International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Life's Solution - Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe

by Simon Conway Morris

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

Simon Conway Morris is one of the world’s leading paleontologists (his specialty is the early Cambrian fauna of the Burgess Shale) and he is also a deeply committed Christian. This book is an important fusion of the two concerns, taking the science-religion debate in fruitful new directions.

As the author himself admits, the book is somewhat of a hybrid, or sandwich. The first part, drawing heavily on the research of others, is a survey of the origin-of-life problem. In strong, straightforward prose, Conway Morris discusses what is now known of the processes of life, the importance of the nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) in particular, and then the issues of the natural appearance of functioning life. He argues that the mysteries of life itself are now yielding to scientific research, as molecular biologists gain ever more knowledge about key processes. However, the origin of life itself is, if anything, even more clothed in darkness and improbability. Surveying what we know of the universe, Conway Morris argues that the confidence many show in the constant (natural) creation of life is simply not well founded. He does not in any way want to doubt that life did originate naturally – in other words he has no sympathy for the miracle-invocations of the Intelligent Design Theorists – but as the second part of his sub-title “a lonely universe” suggests, he thinks that our planet may be the unique home of life forms.

The second part of the book draws very much on Conway Morris’s own expertise. He argues that a very significant aspect of the evolutionary process is convergence. It seems as though there pre-exist morphological and ecological niches, and that evolving lines of organisms are constantly probing, trying to find and enter them. Thus organisms of quite different origins might come across the same niche and enter, gaining or developing very similar features (adaptations) for success. As an example of such convergence, Conway Morris discusses the saber-toothed tiger niche – a large predatory animal with sheering fangs – and shows how it was occupied independently by both placental and marsupial mammals (and even suggests that dinosaurs might have been there first). Conway Morris extrapolates this idea and argues that it is reasonable to suppose that there exists a cultural niche and it was only a matter of time before some organism found and claimed it. Hence the first part of Conway Morris’s sub-title “inevitable humans”

He concludes the book by raising, briefly, theological issues, something that as a scientist he has strictly eschewed up to this point. He argues that science supports in full (what he takes to be) central claims of Christian doctrine, namely that the earth is uniquely the place of God’s special creative actions – the drama of life is ours and ours alone – and that worries about the non-directional nature of the Darwinian process are misplaced. Once life appeared, then creatures of a human-like nature were really bound to appear, and so the drama of humans could begin. Darwinism and Christianity mesh smoothly together.