Debate over evolution: Destiny or happenstance?
Scientists debate whether evolution was a collection of happenstance or if intelligent life was destined to be.
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Despite centuries of discord, believers both religious and Darwinian can agree that Homo sapiens are currently the most advanced life form on the planet. Whether destined by a great Creator or evolved over millenia, humans stand at the top of the Animal Kingdom.
But even among evolutionary biologists, that is where the agreement ends. The long-standing Darwinian idea that humans are no more than a genetic anomaly has troubled even the most learned of scholars.
Simon Conway Morris, renowned biologist and evolutionary academe at Cambridge University, has written a book rejecting the old Darwinian views to forward instead the idea of evolutionary convergence -- a theory that explains how different organisms arrive, evolutionarily speaking, at the same point. For example, the way both vertebrates (from humans to fish) and some invertebrates like jellyfish have developed a complex, camera-like eye is of particular interest to Conway Morris and his theory. Instances like these in Earth's history have led Conway Morris to believe that certain attributes in nature are destined to be. The most controversial aspect of the evolutionary convergence theory is that intelligent life was guaranteed to occur on Earth no matter what route natural history took.
Conway Morris points to the "intelligent" aspects of other highly evolved animals, such as tool-making, vocal patterns and problem-solving, to support his idea. If our human ancestors had not succeeded in sentient evolution, Conway Morris claims, any number of organisms -- be they octopuses, crows or chimpanzees -- could have, or perhaps could still become, intelligent beings.
And that is where the evolutionary debate gets even more heated. Themes of destiny and coincidence suggest highly religious ideas, especially coming from Conway Morris, a professed Christian. Strongly atheist scientists like Daniel Dennett call Conway Morris's theory "bizarrely self-involved," citing too many random factors throughout history that have led to humans' success. But even noted atheists like Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan have been known to agree with the evolutionary convergence theory, saying that other intelligent beings "functionally equivalent to humans" but with possibly "unimaginable" anatomic characteristics could exist.
The only conclusions that scientists seem to make in this debate is that we can never really know the truth.
"We don’t know what the nature of the universe is," said Conway Morris. "It's an open-ended adventure."