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Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a…
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Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe

by Simon Conway Morris

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Conway Morris' book, by his own description, is a sandwich. The meat of the book, which is very impressive, explores convergence in evolution. His conclusion is one that I admit that I was predisposed to favor, that the results of evolution are dependent on the requirements of the niche that the life form moves into, not random, unrepeatable contingencies. As I learned in my junior high school science class, and ever since, variations may be random, but natural selection isn't. "Evolution" is sometimes used a little too broadly in the sense of a history of life. A meteor strike may be a contingency that affects the situation that living beings have to deal with, but it is not, itself, a part of evolution in a strict sense. Rather, evolution is the process by which survivors will adapt to changed circumstances, or go extinct. Conway Morris makes an impressive argument that the results will be similar for similar needs and often, that there are no strikingly different alternatives. I predict that this will lead to a great deal of squabbling over how alike "alike" is. Conway Morris makes it clear that while he expects that our niche would be filled by another culture-bearing, language using, large-brained species with similar fine motor skills, he isn't necessarily requiring a primate. He also accepts that there may be bottlenecks, such as getting life started in the first place, but he is arguing that given the chance to proceed, evolution will always create similar results. I am convinced, and humbled by the breadth of his knowledge and research. Stephen J. Gould comes in for a lot of well-deserved criticism, and his fans will not be happy.

Alas, to continue the sandwich metaphor, one piece of the bread is a bit stale and the other downright moldy. The beginning chapters deal with the difficulties and probabilities of creating life in the first place. These chapters are mostly quite interesting - Conway Morris feels that the getting life to start developing may be extremely difficult under any circumstances and that present explanations are inadequate. My cavil with him in these chapters is that he goes on to declare that life is unlikely anywhere else. I have little patience with people who declare that almost certainly there is/is-not life elsewhere in the universe. Talk about hypothesizing in advance of your data! I am all for throwing around ideas, some of the most exhilarating books are those in which the author admits that it is impossible to reach firm conclusions, but still explores possibilities. Go ahead and guess: my guess is that somewhere else there is life, just because it's a big universe and it strikes me as unlikely that anything is truly unique. But that's just my guess, it doesn't make it to the dignity of scientific hypothesis. To reach a definite conclusion on the likelihood of a poorly understood process in scantily observed situations is nonsense.

The moldy slice is Conway Morris' "theology of evolution". I'm not actually sure what this is; in stark contrast to his review of convergence, he puts all of his energies into ill-supported attacks on his opponents, not developing his own ideas. Atheists (of which I am one) and agnostics can't win for losing - if they are cheerful, they are arrogant and amoral, if they are depressed, they "prove" the emptiness of their world view. Conway Morris' arguments seem to boil down to the assumptions that it is "obvious" that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, that atheists and agnostics are worse people than believers. Since the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in a god, it is a little hard to understand why we have such a high murder rate in that case, but Conway Morris isn't interested in examining facts. I would not think it would need repeating that people who are pious and behave irreproachably within their own society have a long track record of barbarism towards outsiders, often murdering and pillaging with the serene mind that comes from confidence that one is acting with the blessing of God. Being a believer in freedom of speech and religion, I don't fault Conway Morris or Richard Dawkins for being open about their views. I seriously doubt that science is capable of proving or disproving deity(s), but I am confident that it hasn't done either at this point; vicious personal attacks from either side under the guise of science are shameful. I don't think that Conway Morris does his notions any favor in this angry, poorly-argued section. If he really feels that they are important, then I think he should do them justice of developing them with the care that he developed his ideas on convergence. ( )
2 vote juglicerr | Oct 10, 2007 |
Both of Morris's main themes -- that evolution of intelligent humanoids was always a likelihood on Earth and that conditions allowing the evolution of intelligence may well not exist anywhere else in the universe -- seem far-fetched to me. But the main reason I decided *not* to read the book is that I noticed he is well-disposed toward theology, knocks Richard Dawkins (and presumably kindred top thinkers like Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker), and throws around antirationalist sneer words like ultra-darwinism, reductionism, and scientism. So nuts to Morris and his book.
  fpagan | Nov 18, 2006 |
Simon Conway Morris's book Life's Solution is fascinating. As an atheistic-leaning agnostic I'd gone along with Dawkins that religion was incompatible with evolution. Conway Morris (a British Cambridge Professor of Evolutionary Biology) gives a brilliant Darwinian account which is still compatible with "purpose". He demonstrates how certain phenomena (eg eyes) have evolved separately again and again; and that human-like intelligence was almost bound to evolve. He didn't entirely persuade me but I now recognise that a Darwinian/Christian position is intellectually credible.
  allsorts | Sep 20, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0521603250, Paperback)

In a crisp, passionate argument sure to draw the wrath of many biologists, Simon Conway Morris defends his belief that evolutionary science is misguided without a somewhat religious notion of the significance of human intelligence and existence. At the same time, he is careful to distance himself from creation "scientists" by reminding readers that:

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.

He uses convergence as his foundation, defining it as "the recurrent tendency of biological organization to arrive at the same 'solution' to a particular 'need'" and offering a multitude of examples, including eusociality, olfaction, and the generation of electrical fields. In outlining the direction and inevitability he believes is inherent in evolution, Conway Morris stacks up compelling evidence in the form of a revealed "protein hyperspace" that limits the possibilities of amino acid combination to a few, often repeated (pre-ordained?) forms. While he skirts a focus on the relentless environmental pressures that result in adaptation, Conway Morris also derides the notion that the gene rules evolution. He accuses his opponents (primarily Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins) "genetic fundamentalism" who use "sleights of hand, special pleading, and sanctimoniousness... trying to smuggle back the moral principle through the agency of the gene." Dense with examples and complex biological proofs, Life's Solution is not an easy explanation of convergence for general readers. Still, it is a clear and exciting elucidation of the theory that evolution might have predictable outcomes, even for those who find Conway Morris' metaphysical arguments unconvincing. --Therese Littleton

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:51:41 -0400)

"In this extraordinarily wide-ranging book Simon Conway Morris takes us on a tour of life that encompasses both classic examples of convergence, such as the camera-eyes of octopus and human, and remarkable new work that shows, for example, how ants have developed agriculture independently of us. Embedded in the evolutionary process are both latent inevitabilities and pathways that will be repeatedly explored. Underpinned by DNA, the weirdest molecule in the Universe, guided by a genetic code of staggering effectiveness, the tape of life will in time navigate to such biological properties as advanced sensory systems, intelligence, complex societies, tool-making and culture. So if these are all evolutionary inevitabilities, where are our counterparts across the Galaxy? The tape of life can run only on a suitable planet, and here it turns out that such Earth-like planets may be much rarer than is hoped. Inevitable humans, yes, but in a lonely Universe."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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