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 accelerate evolutionary developments that were going to happen anyway. And what about that other evolutionary canard: the “missing link”? There is plenty to choose from in the fossil record, but persistently overlooked 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 intelligence of humans and animals 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. Undoubtedly, 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.
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
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.
“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.” —The Inquisitive Biologist
"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 takes place in a universe built on imagination. Altogether surprising and liberating.” —Rupert Sheldrake, PhD, author of The Science Delusion