Non-Fiction Reviews

Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe

(2003) Simon Conway Morris, Cambridge University Press, 18.95/US$30.00, hrdbk, xxi + 464 pp, ISBN 0-521-82704-3

As those who have attended UK national and European venued Worldcons may well know, Jack Cohen and myself respectively represent two ends on one of the spectra in the biology of extraterrestrials debate. Jack tends to go for the 'let us look for how weird a range of solutions nature supplies to solve biological problems', whereas I have focussed more on what is called environmental determinism and evolutionary convergence. Of course neither of our approaches is wrong, and the emphasis we each give to our own focus is down to us. It certainly has though resulted in a number of stimulating exchanges between us starting with Birmingham's Novacon 7 (1977) through several conventions including international ones overseas, as well as informal chats when our paths have crossed at scientific establishments, right to the present day. Of course we can each bring aspects of biology to bear on our respective arguments. Indeed Jack has written (with Ian Stewart) his own book (we have reviewed elsewhere (for which I was also an MS reader), while I have yet to do mine. So up to now I used to rely on a body of offprints whenever I have to give an exobiological presentation whereas Jack can thumb through his book. But I will not, it seems, be so reliant on my boxes of offprints any more as Conway Morris has neatly pulled together the science necessary to mount a coherent case for convergent evolution.

Conway Morris is a Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at Cambridge University with a special interest in Cambrian soft-bodied faunas. He is also an FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society) but don't hold that against the man, his palaeobiological interest provides him with a sound grounding in systematics (how species relate to one another in evolutionary terms and the science of species nomenclature). These interests eminently qualify him to provide us with exobiological insights from what we know of the 'rules of life' on Earth.

Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe is a well-researched work: 113 pages of small print notes in an appendix no less! Indeed it is interesting to see what he has included and what he has left out. He begins by pointing out that life (as we know it) can only flourish in rarely found places such as planet Earth. Having said that he goes on to say that because a place is rare, does not mean that it is unique, and then refers to recent successes in the search for extra-solar planets. He reminds us that the building block elements and basic molecules underpinning life are actually quite common in the cosmos (even if he does call it 'goo'). Halfway through the book he begins to properly get stuck into convergence; that is to say that nature often comes up with the same solutions even though a plant or animal's evolutionary history may be quite different. Interestingly he feels that this convergence works at the molecular level too (though personally while I think that there is some merit to this I am not as convinced that the potential for such convergence is as complete as Conway Morris alludes but he makes a good case). He ends by suggesting that by understanding such convergence we will improve our understanding of evolution and that this will help us solve questions we are only now beginning to address such as how, and whether we should, genetically modify humans.

This work is important not just as a literature review but because of its convergence theme and is quite simply essential reading for all exobiologists. Something on convergence is long overdue (I've - and I know a few others - been saying this at least since the late 1970s). For those who do not have a core science (biology, chemistry, physics and related subjects) university level understanding may well find this book a tad hard going as it is written a little above the proverbial New Scientist level. However if you are genuinely interested in possible ET biology and are a New Scientist reader then it is still worth the effort. Bearing in mind it is a hardback it is also excellent value. Though I am not entirely sure it will make the sales the publisher's price suggests they are hoping, it deserves to do well.

Jonathan Cowie

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