Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Review: The Runes of Evolution by Simon Conway Morris

I've been hoping Conway Morris would write a book like this for some time now, since the past decade has been so eventful in terms of convergence. As a catalog of recent findings and a jumping-off point for further study and debate, it's excellent. It would be fun to teach a class on the different chapters and dive into the evidence with advanced biochem students. I have a nagging suspicion that maybe a quarter of the cases Conway Morris presents as scientific evidence for convergence may have other explanation, but as long as a majority of the evidence presented here "sticks," you have a pretty convincing hodgepodge of data that evolution has a deep structure that it repeatedly finds.

My main issue is with the lack of organization. There's so much here and it's presented at such a high level that some pages read like a list rather than a sustained argument. That's fine -- I could use a list like this very much, thank you -- but it makes for slower reading especially by a non-biologist. There are connections made from chapter to chapter, but they are abrupt and don't have a deep structure themselves, except that the more complex matters of brains and minds are put at the end of the book. Conway Morris is entertaining as ever, and the balance of writing far favors wit over clarity. There's a place for that. As long as you expect that, I think you'll find a lot to think about here. Not sure if it helps convince a hostile audience, but this non-hostile audience member is glad this book came out, and it helped point out a few dozen papers I was unaware of as well.

Book Review: Faith Within Reason by Herbert McCabe

This was a great find. Some of the clearest writing on knotty philosophy that I've read. McCabe taught the thought of Thomas Aquinas to his students, and over the years his teaching must have been refined to the highest degree, because here is the best summary of Aquinas applied to current questions (both theological and scientific) that I have read. As a lay reader of all this, I found it highly accessible and applicable (with the minor exception of a few pages that I found to be overly "philosophical). The essays in the first half of the book form a sort of arc, and then the second half is more scattershot. The second half contained some of my favorites, including a brilliant and comforting essay on the prodigal son. Good reading for both mind and soul (and a good definition of soul, while we're at it).