Interview with Simon Conway Morris


Current chapter: 1.

Simon Conway Morris is professor of evolutionary paleobiology at the University of Cambridge and the author of books on early evolution (The Crucible of Creation, 1998) and evolutionary convergence (Life’s Solution, 2003). He discusses a wide range of issues, from the evidence of design in nature, to the status of Darwinism in modern biology, to the role that science can play in a reenchantment of nature.


  1. 1. Introduction

    (Dr Paul White introduces Prof Simon Conway Morris.)

  2. 2. When did you first encounter Darwin’s theories?

    Dr White: “Darwin has become a figurehead in current debates about science and religion. His books continue to be widely read by scientists. Do you remember when you first encountered Darwin’s theories?”

  3. 3. Darwin’s place in evolutionary discussions today

    Dr White: “So you think this is why he continues to play a role in evolutionary discussions today?”

  4. 4. In your writing and lectures, what do you mean by “Darwin’s compass”?

    Dr White: “You’ve just finished giving the Gifford Lectures on natural theology at Edinburgh University, and the title of your lectures was: ‘Darwin’s compass: how evolution discovers the song of creation.’ As a navigation instrument, the compass would presumably help to steer evolution on a particular course, and the metaphor also evokes Darwin on the Beagle, one of the most celebrated voyages in scientific history. Could you just tell us a bit more about what you mean by ‘Darwin’s compass’ and if you see Darwin’s own theory of evolution as directional?”

  5. 5. Are your views much like those of some of Darwin’s contemporaries?

    Dr White: “It’s often asserted that Darwin undermined the tradition of natural theology. Yet, many Victorians found ways of reconciling their religious beliefs with evolutionary theory. A number of Darwin’s leading supporters, such as the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, were devout Christians. Do you see any parallels between your views on evolution and those of some of Darwin’s contemporaries?”

  6. 6. Did Darwin avoid publicly debating religion out of respect for professional boundaries?

    Dr White: “I wonder if the withdrawal – as you describe it – had something to do with his sense of what the proper boundaries of science were; what kinds of questions he could investigate, and what kinds of questions were open-ended in the sense that you describe. Perhaps there would be other fields of knowledge or other kinds of expert who might be able to take those on. But he didn’t see a way of investigating them scientifically.”

  7. 7. Does Darwin’s correspondence reveal that he was willing to discuss the theological implications of his ideas?

    Dr White: “Some of your work gives a view of nature as full of marvels and mysteries; as inspiring emotions such as wonder, awe and reverence. This isn’t a view we usually associate with modern science. Yet it is one that some of Darwin’s scientific contemporaries held, and it’s a view that became increasingly important among liberal theologians in the nineteenth century. So, in November 1859, the Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley writes to Darwin, just after reading Origin, ‘I have gradually learned to see it as just as noble a conception of deity to believe that he created primal forms capable of self-development as to believe that he required a fresh act of intervention. I question whether the former be not the loftier thought.’ And Darwin is so pleased he asks Kingsley if he can insert this sentence into the second edition of Origin – and it in fact appears in all subsequent editions. This seems to show an openness both on the part of a clergyman to engage with evolutionary theory, and on Darwin’s part to accommodate religious readings of The Origin of Species, and I wonder if this says something about a dialogue that, in fact, is going on.”

  8. 8. What is the significance of Darwin’s inserting Kingsley’s sentence into the Origin of Species?

    Dr White: “What does it mean to you that Darwin takes this statement and inserts it in the Origin of Species?”

  9. 9. Are your own views different from those of others who support the idea of design while also accepting evolution?

    Dr White: “You’ve been careful to distinguish your views from those usually identified with the ‘intelligent design’ movement. I wonder if you could clarify your position in relation to others who have supported design in nature and who also accept evolution.”

  10. 10. Is your own argument about convergent evolution intended as evidence of the existence of a creator?

    Dr White: “It’s unclear to me if your argument about convergent evolution is to be taken in some sense as evidence of the existence of a creator or a designer.”

  11. 11. Are religious instincts, which may be by-products of evolution, to be trusted?

    Dr White: “Part of your argument for the theological implications of evolution refers to this deep-seated conviction in humans that life must have an ultimate purpose or meaning. In one of Darwin’s letters, he writes – this is quite late in his life – ‘I’m aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came and how it arose,’ and yet Darwin finds that he is not able to trust such instincts. Perhaps it’s not because he was avoiding the question but rather because he thought they could be explained in naturalistic terms (I don’t know if this is what Daniel Dennett meant or not); that they have their evolutionary roots in animals. For example, the devotion a dog feels for its master. Now you seem on the one hand to acknowledge evolutionary explanations for moral and religious sensibilites. So, if this is the case, then what theological implications can you draw from these sensibilities. How is it you are able to trust them, as it were?”

  12. 12. Were Darwin’s religious beliefs in fact more complex and uncertain than is typically recognised?

    Dr White: “You touch on Darwin’s personal beliefs in the last chapter of your book Life’s Solution, and they’ve come up already. Maybe we can just explore that a little bit more. In your book, this comes up in a discussion about some of the problems inherent in ultra-Darwinism and the materialist approach to nature, and we found that some of the letters present a far richer picture of Darwin the man than his published works, including his own autobiography. Some of the letters show him to be sympathetic, at least to a point, with a view of nature as a product of design, and his own personal religious beliefs appear more complex, more uncertain than the views usually attributed to him on either side of the science and religion debate, or indeed in much of the historical literature: a kind of agnosticism that’s not the agnosticism of Huxley, say – a more aggressive sort – but a genuine uncertainty coupled with a sense of searching.”

  13. 13. Does the portrayal of Darwin’s arguments as debasing to moral and spiritual nature tend to polarise or oversimplify?

    Dr White: “Since the publication of Origin of Species, some critics of Darwin have tended to present his arguments as debasing to moral and spiritual nature, and this view of Darwinism is still prevalent today. From your own experience as a participant in some of these debates over science and religion, how do you think this revised historical picture, that is now emerging from Darwin’s correspondence, is likely to affect tendencies to polarise or oversimplify?”

  14. 14. In your opinion, as science expands into new areas, will it reduce mysteries or could it become ‘re-enchanted’?

    Dr White: “In some of your comments about science you seem to move in two different directions. On the one hand, there’s a concern about scientism – the view that science can explain everything – and you’re very clear about why you think that isn’t the case. On the other hand, there’s a sense of new frontiers; new questions that might be investigated; new realities, like the dimensions opened by music. I’m just wondering if you see this leading to a further disenchantment of the world, so the mysteries are now solved (even though there are more), or is this only possible if science itself can move beyond its current methods and assumptions so that what we would be seeing is a kind of re-enchantment of science?”

  15. 15. Do you think science could be taught so as to avoid the problems you associate with reductionism?

    Dr White: “Thinking about how science is taught, thinking about the classroom, do you think science could be taught so as to avoid some of these problems you associate with reductionism or a merely instrumental approach to nature?”

  16. 16. You’ve previously suggested two ways in which science and religion can avoid separation; can you expand on these?

    Dr White: “You object to the view that science and religion inhabit seperate spheres: for example, knowledge and facts on the one hand, faith and values on the other. And you’ve suggested two ways in which science and religion might be drawn together. One is the ends of science: the view that science is shot through with moral implications, and that scientists need to concern themselves with these. And the other is the motive: the motive for science. In your Boyle lecture you ask, ‘how are we to be ‘legitimate scientists but inspired by faith’? I think you’ve touched on some of that, but maybe you can expand a little bit more on those two points.”

  17. 17. How can the suffering implicit in natural selection be reconciled with a view of nature that emphasises beauty, wonder and perfection?

    Dr White: “In some of his letters, Darwin also returns to the problem of evil, not just in the human world but in nature: the suffering, death and wastefulness that seem necessary for natural selection to operate for the production of new species. How can this view be reconciled with the one that you (and indeed many of Darwin’s contemporaries) presentpresent, a view of nature which places the emphasis on beauty and wonder, or to use the language of 19th century natural theology, on its marvellous and perfect contrivances?”

  18. 18. Is there an ongoing place for Darwin in debates about science and religion that could be a constructive (rather than divisive) one?

    Dr White: “My final question. It really brings us back to the point you made about the dangers of making Darwin a totem. One way of maybe improving the current debates about science and religion would be to move right away from Darwin and to say, ‘Let’s move on; it’s time to move on now.’ However, given the fact that Darwin is used as a figurehead so much, so often – given the realities of the situation – do you think there is an ongoing place for him in future debates about the relationship between science and religion that could be a constructive one?”

  19. 19. Credits