The Runes of Evolution: How the Universe became Self-Aware by Simon Conway Morris, FRS
Reviewed by Martin Lockley
Do we need another book on evolution? Although phrased somewhat differently, this is the question Simon Conway Morris asks, and answers positively by promising something “different.” Simon, a Cambridge paleobiologist has lectured at SMN meetings and is also known to a wider audience of evolution aficionados. Likewise his publisher, Templeton Press, is known for its advocacy of “different” perspectives, perhaps one might say beyond scientism. Simon has made a name for himself by searching for deeper evolutionary truths, deeper that is than traditional Darwinism. Without disputing the “primacy of the Darwinian explanation” he is amusingly scathing about “the ultra-Darwinists who…rejoice in the complete meaningless of the universe…taking gleeful pleasure in perversely magnifying our utter cosmic insignificance.” As in a previous book (Life’s Solutions, Network 85) Simon’s search for evolutionary “meaning” is both refreshing and interesting, and sets him apart from most of his mainstream colleagues. But then again few colleagues have been Gifford lecturers or bold enough to publically address controversial metaphysical and spiritual/religious questions under the rubric of evolution. Simon’s thesis can be summarised in a single word “convergence.”
Those not steeped in evolutionary theory may nevertheless know that traditional Darwinism argues that natural selection acts on random mutation in such a way that extrinsic forces are thought to weed out those not “fit” enough to survive. In this model, the world is a dangerous place in which largely passive organisms are knocked down like nine pins if they don’t have “what it takes” [whatever that is] to adapt to the external threats that may strike at random like bowling balls or meteorites (also known as bolides)! In this scenario, if different animals develop different adaptations: say wings in birds, bats and pterosaurs, it is called “convergence” and considered a rather happy but nevertheless surprising and random coincidence brought about by animals undergoing selection in similar habitats. But convergence, as Simon notes is so ubiquitous that he repeatedly refers to it as “rampant,” and so argues that intrinsic biological development appears to be so often attracted down predictable pathways, that not only can it not be considered random, but rather it appears to be directional to the extent that some outcomes appear almost “inevitable.”
Organisms as their name implies have intrinsic organisation [and organisms are even classified, traditionally into “orders”]. My favorite example, cited by Simon, is the brain child of Oxford paleontologist Tom Kemp, is referred to as “correlated progression.” Dealing with our earliest mammalian ancestors, Kemp noticed that on multiple branches of the evolutionary tree various early mammals always followed certain directions as they developed new anatomical traits [such as our useful and still-much-used and evolving jaws and ears]: so traits A,B,C,D and E always appeared in the same order, even if at different rates and with different expressions. Sometimes the sequence might be A,B, D, E or A,B,C, E, skipping a beat, so to speak, but never a random or disorderly sequence. Such directionality speaks to intrinsic biological “order.” Although Simon is pioneering in his recognition and understanding of the implications of convergence for intrinsic directionality, the sea change in biology in recent decades, especially in molecular and genetic studies, and so called evo-devo (evolution of development) have thrown the field wide open, and made his case a little easier, by demonstrated that Darwinism is only a somewhat aging part of a far more complex evolutionary paradigm. Biology is very complex and dynamic, if you don’t believe it read Simon’s book.
Here a buyer beware warning: caveat emptor! Especially for the non-specialist, expect a blizzard of polysyllabic names of obscure species, families and sub tribes of plants, animals, the microbes and parasites they associate with [not always willingly] and the complex organic chemistry that keeps them ticking, or should I say dynamically diverging and converging. Perhaps taking a leaf from Darwin’s classic work, Simon is nothing if not thorough in his choice of endless examples taken from nature’s laboratory, so much so that the import of his main thesis often has to await a hearing until a few dozen, dense, supporting examples and arguments are laid out. But, with a little hacking through the jungle of biological verbiage and specialised detail, the structure of the book emerges as a pleasingly organic epic, that democratically works through the evolutionary histories and implications of countless groups of organism, their senses and quirky behaviors.
The work is democratic in the sense that as each step towards greater complexity is examined, along what many still regard as the trajectory of time’s complexifying evolutionary arrow, Simon digs back and shows that simpler organisms, such as sponges or even bacteria, manifest surprising, and often previously unacknowledged complexity. This complexity is convergent with what we humans, as “higher mammals” have tended, rather chauvinistically, and perhaps too proudly, to claim as our own rather exceptional characteristics. Convergence reminds us that discovery of biological sophistication in one species often leads to unexpected recognition of similar traits in another “humbler” and quite unrelated form.
So what about the runes that speak to a self-aware universe? Well, here the story is perhaps quite familiar, especially to the SMN crowd. The trend towards bigger brains (called encephalisation) in many species, especially hominids, has helped with self-awareness, making humans at least one avenue by which the universe has become self-aware. Simon’s thesis is that this trend is/was “inevitable.” Without overtly suggesting the universe has “purpose” he nevertheless speaks of meaning and takes swipes at those [academics and spokespersons?] whose “beautifully-crafted talks…[postulate]… that all is without meaning. If you believe that you’ll believe anything.” [I used to tell students that simple logic allowed them to disregard as meaningless anyone who, as a part of the universe, claims it is meaningless]! So ostensibly Simon regards evolution as interesting, not because it is true and fascinating (which it is) but because it leads to self-awareness. [I take it we can also see this as evolution’s inevitable “ purpose,” even if we refer only to “direction” and stop short of any dreaded categorical statement about teleology determining final meaningful goals].
Who is to define the meaning of meaningfulness?! Self-awareness and consciousness surely have considerable meaning, allowing humans to contemplate the very concepts of evolution, meaning and purpose in the first place. Again treading on familiar ground, Simon reminds us that self-awareness “inevitably’ raises the specter of mortality, evidently a metaphysical issue since the time of the Neanderthals. Simon tries to navigate this question with rather an arcane discussion revolving around a Weber-Fechner law [new to many I suspect] and Roger Shepard’s arguments about living in a 3D, Euclidian and mathematically comprehensible world. Well, Yes! I guess! Some have waxed lyrical about God as a weaver of pre-existing mathematical laws and mind fabrics. But the mystery remains, and in his final analysis Simon quotes Edwin Muir (who better?) and Llewelyn Powys who both stand in awe at the realisation that: “human beings are understandable only as immortal spirits,” [presumably in some way spiritually connected to the organic fabric of evolution, n’est-ce pas?]. All said, one must agree that evolutionary observations require that paleobiologists, like Simon, ask these consciousness-laden questions about their own capacities and purpose as observers. All this should propel the human mind beyond the bounds of traditional Darwinism. SMN readers will surely resonate with these rune-minations.