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The assassin's bullet misses, the Archduke's carriage moves forward, and a catastrophic war is avoided. So too with the history of life. Re-run the tape of life, as Stephen J. Gould claimed, and the outcome must be entirely different: an alien world, without humans and maybe not even intelligence. The history of life is littered with accidents and any twist or turn may lead to a completely different world. Now this view is challenged in Simon Conway Morris' exploration of the evidence demonstrating life's almost eerie ability to repeatedly navigate towards a single solution. Are all evolutionary inevitabilities limited to the suitability of a planet? Where are our counterparts across the galaxy? If the tape of life can only run on a suitable planet, it seems that such Earth-like planets are much rarer than hoped, and we remain inevitably humans in a lonely Universe. Simon Conway Morris is the Ad Hominen Professor in the Earth Science Department at the University of Cambridge. Morris is also a fellow of St. John's College and the Royal Society. His research focuses on the study of the 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 plans in the Cambrian explosion. His work is central to palaeobiology, but is also of great interest to molecular biologists and bioastronomers. Previous published works include The Crucible of Creation: Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals (Getty Center for Education in the Arts, 1999); and co-author of Solnhofen (Cambridge, 1990).
Lively, mind-expanding, infuriating and incisive, October 6, 2003
Reviewer: Edwin Kite from Cambridge, England
"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.
The book is threaded with the notion of "biological hyperspace," a conceptual landscape in which each point corresponds to a design for life. Hills in the landscape are poorly adapted to the environment, and, over time, natural selection nudges life into the better-adapted valleys. Although life takes very varied routes through this landscape, functional constraints limit the number of destinations - each corresponding to an ecological syndrome such as hive society, the compound eye or intelligence. Michael Denton and Craig Marshall claim that "underlying all the diversity of life is a finite set of natural forms that will recur over and over again anywhere in the cosmos where there is carbon-based life." This refers to proteins, not pianists, but makes a key point: progress-through-convergence is equivalent to destiny. And teleology, with its register of "inferior" and "better" forms, is a dangerous brew. Conway Morris wonders how much of convergence may be the working-out of the particular inherent potential of the animal genetic architecture. At what point, he wonders, did intelligence, become inevitable? His answer: close to the origin of life.
Convergence is powerful, and Conway Morris is right to emphasise it's importance in driving evolution over millions of years. But his attempt to extend it to the billions of years of Earth's story is tenuous. There are several problems. The main events in the early evolution of life - sex, oxygen, and the chlorophyll/Rubisco stitch-up - were probably accidents. Niche specialisation erodes the genetic plasticity that convergence needs. And once life underwent the Cambrian Explosion - somehow turning from slime into animals - it became especially vulnerable to rare shocks and their afteraffects.
Here's a catastrophic example. I am united with gerbils and the platypus by having a kind of window in my skull, just behind the eyes. This makes me a synapsid. The dinosaurs (with two holes in their heads) were diapsids, and hole-less turtles are anapsids. For argument's sake, let's reroute the asteroid that hit Earth 251 million years ago, hitting Pangaea instead of Panthallasa. Destruction on the supercontinent is total; the synapsids and diapsids are wiped out; only a few well-armoured, ageless anapsids survive to reconquer the planet. But once the anapsid syndrome - toothless, stiff-necked, boneheaded, and boxed inside tough shells - became dominant, it is difficult to see how the delicate, social sentients seen as inevitable by Conway Morris could have evolved. Until the next disaster, Earth would have been in mutant turtle lockdown.
Conway Morris' chapters on the origin of life are unfortunate. He talks about chemistries, while most workers talk about energies and information. "Life's solution" glibly dismisses the theory of self-organisation and criticality, the rock and foundation of the claim that life is a cosmic principle.
This book continues an argument with the late, brilliant Harvard evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould, whose overweight prose was matched only by his girth. He called progress "a noxious, culturally embedded, untestable, nonoperational, intractable idea that must be replaced." Conway Morris countered that progress remained a cornerstone of evolutionary understanding. This was not just an argument about science, because each man saw the other's theory as the surface expression of an iceberg of repugnant dogma. In 1999, Gould wrote that he "would value... explicit attention to the sources of [Conway Morris'] own unexamined beliefs" - i.e., Christianity.
Conway Morris' reply is an attempt to construct a theology of evolution. Monotheism (founded on holy mystery) is to science (founded on reason) as oil to water: coexistence is possible but mixing requires plenty of energy. The last Cambridge scholar to try, the young Ludwig Wittgenstein, lost his footing badly. "Life's Solution" is more cautious. Joining the ellipses, hints, and things implied but left unsaid, Conway Morris appears to believe that life was created by divine sparkplug and that convergence was designed-in to jolly life along the golden path from bog to Bhopal. Make of this what you will, but my instincts are that this "God? The Naked Mole Rats Say Yes!" stuff, popularised by Connie Barrow, is a form of intellectual cowardice. It's as unenlightening and unenlightened as the long-dead view that an irreducible "vital force" accounted for biological energy. (In one sense it does; it's called citric acid). Natural order need be neither implicate nor inscribed, yet retains its wonder and majesty.