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Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe [Paperback]

Simon Conway Morris
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 8 2004 0521603250 978-0521603256
Life's Solution builds a persuasive case for the predictability of evolutionary outcomes. The case rests on a remarkable compilation of examples of convergent evolution, in which two or more lineages have independently evolved similar structures and functions. The examples range from the aerodynamics of hovering moths and hummingbirds to the use of silk by spiders and some insects to capture prey. Going against the grain of Darwinian orthodoxy, this book is a must read for anyone grappling with the meaning of evolution and our place in the Universe. Simon Conway Morris is the Ad Hominen Professor in the Earth Science Department at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St. John's College and the Royal Society. His research focuses on the study of constraints on evolution, and the historical processes that lead to the emergence of complexity, especially with respect to the construction of the major animal body parts in the Cambrian explosion. Previous books include The Crucible of Creation (Getty Center for Education in the Arts, 1999) and co-author of Solnhofen (Cambridge, 1990). Hb ISBN (2003) 0-521-82704-3

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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 Hardcover edition.

Review

"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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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Filled with leads to further thought and research June 15 2004
Format:Hardcover
"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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Conway Morris fails to present a coherent case Jan. 1 2004
Format:Hardcover
Conway Morris attempts to demonstrate to the reader that life on earth is unique, and wherever life gets going, intelligent, humanoid life is certain to follow. On both points, Conway Morris fails to present a coherent case. The text is littered with claims which don't support his conclusion, hypothetical events that go nowhere, and some of the most graceless prose I've ever seen outside an academic journal. I can forgive bad prose if the information contained is worth it, but in this case Conway Morris fails to deliver.
As self-contained stories of convergence in evolution, the book works well, and this is why I give it two stars. However, when he tries to tie his anecdotes into the larger theme, the thin reeds break under the strain. As an example, Conway Morris identifies a feature in evolutionary history he calls "inherency." He doesn't define it, but illustrates it by an example of the brain of a lancelet, which apparently lacks the division of fore-, mid- and hindbrain characteristic of vertebrates. However, according to Conway Morris, "the molecular evidence, which is also backed up by some exquisitely fine studies of microanatomy, suggests that, cryptically, the brain of amphioxus has regions equivalent to the tripartite division seen in the vertebrates." From this, Conway Morris reasons "in some sense amphioxus carries the inherent potential for intelligence." Does this support Conway Morris' thesis? No. The fact that early chordates possessed a three-part division in their brains doesn't imply intelligence, it is a structure which later evolutionary adaptations accommodated.
Conway Morris then introduces the idea that life is immensely improbable. Unfortunately, he does it by attacking the comprehensiveness of contemporary research.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A strong argument for evolutionary convergence April 13 2004
Format:Hardcover
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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5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful and thought provoking Feb. 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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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars The inevitability of creation
This book is yeat another example of evolutionists' leaps of faith. Instead of comming to the obvious conclusion that the convergence of biological principles and mechanisms is the... Read more
Published on April 16 2004 by Jonatas Machado
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Book
Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris in this book covers convergence and its implications for understanding evolution. Read more
Published on Jan. 15 2004
1.0 out of 5 stars pseudoscientific babble
Conway Morris has had a excellent record at producing science books, until now. It is a shame he has wandered into an area where he seems to be producing pseudoscientific babble... Read more
Published on Jan. 5 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars An overdue challenge to dogmas
Thumbs up indeed, despite reservations. This book at least makes clear Morris' debate with Gould who should be rolling over in his grave. Read more
Published on Dec 19 2003 by John C. Landon
5.0 out of 5 stars Will the emergence of life invariably lead to intelligence?
Researched and written by Simon Conway Morris (Ad Hominen Professor in the Earth Science Department at the University of Cambridge), Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans In A Lonely... Read more
Published on Dec 13 2003 by Midwest Book Review
5.0 out of 5 stars An inspiring vision of life.
Too many books are written about evolution. This is really a book about life, not evolution. Morris (who contributed much to our understanding of the early history of the animals)... Read more
Published on Dec 4 2003 by Filippo Neri
5.0 out of 5 stars A Good Bit of Work
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. Read more
Published on Oct. 26 2003 by Bret Daline
4.0 out of 5 stars Lively, mind-expanding, infuriating and incisive
"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. Read more
Published on Oct. 6 2003 by Edwin Kite
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