Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris (2003)

Jonathan Losos’s intriguing book Improbable Destinies seemed to support my sneaking suspicion that a scientifically accurate and up-to-date understanding of evolution is (at least) far more compatible with or (at most) far more suggestive of some sense of theological design and purpose than is so commonly assumed by its popular presentation and atheistic ambassadors. Losos recommended Life’s Solution for digging deeper into the wonderful world of evolutionary convergence, which played no small part in my sneaking suspicion. Thus it seemed a natural next step to read this book by Simon Conway Morris, who I vaguely understood to be one of the top figures in modern evolutionary science. Imagine my astonishment to discover that Mr. Morris is not merely supportive of my general hypothesis about the theological implications of “real” evolution, he is a Lewis-and-Chesterton-quoting Christian enthusiastically embracing those ideas, promoting a more confident argument in that direction than I ever dared to expect.

To be sure, Morris only winks and nudges in that direction, but it is clear that he is trying to open wide a door that he feels has been unfairly shut. Morris’s overall thesis is that “the emergence of sentience is imprinted in the evolutionary process” (p.303) – that the remarkable recurring patterns of biology make the evolution of intelligent creatures inevitable, and thus suggest a teleology just as strongly as the slightly more mathematical laws that govern physics and cosmology. The “awe and wonder” that we might feel at the “inevitability” of this process “might at last allow a conversation with religious sensibilities rather than the more characteristic response of either howling abuse or lofty condescension” (p.5)

The book’s scope is much wider than convergent evolution, however. In one early chapter, Morris marvels at the “eerie perfection” of the genetic code, which, in terms of how efficiently the coding alphabet corrects for errors, out of all possible combinations of the amino acids, is literally “one in a million” – the second most efficient out of 270 million possibilities. Somehow, life had “two hundred million years (and possibly much less) to navigate to the best of all possible codes.” There’s a “potentially gigantic hyperspace of alternative possibilities, yet the evidence suggests that rapidly with extraordinary effectiveness a very good, perhaps even the best, code is arrived at.” (p.15-17)

Morris also pokes fun at the irrational exuberance of abiogenesis researchers, who create the impression that “we are on the verge of seeing how the spark of creation transmuted the inanimate to the animate,” but “nothing could be further from the truth (p.43). It’s refreshing to hear someone of Morris’s caliber validate the common creationist dismissals of the old Urey-Miller experiments, among other attempts. Morris chides, “Many of the experiments designed to explain one or other step in the origin of life… involve an experimental rig in which the hand of the researcher becomes for all intents and purposes the hand of God.” (p.41) And he emphasizes how unexpected this should be: “The question of how the inanimate became animate has proved stubbornly recalcitrant. It should be rather simple, especially if you worship at the crowded shrine of self-organization.” (Preface) Unlike the creationists, Morris doesn’t insist on a divinely sparked alternative; he’s more subtly arguing that even any natural solution that does manage to be found will apparently have required so much precision and “fine-tuning” that for all intents and purposes it could be considered just as anthropologically principled as the properties of the universe itself.

Speaking of universal properties, Morris makes good explorations there as well. He channels and elaborates on Rare Earth arguments about our planet‘s impressively challenging ability to support life for billions of consecutive years – and how the problem of life’s first spark takes that to even higher levels. Apparently the sun’s early radiation should have driven the compounds necessary for an atmosphere and an ocean out beyond Jupiter. “So what are we doing here?” Morris twinkles before describing theories about the early Earth moving inward or receiving the bountiful gift of lots and lots of comets. (p.42) Morris also brings in the work of Guillermo Gonzalez (featured in The Privileged Planet and The Case For a Creator) on galactic habitability zones.

The convergent meat of the book is, of course, fascinating, illustrating Conway’s argument that “the evolutionary routes are many, but the destinations are limited.” (p.145) Some quick highlights:

  • skeleton space – a suggestion that nearly all possible combinations of body plan characteristics have been tried over the course of Earth’s history, most of them multiple times (p.118)
  • halteres – balancing gyroscope mechanisms on flies and strepsipterans (p.149)
  • Red-green color vision – “the changes in the structure of the rhodopsin molecule that make possible the absorption of particular wavelengths of light… The sites of substitution are highly specific.. red-green vision has evolved independently… the convergence in red vision between a fish and mammals where two, and possibly three, sites show identical substitutions… evidence continues to accumulate that the ‘five-site rule’ is very widespread (p.168-169)
  • the use of oil droplets as color filters in fish and birds (p.170)
  • electric signals – particularly mechanisms to avoid ‘jamming’ by multiple users – “fish changes its frequency… in a few microseconds” – “the algorithm used by the gymnotids and mormyrids to shift the signal has evolved independently but is identical.” Also, “computationally similar neural algorithms occur in the owl,” even though they are “acoustic” rather than “electric” (p.186)
  • ant-mimicking beetles – their solution to maintaining their mimicry in spite of their “changes in size and shape” is to “resemble successively in a series of moults, two or more species of ant” (p.213)
  • viviparity “originated over 130 times” (p.221)
  • singing – “strikingly similar… anatomical and functional similarities in the organization of neural pathways for vocal production and processing” in human and bird song

Conway tries to cover all the senses, all the different aspects of increasing intelligence, arguing that they have all evolved multiple times across the animal kingdom. He’s humble about its limitations: “identification of convergence presupposes a reliable phylogeny,” with a “constant risk of circularity in the argument. Is a particular character the same because it evolved from a common ancestor or is it convergent?” I’ve often thought of that criticism from a creationist perspective, but Conway argues that the details of convergence “provide no comfort for the creation scientists.” Why? Because “very seldom is the convergence so exact” as to suggest direct relationships; in the “nuances of difference and the paths followed,” “their various ways they provide compelling examples of the reality of organic evolution.” (p.299-300)

While at first glance all this may seem to weaken theological ideas about a purposeful Creator, by weakening humanity’s apparent uniqueness, Conway believes it suggests just the opposite, if “the emergence of sentience is imprinted in the evolutionary process” (p.303)

He says Fred Hoyle’s remark “that the universe was a set-up job rings strangely true.” (preface) “Biologists also have, in the true Darwinian spirit, immense admiration for the jury-rigging of biological design, whereby co-option and modification lead to the functioning whole. and, if they are honest, they may feel a sense of unease about the fluidity and grace of adaption. It has an almost uncanny sense of precision and balance, which humans achieve only rarely in technology and art.” (p.312)

(Conway does not do too much to tackle the specifically Christian theological challenges of evolution, though I wonder if his discussion about “forbidden knowledge” – the dangers of scientific knowledge removed from a moral system of values – might inform an interpretation of The Fall. His remark about Homo sapiens as the only survivor of multiple early hominids made me wonder if that winnowing might be compatible with the story of Noah…)

In closing remarks, Conway circles back to his remarks from the preface that “the heart of the problem… is to explain how it might be that we, a product of evolution, possess an overwhelming sense of purpose and moral identity yet arose by processes that were seemingly without meaning.” “Yes, it may all be due to a few misfiring neurons… but the fact remains that humans have an overwhelming sense of purpose… In the words of Arthur Peacocke, somehow biology has produced a being of infinite restlessness, and this certainly raises the question of whether human beings have properly conceived of what their true ‘environment’ is…” (p.314)

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