- Hardcover: 528 pages
- Publisher: Templeton Press; First edition (June 22, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1599474646
- ISBN-13: 978-1599474649
- Product Dimensions: 7 x 1.4 x 10 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #400,256 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Runes of Evolution: How the Universe became Self-Aware First Edition
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"The runes of evolution spell out a surprising message: Some evolutionary outcomes are virtually inevitable. Or, so goes the argument of Cambridge palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, resting on two key premises:
- Evolution repeats itself in unexpected ways: Very different lineages evolve to have similar traits. Conway Morris calls this 'convergence.'
- Precursors of complex traits, such as a nervous system, are found in much simpler organisms. Conway Morris calls this 'evolutionary inherency.' The premises are supported with a wealth of data—thousands of references across the book’s 27 chapters.
The intriguing tale is told by way of a journey over many different areas in which we find convergence and inherency, with touches of humour along the way." —Zachary Ardern, BioLogos
"This is a very good book. The author is most effective when presenting his evidence as both glaringly obvious and unfairly maligned. Not everyone will like the volume’s familiar tone, but the overall excellence of the writing is hard to deny. Many of the book’s grandest ideas were already covered in his previous publications, but The Runes of Evolution is nevertheless Conway Morris’ most comprehensive statement on convergence to date, and is thus well worth reading." —Abraham H. Gibson, Quarterly Review of Biology (September 2017)
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Written in Conway Morris’s inimitable low key style and generously sprinkled with examples of his subtle humor, it is almost possible at times to forget that one is reading a highly sophisticated scientific review. But at those times, no sooner does one break into a full smile or even an out-loud chuckle, that Conway-Morris throws in a taxonomic term or the name of some complicated molecule. With that, we’re back to reality-- a sort of reminder that we’re actually sitting at the feet of one of the world’s most knowledgeable experts learning detailed intricacies of events set in motion hundreds of millions of years ago. The book is a joy to read--likely the first time, I've ever found myself laughing out loud while reading a book heavily embedded in animal taxonomy. Indeed, I doubt it will ever happen again.
Conway Morris has a knack for revealing the *real* purpose in writing his books in his sub-titles. For example, for his other especially noteworthy book, he chose the sub-title, “Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe.” It is not clear on the basis of the scientific evidence presented in that book that the arrival of humans on earth was inevitable. In fact, based on scientific data alone, most evolutionary biologists would say the complete opposite: humans are here by luck. Humans only arose once and, as a species, they are highly unique. How does one measure the probability of a singularity? But Conway Morris goes against the grain and there is more to his thinking than biology alone—although that the real shaping of that grain, he barely addresses. This time he has chosen the sub-title, “How the Universe became Self-Aware.” So the book is really, in Conway Morris’s mind, about the development of consciousness. This is interesting since he says very little (nothing, actually) about theories of consciousness, just as his previous book said very little to directly address the scientific arguments that humans were not inevitable. In this book, Conway Morris makes it clear that he believes in an external reality that is over and above the material reality studied by science. He doesn’t, as I see it, think that consciousness “emerges” from within material reality. Rather, material reality “discovers”, repeatedly discovers actually, this external reality through its search engine. Indeed, he suggests that the reason why little progress has been made (as he sees it!) in understanding consciousness is because it is based in a non-material reality that exists outside of the material reality we study in science. Near the end, Conway Morris makes the following statement:
“Suppose mind is not only independent but also preexistent to matter? If that was the case, then evolution is simply the process to discover mind. How then might we distinguish the process of emergence as against discovery? The former seems far more sensible but appears to run into some intractable difficulties. If naturalistic explanations run into a dead end, then does evolution contain any clues as to how the Universe became self-aware? It is the topic of another book, but perhaps a start is to suggest that in the end the natural world lets us down: Paradoxically what we don’t know is more helpful that we believe we do know.”
Here again, Conway Morris leaves mainstream science to venture into another realm—other ways of understanding when one is at the boundary of what we can and cannot know through the process of scientific discovery. I’m not sure he’s right in his implication that studies of consciousness have run into intractable difficulties (see, for example, “Consciousness and the Social Brain” by Michael S.A. Graziano). Here he begins to sound like the intelligent design proponents, or the “god of the gaps” advocates from whom he clearly wants to distance himself. However, the really good thing is that Conway Morris hints (in the above quote) that rather than leave the gap in place, the process of beginning to fill it will be the topic of another book. He doesn’t specifically say that the book to start filling the gap will be his own, but given my deep respect for his work, I sincerely hope it is.
In any case, given our current knowledge, I don’t think either of Conway Morris’s sub-titles emerge from scientific investigation alone. Science doesn’t show that humans are inevitable and science doesn’t tell the whole story of how the universe became self-aware. There are, however, other ways of coming to know. It is these other ways that point convincingly to the basis of human existence and it is these other ways that give us the deepest understanding of the basis of the universe’s becoming self-aware. There is a great need for someone to elaborate on that within the context of our knowledge about evolution. I, for one, look forward to the next book that Conway Morris hints may already be ruminating in his brilliant mind.
The book takes the form of page after page of cases of convergent evolution in (mainly) the animal kingdom. In this sense it has a gee whiz quality as we meet scores of most remarkable life forms. Because he uses terms both biological and taxonomic which are academic, several reviewers have commented on the difficulty of reading it. For me, I was familiar with a lot of it and a Latin and Greek education helps. Just like they said it would in 1950. But anyhow, you really don’t have to stop and look up everything as the jist of what’s being said and the kind of animal involved is almost always clear enough. Additionally, by page 90 I was doing a lot of skimming since the point was by now incredibly obvious: evolution is not a matter of a random walk ( a la Gould) but exhibits a strong
"directionality", illustrated by the convergences of features in different organisms. These are ubiquitous because the environment on this planet which different forms of life occupy demand similar solutions. This may strike the reader as somewhat unearthshaking, but as Conway Morris, remarks, it can cause spittle to form on the lips of many evolutionists. And to talk of a "direction" in evolution is pretty unusual. I think C-W makes a provocative case here.
These convergences are categorized in the first dozen chapters, teeth, limbs, eyes, and so on. He is at pains to dismiss the assumption that the specific convergences result from deep structure (say of protists) but more generated by environmental factors. As he mentions, however, many of the basic protein forms are already present early on (chrystallins, opsins, etc.).I started paying detailed attention again toward the end when we started to talk about brains and intelligence. That’s what Conway seems to think the goal of the whole shebang is. But you really have to pay attention to the more philosophical remarks dropped in between the expositions every few pages. He’s kind of negative, I think, about creationism and goal oriented evolution. The point seems to be that
it’s the environment that presents the constraints which result the general types that many different living things have on this planet. So it’s a curious mix of teleology and determinism, with, it seemed to me, the determinism being the stronger flavor. Even though awareness is the operative goal all along, it's not exactly a vanilla teleology, and that's the point of the case studies. I googled this guy for a little more background. Apparently he is of the opinion that life is rare in the galaxy or universe, I would agree, but that when it does occur it will take forms much like those found here. I would disagree with the latter. Right now, it's just speculation. We don't know anything about what "life" may be possible in other extraterretial locales.
I would also remark that the section of color photos of animals in the center of the book seeems to function as just relief from the densly packed prose. I think this is a book that could really have benefitted from line drawings, charts, etc. within the text for some visual help with the exposition, not color animal photos!
In his suggested view that life is inevitably targeted at reality becoming aware of itself, well, there are plenty of cowboys at that campfire: Bergson, Whitehead, de Chardin, Schopenhauer, and, wait, who’re they over there in the shadows? Is that Hegel? God, I think I even see some Neo-Platonists at the chuck wagon......
The questionof dircetionality/determinism reminded me of some other hotly contested issues: altruism/selfishness; genetic evolution/phenotype evoluution; nature/nurture. Is there some directionality to life on this planet as with all other chemical processes? Or is it all what randomly comes up, snowball earth, meteors..? It all depends on how we define our terms. I'm not sure how much deep science or, worse, metaphysics all this can support. When we get to life elsewhere, this doesn't help at all.
And, by the way, if we take Conway Morris' guess to its conclusion, we'll discover that, as he says, the fields of consciousness of organizisms are basically subjective, so how the universe is becoming self-aware is totally a matter of private sensations, isn't it? Is Morris a realist, in the philosophic sense? Am I or a paramecium aware of reality or, as Morris says at one point, "qualia"? Big difference. You might say the universe only is aware of itself thru the veil of maya. A perennial speculation. C-M takes some stabs at this problem in the second to last chapter where he proposes perhaps the most astonishing convergence of all, Plato and Hume. The thinking seems to be that when you, a parrot, a wasp, and I experience ,say, red, we are all seeing the same thing - a universal feature of reality. This is how the universe becomes self-aware. This was a very provocative couple of paragraphs. It's pure philosophy, not biology. I think if our paleontologist would stroll across the green to the philosophy faculty (especially at Cambridge!) he would find it a hard sell, but that doesn't make it uninteresting.
I am sympathetic to his readiness to go all the way down with awareness. In fact he even suggests one celled organisms may be aware. If you are a beekeeeper like me, you have no doubt that the bees are as conscious as the keeper is. A nineteenth century biologist, I forget who, remarked that if amoebae would be the size of dogs, we'd be attributing all sorts of mental attributes to them.
I think the problem for the reader is whether this a natural history book aimed at enlightening her on the evolutionary subject of convergence or is it a really aimed at proffering a "theory" about the ultimate nature of the universeI? If the former, it’s way too detailed and academic: a list of examples which, as other reviewers have remarked, becomes tedious. If the latter, well, it really needs a lot clearer and convincing argumentation. I honestly believe most hard scientists are a lot smarter than I, but when they - and I include the swarm of books on ultimate physics and second big offender, neoroscience and consciousness - I am usually surprised at how unsophisticated they are. A cool worldview has nothing more to recommend it than the next cool worldview. Much as I enjoyed Conway Morris's guesses at ultimate reality, I'm afraid I'd have to include this book in the scientist-as-amatuer-philosopher genre.
But as an old philosophy guy by training and a natural history and evolution buff by inclination, I found this book very thought provoking. If that were my standard, I’d give it a five. The philosophy of biology, which I thought was bit of a poor sister in the philosophy department long ago when it seemed organisms were just bags of chemicals maybe formed by lightning in the ancient atmosphere, has turned out to be a lot more engaging now that we’ve learned so much more in the last 50 yrs. A lot more understanding has led to a lot more mysteries. That’s science, fer ya!
Looking at some of Morris' publications, though, I think I’d suggest Life's Solutions or Deep Structure for the reader with a more general interest.