Full Text (Footnotes omitted)
- Writing in the New York Review of Books, John Maynard Smith, one of Britain's greatest biologists, remarked 'If one was able to re-play the whole evolution1 of animals, starting at the bottom of the Cambrian (and, to satisfy Laplace, moving one of the individual animals two feet to its left), there is no guarantee — indeed no likelihood — that the result would be the same. There might be no conquest of the land, no emergence of mammals, and certainly no human beings'. This review, written with characteristic flair and economy, was addressing three books on evolution2, two by S. J. Gould and the third by E. Mayr. Maynard Smith was raising this issue because both the authors under review have been forthright in claiming that the emergence of human intelligence during the course of evolution3 has a vanishingly small probability. The logic of the argument, that because we are unique on this planet then nothing like us can occur elsewhere, is gently checked by Maynard Smith: 'This argument seems to me so manifestly false that I fear I must have misunderstood it'. However, he, Mayr and Gould, and I imagine almost anyone else, would agree that the likelihood of ‘exactly the same cognitive creatures — with five fingers on each hand, a vermiform appendix, thirty-two teeth, and so on’ evolving again if, somehow, the Cambrian explosion could be rerun is remote in the extreme.
- What, however, of the emergence of more general biological properties? In considering some earlier views of R. C. Lewontin, who was uncertain as to whether 'general principles of biological organization' existed, Maynard Smith was more upbeat: 'In seeking a theory of biological form, I would probably place greater emphasis than Lewontin on the principles of engineering design. I suspect that there are only a limited number of ways in which eyes can possibly work, and, maybe only a limited number of ways in which brains can work. But I agree that it would be good to know whether such principles exist, and, if so, what they are'. Even though neither Lewontin nor Maynard Smith thought 'A description of all the organisms that have ever been' could settle this issue, Life's Solution sets out to demonstrate that what we already know gives some strong indicators of what must be: even in this book pigs don't fly.
- The central theme of this book depends on the realities of evolutionary4 convergence: the recurrent tendency of biological organization to arrive at the same 'solution' to a particular 'need'. Perhaps the best-known example is the similarity between the camera-like eye of the octopus and the human eye (or that of any other vertebrate). As we shall see in this particular instance, where the camera-like eye has evolved independently at least six times, Maynard Smith's premise that 'only a limited number of ways in which eyes can possibly work' is amply confirmed. If this book happens to serve no other purpose than act as a compilation of evolutionary5 convergences, be it head-banging in mole rats and termites or matriarchal social structure in sperm whales and elephants, then that will be sufficient. But, of course, the net is in pursuit of a much bigger prey. Its main, but not ultimate, aim is to argue that, contrary to received wisdom, the emergence of human intelligence is a near-inevitability. My purpose is not to demonstrate the inevitability of a five-fingered organism, although in this context it is amusing to note that the famous panda's 'thumb' is, in one sense, convergent. Nor is it my aim to find repeated examples of species with 32 teeth, even though we might note that there are a number of fascinating examples of dental convergence. And it is this that matters, not five of this or 32 of that, but the recurrent emergence of various biological properties.
- This book has its anecdotes, from baboons operating railway signals to a harbour seal that spoke like an inebriated Bostonian, but there is a serious argument that takes us from the apparently arcane, such as the natural (and convergent) gyroscopes of insects, through to the convergences of the sensory modalities6 (vision, of course, but also olfaction, hearing and echolocation, electroreception, and so on) to agriculture, brain size, and culture. And there are four conclusions.
- First, what we regard as complex is usually inherent in simpler systems: the real and in part unanswered question in evolution7 is not novelty per se, but how it is that things are put together.
- Second, the number of evolutionary8 end-points is limited: by no means everything is possible.
- Third, what is possible has usually been arrived at multiple times, meaning that the emergence of the various biological properties is effectively inevitable.
- Finally, all this takes time. What was impossible billions of years ago becomes increasingly inevitable: evolution9 has trajectories (trends, if you prefer) and progress is not some noxious by-product of the terminally optimistic, but simply part of our reality.
- There is, however, a paradox. If we, in a sense, are evolutionarily10 inevitable, as too are animals with compound eyes or tiny organelles that make hydrogen, then where are our equivalents, out there, across the galaxy? After all, the Milky Way has been available for colonization for at least a billion years, so in Enrico Fermi’s famous words concerning putative extra-terrestrials: 'Where are they?' To paraphrase much of this book, life may be a universal principle, but we can still be alone. In other words, once you are on the path it is pretty straightforward, but finding a suitable planet and maybe getting the right recipe for life's origination could be exceedingly difficult: inevitable humans in a lonely Universe. Now, if this happens to be the case, that in turn might be telling us something very interesting indeed. Either we are a cosmic accident, without either meaning or purpose, or alternatively ...
- Enough of backgrounds; what specifically is this book about? Here is a brief outline. Overall it is a sandwich. The central meat on convergences is in Chapters 6 to 10, flanked by thinner expositions in the form of the first five chapters and two end chapters, the last very short indeed. So, the first two chapters are introductory. They look at two extraordinarily effective biological systems. The first concerns the genetic code, how the building blocks of protein, the amino acids, are read off the DNA. This code is eerily effective, indeed it has been argued to be 'one in a million'. This raises the question of how life navigates to such precise end-points, an analogy being how the Polynesians in the great diaspora across the Pacific ever managed to find that remote speck of land that we call Easter Island. This is followed in the second chapter by a consideration of DNA, a molecule of iconic if not totemic significance. But for all its familiarity, DNA also turns out to be one of the strangest molecules in the Universe. A rather useful invention.
- The next two chapters (3 and 4) consider how easy it is to make the molecules necessary for life, but paradoxically how difficult it is to make life itself. To some the universality of organic material, from immense interstellar gas clouds rich in carbon compounds to questing bipeds plodding around out-of-the-way planets, almost suggests the cosmos 'breathes' life; a Universe seeded with vital possibilities. Maybe so, but the trillion upon trillion tonnes of interstellar organics may still be a universal 'goo'. To be sure, they could be the essential ingredient for getting life started in terms of basic supplies, but the question of just how inanimate became animate has proved stubbornly recalcitrant. It should all be rather simple, especially if you worship at the crowded shrine of self-organization. Yet, somewhere, somehow the right question has not yet been asked, and not for want of trying.
- So confident, however, is the majority that the emergence of life is a pre-ordained inevitability that the question of whether beyond the Earth there are any planetary homes available has only recently emerged. Thus Chapter 5 looks at what we know of the many peculiarities of our Solar System. Planets there will be aplenty, but suitable abodes for organic evolution11 might require very special sets of circumstances. This is an area that has been reviewed by such workers as Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, and Stuart Ross Taylor, but here I take the argument further as the ferment of discussion continues.
- Chapters 6 to 10 are, as already mentioned, the heart of the book. They effectively track the story of evolutionary12 convergence, starting with the classic cases familiar to biologists as well as some very intriguing experiments, using bacteria, which allow evolutionary13 history to be rerun. That provides a framework of a sort, but the goal is to argue for the inevitable emergence of sentience. This is achieved by first (Chapter 7) looking, in some detail, at the sensory modalities14. Eyes provide a superb story, but so too in their different ways do such features as balance, hearing, olfaction, echolocation, and electro-generation: all are rampantly convergent. These complex systems can arise from very different starting positions, but again and again converge on the same evolutionary15 solution. Chapters 8 and 9 develop the story by seeing how certain features that we believe are peculiarly human, such as agriculture, human brains, and even advanced culture are each convergent.
- This is not, emphatically, to say that humans are the only evolutionary16 outcome worth considering: clearly they are not. And this leads to the last two chapters (10 and 11), and a brief coda (Chapter 12). Too often evolutionary17 convergence is regarded as simply anecdotal, good for a bedtime story. Its importance is surely underestimated, and for two reasons. The first is scientific. Ideas on evolution18 about such features as adaptation and trends have been under fierce attack, especially by those who believe that if contingent happenstance dogs every step of evolution19 then assuredly the emergence of humans is a cosmic accident, leaving us free to make the world as we will, with such happy results as are plain to see. Yet convergence tells us two things: that evolutionary20 trends are real, and that adaptation is not some occasional cog in the organic machine, but is central to the explanation of how we came to be here. In principle, such ideas are in themselves so unremarkable as to require no comment, were it not for the ferocious attacks by such writers as S. J. Gould. What, one wonders, did he get so excited about, and how, one may ask, has our understanding of evolution21 really changed despite more than forty years of polemic?
- Yet, convergence also opens another door. If the emergence of our sentience was effectively inevitable, then perhaps we should take rather more seriously the sentiences of other species? So too perhaps we should stand back and consider what a very odd set-up it is we inhabit, from the eerily efficient genetic code, to the deeply peculiar molecule DNA, to a set of biological organizations that repeatedly throw up complex structures, not least the brain. The late Fred Hoyle, no friend of most biologists, carried some strange ideas about the origins of biological complexity to his grave, yet his remark that the Universe was a set-up job rings strangely true. Having said that, if you happen to be a 'creation scientist' (or something of that kind) and have read this far, may I politely suggest that you put this book back on the shelf. It will do you no good. Evolution22 is true, it happens, it is the way the world is, and we too are one of its products. This does not mean that evolution23 does not have metaphysical implications; I remain convinced that this is the case. To deny, however, the reality of evolution24 and more seriously to distort deliberately the scientific evidence in support of fundamentalist tenets is inadmissible. Contrary to popular belief, the science of evolution25 does not belittle us. As I argue, something like ourselves is an evolutionary26 inevitability, and our existence also reaffirms our one-ness with the rest of Creation. Nevertheless, the free will we are given allows us to make a choice. Of course, it might all be a glorious accident; but alternatively perhaps now is the time to take some of the implications of evolution27 and the world in which we find ourselves a little more seriously. If you haven't put Life's Solution back on the shelf, please read on.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
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