Zachary Ardern
 on December 10, 2015

The Runes of Evolution: How the Universe Became Self-Aware by Simon Conway Morris (Book Review)


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INTRO BY JIM: Simon Conway Morris is Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Cambridge.  He made a name for himself in the scientific community with his work on the fossils in the Burgess Shale.  He had a famous exchange with Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould on whether if we rewound the tape of evolutionary development, would it play the same way again.  Gould gave an emphatic No! Conway Morris says there would be remarkable similarities in the kinds of organisms that would evolve again—perhaps even to the point that conscious beings like ourselves are inevitable outcomes of the evolutionary process.  Such a claim resonates with evolutionary creationists who believe that God intentionally created human beings even though the best scientific description of our coming to be is evolutionary science with its apparent contingencies.  

Conway Morris’ earlier book, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe is widely cited by those engaged in the study of science and religion.  I’m pleased to post this review of his recent book by Zachary Ardern.  Watch for other reviews in the future, or consider getting in on the fun yourself.

Conway Morris, Simon. The Runes of Evolution: How the Universe Became Self-Aware. 2015: Templeton Press. 496 pages.

Hidden amongst the branches of the tree of life, both fossilized and extant, we find a remarkable tale. The runes of evolution spell out a surprising message: Some evolutionary outcomes are virtually inevitable. Or, so goes the argument of Cambridge palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, resting on two key premises:

  1. Evolution repeats itself in unexpected ways:  Very different lineages evolve to have similar traits. Conway Morris calls this “convergence”.  
  2. Precursors of complex traits, such as a nervous system, are found in much simpler organisms. Conway Morris calls this “evolutionary inherency”. The premises are supported with a wealth of data—thousands of references across the book’s 27 chapters.  

The intriguing tale is told by way of a journey over many different areas in which we find convergence and inherency, with touches of humour along the way. Here are several striking examples. Flight is a common example of convergence, and many occurrences are detailed in this book. Gliding, for instance, has arisen over 30 times; organisms ranging from fish, squid, ants, geckos, plant seeds, mammals (both placental and marsupial), snakes, and frogs all glide. In the case of powered flight, birds evolved the trick at least three times in evolutionary history, independently of each other. Cognitive complexity is a major focus of the book, as indicated by the sub-title. Sleep, or something like it, is found as widely across the tree of life as insects and box jellies. Recognition of self and others, an apparent interest in death, and the use of song—which shows similarities to human speech and music in aspects of learning and song construction—are found in various complex organisms.

A particularly remarkable find is that convergences aren’t just scattered throughout the tree of life, but are frequently clustered together. Arguably not just traits but organisms in some more holistic sense are convergent. The octopus is an object of particular fascination, with a range of cognitive convergences, as well as camera eyes, and tentacles that can mimic a vertebrate’s arm and even facilitate the dexterity required to untie fine knots. Convergences with vertebrates in eye structure at least, go down to the level of amino acid substitutions.

Evolutionary inherency and its implications also deserve more investigation. Certain membrane proteins are important in allowing cells in multicellular organisms to communicate with each other, but are found in even single-celled eukaryotes. Complexity is founded upon pre-existing systems: “Waiting in the wings of the evolutionary theatre are the players for the next act” (6). Similarly with the nervous system, which depends on molecules present much earlier in the tree of life. A significant proportion of genes used in animal brains, including some specific to nervous systems, are also found in single celled fungi. As Conway Morris puts it: “Deep in the history of eukaryotes lies the potentiality for a brain” (7). 
Evolution is a stranger tale than some major commentators have taught us to expect. But does this have any relevance to Christian reflection on evolutionary science? God never gets a mention in the book, but as Conway Morris is a committed Christian (see his interviews on the Test of Faith website) presumably God is envisaged as existing somewhere in the background. More explicit than his theism is Conway Morris’ hope for an embrace between Plato and Darwin, explored in chapter 26. He sees repeated arrival at the same points as a hint of deeper universals underneath the evolutionary process. This includes a view of human consciousness which says it is not reducible down to physics and chemistry. The tentative speculations on offer and a lack of details on what this all means are not very satisfying, but perhaps Conway Morris is beginning to tease out neglected threads in biology that some will find fruitful to pull further. 

As with most books written in such a contentious area as the borders of science, philosophy, and faith, there are many possible bad objections that will be leveled against this work, and some more legitimate. On the bad side is an anticipatory review of The Runes of Evolution  posted by Jerry Coyne on his website “Why Evolution is True” well before the book came out. Coyne suggests that human inevitability is a requirement for Christian theism, and that it is shown false by quantum indeterminacy. Both of these claims are probably false—regarding the first, an outcome that seems improbable to us may lie well within God’s plan. If God has reasonably comprehensive knowledge about the world, then scientifically unlikely events (perhaps including evolutionary transitions) are more surprising to us than to God. The second misses the point of the argument implicit throughout Conway Morris’s works and particularly developed in this book, that evolution is not as reliant on particular rare transitional events as some have argued. There appear to be multiple routes to similar end-points, making the end surprisingly predictable. 

A more serious potential difficulty with Conway Morris’s argument is that it rests on a subjective sense of surprise. The data has a surprising feel to it, we are assured. The case that convergence and inherency are important patterns in evolution seems persuasive, but it would be good to associate these patterns with specific hypotheses and probabilities. If the insights in this book are to influence mainstream biology, there is serious work to do in spelling out a research project. It is suggested that while the reality and importance of evolution are a sound foundation, there is room left for dramatic advances: “it is high time that just as Einstein transmogrified the Newtonian world, so we need to move beyond evolution” (299). In an era where biology is beginning to work out how genomes work and what the detailed processes of evolution are, these are exciting times for biological research. There is much left to learn, concerning both the large-scale patterns and molecular processes of evolution, and knowing that Christ is creator of all we find, there is much room too for engaged theological reflection. 

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