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Hugh Murdoch on Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris

comments on the book LIfe's solution by simon conway morris

Conway Morris is professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology in the School of Earth Sciences at Cambridge University. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society since 1990. As a palaeobiologist he is widely experienced in research into the fossil record to establish the detailed evolution of life on Earth. He has extensive experience in the field and his research of the literature is also thorough. There are more than 100 pages of notes with copious references. This is a very substantial contribution to the emerging view that departs significantly from the dominant biological view that held sway throughout the last century. The evolution of humans by purely random Darwinian processes was considered to be inherently so massively improbable and inherently unlikely as to be virtually unique. (A highly improbable event can always occur by chance once: lucky us). This is still the view of many biologists. Richard Dawkins is the prime exemplar of what Conway Morris calls ultra-Darwinism. He in fact refers to Dawkins as ‘England’s most pious atheist’.

There have always been a few dissenters such as emeritus professor Charles Birch. Even Heisenberg said that, after listening to a lecture on Darwinism, he had mused that perhaps the uncertainty principle gave scope for the Creator to interfere a little at a time. We should not fall into the trap of believing that the current approach by Conway Morris and others is a rejection of the fundamental process of Darwinian evolution. Rather, the knowledge gained over recent decades concerning complex processes has added a new layer of understanding. Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman argued in his book At Home in the Universe (1995) that Darwinian selection has always had a handmaiden in the form of complexity and has thus been supplemented by the abrupt changes which can occur in complex non-linear systems. This has been a stepping stone toward the new understanding presented by Conway Morris.

One of the telling arguments in favour of the new view he presents is the phenomenon known as biological convergence whereby evolution tends to arrive at the same solution in very different sets of circumstances over and over again. A prime example cited is that of camera style eyes (such as we have) that have evolved a great many times in different situations. Another among the many examples of convergence cited is the mechanism of olfaction (smelling), which is common to a wide range of organisms. There is an extensive discussion of many areas of convergence. There are many steps along the way from convergence in simple situations to the eventual inevitable convergence toward humans or at least human-like intelligent beings.

Another interesting example of convergence (amongst many such examples) is that we are not the only species to carry out agriculture. It is also carried out by social insects such as bees and termites. He describes leaf-cutting ants of Central and South America, which cut leaves from trees, cut them up further into small pieces, carry them back to the nest (each step by a different group of ants), strip away the waxy layer, then shred and pulp the leaves for fungal breakdown to provide edible food. The harvesting and processing of a wild crop is a primitive form of agriculture (The ants hardly plant the trees). However I have read that ants deliberately cultivate aphis which feed on roses in order to ‘milk’ the aphis.

Conway Morris is staggered at the remarkable efficiency of the genetic code with only one out of a million randomised variations on the actual code even coming close. The work which he cites here is explained in some detail in an article in Scientific American (April, 2004). He accepts with some difficulty that the genetic code universal to all life is the product of Darwinian selection, saying “to arrive at the best of all possible codes, selection has to be more than powerful, it has to be overwhelmingly effective.

There is a very interesting chapter in the book entitled “Towards a theology of evolution?” I will include a few extracts to give the flavour of the discussion:

“It seldom seems to strike the ultra-Darwinists that theology might have its own richness and subtleties and might – strange thought – actually tell us things about the world that are not only to our real advantage, but will never be revealed by science. … To assume that science itself can produce and verify the truths on which it depends, is … simply circular.”
[for present purposes we may, if we wish, regard theosophy as a form of theology or substitute for it.]

“Outside the cellular milieu the DNA is biologically inert, if not useless. Genes may provide a switchboard for life, but the complexity of life will depend on something else: how the same genes may be recruited to make different products, how the developmental networks change and evolve, and how apparently trivial events such as gene duplication and protein isoforms open up immense new territories for biological exploration. Life may be impossible without genes, but to ascribe to them intentionality misses the mark”.

“Science becomes pointless and even destructive unless it takes on significance and direction from a religious affirmation concerning the meaning and value of human existence”. (a quotation from an article by John Greene in a philosophical Journal).

“The myths of genetic determinism, set in a dreary world of reductionism, are being used to drive new agendas, mostly in eugenics … now vanished is the notion that the world we have been given might have its own integrity and values. … The moral high ground is highjacked on the assumption that all this is for our perceived good, although in reality the benefits are far more likely to fill the coffers of the corporations and erode the diversity of crop species”.

“Science, by definition is a human construct and offers no promise of final answers. We should however, remind ourselves that we live in a Universe that seems strangely well suited to us. … Not only is the universe strangely fit to purpose but so too, as I have argued throughout this book, is life’s ability to navigate to its solutions. … Equally germane and even more mysterious, is to explain the origin of sentience, such that the product of ultimately inanimate processes can understand both itself, its world and its (and thus our) strange sense of purpose”.

“Why the second part of the sub-title ‘inevitable humans’ but ‘in a lonely universe’? The existence of life on Earth appears to be surrounded by improbabilities: life may be a universal principle but we can still be alone. … This may never be established and … it is far more prudent to assume that we are unique and act accordingly”.

Finally, Conway Morris, having led us through the truly astounding features of the evolutionary process, leaves us to reach our own conclusion when he asks: “what salient facts of evolution are congruent with a Creation”? [emphasis mine]. He lists several, including the following: [my labelling] a) “the exuberance of biological diversity, but the ubiquity of biological convergence”, b) “the inevitability of the emergence of sentience,” c) “the existence of an immense universe of possibilities but a way of navigating to that minutest of fractions which actually work”.

I have managed to deal here with only a very small part of this fascinating book. However, I would like to emphasise that it is to books such as this that we should turn to learn about the details of the evolution of life on Earth, and certainly not to the standard theosophical texts which paint a hopelessly out-of-date picture. However, in this regard, there is an important point I should make. While scientists are coming to recognise an inbuilt directedness toward higher forms of life, they generally do not, as yet, distinguish between life and living organisms. Theosophists, however, acknowledge an ensouling life within the organism.

Additional note: For those who would like a sane theosophical approach, I recommend the second (Quest Books, 1990) edition of the book Intelligence Came First by lifelong theosophist, E Lester Smith F.R.S. (He called on a sympathetic biologist, to help revise the book for the new edition). He would have been delighted to see some of the recent developments.

Introductory comments on Conway Morris’ book

Paul Davies:

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 on 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 black nihilism of ultra-Darwinism.

John Gribbin:

Having spent four centuries taking the world to bits and trying to find out what makes it tick, in the twenty-first century scientists are now trying to fit the pieces together and understand why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts…

From the Flyleaf:

Does evolution have a structure, an overall design, perhaps even a purpose? Orthodox opinion recoils from this prospect. Evolution, it is widely believed, is an effectively random process where almost any outcome is possible. Freeze the tape of life, and now we see dolphins and tulips, ants and mushrooms, even humans. Rerun the tape, it is claimed, and evolution would follow completely different pathways; No tulips or ants, and certainly no humans. We, like all other life, are an evolutionary accident. But is this correct? In fact the evidence points exactly in the opposite direction. Not only does life have an uncanny knack of navigating to precise solutions, but it also returns to the same solution. By no means is everything possible in evolution. We know this because of the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence, which unexpectedly reveals a deeper structure to life. …

Underpinned by DNA, the weirdest molecule in the universe, guided by a genetic code of staggering effectiveness, the tape of life will in time navigate such biological properties as advanced sensory systems, intelligence, complex societies, tool-making and culture.

Comments on book by Simon Conway Morris

Articles: Theosophy-Science Group Newsletter, September 2003 p2 and May 2004 p2


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