Conway-Morris - Is Convergence Becoming too Popular?

Additional Information

Category Lecture
Speakers Conway-Morris, Simon
Year 2014

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A useful rule of thumb is that as soon as an area of science becomes popular---”oh, yes, we have known that for years and years, haven’t we Richard?”---then it is definitely time to move on... So where next? The little I know of iconoclasm, not least in the history of the English church or the rise of Hitler (more or less unconnected, you will be relieved to know), suggests that destruction wins over any new and purged world. But in evolution? Time perhaps to take the odd pot-shot as those slow moving shibboleths. One hardly needs a blunderbuss, let alone, a steady hand but any case let us see if, in the spirit of T. H. White, we can do a bit of questing. They are what I call evolutionary myths, not fairy tales, but areas of unconsidered received wisdom---”oh yes, we have we known that for years and years, haven’t we Dan?”---so please join me for a stroll across the marshes at the crack of dawn in search of easy prey. Mass extinctions? Of course they happen, but do they radically re-direct the course of evolution? Hardly; paradoxically mass extinctions are creative agencies accelerating the inevitable. Biological systems are as good as they need to be and in principle no better, certainly not perfect? Maybe, but at least in the case of sensory systems it appears that they have reached the limits of the physical universe (which is why science is so strange) while with enyzmes it is far from clear if they can get much better, even with that walking disaster Rubisco. “Once there were bacteria, now there is New York”, so yes there is a trend to arguably more interesting and complex things; but oddly it is very difficult to find anything that is gratifyingly and slobberingly simple. Extra-solar planets by the billion and intelligences springing all over the Milky Way? Unfortunately Fermi was correct; there aren’t any extraterrestrials at all, which might be just as well given our propensity for violence. And then the big one: consciousness. Watch our materialist colleagues run in ever-diminishing circles.... So food for thought, but do I hear that remark “oh, yes, we have known about all this for years and years, haven’t we Jerry?” Bother, time to move on.....

SIMON CONWAY MORRIS is a professor of evolutionary biology in the University of Cambridge and is best know for his work on the Burgess Shale (summarized in The Crucible of Creation) and evolutionary convergence (reviewed in Life’s Solution; as well as the website Map of Life), while his next book The Runes of Evolution is in press. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1990, and has the odd gong. He is also active in outreach, including developing a new website on evolution as well as occasional television and radio appearances. When undisturbed he can be found with a glass of wine (or something stronger) closer to hand, reading something by the Inklings.