Life's Solution : Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, Paperback

Life's Solution : Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe Paperback

4 out of 5 (1 rating)


The assassin's bullet misses, the Archduke's carriage moves forward, and a catastrophic war is avoided.

So too with the history of life. Re-run the tape of life, as Stephen J. Gould claimed, and the outcome must be entirely different: an alien world, without humans and maybe not even intelligence.

The history of life is littered with accidents: any twist or turn may lead to a completely different world.

Now this view is being challenged. Simon Conway Morris explores the evidence demonstrating life's almost eerie ability to navigate to a single solution, repeatedly.

Eyes, brains, tools, even culture: all are very much on the cards.

So if these are all evolutionary inevitabilities, where are our counterparts across the galaxy?

The tape of life can only run on a suitable planet, and it seems that such Earth-like planets may be much rarer than hoped.

Inevitable humans, yes, but in a lonely Universe.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 488 pages, 50 b/w illus.
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Philosophy of science
  • ISBN: 9780521603256



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Conway Morris' book, by his own description, is a sandwich. The meat of the book, which is very impressive, explores convergence in evolution. His conclusion is one that I admit that I was predisposed to favor, that the results of evolution are dependent on the requirements of the niche that the life form moves into, not random, unrepeatable contingencies. As I learned in my junior high school science class, and ever since, variations may be random, but natural selection isn't. "Evolution" is sometimes used a little too broadly in the sense of a history of life. A meteor strike may be a contingency that affects the situation that living beings have to deal with, but it is not, itself, a part of evolution in a strict sense. Rather, evolution is the process by which survivors will adapt to changed circumstances, or go extinct. Conway Morris makes an impressive argument that the results will be similar for similar needs and often, that there are no strikingly different alternatives. I predict that this will lead to a great deal of squabbling over how alike "alike" is. Conway Morris makes it clear that while he expects that our niche would be filled by another culture-bearing, language using, large-brained species with similar fine motor skills, he isn't necessarily requiring a primate. He also accepts that there may be bottlenecks, such as getting life started in the first place, but he is arguing that given the chance to proceed, evolution will always create similar results. I am convinced, and humbled by the breadth of his knowledge and research. Stephen J. Gould comes in for a lot of well-deserved criticism, and his fans will not be happy. Alas, to continue the sandwich metaphor, one piece of the bread is a bit stale and the other downright moldy. The beginning chapters deal with the difficulties and probabilities of creating life in the first place. These chapters are mostly quite interesting - Conway Morris feels that the getting life to start developing may be extremely difficult under any circumstances and that present explanations are inadequate. My cavil with him in these chapters is that he goes on to declare that life is unlikely anywhere else. I have little patience with people who declare that almost certainly there is/is-not life elsewhere in the universe. Talk about hypothesizing in advance of your data! I am all for throwing around ideas, some of the most exhilarating books are those in which the author admits that it is impossible to reach firm conclusions, but still explores possibilities. Go ahead and guess: my guess is that somewhere else there is life, just because it's a big universe and it strikes me as unlikely that anything is truly unique. But that's just my guess, it doesn't make it to the dignity of scientific hypothesis. To reach a definite conclusion on the likelihood of a poorly understood process in scantily observed situations is nonsense. The moldy slice is Conway Morris' "theology of evolution". I'm not actually sure what this is; in stark contrast to his review of convergence, he puts all of his energies into ill-supported attacks on his opponents, not developing his own ideas. Atheists (of which I am one) and agnostics can't win for losing - if they are cheerful, they are arrogant and amoral, if they are depressed, they "prove" the emptiness of their world view. Conway Morris' arguments seem to boil down to the assumptions that it is "obvious" that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, that atheists and agnostics are worse people than believers. Since the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in a god, it is a little hard to understand why we have such a high murder rate in that case, but Conway Morris isn't interested in examining facts. I would not think it would need repeating that people who are pious and behave irreproachably within their own society have a long track record of barbarism towards outsiders, often murdering and pillaging with the serene mind that comes from confidence that one is acting with the blessing of God. Being a believer in freedom of speech and religion, I don't fault Conway Morris or Richard Dawkins for being open about their views. I seriously doubt that science is capable of proving or disproving deity(s), but I am confident that it hasn't done either at this point; vicious personal attacks from either side under the guise of science are shameful. I don't think that Conway Morris does his notions any favor in this angry, poorly-argued section. If he really feels that they are important, then I think he should do them justice of developing them with the care that he developed his ideas on convergence.