The Hamilton Year 2005 at DIT

DIT Event Listing

Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at the University of Cambridge will be in Dublin on October 18th , 2005 (registration at 18.00h for 18.30h), to give a talk at the Dublin Institute of Technology in Aungier Street on,

“What evolution tells us about extra-terrestrials”

Attendance is free and to register you should phone Dr Peter Kavanagh at 01-4024583 or email him at peter.kavanagh@dit.ie

Professor Conway Morris’s chief claim to fame came with his involvement, along with H.B. Whittington and Derek Briggs in a massive undertaking to re-examine the famous Walcott’s Burgess Shale collections. For two billion years only simple unicellular lifeforms existed and then in a mere ten to twenty million years a range of complex animal forms emerged suddenly, in geologic terms, whose delicate remains were immortalized as fossils in these shales, located in the Yoho National Park, N.America.

Professor Conway Morris’s books include:

The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals, Oxford University Press, Oxford UK, 1998 and,

Life’s Solution: Inevitable humans in a Lonely Universe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, 2003;

The Burgess Shale researchers’ work was also chronicalled by Stephen. J. Gould in his book, Wonderful Life

In his paper in Dublin, Professor Conway Morris will be exploring possible evolutionary processes and implications for extra-terrestial life. As he says, “Given the emphasis on random processes, e.g. mutation, and contingent happenstance, e.g. big rocks falling out of the sky, it is hardly surprising that nearly all evolutionary biologists regard our wonderful biosphere as a glorious accident. One such incidental would, therefore, be human intelligence. But is this correct? If it is, then alien life wherever it is lurking, will be – well – genuinely alien. But maybe the accidental and contingent have blinded us to deeper patterns and inevitabilities in the history of life on Earth? A key clue comes from what is known as evolutionary convergence. Think of the classic example of the startling similarity between the eye of ourselves and the octopus: two unrelated animals have converged on a brilliant solution from completely different starting points. This may seem like an anecdotal example, until we begin to think about rampant convergence in all sensory systems, in vocalization, culture, tool-making, intelligence – and even getting drunk. “Out there” the same solution will be arrived at, repeatedly and inevitably. There is just one snag: “out there” it seems ominously quiet.”

Few scientific concepts have bred controversy so consistently as the theory of evolution. Although scientists, at least, no longer dispute the reality of evolution itself, they continue to disagree about the mechanisms and implications involved. As Professor Conway Morris suggests ,” If natural history had taken a different turn, if the dinosaurs had not been wiped out around 65 million years ago and if tiny mammals had not ultimately given rise to us humans, among other species, what would have happened? What kinds of creatures would be roaming our planet now?

His answer would be, ‘different but similar'. For example, if humans hadn't appeared – he says – a similarly large-brained, sentient creature would have done. And the reason for this, Conway Morris believes, is that evolution is not based only on chance, but must work within certain constraints.

"You could speculate on how European history might have differed if Napoleon hadn't lived, or on American history without George Washington," says Prof. Conway Morris, "But most historians would probably be willing to admit there are overall economic and social structures which make certain things more likely." And similarly, in his own field of biology, Conway Morris tries to side-step the fact that there's only one history of evolution to ask, "What is the determinant for the emergence of particular properties which underpin all life?
‘Convergence' is the most important argument in Prof. Conway Morris's armoury against the many other evolutionary biologists who say that evolution is contingent upon chance. ‘Convergent evolution' has resulted in diverse kinds of unrelated organisms solving certain problems in the same ways. For example, bats and dolphins use echolocation to sense prey and their environment, while the ‘camera eye' has arisen in octopuses, bristle-worms and other groups as well as in vertebrates such as us.

"This suggests there are a limited number of solutions to the way in which organisms can operate in the natural environment," he explains. "There are constraints on life which infer large scale predictability to various end points – not necessarily inevitabilities, but we can be pretty confident they'll re-emerge again and again."

This conclusion that there is a kind of ‘direction' in evolution is part of the reason why Prof. Conway Morris's ideas are so controversial, as he acknowledges: "One needs to be careful – words like ‘plan' or ‘design' evoke the idea of teleology, where there might be a purpose behind everything. But that's not a scientifically answerable question. Some people outside the field protest that evolution can't be true because of all the arguments, but the realities are there in the fossil records, molecular biology and other avenues. And it's important to stress that although there's a lot of controversy going on, there's also a great deal of agreement."