- 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: 36 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,133,223 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe
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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 the Digital edition.
"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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Because of his scientific and philosophical views, Conway Morris has been branded by some to be a proponent of "Intelligent Design." However, he clearly cannot be categorized with this group for purely scientific reasons. Intelligent design denies that evolution can explain complex biological structures or relationships among living things. Conway Morris goes to great lengths to show that evolution does indeed provide an explanation for these structures and relationships. Intelligent design, for instance, denies that the cameric eye could have evolved because of its extraordinary complexity. It must have been designed and created by an intelligent being. Conway Morris shows in his book that it not only did the eye evolve, but the basic "design" evolved six separate times involving different tissues in each instance. In fact, the cephalopod eye variation is more efficient than the vertebrate variation of the "design." Make no mistake about it Conway Morris is a "Darwinian evolutionist."
In his last chapter, Conway Morris plays his philosophical-theological hand and discusses the implications of his views in terms of teleology and directionality to evolution. In doing so, he shows himself to be a successor to the great early 20th century paleontologist and philosopher/theologian Teilhard de Chardin. Conway Morris' views of Christianity are well known and perhaps this is why he has drawn the ire of so many ultra-Darwinist "theologians" such as Dawkins.
Randomness is a basic tenant of evolution. However, that does not mean that certain structures are not inevitable for purely physical and biological reasons. If you roll the dice enough times you inevitably will roll snake eyes or box cars. And in a philosophical and theological sense, it does not mean that God does not play with loaded dice.
It has become much the fashion to examine life as it arouse on our own planet so as to predict the character of any life we might encounter on other inhabited worlds. Everyone from science fiction authors to biologists have gotten into the business, and the overall opinion seems to be that intelligent life is out there, probably in large numbers, and will be dramatically different from what exists here. Some of the only dissenters have been Peter Ward and David Brownlee in their book, Rare Earth, which gave many cogent reasons why even if life is prolific "out there," it might not be at as complex a level as to produce sentience. Even Professor Ward has since recanted and joined the research teams across the US who are trying to understand how alien life might develop to a level of intelligence matching that of the human on earth. In his case, I suspect, his thesis in Rare Earth, while interesting enough to sell the book, was a professional dead end while researching the origin of life and the possible characteristics of extraterrestrials is very much in vogue now.
Aside from suggesting life is common in the universe, almost everyone agrees that it will be found to be distinctly different. Much of this concept, as Morris himself points out, can be laid at Stephen Jay Gould's door and his notion that if one re-rolled evolution on earth and replayed it, the outcome would be dramatically different, because different contingencies would arise and send life on a different trajectory. That pathway would be statistically unlikely to lead to humans again or to anything like them. From Gould's point of view, humans and intelligence are not "written into" evolution. Life has not been scaling heights to reach the pinnacle in the human being, in short, for Gould humans are not inevitable. This position was taken in large part as a response to the notion of "progress" in evolution and to religious determinism, "god intended humans."
Others, including Ward and Brownlee, have pointed out that big brains--and intelligence seems to be confined to brains that are big for the expected size based on body mass--are expensive, both in terms of the fraction of an animal's nutritional supply and of its O2 carrying capacity (about 20-25% in humans) needed to sustain them. The physiological requirements necessary for a brain that understands Gödel's theorems--let alone that needed to be Gödel coming up with them--is considerable. With this understanding, unless it provides the animal with a distinct advantage, in the opinion of many researchers in the field such brains are not likely to evolve, certainly not more than once. From this perspective, intelligence is a fluke, something that occurred purely by accident.
Given the modern orientation to evolution and to extraterrestrial life, Morris's book seems very counter current. He focuses, not on the contingencies of evolutionary events that create species and are nonrepeatable--although he admits their reality--but on the convergences that suggest that evolution functions as it does within chemical and physical constraints that produce profound, underlying similarities among living things, some of them as distinct as plants from animals or single from multiple celled life forms. Furthermore, he does so with remarkable success. The book is a compendium of intriguing biological facts.
The author begins his argument by putting evolution and the origin of life into perspective. Beginning at the atomic and molecular level, Morris points out that life and evolution probably had--and still have--only a few "choices" in overcoming certain central problems of existence. These limited choices provided more of a structural framework for evolutionary change on this planet than is commonly understood. In short, these limited choices provide a trajectory that may very well lead, not specifically to humans as such, but quite possibly to something very much like us, even in some of the details. Furthermore, he believes that it might do much the same on other planets similar to our own. To quote the author himself:
"I argued above that any alien astronomers would use a camera-eye, and when they asked for a drink we can be pretty sure the mechanism of hearing will be strangely familiar. So, too, as they sniff the gin and tonic they will register the same olfactory signal of juniper berries, while convergence of taste should lead them to close momentarily those camera-eyes. And as already indicated, there will be yet deeper similarities, not only in transduction mechanisms using recurrent protein designs, but also the way in which meaning is conveyed and recognized. Human speech, and thus hearing, is well known for what is referred to as `categorical perception.' That is, despite a continuum of sound, we divide the signal into discrete categories. So, too with other vertebrates, such as birds (pp. 193-194)."
The author's discussion of convergence among life forms on earth provide a striking example of evolution's ability to produce similar solutions to similar problems among various animals. His description of brains and intelligence among other animals, especially those of elephants and the toothed whales is truly interesting, and makes me wonder what the heck we think we're doing when we push these creatures so close to edge of extinction. If we find it unnerving to be the only intelligent life in the universe, why are we so unwilling to give a little space to other intelligent forms of life on this planet?
The author, however, is not as sanguineous with respect to the ubiquity of life in the universe. He, like Ward and Brownlee, sees the particularities of our planet as the truly unique contingency on life and its characteristics. Like these authors, he is inclined to view life as possibly wide spread but not necessarily at the level of complexity that many looking for ET would like to believe are out there. For him, as the title of the book suggests, humans or human-like organisms may be "inevitable," the outcome of the constraints of evolutionary processes, but we may still be alone in the universe.
An amazing book.