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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Evolution

From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds Six Myths of Evolution

By: Simon Conway Morris(Author)
409 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds dissects six supposed myths of evolution, providing a thought-provoking mix of ideas.
From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds
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  • From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds ISBN: 9781599475288 Hardback Mar 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 2-4 weeks
Price: £33.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

In this learned romp of science writing, Cambridge professor Simon Conway Morris cheerfully challenges six assumptions – what he calls 'myths' – that too often pass as unquestioned truths amongst the evolutionary orthodox.

His convivial tour begins with the idea that evolution is boundless in the kinds of biological systems it can produce. Not true, he says. The process is highly circumscribed and delimited. Nor is it random. This popular notion holds that evolution proceeds blindly, with no endgame. But Conway Morris suggests otherwise, pointing to evidence that the processes of evolution are "seeded with inevitabilities".

If that is so, then what about mass extinctions? Don't they steer the development of life in radically new directions? Rather the reverse, claims Conway Morris. Such cataclysms simply accelerate evolutionary developments that were going to happen anyway. And what about that other evolutionary canard: the "missing link"? Plenty to choose from in the fossil record but what is persistently over-looked is that in any group there is not one but a phalanx of "missing links". Once again we under-score the near-inevitability of evolutionary outcomes.

Turning from fossils to minds, Conway Morris critically examines the popular tenet that the intelligences of humans and animals basically are the same thing, a difference of degree not kind. A closer scrutiny of our minds shows that in reality an unbridgeable gulf separates us from even the chimpanzees, so begging questions of consciousness and Mind.

Finally, Conway Morris tackles the question of extraterrestrials. Surely, the size and scale of the universe suggest that alien life must exist somewhere beyond Earth and our tiny siloed solar system? After all, evolutionary convergence more than hints that human-like forms are universal. But Dr Conway Morris has serious doubts. The famous Fermi Paradox ("Where are they?") appears to hold: Alone in the cosmos – and unique, but not quite in the way one might expect.


Evolutionary Journeys

1. The Myth of No Limits
2. The Myth of Randomness Evolutionary History
3. The Myth of Mass Extinctions
4. The Myth of Missing Links Mind
5. The Myth of Animal Minds
6. The Myth of Extraterrestrials

About the Author

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An interesting mix of agreeable and disagreeable ideas
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 17 Sep 2022 Written for Hardback

    Cambridge palaeobiologist Simon Conway Morris is always ready for some good-spirited provocation and mischief. Here he dissects six supposed myths of evolution, providing a thought-provoking mix of ideas. I found as much to agree as to disagree with.

    The first four chapters deal with evolution more widely. The first myth, that evolution has no limits, is a bit of a straw man though. I hope that no biologist seriously advocates this: the constraints of physics have long been recognized and the concept of fitness landscapes is almost a century old. Even so, he throws up interesting ideas here. Life, it seems, has been complex from a very early stage, readily swapping genes and entering into symbioses; "this genetic turmoil would help to explain why recovering a genealogy of descent has proved so difficult, if not actually impossible" (p. 14). Looking back in time we encounter what has been dubbed a "phylogenetic event horizon", a barrier beyond which we cannot see, much like the cosmological one.

    A recurrent and thought-provoking idea in this book is that there is a deeper architecture to evolution. Evolution can be thought of as life endlessly probing the hyperdimensional space of all possible options. Many combinations are theoretically imaginable, but few are biologically viable. This is why convergent evolution happens, with life hitting on similar solutions time and again. These concepts also apply to the next myth, that of evolution as a completely random process. A deeper architecture to evolution "may predispose particular chains of causality to be particularly recurrent" (p. 57–58). In other words, convergent evolution traces the outlines of constraints, raising the intriguing idea that biological hyperspace is "dotted with inevitable destinations" (p. 52). Though one can object that, within these constraints, evolution still gravitates towards optimal solutions in a random fashion.

    Next up are the myths of mass extinction and missing links. Mass extinctions happen, but rather than radically redirecting evolution, they merely accelerate what was going to happen anyway. Conway Morris observes that groups that came out on top afterwards were "already moving into pole position ahead of the catastrophe" (p. 75). But is this a profound insight or mere tautology? Are you not effectively saying that those species that radiated into newly opened ecological niches were those species that were best situated to radiate into these niches? What does not help is that, when discussing mammal evolution, his language is somewhat sloppy. Despite his assurances that he does not think that early mammal groups formed a simple scala naturae, "principal lineages tended toward an increasing degree of "mammalness"" (p. 86) and "the thrilling project of "Let's Make a Mammal" was already well underway by the late Permian" (p. 87). This strikes me as counting the hits and ignoring the misses and then marvelling at the route evolution took to get here. Several recent books discussing early mammal evolution show a younger generation of scientists be more accurate but no less poetic in their metaphors. Missing links are another interesting case, though exactly what the myth is here is never entirely clear. If I understand him correctly, he argues that, rather than a chain of missing links, you observe a swarm of evolutionary experiments all tending in the same direction.

    I found much more to disagree with in the next two chapters. Conway Morris provocatively argues that the difference between animal and human minds is not one of degree after all. Discussing mental states, tool use, teaching, language, mathematics, and music, he admits that animals have considerable cognitive chops but that humans really do stand apart. My impression is that he is a tad too sure in denying animals certain cognitive abilities. I am not fond of human exceptionalism, and I will readily quote both Safina and De Waal on why I think we have underestimated animals. However. I cannot deny he has a point. The gap between animals and humans is real and we do not find anything resembling human-level cognitive skills in other species. At the end of this chapter, Conway Morris asks why we are alone; why, even if there was a significant factor X that triggered the fuse of human cognitive evolution, no other species has followed suit. Perhaps, rather than concluding that human intelligence does not readily evolve, we should conclude that it readily does not evolve. Justin Gregg's new book If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal offers a suitably amusing riposte, arguing that non-human animals simply do not need it to be successful.

    At this point, I feel it is incumbent on me to highlight two points. First, Conway Morris is a man of (Christian) faith and you might wonder whether his talk of a "deeper architecture" to evolution implies there has to be an architect. This book is absolutely not pushing Creationism or Intelligent Design, nor trying to smuggle God in (not even through the backdoor). And yet. The second point is that Templeton Press is affiliated with the Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organisation that supports research at the intersection of science and spirituality. The last chapter shows that Conway Morris does have some unorthodox ideas. He considers the search for extraterrestrial intelligence endlessly futile and the Fermi paradox not so much wrong as irrelevant. Why? He has a metaphysical perspective on the nature of reality. Humans, as story-telling animals, have started to literally enter new realities, orthogonal to our own, where we are far from alone. What we call paranormal phenomena and UFOs are part of those orthogonal realities bleeding over into ours on occasion, he contends. "And these regions have many features that will not please the materialists" (p. 219). But tutting at materialism is a sleight of hand. The reason I, and likely many other scientists, do not engage with these ideas has rather to do with empiricism. If your ideas do not generate testable predictions or are not empirically verifiable (an objection Conway Morris mentions here) we effectively enter the realm of postmodernism where there is no objective truth and we have no means which to come to a mutually agreeable understanding of how the world works.

    Despite some misgivings, I found From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds to be a good-humoured and thought-provoking book that both challenged notions I hold dear and provided genuinely interesting ideas. The breadth of research that was put into it is hard to miss, with 167 out of 409 pages providing hundreds of notes per chapter, most referencing multiple papers and responses. I have time for Conway Morris on account of his excellent past work and achievements, while always keeping in mind he is a bit of a provocateur.
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Simon Conway Morris is the Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at the University of Cambridge. Dr Morris is well known for his work on the early evolution of metazoans (popularly referred to as the "Cambrian Explosion") and his extensive studies on convergent evolution. He is the author of more than 100 scientific articles and is the author or editor of 7 books. These include The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals (Oxford University Press, 1998), Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge University Press, 2003), and The Runes of Evolution: How the Universe Became Self-Aware (Templeton Press, 2015). Dr Morris has received the Walcott Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, the Charles Schuchert Award from the Paleontological Society, and the Lyell Medal from the Geological Society of London. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1990. He has spoken extensively at the intersection of science and religion, including giving the Gifford Lectures in 2007 at the University of Edinburgh

By: Simon Conway Morris(Author)
409 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds dissects six supposed myths of evolution, providing a thought-provoking mix of ideas.
Media reviews

"An elegant and informative account of many popular mistakes about our evolutionary history, with fascinating details about creatures from surprisingly complex protists, through trilobites and almost-birds, all the way to our own peculiar species. Simon Conway Morris marshals his arguments and information to good effect, with an engaging openness to really peculiar theories and possible counterexamples."
– Stephen R. L. Clark, DPhil, emeritus professor of philosophy, University of Liverpool

"If, somehow, the Christian visionary poet-artist William Blake were a world-class Cambridge paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and astrobiologist, drank gin and tonics, and was very, very funny, you would have a human marvel approaching Simon Conway Morris. You would also have a world at once physical and mythical – a true cosmic story come alive, become real, that we are writing even as we are being written by it. You would have a 'universe built on imagination', which is to say, 'on consciousness'. You would have what appears to be so."
– Jeffrey J. Kripal, PhD, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religion and associate dean of the School of Humanities, Rice University

"A classic Simon Conway Morris book. The point is not whether you agree with him (I rarely do) but whether you are intrigued, challenged, having fun with the play of ideas – as I always am. Equally, as always, I am deeply impressed by the profound understanding of evolutionary processes, as the author takes us on a dazzling tour through such topics as randomness and extinctions, to supposed missing links (Conway Morris the paleontologist is very good here) and then on to animal minds and extraterrestrials. A worthy successor to Life's Solution. Highly recommended."
– Michael Ruse, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Guelph, Canada, and author of The Gaia Hypothesis

"This book opens a fresh perspective on the evolutionary process, a very welcome change from the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy that has predominated for so long. Conway Morris shows convincingly that long term trends stretch over many millions of years, developmental patterns occur again and again in many kinds of convergent evolution, and all this take place in a universe built on imagination. Altogether surprising and liberating."
– Rupert Sheldrake, PhD, author of The Science Delusion

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