Life’s Solution | Notes & Review

Posted on September 26, 2009


Simon Conway Morris. Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge University Press, 2003. (464 pages)

Life's Solution

Life’s Solution sets out to demonstrate that what we already know gives some strong indicators of what must be: even in this book pigs don’t fly. The central theme of this book depends on the realities of evolutionary convergence: the recurrent tendency of  biological organization to arrive at the same ‘solution’ to a particular ‘need’. … Its main, but not ultimate, aim is to argue that, contrary to received wisdom, the emergence of human intelligence is a near-inevitability.” (xii)

There are four conclusions.

  1. First, what we regard as complex is usually inherent in simpler systems: the real and in part unanswered question in evolution is not novelty per se, but how it is that things are put together.
  2. Second, the number of evolutionary end-points is limited: by no means everything is possible.
  3. Third, what is possible has usually been arrived at multiple times, meaning that the emergence of the various biological properties is effectively inevitable.
  4. Finally, all this takes time. (xii-xiii)

“There is, however, a paradox. If we, in a sesnse, are evolutionarily inevitable, as too are animals with compound eyes or tiny organelles that make hydrogen, then where are our equivalents, out there, across the galaxy?” (xiii)

“Convergence tells us two things: that evolutionary trends are real, and that adaptation is not some occasional cog in the organic machine, but is central to the explanation of how we came to be here.” (xv)

“If the emergence of our sentience was effectively inevitable, then perhaps we should take rather more seriously the sentiences of other species?” (xv)

“…if you happen to be a ‘creation scientist’ (or something of that kind) and have read this far, may I politely suggest that you put this book back on the shelf. It will do you no good. 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. To deny, however, the reality of evolution and more seriously to distort deliberately the scientific evidence in support of fundamentalist tenets is inadmissible. Contrary to popular belief, the science of evolution does not belittle us. As I argue, something like ourselves is an evolutionary inevitability, and our existence also reaffirms our one-ness with the rest of Creation. Nevertheless, the free will we are given allows us to make a choice. Of course, it might all be a glorious accident; but alternatively perhaps now is the time to take some of the implications of evolution and the world in which we find ourselves a little more seriously.” (xv-xvi)

I Looking for Easter Island

“It is obvious that the entire fabric of evolution is imprinted on and through our bodies, from the architecture of our bony skeleton, to the proteins carrying the oxygen surging through our arteries, and our eyes that even unaided can see at least two million years into the past — the amount of time it has taken for the light to travel from the Andromeda Galaxy. … Yet, for all that, both the processes and the implications of organic evolution remain controversial.” (1)

“Darwin’s formulation of the mechanisms of evolution is not only straightforward, but seemingly irrefutable. Organisms live in a real world, and evolve to fit their environment by a process of continuous adaptation. This is achieved by a constant winnowing through the operation of natural selection that scrutinizes the available variation to confer reproductive success on those that, by one yardstick or another, are fitter in the struggle for survival.” (1)

“To be sure, not every transformation and transition will be elucidated, but we are confident this is because of a lack of information rather than a failure of the method.” (2)

“The heart of the problem, I believe, is to explain how it might e that we, a product of evolution, possess an overwhelming sense of purpose and moral identity yet arose by processes that were seemingly without meaning. If, however, we can begin to demonstrate that organic evolution contains deeper structures and potentialities, if not inevitabilities, then perhaps we can begin to move away from the dreary materialism of much current thinking with its agenda of a world now open to limitless manipulation. Nor need this counter-attack be anti-scientific: far from it. First, evolution may simply be af act, yet it is in need of continuous interpretation.” (2)

Regarding DNA (and RNA), “…we hardly understand in any detail the links between the molecular substrate and the nature of the organism.” (4)

“One response is to reconsider what we mean by ‘the gene’. In particular, it is time to move away from a crippling atomistic portrayal and rethink our views. As has been pointed out by numerous workers, the concept of the gene is without meaning unless it is put into the context of what it is coding for, not least an extremely sophisticated biochemistry.” (4)

There is also “a uniform consensus that vitalism was safely buried many years ago, and the slight shaking of the earth above the grave marking the resting place of teleology is certainly an optical illusion.” (5)

“Could it be that attempts to reinstall or reinject notions of awe and wonder are not simply delusions of some deracinated super-ape, but rather reopen the portals to our finding a metaphysic for evolution? And this in turn might at last allow a conversation with religious sensibilities rather than the more characteristic response of either howling abuse or lofty condescension.” (5)

Here, Morris discusses that while there is only a structural genetic difference of 0.4% between humans and chimpanzees, “in other respects we are poles apart. I’m told that chimps driving cars (or at least go-karts) have the time of their lives, but we are neither likely to see a chimp designing a car, nor for that matter mixing the driest of Martinis, let alone being haunted by existentialist doubts. This problem of inherency, however, is far more prevalent and pervasive than the local quirk that chimps and humans are genomically almost identical, but otherwise separated by an immense gulf of differences.” (5-6)

“Revealing the foundations of the molecular architecture that underpins our brains and sentience gives us not only a feeling of emergence, but underlines how little we really know about why and how organic complexity arises. … it is sometimes forgotten that the main principle of evolution, beyond selection and adaptation, is the drawing of new plans but relying on the tried and trusted building blocks of organic architecture.” (8)

If forms as complex as the protein folds are intrinsic features of nature, might some of the higher architecture of life also be determined by physical law? The robustness of certain cytoplasmic forms … suggests that [they] may also represent uniquely stable and energetically favoured structures … If it does turn out that a substantial amount of higher biological form is natural, then the implications will be radical and far-reaching. It will mean that physical laws must have had a far greater role in the evolution of biological form than is generally assumed. And it will mean … 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. – Michael Denton and Craig Marshall

“…the actual ‘Game of Life’, as they call it, is still going to be played the same way everywhere. Here are the four basic rules, which incidentally presuppose variation and subsequent process of selection.” (11)

  1. Hindsight and foresight are strictly forbidden. …we can only retrodict and not predict.
  2. Minor changes are easier than major changes. That’s something all biologists recognize, and why, for example, there is a deep-seated distrust of macroevolutionary ‘jumps’ that allow a fully fledged body plan to emerge from some strikingly dissimilar ancestor.
  3. Resources are not unlimited: the world is finite, and ultimately energy and space are in restricted supply.
  4. Life has no option but to carry on; it must always play the best hand it can no matter how poor and disastrous the hand might be, and no matter who or what offers teh challenge.

“Despite the immensity of biological hyperspace I shall argue that nearly all of it must remain for ever empty, not because our chance drunken walk failed to wander into one domain rather than another but because the door could never open, the road was never there, the possibilities were from the beginning for ever unavailable. This implies that we may not only be on the verge of glimpsing a deeper structure to life, but that it matters little what our starting point may have been: the different routes will not prevent a convergence to similar ends.” (13)

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