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Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe

35 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521603256
ISBN-10: 0521603250
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Editorial Reviews Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"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." Is Library Bookwatch, December 2003

"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

"Simon Conway Morris's bold new book, Life's Solution, challenges [the] 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 wtih 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

Praise for previous book... "Having spent four centuries taking the world to bits and trying to find out what makes it tick, in the 21st century scientists are now trying to fit the pieces together and understand why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Simon Conway Morris provides the best overview, from a biolgical viewpoint, of how complexity on the large scale arises from simple laws on the small scale, and why creatures like us may not be the accidents that many suppose. This is the most important book about evolution since The Selfish Gene; essential reading for everyone who has wondered about why we are here in a Universe that seems tailor-made for life. John Gribbin, Author of Science: A History

"Morris gives a detailed and fascinating account of numerous examples of evolutionary convergence, ranging in scale and complexity from molecular functions to physiology, morphology, sensory organs, behavior, complex social systems, and, finally, intelligence. Highly recommended for both academic and larger public libraries." Library Journal

"If you have not done so ... read Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe." Toronto, Ontario Globe & Mail

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 488 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (November 8, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521603250
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521603256
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #164,655 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Jay W. Richards on February 24, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Life's Solution is one of those books that does not easily submit to a pithy review. The book is many things. It is first of all a striking and elegantly written catalogue of what Conway Morris calls "the ubiquity of convergence" in the biological world.
While many folks are familiar with a handful of examples of convergence (the camera eye and those marsupials in Australia come to mind), it is remarkable how pervasive the phenomenon is. In fact, although I still don't know what to make of it, Conway Morris convinced me that convergence is a fact about the world that deserves more attention than it has received.
But the book is much more than a mere compendium of examples. For Conway Morris uses the ubiquity of convergence as a counterweight to the almost orthodox view that the history of life is a governed by a large helping of luck and accident, and that, to paraphrase S.J. Gould, if we reran the tape of life's history, it would have turned out entirely differently. Convergence suggests that, whatever the role played by happenstance, natural selection has worked under narrow constraints built into the structure of reality.
Conway Morris concludes the book with some perhaps preliminary discussions about the possibility of religious and scientific understandings of the world peacefully co-existing. Here as elswhere, Conway Morris only hints at certain ideas rather than pursuing them exhaustively. As a result, some reviewers have written unfair and uncharitable things about the book. But I, for one, was left with much to ponder, and with the hope that Conway Morris will continue his provocative explorations.
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris in this book covers convergence and its implications for understanding evolution. Convergence (also called homoplasy) is the independent evolution of similar traits among distantly related organisms such as humans and octopi have similar eye anatomy (although one is inverted, the other verted). Life is replete with examples of convergence on every level: molecular, cellular, even behavioral. Convergence is the key to understanding that evolution, despite its tremendous variety, is fraught with direction, or shall we dare say, purpose. It is a bold statement that will undoubtedly receive a strong reaction from the bulk of the evolutionary community. Morris uses almost half of the book to discuss the building blocks of life (DNA, RNA, proteins, and sugars such as ribose) .He shows that, although these building blocks are very easy to synthesize, this does not help us to understand the origin of life, which, he argues persuasively, is about as unlikely an event as can be conceived. Every approach we have taken to understand how life could have originated now seems at a dead end. Morris spends one chapter looking at the uniqueness of our planet and concludes, as does Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, that life of any kind is a phenomenally unlikely state of affairs anywhere in the universe. While upholding an adaptationist view, Morris labels adherents of the cold, ruthless, and ultimately purposeless evolutionary reality, such as Huxley, Simpson, Mayr, Ernst Haeckel, Clarence Darrow, and even Richard Dawkins as "ultra-Darwinists". He finds fault with the religious fervor of their pronouncements, and their utter ignorance of theology. Convergence, argues Morris, tells us that a Higher Purpose controls Nature.Read more ›
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114 of 144 people found the following review helpful By Edwin Kite on October 6, 2003
Format: Hardcover
"Life's solution" celebrates convergent evolution, which Conway Morris uses to account both for the apparent progress of life from amoeba to whale, and its end in Homo Sapiens. He extends this notion to the emergence of human society, and the prospects of life "altogether elsewhere".
The issue of whether life history has an arrow of destiny at all (rather than random bumbling that may occasionally hit an anthropomorphic jackpot) is still up in the air. Natural selection certainly produces environmental adaptation over the fine grain of centuries and millenia. And over millions of years, an increase in complexity has been observed in such esoteric organs as arthropod appendages and crinoid feeding nets. But at the grandest scale, we have little to go on other than Victorian ideas that reptiles were bested by mammals in a great Darwinian struggle, which is nonsense. Bad luck - a bad asteroid - wiped out the dinosaurs, leaving empty space that mammals could fill. 180 million years earlier, it was the ancestors of mammals that drew the short straw.
But Conway Morris, unusually, isn't interested in whose sperm survives the apocalypse. Since environments cleave form to function, the same general biological properties arise everywhere. So New Caledonia, lacking mammalian predators, evolved giant flightless birds, the tigrish Sylviornus, with hooked beaks. (They were wiped out by the ancestral Polynesians, with good reason). Aping Darwin's writing, "Life's solution" is a book of examples, an accumulation of examples of convergence in action. This structure lends the book a bitty texture; it says the same thing over and over again, so reading five pages at a sitting will not lose the thread. This makes it an ideal book for busy readers.
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