Simon Conway Morris and Life's Solution: it's tea.

i-ccbc028bf567ec6e49f3b515a2c4c149-old_pharyngula.gif

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.

Categories

More like this

Tony Sidaway discusses a unifying property of theistic evolutionists: the desire or need for there to be some kind of universal plan for their existence. It's not an attitude I understand very well; I don't think it makes life better to believe that there is some ineffable teleological intent…
Time for more borhyaenoids. Finally, we get round to the taxa that you might have seen or read about in prehistoric animal books: the sabre-toothed thylacosmilids, the supposedly bear-like borhyaenids, and the gigantic and even more bear-like proborhyaenids. We previously looked at basal…
I swore off reading Simon Conway Morris long ago, after reading his awful, incoherent book, Life's Solution, which I peevishly reviewed. He's the go-to guy for Cambrian paleontology, and he's definitely qualified and smart, but he's got two strikes against him: he's a terrible writer, making most…
"Caught in an asphalt lake." From the November 1919 issue of The World's Work.As much as I love visiting the American Museum of Natural History in its current incarnation I sometimes wish I could have seen the institution in earlier eras. It has undergone its own evolution and while plenty of…

I guess we'll soon see SCM go on tour as another one of those 'world's greatest scientists' who believes in God. I predict a Salon.com article any day now in which he explains how faith can be reconciled with science and how those fundamentalist atheists are really no different to the Taleban.

By Christian Burnham (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

Yet another Argument from Incredulity. There's just so much wrong with that approach to inquiry. To name only a couple of things:

1) "I'm totally incredulous, so, because I can't think up a reasonable explanation from my own knowledge, the observed result MUST happen in exactly the way I perceive." That, of course, presupposes fantastic brainpower on the part of the incredulee, and a likewise enormous ego that assumes that there are no other brains which would not be gobsmacked-incredulous. It's a pathetically ego-dependent point of view.

2) "I'm totally incredulous, and, rather than investigating to find out the answer, I'm going to presuppose the answer and recognize only that evidence which, in my opinion, supports my hypothesis." Again, it presupposes that the incredulee doesn't actually NEED to learn anything new in order to understand that-which-makes-him-or-her-incredulous.

3) "I am the pinnacle of evolution, therefore evolution is all about ME." That psychological garbage-dump of assumption forces an interpretation of data which is simply unsupported. And he-or-she does not even bother to support of prove the underlying assumption . . . .

I could go on and on and on . . . but it's all the same thing -- an ego-driven misreading of evidence with a complete lack of understanding of the scientific method and how information is collected, collated, error-corrected and interpreted and used to predict future outcomes.

Aargh!

So, does this mean that all of evolution, history, and my parents' relationship were predestined to form me so that I could watch unhealthy amounts of anime and Star Trek?

(Bill Watterson? Who's that?)

I thought some of the discussion of parallel adaptations in Life's Devices were pretty good, particularly the material on electic fishes and star-nosed moles. I guess I don't chose to get upset with Conway Morris' rather Episopalian version of the Argument from Design. Like a murphy bed, his theological ideas swing out of sight while he's actually doing biology, thus providing edification with any serious consequences.

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.

Well, Sunday was only yesterday PZ.

Bwahahaha (I crack myself up sometimes). Ok, now that I got my joke of the day out of the way:

Zowie. It is stunning that Simon thinks this is the conclusion of evidence before him. We had to be like this? Was that in Exodus or Genesis? Even I could come up with some cool combinations that could have happened to make us much better. I will assume that he feels that we just HAD to eventually speak English (seeing that is God's language as written in the King James bible)?

PZ: I feel sorry for you that you had to read it.

Dave

So, in other words, I should only stick to reading Morris' other book, "Crucible of Creation," and not so much as glance at "Life's Solution" for fear of being transformed into a pillar of salt?

This reminds me of a pathetic story of mine:

I was working on a rough draft of a science talk while exceptionally drunk. Reading through the slides later, individual pieces seemed coherent, but as a whole, I had no idea what my point was.

Dissociative is the right word. I feel bad for SCM, because if this isn't chemically induced, his brain is broken.

I kind of liked Conway Morris in his Royal Institution's Christmas lectures of some years ago (1998?). It was called The History in our Bones and it was rather good; of course it's merely a very basic introduction into paleontology for 12 year olds, and he didn't babble like he does in this book.

Still, I was somewhat disappointed to read afterwards that he was a reli-scientist. Shame, he's a smart guy otherwise.

By dr. strangelove (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

What is your problem with tea-drinkers? I demand equal time for Camilla sinensis in your blog!

Again I am amazed at the suffering PZ will go through so the rest of us need not ...

I think this is all really funny, considering as I'm young, and kind of new to the game, so the only other place I've really heard much about Morris was in Gould's "Wonderful Life."

If aliens landed in the South of England, the first person they met would tell them how much their house was worth. Note to aliens: southerners can't make proper tea. Land in the north, we'll make you a good cuppa tea while our cousins crowbar the stereo from your UFO and nick its hubcaps.

Gould gave Conway Morris a good write up in Wonderful Life and on the basis of that I bought Crucible of Creation. Poor stuff. Shame, because in Wonderful Life he seems to be a corking scientist when dissecting Burgess Shale and writing monographs rather than wooifying them. Someone kidnap his agent.

When people approvingly quote GK Chesterton, duck. Gifted phrasemaker, but hardline Catholic apologist. He's the one who said "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything."

Pass the rib thread.

By Peter McGrath (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

Note to aliens: southerners can't make proper tea.

Not even cream tea?

You know why communists can't make Earl Grey.

Because, proper-tea is theft.

By Christian Burnham (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

And I'd like to add-

Us Irish/British/Indians already knew that tea is life's solution.

Really- you're not civilized unless you can pour a good cuppa. (And use boiling-water, you goddamn Americans.)

By Christian Burnham (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

I swear, either Conway Morris was writing this under the influence of some potent combination of pharmacological dissociatives and hallucinogens

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

I always want to ask people who think we're "inevitable" to explain why the universe wasn't created to support a spot of lichen on the side of a tree in northern Manitoba. And if they don't think it was, to tell me what the essential philosophical difference is between my axiom and theirs.

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?

Hey, it seems perfectly reasonable to me. They both converged to the bigger-than-a-breadbox, very-thin-at-one-end-and-pointy-at-the-other phenotype. Therefore, God.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

Note to aliens: southerners can't make proper tea.

Heh--in the southern US, proper tea is ice tea.

Gould gave Conway Morris a good write up in Wonderful Life and on the basis of that I bought Crucible of Creation.

Gould was generally very complimentary of Conway Morris AFAIK, but Conway Morris rarely returned the favor. Not sure why.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

You know why communists can't make Earl Grey.

Because, proper-tea is theft.

I think I need to lie down.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

Poor Anton--have a nice cup of tea.

(And use boiling-water, you goddamn Americans.)

Silly Brits, thinking "tea"="black tea."

You'll ruin a good oolong, green, or white tea with boiling water.

Re comment 22: because Gould wrote his Burgess Shale book first, leaving Morris feeling slightly scooped. They disagreed over the interpretation- Gould favoured the same conclusion as PZ, that the evolution of life is largely contingent and we are far from inevitable, while Morris, as we see, has still convinced himself that we are inevitable. On the other hand, Gould over-egged the "otherness" of Burgess Shale fauna, claiming that almost all of them were totally unrelated to later life, whereas Morris has shown that in fact a lot of them are in fact related to what comes later, e.g. the recent thing about the Halwaxiids.

At the time that Conway Morris was starting work on the Burgess Shale Fauna, he too thought they were rather more "other" than in fact they are- his quote on finding Odontogriphus "Oh f*** not another phylum". Not long after Wonderful Life he changed his mind.

By Dave Godfrey (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

Why SCM never returned Gould's compliments: I'd reach for Ockham's Razor and suggest a bit of envy.

By Peter McGrath (not verified) on 16 Apr 2007 #permalink

"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."

_Could be_ a quirk. Presumably it could also have had some important functional significance for the early chordates, not necessarily related to its current functional significance for, e.g., us.

When people approvingly quote GK Chesterton, duck. Gifted phrasemaker, but hardline Catholic apologist. He's the one who said "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything."

Actually there's a fair bit of truth in that statement - a lot of people who stop going to church don't abandon belief: they just go in for astrology or new age woo instead. That's why church-leaders are so dead against astrology: they see it as a competitor.

Chesterton is not easy to summarise in a few words. Yes, some of his statements are wince-inducing. But some of his writings ("The Blast of the Book" springs to mind) are actually quite an effective plea for rational thought. A nice sample line (from memory, may not be quite right): "The hardest thing in the world is to convince people that 0+0+0+0+0=0". He just never seems to have realised that that is particularly appropriate to the evidence for deities.

I was an undergrad student on a field trip with SCM many years ago. The phd students with us told us not to mention SJG to him it sent him into apoplexy, so being a contrary sob I of course mentioned it. Disappointingly no rage all he said it essentially came down to him thinking worminess was an inevitable consequence of evolution SJG didn't.

What got him more worked up was turning on the radio while he was driving it almost made him crash.

By James Orpin (not verified) on 17 Apr 2007 #permalink

It's patently obvious that Morris is after the Templeton Prize. That almost exactly the level of drivel they like: a big enough science name to lend credibility (to their own prize, as well as the book), but with enough psycho-babble to draw in the 'spiritual masses'.

It's embarrassing, really.

Having read and greatly enjoyed "The Crucible of Creation" I was quite pleased a couple of years ago when I heard that Morris was giving a talk at Duke, where I then worked.

I hoped to hear more of his work, of the odd critters (that's the techinical term, isn't it?) he'd unearthed, wild speculation as to the origins of various phyla, and was prepared to tolerate some of the religious philosophy he'd thrown at us in TCoC.

But it was not to be. The talk was a rehash of the above book, including the Sabre-tooth sillyness. At least I only had to suffer for an hour, and that was alleviated by some fairly decent jokes. My condolences to PZ for having to read the book.

It seems that the Brain Eater does not only strike SF writers.

William Hyde

By William Hyde (not verified) on 17 Apr 2007 #permalink

Or coffee, black tarry coffee, if PZ emerged from the UFO...Doesn't by "tea" SCM mean "dinner"?

The weak anthropic principle - intelligence is inevitable, given the UNiverse's ingrediants, and enough time, is surely more scientifically defensible - than what appears to be promoted here - the strong anthropic principle, i.e. Homo sapiens is inevitable. Human-LIKE intelligence can exist but not in human-form, which is already deeply carved by a lon history of specific evolutionary adaptations.

We can't even yet define intelligence concretely, and often use it interchangebaly with "consciousness", equally vaguely. How can intelligence be measured? Quantified? Are they properties ALL species have, to widely-varying degrees? The questions are endless...

Remove from your mind all the creationist implications, and focus on the scienitific question: "Is intelligence an inevitable emergent property of the Universe, i.e. something that is BOUND to evolve, and in one or more species achieve such heights that members of its species can write books about how special they are?" and I'm sure the answer is neither simple nor obvious.

The laws of physics and chemistry are well-defined, and in many ways simple, but their outcomes - planets, peonies, people, peacocks etc - are vastly more ambiguous. We can predict that complex lifeforms will be carbon-based, since since there's a "quantum resonance" that encourages stars are to manufacture overabundances of it...However, just like you can't predict the weather more than a few days in advance, you can't predict the products of evolution accurately. Trends are usually mere artifacts, human bias and/or imagination, as Gould et al, emphasized...The jury is out...

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.

Some try to build credibility by demonstrating their scientific credentials through anecdotes ("that guy sure knows what he's talking about!"). Another way is to ostensibly demolish a particularly silly version of the point you want to make, for instance by refuting young-earth creationism ("that guy sure is impartial!"). That last method has the additional advantage of making your own claims seem less silly by comparison.

It may be the tactic employed here, although I've not read this particular book (I am not likely to, although I admire PZ's determination).

You copied over this review of SCM 'Life's Solution' to your new blog. But you failed to copy over some of the more critical comments, including this one which I think put it best. You guys are great at confronting the ID crowd but resort to snide comments when faced with more intelligent contributors such as SCM.

'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. I myself was a biologist in a former life. I have my first degree in aquatic botany. I am now a practicing geologist who has also dabbled in paleontology. I find that most of my geological friends are much more receptive of Conway Morris writing. 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. I find his writing to be quite enjoyable; he is better than most popular scientific writers in fact. I have done quite a bit of reading in that field of literature, and even have published some popular science pieces myself. I think, therefore, that I am at least as good a critic as any of you. In fact, the reason that I read Lifes Solution was because I became interested in Conway Morris work after reading Stephen J. Goulds Wonderful Life. (I like Gould too, although I am not as fond of Richard Dawkins. I am especially fond of Stephen Hawking but he writes on a different subject well, not really when you think about it.)

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 it because of the hint of spirituality? 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. You know how to deal with a creationist fundamentalist, you dismiss him/her as an ignorant redneck (and most of the time you probably are right). You have a little bit of trouble with a fellow scientist, say a chemist, physicist, or geologist, who is religious. But you can always dismiss him/her by saying that they dont work specifically in your area of evolutionary biology. (A paternalistic pat on the head and a smug you dont have the inside knowledge that we do.) You can say the same about the scholars in the humanities and the liberal clergy. But what do you do with someone like Simon Conway Morris who argues that perhaps there is more to existence than the nihilistic atheism of Gould and Dawkins. All that you are left to criticize with are snide comments and rather personal attacks. The review by Douglas Erwin in Science (vol. 302, p. 1682) is much more objective and much less "ad hominem." Perhaps I am at fault here for wishing that the products our scientific educational system would be somewhat better versed in philosophy, theology, and, yes, scripture. This in order that they might be better prepared to discuss ideas presented by someone like Conway Morris in a more intelligent and civil manner. (And Brian Hillcoat there is actually a very direct reference to Teilhard in his last chapter, if you had the insight to catch it.)

But what do you do with someone like Simon Conway Morris who argues that perhaps there is more to existence than the nihilistic atheism of Gould and Dawkins. All that you are left to criticize with are snide comments and rather personal attacks.

Good thing I'm moving many more CFM of air past my new upgraded irony meters.

First of all, to equate Gould's and Dawkins' atheism is perhaps broadly correct, but Gould's NOMA was a quite different than Dawkins' war on delusion--but it would be a profound mistake to call either nihilistic, if not a personal attack, it's at least a snide comment.

a very direct reference to Teilhard

A very good reason to reject Conway's position as religious, as anybody vaguely familiar with the difference between science and religion would know that teleology is theology, nothing more. Most people here are deeply familiar with religion--that's why we rejected it.

But what do you do with someone like Simon Conway Morris who argues that perhaps there is more to existence than the nihilistic atheism of Gould and Dawkins.

Shrug, agree half-heartedly with the "perhaps," and suggest they look up "nihilism"?

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 31 Mar 2008 #permalink

"You know why communists can't make Earl Grey.
Because, proper-tea is theft." Posted by: Christian Burnham

A pedant writes: "communists" should be "anarchists": "Property is theft" is from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who may have been the first to describe himself as an anarchist, and was not (unlike some later anarchists such as Kropotkin) also a communist.

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 31 Mar 2008 #permalink

"The weak anthropic principle - intelligence is inevitable, given the UNiverse's ingrediants, and enough time, is surely more scientifically defensible - than what appears to be promoted here - the strong anthropic principle, i.e. Homo sapiens is inevitable." - PeteK

That's not what these terms are usually taken to mean: the "Weak Anthropic Principle" can be stated as: "Given that we are here, the laws of nature must be such as to allow intelligence to come into existence." - unexceptionable, but not very enlightening. The "Strong Anthropic Principle" can be paraphrased as "Given that we are here, the laws of nature must have been designed to produce intelligence." - tosh.

I haven't read the book (and couldn't finish "Crucible of Creation"), but does SCM call for support on "Fermi's paradox"? Fermi is supposed to have come out with this during a discussion of "Drake's equation", which multiplies together various factors such as the number of stars in the galaxy, the proportion that have habitable planets, the proportion of those that actually develop life, etc. to get an estimate of the number of technologically advanced civilisations in the galaxy. With various large numbers for the latter being suggested, Fermi is supposed to have said "OK, so where is everybody?" - because inter-stellar communication, or even exploration using von Neumann probes, are not really that difficult once you have science-based technological advance. 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. However, my own favoured solution is that any technological civilisation soon discovers capitalism, which results in the swift degradation of its supporting environment, and hence extinction. So each occurrence of such a civilisation is surrounded by an expanding shell of advertisements and soap-operas a couple of hundred light-years thick, and we don't happen to be in any with an origin close enough to be detectable against the background noise.

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 31 Mar 2008 #permalink

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.

By David Marjanović, OM (not verified) on 31 Mar 2008 #permalink

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.

By David Marjanović, OM (not verified) on 31 Mar 2008 #permalink

David Marjanović,
I remember hearing you needed a moon of at least a certain size to stabilise the planet's axis of rotation, but what's the argument for it needing to be just the right size and distance? Anyway, hasn't our moon receded quite a bit in the last few gigayears?

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 31 Mar 2008 #permalink

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.

By David Marjanović, OM (not verified) on 31 Mar 2008 #permalink

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.

By David Marjanović, OM (not verified) on 31 Mar 2008 #permalink

"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.

By Hugh Troy (not verified) on 17 Feb 2009 #permalink