How did human beings acquire imaginations that can conjure up untrue possibilities? How did the Universe become self-aware? In The Runes of Evolution, Simon Conway Morris revitalizes the study of evolution from the perspective of convergence, providing us with compelling new evidence to support the mounting scientific view that the history of life is far more predictable than once thought.
A leading evolutionary biologist at the University of Cambridge, Conway Morris came into international prominence for his work on the Cambrian explosion (especially fossils of the Burgess Shale) and evolutionary convergence, which is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.
In The Runes of Evolution, he illustrates how the ubiquity of convergence hints at an underlying framework whereby many outcomes, not least brains and intelligence, are virtually guaranteed on any Earth-like planet. Conway Morris also emphasizes how much of the complexity of advanced biological systems is inherent in microbial forms.
By casting a wider net, The Runes of Evolution explores many neglected evolutionary questions. Some are remarkably general. Why, for example, are convergences such as parasitism, carnivory, and nitrogen fixation in plants concentrated in particular taxonomic hot spots? Why do certain groups have a particular propensity to evolve toward particular states?
Some questions lead to unexpected evolutionary insights: If bees sleep (as they do), do they dream? Why is that insect copulating with an orchid? Why have sponges evolved a system of fiber optics? What do mantis shrimps and submarines have in common? If dinosaurs had not gone extinct what would have happened next? Will a saber-toothed cat ever re-evolve?
Conway Morris observes: “Even amongst the mammals, let alone the entire tree of life, humans represent one minute twig of a vast (and largely fossilized) arborescence. Every living species is a linear descendant of an immense string of now-vanished ancestors, but evolution itself is the very reverse of linear. Rather it is endlessly exploratory, probing the vast spaces of biological hyperspace. Indeed this book is a celebration of how our world is (and was) populated by a riot of forms, a coruscating tapestry of life.”
The Runes of Evolution is the most definitive synthesis of evolutionary convergence to be published to date.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgments / xi
Introduction / 3
1. Dinner on the Lagoon / 9
2. Consider the Octopus / 11
3. Convergence: How Clear Is the Signal? / 21
4. The Inevitability of Form / 31
5. Swallowing Convergence / 44
6. Biting Convergence / 53
7. Walking (and Swimming) to Convergence / 67
8. Sticking to Convergence / 82
9. When Evolution Begins to See / 93
10. The Color of Evolution / 108
11. The Smell and Taste of Evolution / 120
12. (In)tangible Evolution / 128
13. The Road to Mushrooms / 150
14. The Road to Plants / 155
15. The Arthropods Show the Way / 165
16. Converging on the Farm / 177
17. The Road to the Sky / 189
18. The Birds Converge/ 200
19. Sexual Convergence / 209
20. The Road to Mammals / 221
21. The Roots of Sentience / 234
22. Convergent Brains / 241
23. The Road to “King Cortex” / 252
24. Convergent Minds / 263
25. Playing with Convergence / 273
26. The Final Steps / 286
27. Back to the Lagoon / 301
Notes / 305
General Index / 463
Index of Genera / 489
“Utterly fascinating and very thought-provoking. Throughout an impressive range of examples, the book succeeds in keeping a lightness of touch without compromising on detail. I kept on finding myself saying ‘I didn’t know that.’”
“Professor Simon Conway Morris writes in a creative, engaging style that will challenge his conventional biological readers (like me) to think again. This is good, because getting too comfortable with what you “think” you know is bad.
“Whether or not you agree with the details, The Runes of Evolution is a great read that will make you ever-so-slightly less comfortable, and thereby remind you not to take anything for granted.”
“In this remarkable book Conway-Morris reminds us that life and its evolution is more deeply mysterious than many of us give it credit.”
“The Runes of Evolution is a tour de force, an extraordinary synthesis of literature from all corners of the biological sciences. Conway Morris not only compellingly makes the case for the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence, but persuasively argues that human intelligence, consciousness, even play behavior, is not as unique as we think and that much can be learned by comparison to convergent apes, whales, crows, even octopi and turtles. Evolution, long thought to be haphazard and contingent, may turn out to be much more law-like and predictable than ever appreciated, with important implications for our own evolutionary history and what life may be like on other planets.”
Faith Magazine–Vol. 48, No. 4 (July & August 2016)
This book was presumably written by Morris more for fellow natural scientists than for philosophers and theologians, but in each case so as to prove that his hypothesis of ongoing convergence in evolution is not a series of fortuitous coinci-dences but empirical evidence of established patterns or in-built mechanisms within the evolutionary process. Three hundred pages of text with double columns of print on each page and 150 pages of endnotes make that clear. Names of different species, genera, families, orders, classes, and so on turn up on virtually every page so that the nonprofessional reader ends up hunting for summary statements by Morris at the end of each major subdivision within the 26 chapters. Yet despite its obvious density and degree of detail for the ordinary reader, the implications of this book for philosophical/theological understanding of the God–world relationship and for the classic distinction between the natural and the supernatural within creation are in my judgment very significant.
“Conway Morris’s exploration of the phenomenon of convergence in biological evolution is rife with implications for Christian theology. It lends credence to a Christian view of God’s providential action in history, and it supports an ecological view of the interdependence of all things in God’s creation. It also fits with a scriptural account of a story-shaped world.”
“Perhaps even more than its great precursor [Darwin’s The Origin of Species], however, this is a stupendous work of passion as well as scholarship—one long act, not only explicitly of argument but implicitly of worship.”
"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:
Evolution repeats itself in unexpected ways: Very different lineages evolve to have similar traits. Conway Morris calls this 'convergence.'
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."
Open Letters Monthly: An Arts and Literature Review (July 9, 2015)
“Both at the University of Cambridge and on television shows and lecture circuits, Morris has had a career of teaching the complexities of science, and in many ways The Runes of Evolution is his masterpiece, perfectly capturing the seemingly easy way Morris mixes mind-boggling scientific range with friendly, accessible prose.”