Friday, February 20, 2009

Book Review: The Deep Structure of Biology

This is an anthology of essays, edited by Simon Conway Morris, evolutionary paleontologist and (dare I put it this way) natural theologian. Its first half/two-thirds is mostly review articles of biology studies that, put together, may argue that there are significant constraints on how evolution can proceed, that it's not quite as mindless of purposeless as others make it out to be. The last third is more philosophical and theological, talking about the compatibility of Darwin's theories with purpose in the universe. There is a significant biological slant overall, and some interesting findings that, not being a biologist, I'm not in much of a position to critique intelligently. There's essays about evolving flasks of bacteria in a lab, the shapes of trees (both big real trees and the evolutionary tree-of-life constructs), plant intelligence, ant intelligence, crow intelligence, and whale intelligence. The idea that the world is alive with intelligence and, well, not quite consciousness but complicated networks of self/non-self discrimination ... I want to hear more about it and so I'll keep an eye out for these subjects. And don't worry, I'll blog more about plant intelligence soon, so you don't think I've completely gone off the deep end. Yet.

Overall, it's a bit uneven but I think it's to be expected with the diversity of authors and subjects. When I started on the essay by Michael Ruse it was like stepping into the sunlight from the dank stodginess of the previous essay. There's definitely better essays than others. I recommend those by Conway Morris, Ruse, and Haught (quickly becoming a John Haught fan the more I read of his stuff). In fact, I'm going to have three follow-up posts full of ideas suggested by this book over future days.

Another overall observation is that some of the scientists seem to be dragged into writing essays against a part of their will. After a very interesting essay on ant intelligence, one scientist felt compelled to tack on a one-page disclaimer about how any seeming intelligence was only an illusion. Well, that's the question, isn't it? Such dogmatic assertions don't really fit in the context of this book. Haught and others implicitly deal with these struggles in the final chapters, so I can give the book a thumbs-up for overall organization, and in fact, I would have liked to see more cross-pollination of ideas from author to author. I just want a greater rate of diffusion for the ideas, so the good ones survive and the bad ones go extinct!

Having a baby definitely means I took longer than usual to read this book, but don't take that as a critique. It's really a step in the right direction. I'll be looking for more to see if there's anything to this crow intelligence stuff (so that time that one crow kept attacking me as I walked near Green Lake was personal???).

More to come on specific subjects.

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