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on December 25, 2007
Many years ago I took an advanced course on phycology where we discussed evolutionary convergence, particularly with regard to the volvocine line of evolution observed in both Chlorophyta and Chrysophyta. I tucked this information away as being interesting but not pertaining to anything particularly important. "Life's Solution" brought this all back to me and made me realize how important convergence may be to understanding the evolution of life on this planet. With apologies to the late Stephen Jay Gould, perhaps if the tape were run again, the results would be the same, or at least close. Perhaps intelligent beings such as us, or something very much like us, were inevitable. The philosophical implications are profound. Conway Morris avoids these philosophical and theological implications until the last chapter of his book and concentrates on providing example after example of convergence in evolution. Although not as eloquent a writer as Richard Dawkins, he successfully challenges Dawkins' "ultra-Darwinist" views. And as one of the leading paleontologists in the world today, Conway Morris has the scientific credentials to do this.

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.
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on March 31, 2007
For those of us who follow the modern debates about evolution, Intelligent Design theories, the relationship between science and faith, etc., this book is required reading. Conway Morris keeps his observations within the realm of science, unlike Intelligent Design advocates who critique neo-Darwinism at the philosophical level. I'm not a biologist or paleontologist, so I found most of the book a bit dry as it explores the many "evolutionary convergences" found in nature. But the concluding chapters really pull things together, showing how evolution seems to be anything but random. This is a purely scientific conclusion that Conway Morris backs up with his many examples. I have heard that he distances himself from the Intelligent Design movement. That's probably for professional and social reasons, because Conway Morris is saying things much in harmony with Behe and Dembski, without venturing into Philosophy of Science as they do. It's all about teleology! That is, nature does indeed show organization, goals, purpose. Human consciousness arising by chance is infinitely unlikely, and ding-dongs like Dawkins (The God Delusion) only expose the narrowness of their expertise when they argue against God from nature or science. Conway Morris convincingly shows here is that life finds very similar solutions over and over again. While randomness may have a role, it cannot be the driving force behind evolution.
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on September 9, 2006
Professor Morris's book, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, is a superb book. For one thing it's distinctly different from the general run of books on the topics of paleontology and evolution, since it focuses on convergence among living things rather than on the distinctions among them which create the phylogenetic arrangement of life that we learn about in high school biology.

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.
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on November 10, 2010
It is good to read a book by an expert who demonstrates what I always believe - namely: we are meant to be here. The key concept of course is evolutionary convergence. Different species of no clear relationship can develop similar "solutions" to life's problems. E.g. agriculture: both human beings and ants do farming, and obviously they are very different from each other. Another cliched example: the eye. Throughout the vast history of life, the eye appeared many times in various lines of organisms, reasonably unrelated. Likewise, very different organisms manage to form similar if not same compounds merely via the process of natural selection.

In essence, there seems a set of underlying constraints that will lead to the inevitable development of certain biological characteristics, and these most likely include intelligence, consciousness and sentience.

What a marvelous insight! I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and I completely agree with the author's arguments.
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on February 13, 2012
This is a great book. It is pushing it as "popular" science, but what else should popular science readers want? It was intriguing to see how forcefully the nothing-but-random-genetic-accident view of evolution can be challenged. The fact of convergence--which is convincingly presented here with many proofs--doesn't fit this view. There is more to say about life. Just what that "more" is, is difficult to exactly say, but Conway Morris gives it a stab with the idea of "inherency," although this idea begs further questions. But I'm OK with that. It is solidly grounded in the empirical. He closes the book asking about a "theology of convergence," which I found provocative and appropriate. The inbuilt teleology (or inherency) he proposes is much more than meaningless, but much less than the Lovey-Lovey Uncle in the Sky in whose name we sometimes ignore the brutality and injustice of the world.
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on June 15, 2004
"Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe," by Simon Conway Morris, received a critical review from a mainstream evolutionary biologist in SCIENCE, 5 December 2003. It was stated that many biologists may be convinced that Conway Morris is giving aid and comfort to the enemy (the creationists). The reviewer saw that Conway Morris opposes creationism, but was still critical.
I can see that the book might be irritating to materialists (scientific or otherwise), but if its sometimes-controversial tone is overlooked, it has much to offer the general reader. When Conway Morris takes a position that is not orthodox, it is usually qualified with a question mark. I think the major positive contribution of the book is its many fascinating examples of convergence.
There is a remarkable relationship between the views of Stephen Jay Gould in "Wonderful Life," published in 1989, and those of Conway Morris in "Life's Solution," published in 2003. Conway Morris opposes Gould's idea of contingency. But the strange thing is that Gould, while claiming support for contingency from the Cambrian fauna, praised the work of Conway Morris on that fauna.
From the time of the Cambrian explosion of animal forms to the present there has been a marked reduction in the number of general forms. Gould would take this as evidence of the fragility of forms in the face of chance contingencies. But Conway Morris sees it as a consequence of convergence. The two men seemingly differ only in their conclusions from the evidence, but I think there is a deeper divide. To Gould nature is fundamentally probabilistic, but to Conway Morris it is deterministic. I agree, recalling that Einstein championed determinism in physics.
Gould used the idea of replaying the tape of evolution. He argued that contingencies would make the reappearance of man very unlikely. To Gould, a replay is only a thought experiment to help us understand. But Conway Morris asks what can be done in the laboratory? On pages 121-124 he describes experiments done by Lenski and Travisano with the bacterium Escherichia coli over a large number of generations. It was first separated into several populations. Then they were allowed to diversify, and were separated further. Finally all populations were switched from their customary and agreeable glucose diet to a maltose diet and allowed to try to adapt during 1000 generations. The degree and mode of their adaptation was partly due to convergence, in addition to starting points and chance, and the three could be separated statistically. Over the long term, convergence won.
Conway Morris questions the theory of the "RNA world," including the idea that the RNA was self-replicating. I think he overdoes his skepticism there. A Perspective by Leslie Orgel: "A simpler nucleic acid," in SCIENCE, 17 Nov 2000, discusses self-replication of the simpler nucleic acid TNA as well as RNA. It seems to me that the self-replicating property of RNA, TNA and similar nucleic acids assures the appearance of life by one route or another, and so discounts Conway Morris's notion that the conditions for life have to be "just right," as they are on Earth. He argues that those conditions are rare in the universe, and so account for our failure to see evidence of life elsewhere. My own view is different: My guess is that we don't find intelligent life elsewhere because when it reaches our stage of development it self-destructs. Maybe that creates a challenge: Can we be the first to acquire wisdom as well as technical skill?
Is evolutionary convergence merely a convergence of characters of two or more species when they adapt to similar ecological niches? Conway Morris would like to embed the concept in a more structured context. In reference to an interesting application he expresses it in terms of "morphological space." The particular application is to "skeleton space" as defined by Thomas and Reif. He seems to be saying that each of the conceivable morphologies in skeleton space is a fixed-point attractor. The attractor emerges as the laws of nature guide the unfolding dynamics of evolution.
Is this concept of fixed-point attractors in a character space too discrete? In "The Crucible of Creation" Conway Morris gives another example, from the work of D.M. Raup: the morphospace for the geometry of the shells secreted by the molluscs. Some regions of this morphospace are thickly populated. But other zones are more or less empty. In these, the solutions to the equations that govern the geometry can be used to visualize the hypothetical shapes, but they somehow look "wrong." Thus the general morphospace is continuous, but only particular points are realized in the real world determined by evolution.
Conway Morris makes a good case for the inevitability of humans, but the evidence is sometimes fragmentary. I think this is only the beginning. There may be as yet untapped evidence in our own present natures. In particular, I suspect that a physical understanding of the network dynamics of our nervous systems will lead to the conclusion that the brains which appeared in the Cambrian explosion would inevitably evolve to the present level, and perhaps beyond.
In Chapter 10 Conway Morris returns to the ubiquity of convergence. Convergence is found not only in directly observable phenotypic characters, but also at the molecular level. For instance, the protein rhodopsin for color vision is tuned to particular colors by substitutions at key sites, and different species adapting to the same color sometimes use identical substitutions. It can become uncertain whether molecular similarities and identities are due to convergence or common ancestry. Thus there is at the present level of knowledge a measure of uncertainty which could be exploited by creationists. But fortunately overall outlines of order are found in cladistic analysis based on molecular evidence. This reflects general human understanding as it looks out on the world with faith that order will be found.
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on August 27, 2011
The author of this book warns believers in God to "put this book back on the shelf. It will do you no good." (preface page xv) I believe the primary reason is simply because his intent is to prove evolution has an external manipulating or "navigating," almost to the point of being conscious of life's needs and fulfilling them, even the same needs being directed via varying routes; yes, that most required needs or senses (seeing, hearing etc.) and even humans are "inevitable." Obviously blind, unguided, accidental, mutating happenstance couldn't cause this to occur even once, let alone "ubiquitously" multiple times, as the author says and presents.

Contrary to heeding his request, I studiously read, marked and examined this very edifying and worthwhile book to the point of were it took me months the complete it. I especially appreciate that about ¼ of the book is a reference section to seriously indorse and pursue more information. As far as the book `doing me no good', I certainly got more good out of it than I anticipated!

It is astronomically absurd to expect the light on a lightning bug to blindly, accidentally and by happenstance grow into existence, especially when it is so complex even science in all of its knowledge can't conscientiously copy it. Well, such an "accident" didn't only happen once, there are other bugs and unrelated fish that have appendages that also glow, as well as a few types of mushrooms. This is just one of virtually ubiquitous examples.

Various examples of convergence; eyes, emitting light, electrical shocks, navigation, echolation, silk spinners, built-in `antifreeze' and a much longer list of common attributes is very informative. He even touched on how these needs were met quite `customized' to each species. (Personally, I attribute these wonders to the Wondrous Creator, whom I believe deserves the credit.)

He demonstrates how DNA didn't have a common "mapping" for these specific traits beforehand, rather it mutated those common needs exclusively to each life form varying in steps along the way.

No book on this subject could ever be totally comprehensive. I would like to have seen a few more commonalities or convergent topics discussed that the author left unmentioned; Richard Dawkins mentions in "The Blind Watchmaker" various locusts and others that use prime numbers in years of cycles (7, 13, 17), also color-changing (chameleons), needles/thorns, regeneration, fibonacci in seeds, flowers and leaves, to list some.

The author insists, "it is now supposed that with our origins revealed this must banish any religious instinct: what was almost universally believed is now to be seen as an immense delusion." or "'Life's Solution' can never cease to astound. None of it presupposes, let alone proves the existence of God."

In reality, the contrary is how it effected me. Not that I ever doubted, but now, another source that goes hand-in-hand with God's involvement with creation.
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on April 13, 2004
Morris, a well-known evolutionist, challenges those biologists who argue that life and intelligence on Earth are the products of chance events. Citing many examples of biological convergence, he argues that evolutionary outcomes are constrained, not infinite in potential number. Sooner or later, evolution on Earth would have produced intelligent beings; if not in primates, then from some other lineage. While perhaps a bit overstated, this argument is a useful counter to the prevailing theory that evolution is a completely random process. However, Morris does not extend that inevitability to other worlds. He believes that the Earth itself may be unique because of a mixture of advantages such as a large moon.
Morris argues that evolution may have purpose, that life is not just a bleak working out of statistics. In his last chapter, he writes that "there has been a resurgence of interest in the connections that might serve to reunify the scientific world with the religious instinct." This connection of evolution to religion may make some readers uncomfortable. While Morris' writing style is generally lively, his digressions into the details of biology may leave behind non-scientist readers.
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on October 26, 2003
Both the book, and plowing through it. I bought this book because "Wonderful Life" (S.J. Gould) presented such a depressing paradigm of human existance, and Mr. Morris, although featured in that book, seemed not to agree completely with Mr. Gould's conclusions. "Life's Solution" presents his own views in a systematic manner. The material is detailed, and interesting although written is a rather formal manner. I find the ideas presented here as engaging and more plausible than Mr. Goulds, but not nearly as easy to read.
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on September 14, 2017
The author is clearly extremely intelligent and well educated but it is academic arguments like this that give academia a bad name. Don't these professors realize that there are important problems in the world that need solutions.

Midwest Independent Research, educational websites. Evolution science, mwir-evolutionscience.blogspot. There is a book list here.
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