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Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe [Paperback]

Simon Conway Morris
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
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Book Description

13 Jan 2005
The assassin's bullet misses, the Archduke's carriage moves forward, and a catastrophic war is avoided. So too with the history of life. Re-run the tape of life, as Stephen J. Gould claimed, and the outcome must be entirely different: an alien world, without humans and maybe not even intelligence. The history of life is littered with accidents: any twist or turn may lead to a completely different world. Now this view is being challenged. Simon Conway Morris explores the evidence demonstrating life's almost eerie ability to navigate to a single solution, repeatedly. Eyes, brains, tools, even culture: all are very much on the cards. So if these are all evolutionary inevitabilities, where are our counterparts across the galaxy? The tape of life can only run on a suitable planet, and it seems that such Earth-like planets may be much rarer than hoped. Inevitable humans, yes, but in a lonely Universe.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 486 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; New Ed edition (13 Jan 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521603250
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521603256
  • Product Dimensions: 3 x 15.2 x 22.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 446,664 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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'Life's Solution is an absorbing presentation written to challenge and inform the mind of the reader. Life's Solution is a superb contribution to both Contemporary Philosophy Studies academic reference collections and University level and Evolutionary Biology reading lists.' Library Bookwatch

'Life's Solution builds a forceful case for the predictability of evolutionary outcomes, 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. The examples range from the aerodynamics of hovering moths and hummingbirds to the use of silk by spiders and some insects to capture prey … I recommend the book to anyone grappling with the meaning of evolution and our place in the Universe, and to biologists interested in adaptation and constraints.' Nature

'Simon Conway Morris's bold new book, Life's Solution, challenges this Darwinian orthodoxy by extending ideas he presented in his Crucible of Creation … Conway Morris presents scores of fascinating examples that are less familiar. The lesson is clear. The living world is peppered with recurrent themes; it is not an accumulation of unique events.' New York Times Book Review

'Are human beings the insignificant products of countless quirky biological accidents, or the expected result of evolutionary patterns deeply embedded in the structure of natural selection? Drawing upon diverse biological evidence, Conway Morris convincingly argues that the general features of our bodies and minds are indeed written into the laws of the universe. This is a truly inspiring book, and a welcome antidote to the bleak nihilism of the ultra-Darwinists.' Paul Davies, author of Mind of God

'… full of important information and insights …'. TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution

'… this lively and well-researched book contains an impressive breadth of detail on subjects ranging from the nature of the early universe and the formation of stars and planets to the biological details of life. Scientists and the scientifically interested will find its arguments intelligent and thought provoking.' The Times Higher Education Supplement

'It is a fascinating tale, ranging across the entire field of living organisms … he marshals an impressive and extremely wide-ranging array of arguments to support his case, from the microstructure of proteins and DNA at one end, to the large-scale processes in stars and galaxies at the other … This is a fascinating book covering a huge range of evidence. Biologist or not, I recommend it. After all, we are all human and the question of our origins has to be one of the more import in the world. There is much here to stimulate those famously large brains with which humans are endowed.' Journal of the Geological Magazine

'This is a hugely important work of science … for anyone with any interest in religion, for or against, it has immense implications … It is exciting stuff … The wealth of ideas in his book is intoxicating … You must read it for yourself.' New Directions

'… one of the most controversial volumes written about evolution in recent years by a respected biologist … Skilfully written, Life's Solution is certainly an entertaining read. There is much to admire about Conway Morris's scholarship …'. Heredity

'…biologically fascinating and overwhelming.' Scientific & Medical Network

'The book itself is well set out introducing the reader to each example of evolutionary convergence with a thoughtful approach that carries them along without becoming to confused in detail but rather allows them to see the greater theme the author wishes to convey, with each chapter building on the preceding ones. For each chapter there are copious footnotes to which a reader may refer at the end of the book with a comprehensive index beyond this as well.' The Open University Geological Society Journal

'… throughout the book, Conway Morris's writing is lucid …'. Palaeontological Newsletter

'… he brings an awkward problem into the light with a masterly argument for the inevitable existence of humans … read twice.' New Scientist

Book Description

The eminent evolutionary palaeobiologist Simon Conway Morris challenges the accepted view that if the tape of life were wound back, the replay would be very different. He also asks: are we alone?

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The uses of evolution 11 Oct 2011
This is a book about evolutionary convergence, arranged for the general reader. It is illustrated sparingly with black-and-white diagrams and pictures. There are copious end notes and references for any who might like to pursue the subject on their own, although they might need a university library to do it in. Convergence in evolution, an apparently widespread phenomenon, is a process whereby the same or similar structural or physiological solution evolves repeatedly and independently among different organisms and in different eras, in response to similar environmental pressures. The repeated evolution of some form of eye is probably the best known example. This used to be the stock in trade for evolutionary sceptics, who would mock honest biologists with "what use is a half-evolved eye, answer me that". Conway Morris gently demonstrates that there is no such thing as a "half-evolved" anything, since evolution has no plan. There is however something called "inherence". This is more than a restatement of the truism that, if something evolved in a given species of organism, the capacity to do must have been there already and can often be discerned in the organism's distant ancestors. The stronger form of inherence says that, given the right genetic material and the right environment and enough time, you can make informed predictions about what is going to happen. Both convergence and inherence seem to be hugely controversial topics among biologists and Conway Morris gives us a flavour of this in his quotation from sources that use words such as "remarkable" and "surprising" when describing the observed phenomena of convergence, as if some orthodoxy is being challenged. Quite what the orthodoxy was or the nature of the controversy never really emerged, or this reviewer missed it. Read more ›
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An unconvincing solution 19 Nov 2007
I saw Simon Conway Morris lecture a couple of years ago and was interested enough to buy his book. I've only just got around to reading it. The book is well written and interesting enough and kept me reading until the end.

a word of warning: this is not an introductory text for evoilutionary ideas and would be understood better with some prior knowledge.

The clue to the topic of the book is in the subtitle. In the first part of the book the author attempts to convince us that we may well indeed be living in a lonely universe. This is done with intelligence and clarity, however I left this section more convinced that their might be intelligent life out there than when I started it.

The second part of the book argues for the importance of evolutionary convergence in understanding evolution and again is clear and well written with many examples. The sections dealing with the inevitability of intelligence are especially interesting.

However, the down point of the book is the last couple of chapters which appear to tacked onto the end and deal with metaphysical arguments rather than scientific ones. The main argument appears to be atheist evolutiary thinkers = unhappiness. His main ideas about evolutionary convergence didn't really convince me that this inevitably leads to some intelligence guiding the univerese.

Recommend for the ideas of evolutionary convergence, but the metaphysical musings should be clarified or left out.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very stimulating read on evolutionary theory 3 Aug 2008
I first became aware of Simon Conway Morris' work 16 years ago, through reading the late Stephen Jay Gould's book 'Wonderful Life', which gives a florid account of the discovery of the soft-bodied faunas of the Burgess Shales, and the lessons they held about diversity and evolutionary divergence in the early Cambrian. Being specialised in a part of geology which rarely makes use of palaeontological data, I was long overdue an update on evolutionary theory and found Conway Morris's new book very helpful.

The presentation is masterly. I found the multiple, heavily-researched examples of convergence very striking, and also enjoyed the 'relaxed-yet-erudite' style of presentation. I'd like to see what some of my friends who are involved in modelling of evolutionary processes might make of these ideas in analytical terms, and that's something I intend to pursue.

Unlike some of the other reviewers, I didn't find the last two chapters discordant: the frequent mention in the earlier chapters of the unease which evolutionary biologists feel when they sense the unwelcome 'ghost of teleology looking over their shoulders' made these chapters a necessity. The points made in them are presented without prejudice, but also without moral cowardice. If anything they were a bit abbreviated and I'd have appreciated a lengthier exposition of some of the key arguments. I sense some of the negative comments on these chapters in the other reviews derive from the very unease at the recrudescence of teleology which Conway Morris comments upon ... This isn't something I personally feel uneasy about. Geology is surely mature enough as a subject now to confront the as-yet-unexplained with confidence.

I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the evolution of life, the emergence of consciousness and intelligence, and any interest whatsoever in the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe.
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26 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Considering convergence 24 Nov 2004
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Overstating your case has become almost the norm in evolutionary studies. By gathering reams of supporting material, using every possible example, all while reproaching your critics, lets you can produce a book such as this one. Conway Morris has a deserved reputation as a fine palaeontologist. Working with early fossils has given him a firm foundation to address how life has evolved on this planet. In this book he builds on that basis to take an additional step. Is human intelligence unique, or will we someday encounter it on distant worlds? What do we know about early [and present] life on this planet that would enable us to forecast what might be found elsewhere? Conway Morris addresses these and other questions directly, using an abundance of supportive evidence.
He starts with deepest chronological base, the formation of stars and planets. Even at this level, he stresses, there are constraints. Stars have sequential mechanisms, now fairly well defined. Following them, planets' structures and even orbits may follow almost predictable pathways. After the earliest emergence of life, rules of form, options of habitat and, ultimately, the way intellect occurs, may be broadly set and followed. Darwin understood this from the beginning - evolution builds on what's gone before. Even the most bizarre-looking sea or land life has resulted from a series of steps reaching into the past.
The body of the book portrays those steps, where identifiable in the past and as seen today. The steps, as Conway Morris rightly reminds us, are the results of adaptations through time - which he defines as "inherency". He bristles with indignation at the critics of the adaptationist programme who contend if you can't identify the "usefulness" of a trait, it's not an adaptation.
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