Pharyngula

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I’ve finished Simon Conway Morris’s Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), a book I’ve mentioned before and promised, with considerable misgivings, to read thoroughly. I didn’t like his ideas, I thought he’d expressed them poorly before, but I’d give his book on the subject a fair shake and see if he could persuade me.

My opinion: it’s dreck.

To be fair, I thought there were some improvements. I’ve long thought that his writing was leaden and clunky, and painful to slog through. I think that in this book he has achieved something of a more tolerable voice. Unfortunately, it seems to be the voice of a primly unctuous parson, more oily than mellifluous, but hey, if you’re one of those people who enjoys reading mannered Edwardian tea-sipping novels, you might be able to get through Life’s Solution without clawing your eyes out. I don’t, but I rerouted the energy generated by a good curmudgeonly seethe over the content to power a little restraint.

What’s the book about? It’s all in the title. Conway Morris is trying to convince his readers of two grand points:

  • We’re unique. Although not impossible, the odds of life arising at all are so remote that it’s likely that we’re all alone in the universe. It’s a miracle that we exist.
  • We had to exist, exactly as we are. Once life exists, it must run down a foreordained track to a very specific outcome, us. Yes, bipedal, tool-using humanoids are a necessary result of evolution, and if life arose on other planets (which it didn’t, because it’s so improbable, but if it did…), there would be people living on it just like us.

Now why would Conway Morris think that? It would be nice to believe that he arrived at those conclusions after a careful consideration of the evidence, but I don’t believe it. The bulk of the book is supposedly about the evidence, but it is such a muddled, unconvincing mess of sloppy and selective thinking that no one with the kind of knowledge that Conway Morris has of biology could be persuaded by it. Instead, it’s clear that Conway Morris began this effort with a religious preconception and has been trying to pick and choose the bits of science that might prop it up. He really should have subtitled it, “Humans as a Special Creation of a Loving, Personal God”, since that’s clearly the view he wants to justify.

His justifications are largely a botch, though. Individual passages are clear enough, and he does carry out a reasonably wide-ranging examination of examples of evolutionary convergence, but his stories are all shackled to unsupported conclusions. The book is a string of simple anecdotes punctuated by “what the hell…?!??” moments every time he tries to explain what his story means. I haven’t encountered so many non sequiturs, leaky arguments, and so much transparent foolishness since the last time I set foot in a church.

For instance, in the first chapter Conway Morris tries to introduce an important idea he calls “inherency”. He doesn’t exactly define it, but instead rambles on into a story about the genetic similarity of chimps and humans, and that chimpanzees apparently enjoy driving go-karts (“what the hell…?!??”). Then he presents an example, the brain of amphioxus, a primitive chordate.

The brain can only be described as a disappointment. It is little more than an anterior swelling (it is called the cerebral vesicle) and has no obvious sign in term of its morphology of even the beginnings of the characteristic three-fold division seen in the vertebrate brain of hind-, mid- and fore-sections. Yet 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.

The clear implication of this is that folded within the seemingly simple brain of amphioxus is what can almost be described as a template for the equivalent organ of the vertebrates: in some sense amphioxus carries the inherent potential for intelligence.

(“what the hell…?!??”)

SJ Gould would have used a different term for what Conway Morris calls “inherency”: “retrospective coronation”, or looking back and attaching special significance to property that was trivial at the time. I suspect that if we had evolved from chelicerates, some professorial arachnid would be poking at a spider in a jar and declaiming that the inherent potential for intelligence was present in the organization of its deuterocerebral ganglion. That early chordates had a three-part structure to their brains does not presage intelligence; it’s a quirk of basic architecture to which later adaptations had to be accommodated.

After this unpromising introduction, Conway Morris delves into the idea that life is immensely improbable. He does this by explaining how marvelously specific and intricate the molecules of life are, and how little we know about the mechanisms of abiogenesis. This is all certainly true—DNA is amazing stuff, and the precursors to the RNA world are very much a mystery—but honestly, neither of those points say anything at all about the probability of life’s origin. It’s particularly ironic that he thinks that once you’ve evolved to the point of a protocell, you’re on a greased track to becoming a tea-slurping biped, but that pre-biotic chemistry is a well-nigh impossible proposition.

He also dabbles in cliches of the anthropic principle set, everything from circumstellar habitable zones to how the moon has just the right apparent size for solar eclipses. Bleh. The less said, the better.

The meat of the book is several long chapters where he describes numerous striking examples of convergence in everything from bacteria and mammals to plants and basic metabolism. Bits and pieces of this section are actually quite reasonable, and he does a good job of digging up some interesting examples. Alas, again the flaw is that he thinks convergence is support for his grand thesis of Humanity Predestined. It just isn’t. Because certain features represent optimal solutions to simple problems, such as camera eyes or powerful limbs in burrowing animals, does not mean that all complex issues will similarly converge on single solutions. And humanoids are most definitely a complex solution, riddled with compromises and historical predispositions and accidents.

I think Conway Morris is simply blind to any evidence that contradicts his view that there is a single possible answer to every condition. He ignores differences to a painful degree. For a contemporary example, compare the Arctic and the Antarctic. Both have large mammalian predators and large birds specialized for fishing; on that level, you could say there is some similarity. But in the Arctic, the predator is the polar bear while the bird is the auk, and in the Antarctic, it’s the leopard seal and flightless penguin. Similar environments, similar opportunities, similar stresses, but starting with different fauna, and divergent solutions emerge.

We can also compare biomes across time. Is the Cretaceous just like modern times with scaly skins instead of fur? Are ceratopsians just antique bison? Thinking that way is superficial, and dismisses the diversity of life as trivial. There are similarities, but they are largely a consequence of a common ancestry—both ceratopsians and bison being vertebrates and tetrapods—not some metaphysical necessity that large herbivores must be four-legged and horned.

Conway Morris makes much of one convergence: both placental cats and marsupials have independently evolved sabre-toothed species. This just doesn’t seem that surprising to me. We have similar situations: start with a generic mammalian predator; quadrupedal, moderate size, fanged jaws for tearing. Give it an opportunity to go after much, much larger herbivorous prey. Variants that have better tearing tools, that can wound dangerous prey deeply so that it bleeds to death, thrive, and individuals with larger and larger tearing tools evolve. The sabre-tooths of various origin independently converged on a similar solution because all began with a similar general therian character: canine teeth.

I would argue that the analogous animal in prior eras would have been, for instance, a velociraptor. Again we have a generic predator that adapts to hunting large prey by evolving an enlarged tearing tool, but in this case, it’s a claw rather than a canine, since dinosaurs tended to have rather generalized dentition. Similar problems, different solutions as a consequence of historical contingencies. Strangely enough, Conway Morris proposes that allosaurs were the earlier historical analog of the sabre-tooth cats, which was another of those “what the hell…?!??” moments for me. If he has just been lauding these examples of independently generated, exaggeratedly enlarged cutting fangs, why is he claiming that an animal that lacks this trait represents a convergence? And if he wants to argue that sabre-tooth tigers and allosaurs represent convergence on a common form, hasn’t he just watered down the whole concept to the point that it is completely useless?

The title of his penultimate chapter openly explains what Conway Morris wants: “Towards a theology of evolution?” The chapter is full of criticisms of “Darwin’s Priesthood” and “Genetic Fundamentalists” and “pious atheists”—isn’t it odd how the strongly religious turn towards the language of religion when they want to insult the unbeliever? He manages to at least plainly state once that he is arguing that his ideas are congruent with the existence of a creator god, but otherwise, this whole chapter is an incredible example of babbling incoherence. I was saying “what the hell…?!??” on just about every page. As an example, he starts this chapter with a little story…

Let us suppose that I am an immensely successful biochemist, and happen to be engaged in experiments involving gene manipulation. A couple of years ago I was attending a conference—keynote speaker, naturally—when I fell into a conversation with a curious individual, who for some reason seemed much older than he actually looked. As we talked, it seemed we were walking across a plain of infinite dreariness, but his voice, his demeanour, how can I describe it? He knew all about our work, and as conversation progressed, gave me remarkable hints as to some avenues of research we had somehow overlooked. I was enthralled, and as we parted he remarked, ‘I am sure we will meet again.’ The next day, however, he had vanished, and checking at the registration desk, I was puzzled to find no record of my companion. It was all a little eerie, but the hints were sufficient. Now my team and I have managed to reconfigure a gene that will allow animals, and the poorer humans, to digest cellulose directly. Before long, in Bangladesh and Somalia, the main meal will be recycled newspapers. There is, unfortunately, just one small side effect, and that is it is very likely (I can explain the details if you have time) to induce childhood cancers in about one percent of the population, especially if the individual happens to live in a deprived environment. Of course, the gene is patented, and in strictest confidence I can reveal to you alone that the biotech company, OmegaPoint, has the product ready for immediate marketing. Great riches beckon; surely I am to be congratulated?

This is utterly bizarre. It has no bearing on the prior chapter on the ubiquity of convergence; the section immediately after this strange tale is on an evolutionary miscellany, protein folding, bricolage, and jury-rigged design. He never discusses any bit of this story in the rest of the book. The “curious individual”, whether his devil or jehovah, isn’t mentioned again, and the ethical dilemma of the situation is referred to briefly but once. “what the hell…?!??”

It doesn’t make sense. I read on, and a little further he gives me a clue, of sorts, about what he’s getting at:

So the intention of this chapter is to begin to see whether the idea of a telos is redundant, to ask if some of our predecessors who saw their religious faith either ebb or haemorrhage were both misinformed and over-pessimistic, and to enquire whether some common ground can be regained.

One clue is surely our admiration for moral greatness. Rather, however, than argue or defend any particular individual, although there are many such men and women, let us recall the cosmic view of G.K. Chesterton.

Reason and justice grip the remotest and loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’

Sweet jebus, what the hell is this man babbling about? It goes on and on like this, paragraph after paragraph of rank nonsense unlinked to any thread of common logic. I swear, either Conway Morris was writing this under the influence of some potent combination of pharmacological dissociatives and hallucinogens, or my brain has been totally burnt out by reading the previous ten chapters of this book.

I will only briefly mention that his last, very short chapter is another of these fantasies, in which a trio of remarkably humanoid aliens land near his house in the south of England. First thing said: “Just in time for tea?”.

Dammit, I knew that’s what he’d say.

Comments

  1. #1 David Marjanovi?, OM
    March 31, 2008

    I just happened by this site after doing a google search because I have just finished reading Lifes Solution. My first impression upon reading this review and the appended comments was are any of these clowns even scientists? Sadly, after exploring the site a little bit more thoroughly, I find that you are scientists (at least the author of the review is), albeit biologists.

    “Scientists, albeit biologists”? Peculiar phrasing. Really peculiar phrasing. Sounds like someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

    As to Conway Morris scientific credentials, his work on the Burgess Shale and evolution of Cambrian faunas is unsurpassed. That and other work earned him his Fellowship in the Royal Society, something not passed over lightly.

    This is an argument from authority.

    This brings up the question, what is it that bothers all of you so much about Conway Morris? You obviously see him as some sort of threat.

    Is that projection?

    Is it because of the hint of spirituality?

    No, it’s because his conclusions don’t follow from his data, as PZ explains at length. In other words, his book is failing peer-review.

    What is really happening here, I think, is that you have difficulty with a fellow scientist, especially an acknowledged world class evolutionary paleobiologist, who is also religious and a committed Christian.

    We are having difficulty with a fellow scientist making pseudoscience — drawing conclusions that don’t follow from the data.

    there is actually a very direct reference to Teilhard in his last chapter

    Too bad for Conway Morris. Teilhard de Chardin wrote woo. If I can find the thread again, I’ll post a link to an example.

    —————-

    This quote from comment 36 bears repeating:

    About those “what the hell…?!” moments. I have sometimes encountered these types of theist writings.
    The authors don’t actually create an argument in any usual sense of the term – although it can look as such to an untrained eye. Rather, they build up their personal credibility for a while, then “spend” it in unrelated theological claims. After which, it’s back to restocking the depleted credibility store. This back-and-forth can go on for quite a while in a given book or article.

  2. #2 David Marjanovi?, OM
    March 31, 2008

    To judge by the only evidence we have at present (how long things took to happen on Earth), getting as far as bacterial cells is a doddle, and the shift to multicellularity is the trickiest step.

    The trickiest part is probably getting a moon of the right size and distance. That is very tricky indeed.

  3. #3 Hugh Troy
    February 17, 2009

    “I fell into a conversation with a curious individual, who for some reason seemed much older than he actually looked. As we talked, it seemed we were walking across a plain of infinite dreariness, but his voice, his demeanour, how can I describe it? He knew all about our work, and as conversation progressed, gave me remarkable hints as to some avenues of research we had somehow overlooked. I was enthralled, and as we parted he remarked, ‘I am sure we will meet again.’ The next day, however, he had vanished, and checking at the registration desk, I was puzzled to find no record of my companion. It was all a little eerie,..”

    The above quote is suggestive of the first sign of Religious Mindwarping Syndrome. I’ll bet that what little reason there is left in Conway Morris will be eroded by religious fantasies as he suffers the destructive symptoms of RMS. The only defence against it being to question all your beliefs in magic sky fairies.