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Are we here by chance?

Saturday, January 17, 2004 - Page D9

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Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely UniverseBy Simon Conway Morris

Cambridge University Press,

464 pages, $41.50

Wonderful Life was the best book written by the late Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist and popular science writer. It is a work with several layers of meaning. At the most obvious, the book tells us about the discovery of the fossilized remains of soft-bodied organisms that lived more than 500 million years ago in an area now taken over by the Canadian Rockies. These denizens of what is known as the Burgess Shale are strange monsters from the past, and their recovery and interpretation is a thrilling story that Gould tells in a way that no one else could equal.

At another level, however, Gould, as always, had an axe to grind, this time about the contingency of life. He used the Burgess fossils to support his oft-expressed claim that the course of history has no inevitabilities. Stop life's tape, go back to start and run it again, and there is no guarantee that anything would be the same. No dinosaurs, no mammals and, above all, no humans. Anyone who thinks that we were simply destined to be is simply fooling him- or herself.

At a third level, although Wonderful Life is ostensibly on Gould's professional occupation of paleontology, it reflects his well-known, non-professional enthusiasm for baseball. A lifetime Yankees fan, Gould loved the sport and everything about it, and this work was a pastiche of a typical book that sports writers produce about baseball. We all know the story: A young, untutored pitcher in the minors, with a killer fastball, is ignored until a prominent manager takes a chance on the kid, brings him up to the majors and stays with him despite sneers and jibes from the unconvinced. With proper grooming, the pitcher adds to his repertoire and ends by winning the World Series and the Cy Young Award to boot. In Wonderful Life, the untutored pitcher is a young paleontologist with a miserable undergraduate education, spotted by one of the leaders in the field, brought to Cambridge University (the British higher-educational answer to the Yankees), where he does fantastic work, and ends with papers in the best journals and a fellowship in the Royal Society of London just down the road.

Wonderful Life appeared in 1989, and the next year I was off to Cambridge on a year's sabbatical, so (naturally inquisitive) I looked up Gould's uncouth hero, one Simon Conway Morris. His state of mind was about on a par with that of Jean Chrétien after Paul Martin took over the Liberal Party. Conway Morris felt that Gould had grotesquely misrepresented his history -- his undergraduate training was excellent and he had achieved what he had through his own merits and efforts and not through the grooming of others -- and, even worse, that Gould had misrepresented the message of the Burgess Shale. In no way does it imply life's contingency.

In a work published a year or two back, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals, Conway Morris took on much of Gould's science. Now, in Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, we have Conway Morris's full-length reply to Gould's underlying claims, for it is the English paleontologist's argument that the course of evolutionary history, and the emergence of humans, was no mere chance. It was almost mandated once life's processes had begun. We may not have turned out exactly as we are, but in one way or another -- probably sooner rather than later -- some equivalent of Cambridge professors and Globe and Mail reviewers would have appeared.

In several ways, the differences between Gould and Conway Morris are more than simply factual. For both men, the fossils of the Burgess Shale are not really the key issue. Gould, notoriously, was critical of Darwinism, particularly the belief that organisms can be understood as primarily the end results of evolution through natural selection. For him, chance and random events were all-important. We humans are as we are as much because of comets hitting Earth and wiping out potential rivals as because of our own, selection-produced merits.

Conway Morris is a keen Darwinian, and he sees selection as striving for certain optimal solutions, and generally achieving them, if not in one way then in another. Intelligence and consciousness were there for the taking, and (given human successes) of obvious Darwinian value. Hence, humans -- and if not humans, then something else.

I should say that whoever takes the credit for his abilities and achievements, Simon Conway Morris is a top-notch scientist, and there is a huge amount of really important and interesting material presented in Life's Solution. To make his case, the author leads us through the history of life, showing just how it is that organisms come to be put together as they are, what the alternative options might have been, and precisely why (in his opinion) these alternatives were not realized. The discussion of brain evolution is particularly stimulating, as Conway Morris shows how other intelligent beings -- marine mammals, particularly -- developed the structures and abilities that they have, and why it is that we humans (at the final point) over-took them in the race to the ultimate IQ.

But just as there is more between Gould and Conway Morris than facts, so there is more between them than scientific interpretations. Gould was an agnostic, thinking that no ultimate meaning can be gained from the study of nature. Things just happen. Conway Morris is a Christian, and he clearly thinks that the emergence of humans (or something human-like) was no mere chance. In such a universe as we have, something made in the image of God was bound to happen. At least, it was bound to happen once life got going, for (as his subtitle hints) Conway Morris thinks that the existence of life itself may have been a one-off experience, and so while not in itself miraculous, yet more evidence that the world in which we find ourselves points to something bigger than ourselves.

I find myself in the happy position of disagreeing with both authors. I doubt that life is anything like as contingent as Gould claimed. To belittle natural selection in the way he did strikes me as just plain wrong. But even were I a Christian, I would be very uncomfortable with Conway Morris's arguments that life's history points so strongly to deeper meanings. Indeed, I am uncomfortable with any natural theological approach that tries to support belief by appeal to nature. Too often, scientists change their minds, and the believer is left to scramble to shore up religious claims that no longer have strong empirical support. Far better to go with a theology of nature, that starts with faith and then delights in the creation, whatever its nature and our contemporary understanding.

Agree or disagree, Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris are talking about important things. If you have not done so, read Wonderful Life. Then read Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe.

Michael Ruse was an undergraduate at the same university as Simon Conway Morris. His most recent book is Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose?

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