5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The uses of evolution
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...
Published on 11 Oct 2011 by Philip Inman
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An unconvincing solution
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...
Published on 19 Nov 2007 by C. N. Hose
Most Helpful First | Newest First
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The uses of evolution,
This review is from: Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Paperback)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. Instead, in the closing chapter, we were treated to another dispute altogether: the problem that some religious writers have in reconciling their beliefs with the robust edifice of the Theory of Evolution. This may or may not be a worthwhile subject of debate, but evolutionary convergence seems to have little bearing on it. Moreover Conway Morris only skates over the subject, with quotations from C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton and a more recent writer called J.C. Greene, and he gets off a couple of broadsides in the direction of Richard Dawkins.
So we really never found out what the fuss was about with convergence and we could have had rather more detail on the daft things theologians and biologists can say about each others' world view, when they don't know much about it. Finally, the ocean of truth that Conway Morris was standing beside received no mention at all. The question is whether convergence in evolutionary biology is just one example of convergent processes in reductionist, chaotic systems with memory but no foresight. How about human systems of government, legal principles, political economy, trends in aesthetics? Conway Morris claims that, given the right environment, the living system of the type we have here on Earth (he would go further and say the only type on offer) will "inevitably" produce "mammal-ness" and consciousness. This sounds like historical determinism. Is the main difference between convergence in evolution, as observed by Simon Conway Morris, and the logic of history, as observed by Oswald Spengler in Decline of the West, just one of time-scale? Did Conway Morris not notice this unexploded bomb, or did he dig it up, take fright and bury it again?
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An unconvincing solution,
This review is from: Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Paperback)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.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very stimulating read on evolutionary theory,
This review is from: Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Paperback)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.
25 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Considering convergence,
This review is from: Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Hardcover)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. Just because we are ignorant of a function doesn't mean there is none. Since evolution works on all parts of an organism, even if unequally in time or location, all evolutionary steps are adaptations. To Conway Morris, the frequent appearance of similar adaptations - "convergences" - in varying environments indicates that life operates under some general orders - it's not "rule by roulette". Among is many examples is the bizarre similarity in brain structure between human beings and mormyid fish. The latter is a creature living within an intense electrical environment. With high demand on its cognitive functions, the mormyid's brain uses about half the body's oxygen supply - three times that of the average human.
After fashioning his thematic structure with lavish amounts of material, Conway Morris nearly demolishes the edifice in explaining why he's constructed it. In a final, rambling chapter, he lays out the plans for the building. Most of it lashes out at things he deplores, including amazingly, "ultra-Darwinism", that catch-all phrase his target Gould used so ineptly. According to Conway Morris, something - not a deity, not "just six numbers", not anything even definable - but something is "out there" guiding everything from the construction of stars to evolving apes who can write sonnets. Much of this foundation is based on the thoughts of a few other writers, mostly philosophers. Here, Conway Morris exhibits a form of colour aberration - instead of using John Greene, he would better have chosen John Grey.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Buy one, get one free!,
This review is from: Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Paperback)There are actually two items between the covers here, and it's hard to believe they're written by the same person. The first, a substantial book, is, to my non-specialist eye at least, highly impressive, with cogent analysis of a wide range of convergence phenomena, from basic biochemistry to complete body plans and lifestyles, all supported by a wealth of telling detail.
For me, the only curious skew in this section is the insistence on the high likelihood of our encountering other intelligent life in the universe, on the grounds that its emergence is inevitable, apparently disregarding the fact that it has taken 4.5bn years for us to get where we are, and if it takes us more than a millionth of that time to render ourselves extinct we'll be dead lucky. If this is itself a convergent phenomenon, the window of opportunity is inherently very small.
Nevertheless, 5 stars for the book.
The other part, entitled 'Towards a Theology of Evolution', is a curious little pamphlet, polemical rather than analytical, which starts by offering a grotesque travesty of what he calls 'ultra-Darwinists' - Richard Dawkins is the only one who gets named, but he must presumably include Daniel Dennett and A C Grayling. The movement, allegedly, 'deifies science, denigrates philosophy and religion...' No it doesn't. It deifies nothing, has every respect for philosophy, but dismisses theology as pseudo-philosophy because of its reliance on arbitrary and unexaminable premises. As Christopher Hitchens observes, what is asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence.
The wealth of reference in the main part of the book is replaced by reliance on only a few sources, particularly John Greene, C S Lewis and G K Chesterton. The writing (or proof-reading) gets sloppy (in the Scopes trial, the defence and prosecution were not, 'respectively, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow'), and the quality of argument simply collapses. Among his 'six salient facts of evolution [that] are congruent with a Creation', we find 'the inherency of life whereby complexity emerges as much by the rearrangement and co-option of pre-existing building blocks as against relying on novelties per se'. Surely the truth is the absolute converse: only a creator has the luxury of arbitrary creation, whereas for an undirected natural process adaptation and co-option are the only strategies available. And the other five are no better.
Simon, do us all a favour. Stick to the day job.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but also disappointing,
This review is from: Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Paperback)Generally, this book deals with the subject of "convergence" in evolution. In this sense it is the fact that species from widely separated families develop surprisingly similar characteristics - be it the streamlining of sharks (cartilaginous fishes) and dolphins (mammal) or olfaction (the sense of smell) in insects and humans. Other cases are DNA itself, and the eyes. He argues the case that these similarities are not at all coincidental, nor due to some "creator", but rather a corollary of the limited ways things can work in our universe.
In these parts of the book the author is generally convincing, and makes a reasonably strong case. It is then forgivable that he repeats a couple of favourite expressions perhaps once or twice too often. Perhaps only he has too bleak a view of the probability of life, and sentient life, in other parts of the universe.
The last part of the book, however, is rather different. Here he leaves the scientific ideals and goes to task with those he consider ultra-darwinists and, as far as I can judge from having read some of them, puts words in their mouths that they have never intended. He also spends a chapter on some kind of metaphysical musings, the kind of which would rather belong in philosophical pamphlets than in the kind of well researched and well written scientific treatise the book starts out as.
While the first two thirds of the book are interesting, I can not unconditionally recommend it due to the mismatching ramblings in the latter part.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Heavy going,
This review is from: Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Paperback)I've lost count of the number of times I started to read this book (having bought the original paperback edition).
The subject matter is interesting enough, with a welcome, fresh perspective on the life's history, written (it would appear) to put some clear water between the author himself, Steven Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and creationists.
In direct contrast to Steven Jay Gould replaying the tape of life's history from the Cambrian in "Wonderful Life" and getting a different result each time, Simon Conway Morris cites instances of evolution giving rise to similar novelties to support a thesis that instead of a potentially infinite number of possible pathways, there are a finite number of "attractors" that "must" be converged upon.
Rather than just a difference between two scientists, it seems probable that Morris intended this work as a rebuttal of Gould; not only for the latter's intrusion upon Morris' studies of the Burgess Shale fauna in the work referred to earlier, but also for the "acidic" aspersions cast by Gould over Morris' naming of Hallucogenia.
Sadly, the author lacks the fluidity of a Gould or Dawkins. His writing is peppered with endnotes (which together occupy nearly as many pages as the text) and over-elaborate language (do we need words like "kerygma" when a simpler "appearance" would suffice?).
The book is scholarly, well-researched and clearly points back to source material. In style it therefore resembles a scientific paper - but, to use that analogy, it could be better served with abstracts and summaries at relevant points.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe by Simon Conway Morris (Paperback - 8 Nov 2004)