion”, especially in terms of his study of the famous Burgess Shale fossil fauna and similar deposits in China and Greenland. In addition to working in these countries he has undertaken research in Australia, Canada, Mongolia and the United States. His studies on the Burgess Shale-type faunas, as well as the early evolution of skeletons, has encompassed a wide variety of groups, ranging from ctenophores to the earliest vertebrates. His thinking on the significance of the Burgess Shale has evolved and his current interest in evolutionary convergence and its wider significance — the topic of his 2007 Gifford Lectures - was in part spurred by Stephen Jay Gould’s arguments for the importance of contingency in the history of life.


Burgess Shale

His views on the Burgess Shale are reported in numerous technical papers and more generally in The Crucible of Creation (Oxford University Press, 1998). In recent years he has been investigating the phenomenon of evolutionary convergence, the main thesis of which is put forward in Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge University Press, 2003). He is now involved on a major project to investigate both the scientific ramifications of convergence and also to establish a web-site (Map of Life) that aims to provide an easily accessible introduction to the thousands of known examples of convergence. This work is funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Evolution, science and religion

He is known as an effective communicator in the public understanding of science and has done extensive radio and television work. The latter includes the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures delivered in 1996. A Christian, he is also actively involved in various science and religion debates, including arguments against intelligent design on the one hand and materialism on the other. In 2005 he gave the Second Boyle Lecture.[2] He is an increasingly active participant in discussions relating to science and religion. He is active in the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion and has lectured there on "Evolution and fine-tuning in Biology".[3] He gave the University of Edinburgh's prestigious Gifford Lectures for 2007 in a series titled "Darwin's Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Song of Creation". In these lectures he suggests that[4]:

  • Evolution shows an eerie predictability, leading to the direct contradiction of the widely-held view that insists on evolution being governed by the contingencies of circumstance
  • Eyes are not the only example of repeated evolutionary convergence on the same solution. There is evidence for fundamental equivalences of sensory perception and the implication that deeper in the nervous system there is only one mentality. Minds may be not only universal, but also the same.
  • Evolutionary convergence can give us some very strong hints as to how any aliens will sense their environment, how they will move, how they will evolve agriculture, and intelligence.
  • Humans have passed a threshold that means we now transcend our animal origins. But birds, whales and humans all converge in song, and far from being the pinnacle of Creation we may be mere juveniles.
  • The regularities of the physical world [5], strongly indicate that there must be universal principles of mind. The evidence from evolutionary convergence, not least in terms of intelligence and music, is that the trajectories towards consciousness are embedded in a universe that in some ways is strangely familiar, where personal knowledge (to use Polanyi’s phrase) is valid.
  • Any attempt to explain, entirely in naturalistic terms, the fact that universe can now understand itself seems doomed to failure. Not only is the Creation open-ended and endlessly fertile, suggesting that in the future science itself faces an infinity of understandings, but so too there is good evidence of realities orthogonal to every-day experiences. Rather than trudging across the arid landscapes skimpily sketched by the materialists, we need to accept the invitation and accompany the Artist that brought Creation into being.

He is a strong critic of materialism and of reductionism:

That satisfactory definitions of life elude us may be one hint that when materialists step forward and declare with a brisk slap of the hands that this is it, we should be deeply skeptical. Whether the “it” be that of Richard Dawkins’ reductionist gene-centred worldpicture, the “universal acid” of Daniel Dennett’s meaningless Darwinism, or David Sloan Wilson’s faith in group selection (not least to explain the role of human religions), we certainly need to acknowledge each provides insights but as total explanations of what we see around us they are, to put it politely, somewhat incomplete.[6]

and of: "the scientist who boomingly — and they always boom — declares that those who believe in the Deity are unavoidably crazy, “cracked” as my dear father would have said, although I should add that I have every reason to believe he was — and now hope is — on the side of the angels."[7]

In March 2009 he was the opening speaker at the Biological Evolution Facts and Theories Conference held at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, as well as chairing one of the sessions. The conference was aimed at promoting dialogue between evolutionary biology and Christianity.


Simon Conway Morris has written a number of books on palaeobiology and evolution, including:

  • 1998. The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals. Oxford University Press.
  • 2003. Life’s Solution: Inevitable humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge University Press.

He also contributed to Origination of Organismal Form: Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary Biology with an article entitled: The Cambrian "Explosion" of Metazoans.


  1. ^ According to bio sketch at conference on The Nature of Nature here
  2. ^
  3. ^ Lecture list
  4. ^ The points cited are taken from the official abstracts of these lectures here
  5. ^ He mentions the Euclidean geometry of three dimensional space or the three degrees of freedom shown by terrestrial illumination, and cites Roger Shepard
  6. ^ Boyle Lecture — see link below — p8
  7. ^ ibid. p2

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Evolution is true, it happens, it is the way the world is, and we too are one of its products. This does not mean that evolution does not have metaphysical implications; I remain convinced that this is the case.

Simon Conway Morris (born 1951) is a British paleontologist, who became noted for his studies of the Burgess Shale fossils. He is Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge.



  • In a stroke of imaginative genius our understanding of consciousness was radically transformed, but in an entirely unexpected way. Critical clues came from diffuse nerve nets and, even more extraordinarily, plant neurobiology. Banished forever was the idea that the brain alone was the seat of consciousness. Rather, it is an 'antenna' embedded in a hyperdimensional matrix. The depths of reality are only now being uncovered, but now the springs of imagination, intuition, abstraction and even pre-cognition are revealed. What was once called the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics was simply a clue to a superbly structured universe where mind is an integral component, instantiated at the big bang or maybe even before? Future exploration offers dizzying prospects, but we are not the first to venture forth. Far in advance of the emergence of human consciousness, innumerable galactic civilisations had slipped into what we now call the Mortimer Manifold.

The Crucible of Creation (1998)

The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals (1998) ISBN 0192862022
  • Perhaps a suitable analogy to explain the short-falls of Dawkins's account of evolution is to think of an oil painting. In this analogy Dawkins has explained the nature and range of pigments; how the extraordinary azure colour was obtained, what effect cobalt has, and so on. But the description is quite unable to account for the picture itself. This view of evolution is incomplete and therefore fails in its side-stepping of how information (the genetic code) gives rise to phenotype, and by what mechanisms. Organisms are more than the sum of their parts, and we may also note in passing that the world depicted by Dawkins has lost all sense of transcendence.
    • p9.
  • Again and again Gould has been seen to charge into battle, sometimes hardly visible in the struggling mass. Strangely immune to seemingly lethal lunges he finally re-emerges. Eventually the dust and confusion die down. Gould announces to the awestruck onlookers that our present understanding of evolutionary processes is dangerously deficient and the theory is perhaps in its death throes. We look beyond the exponent of doom, and there standing in the sunlight is the edifice of evolutionary theory, little changed.
    • p.10
  • The underlying ideological agenda of Gould has always been fairly clear. Even where there has been a shift in thinking, it might be argued that in general the discussions were reflecting a particular world-view that at the least was sympathetic to the greatest of twentieth-century pseudo-religions, Marxism.
    • p.11
  • Gould's arguments on the quirkiness of human intelligence are not only presented as part of an evolutionary argument, but also I believe to buttress an ideological viewpoint. In brief, his assessment of Man as an evolutionary accident is to lead us into a libertarian attitude whereby, by virtue of a cosmic accident, we, and we alone, have no choice but to take responsibility for our own destiny and mould it to our desire.
    • p.14
  • The fact that we arrived here via an immensely long string of species that originated in something like Pikaia rather than some other crepuscular blob is a wonderful scientific story, but it is hardly material to our present condition.
    • p.14
  • If one compares the sequence of amino acids that go to form the protein haemoglobin, it becomes apparent that humans and chimps are identical and do not differ in a single site ...
    • p.151
  • ... nevertheless, as I never tire of pointing out to my students in Cambridge, chimpanzees do not play the piano, drink dry martinis, or erect temples to glorify the Creator.
    • p.151
  • The underlying reason for convergence seems to be that all organisms are under constant scrutiny of natural selection and are also subject to the constraints of the physical and chemical factors that severely limit the action of all inhabitants of the biosphere. Put simply, convergence shows that in a real world not all things are possible.
    • p.202
  • The long history of mankind is studded with convergences, perhaps most notably in social systems and the use of artefacts and technology. But for human history, set in the arrow of time, there appears to be one intolerable stumbling-block. This is the catastrophic failure in human values and decency.
    • p.205
  • The list is almost endless: the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, the destruction of Baghdad in 1258, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the Nazi Holocaust are only some among the infamous epochs in the litany of disaster.
    • p.205
  • If there were a clear prospect that such evils were part of a barbarian past, then at least we might find a small crumb of comfort. No such prospect exists: no scientific analysis can even remotely answer or account for past and present horrors of human behaviour.
    • p.205
  • It is my opinion that human history can make no sense unless evil doings are recognized for what they are, and that they are bearable only if somehow they may be redeemed.
    • p.205

Life's Solution (2003)

Life’s Solution: Inevitable humans in a Lonely Universe (2003) ISBN 0521827043
  • Evolution is true, it happens, it is the way the world is, and we too are one of its products. This does not mean that evolution does not have metaphysical implications; I remain convinced that this is the case.
    • p.XV
  • I am driven to observe of the ultra-Darwinists the following features as symptomatic. First, to my eyes, is their almost unbelievable self-assurance, their breezy self-confidence.
    • p.314
  • Second, and far more serious, are particular examples of a sophistry and sleight of hand in the misuse of metaphor, and more importantly a distortion of metaphysics in support of an evolutionary programme.
    • p.314
  • Richard Dawkins is arguably England's most pious atheist.
    • p.315
  • Third, as has often been noted, the pronouncements of the ultra-Darwinists can shake with a religious fervour. Their texts ring with high-minded rhetoric and dire warnings—not least of the unmitigated evils of religion—all to reveal the path of simplicity and straight thinking.
    • p.315
  • Notwithstanding the quasi-religious enthusiasms of ultra-Darwinists, their own understanding of theology is a combination of ignorance and derision, philosophically limp, drawing on clichés, and happily fuelled by the idiocies of the so-called scientific creationists.
    • p.316
  • It seldom seems to strike the ultra-Darwinists that theology might have its own richness and subtleties, and might—strange thought—actually tell us things about the world that are not only to our real advantage, but will never be revealed by science.
    • p.316


  • When serious scientists with huge beards aren't looking, I jocularly refer to these fossils as my alien goldfish. Picture the scene: the giant spaceship is parked on a wide beach, and kicking pebbles Commodore Grafnik is in a filthy mood. Yet another planet with hundreds of millions of years to go before intelligence evolves, not even at the zorkquaan stage, for Threga's sake! And as for his pet vlantans!! Purchased at huge expense, all they do is feed voraciously and then fall asleep. Still fuming, Grafnik carries the bowl down to the lagoon edge and (contrary to every regulation in the AIPC [Access to Inhabited Planets Code]) tips the vlantans out. They dart away and several months later enter the fossil record of a planet where they have no right to be.
    • Astronomy and Geophysics: Vol. 46, No. 4: "Aliens like us?"
  • Convergence is, in my opinion, not only deeply fascinating but, curiously, it is as often overlooked. More importantly, it hints at the existence of a deeper structure to biology. It helps us to delineate a metaphorical map across which evolution must navigate. In this sense the Darwinian mechanisms and the organic substrate we call life are really a search engine to discover particular solutions, including intelligence and—risky thought—perhaps deeper realities?
    • Astronomy and Geophysics: Vol. 46, No. 4: "Aliens like us?"

The Boyle lecture (2005)

  • And the other world-picture?, one based not just on science but wedded to a scientistic programme. Well, you know it as well as I do. Here all is ultimately meaningless.
  • A world-picture that encompasses science but also the deep wisdom of theology may help us to explain how it is we can think, how we discover the extraordinary, but so too it may warn us of present dangers and future catastrophes . . .
  • It is the knowledge and experience of the Incarnation, the wisdom and warnings given by Jesus in the Gospels, and not least the Resurrection that in the final analysis are all that matters.
  • It was G.K. Chesterton who trenchantly reminded us that, if one was going to preach, then it was more sensible to expend one's energies on addressing the converted rather than the unconverted. It was the former, after all, that were—and even more so are—in constant danger of missing the point and sliding away from the Faith into some vague sort of syncretistic, gnostic, gobbledegook. Chesterton, as ever, was right and should you think this is just another of his tiresome paradoxes may I urge you to re-read him: his prescience concerning our present situation and, worse, where we are heading is astounding.
  • ... not only that, but it can instruct us as to what may be the limits of desirable knowledge and risks of unbridled curiosity. This world-picture could also show that far from being a series of mindless accidents, history has directions and conceivably end-points.
  • The relative moral merits of any of us are in the final analysis only relevant to exponents of the theistic world picture; to those of scientistic inclination they might be socially useful but in the grand order of things can have no meaning in a soulless world.

Quotes about Conway Morris

  • * Life’s Solution builds a forceful case for the predictability of evolutionary outcomes,

not in terms of genetic details but rather their broad phenotypic manifestations. The case rests on a remarkable compilation of examples of convergent evolution, in which two or more lineages have independently evolved similar structures and functions.

    • Nature: Vol. 425, p767.
  • Awkward palaeobiologist proved wrong on multiple counts continues to spin out ideas even others find interesting.
    • Nature: Vol. 421, p319.
  • I am puzzled that Conway Morris apparently doesn't grasp the equally strong (and inevitable) personal preferences embedded in his own view of life.
    • Stephen Jay Gould
    • Natural History: Vol. 107, No. 10: "Showdown on the Burgess Shale"
  • The way Conway Morris goes about biting the hand that once fed him would make a shoal of piranha seem decorous.
    • Richard Fortey
    • London Review of Books: Vol. 20, No.19: "Shock Lobsters"

External links

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Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From Wikispecies

British paleontologist.


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