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Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (CUP, 2003)

Life's Solution cover

£17.99, 464 pages

Buy: http://cambridge.org/uk/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521603256

Author details: http://www.esc.cam.ac.uk/people/academic-staff/simon-conway-morris


In Life’s Solution, Simon Conway Morris makes the argument that although life may be a very rare phenomenon, once it gets going something like humanity will almost inevitably evolve. It has chapters covering many different areas of science. These include molecular biology and the unlikely efficiency of the genetic code which, Conway Morris argues, shows that possibilities for life are strictly constrained. There are not millions of different ways that life could exist; in fact, there is probably just one.

Conway Morris then goes on to discuss the origins of life. The strangeness of the Earth and solar system are described in an attempt to show that the conditions for life are so constrained and specific that it’s surprising it even happened once. He argues that it is highly unlikely that, even in a universe the size of ours, it could happen again - hence the ‘lonely universe’.

Most of the rest of the book is taken up with an impressive number of examples of evolutionary convergence at all different levels and in all sorts of different structures, from molecular biology (the clear proteins in the human lens) to the way ‘societies’ of organisms organize themselves (agriculture in ants). On the way through, he shows the reader a world of fascinating creatures, and aspects of life that often go without comment.

The examples of convergence laid out in the book are to show that despite the amazing fecundity of evolution, the forms that organisms may take are indeed limited. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the focus on convergence in sensory perception, which in turn leads to a consideration of convergent intelligence. A wonderful example of this is the way that dolphins, and possibly other animals, show some of the same types of reasoning and understanding as humans. This leads Conway Morris to conclude that intelligence is rampantly common, and rampantly convergent despite intelligence in different species relying on very different brain architecture as a result of different evolutionary paths.

Conway Morris’s final conclusion is simply to say that evolution is not a random game, but rather follows the strict rules laid out for it by the nature of reality. However, once life gets started, the nature of reality leads almost inevitably to intelligence. This, Conway Morris says, puts a question mark over many of our scientific assumptions.

This book is a fascinating read, both for the argument Conway Morris is making, and as a description of biology in general. It will not be an easy read for someone with no previous knowledge of biology, but for those who have had read a little in the area, it should prove to be engrossing.

Difficulty: In Depth