Simon Conway Morris is an English paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and astrobiologist known for his study of the fossils of the Burgess Shale and the Cambrian explosion. The results of these discoveries were celebrated in Stephen Jay Gould's 1989 book Wonderful Life. Conway Morris's own book on the subject, The Crucible of Creation (1998), however, is critical of Gould's presentation and interpretation. He has held the Chair of Evolutionary Paleobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge since 1995.Simon Conway Morris speaks exclusively to Indian Genes! In his new book From Extraterrestrials to Humans, he cheerfully challenges six assumptions—what he calls ‘myths’—that too often pass as unquestioned truths amongst the evolutionary orthodox.
His convivial tour begins with the idea that evolution is boundless in the kinds of biological systems it can produce. Not true, he says. The process is highly circumscribed and delimited. Nor is it random. This popular notion holds that evolution proceeds blindly, with no endgame. But Conway Morris suggests otherwise, pointing to evidence that the processes of evolution are “seeded with inevitabilities.”
If that is so, then what about mass extinctions? Don’t they steer the development of life in radically new directions? Rather the reverse, claims Conway Morris. Such cataclysms simply accelerate evolutionary developments that were going to happen anyway. And what about that other evolutionary canard: the “missing link”? Plenty to choose from in the fossil record but what is persistently over-looked is that in any group there is not one but a phalanx of “missing links”. Once again we under-score the near-inevitability of evolutionary outcomes.
Turning from fossils to minds, Conway Morris critically examines the popular tenet that the intelligences of humans and animals basically are the same thing, a difference of degree not kind. A closer scrutiny of our minds shows that in reality an unbridgeable gulf separates us from even the chimpanzees, so begging questions of consciousness and Mind.
Finally, Conway Morris tackles the question of extraterrestrials. Surely, the size and scale of the universe suggest that alien life must exist somewhere beyond Earth and our tiny siloed solar system? After all, evolutionary convergence more than hints that human-like forms are universal. But Dr. Conway Morris has serious doubts. The famous Fermi Paradox (“Where are they?”) appears to hold: Alone in the cosmos—and unique, but not quite in the way one might expect.