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The Runes of Evolution

How the Universe became Self-Aware

Simon Conway Morris


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Paperback (6/22/2015)


How did human beings acquire imaginations that can conjure up untrue possibilities? How did the Universe become self-aware? In The Runes of Evolution, Simon Conway Morris revitalizes the study of evolution from the perspective of convergence, providing us with compelling new evidence to support the mounting scientific view that the history of life is far more predictable than once thought.
A leading evolutionary biologist at the University of Cambridge, Conway Morris came into international prominence for his work on the Cambrian explosion (especially fossils of the Burgess Shale) and evolutionary convergence, which is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.
In The Runes of Evolution, he illustrates how the ubiquity of convergence hints at an underlying framework whereby many outcomes, not least brains and intelligence, are virtually guaranteed on any Earth-like planet. Conway Morris also emphasizes how much of the complexity of advanced biological systems is inherent in microbial forms.
By casting a wider net, The Runes of Evolution explores many neglected evolutionary questions. Some are remarkably general. Why, for example, are convergences such as parasitism, carnivory, and nitrogen fixation in plants concentrated in particular taxonomic hot spots? Why do certain groups have a particular propensity to evolve toward particular states?
Some questions lead to unexpected evolutionary insights: If bees sleep (as they do), do they dream? Why is that insect copulating with an orchid? Why have sponges evolved a system of fiber optics? What do mantis shrimps and submarines have in common? If dinosaurs had not gone extinct what would have happened next? Will a saber-toothed cat ever re-evolve?
Cona Morris observes: “Even amongst the mammals, let alone the entire tree of life, humans represent one minute twig of a vast (and largely fossilized) arborescence. Every living species is a linear descendant of an immense string of now-vanished ancestors, but evolution itself is the very reverse of linear. Rather it is endlessly exploratory, probing the vast spaces of biological hyperspace. Indeed this book is a celebration of how our world is (and was) populated by a riot of forms, a coruscating tapestry of life.”
The Runes of Evolution is the most definitive synthesis of evolutionary convergence to be published to date.

Praise For The Runes of Evolution: How the Universe became Self-Aware

"The runes of evolution spell out a surprising message: Some evolutionary outcomes are virtually inevitable. Or, so goes the argument of Cambridge palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, resting on two key premises:

  1. Evolution repeats itself in unexpected ways:  Very different lineages evolve to have similar traits. Conway Morris calls this 'convergence.'
  2. Precursors of complex traits, such as a nervous system, are found in much simpler organisms. Conway Morris calls this 'evolutionary inherency.' The premises are supported with a wealth of data—thousands of references across the book’s 27 chapters.

The intriguing tale is told by way of a journey over many different areas in which we find convergence and inherency, with touches of humour along the way." —Zachary Ardern, BioLogos

“Conway Morris’s exploration of the phenomenon of convergence in biological evolution is rife with implications for Christian theology. It lends credence to a Christian view of God’s providential action in history, and it supports an ecological view of the interdependence of all things in God’s creation. It also fits with a scriptural account of a story-shaped world.” —Ian Curran, Christian Century

"This is a very good book. The author is most effective when presenting his evidence as both glaringly obvious and unfairly maligned. Not everyone will like the volume’s familiar tone, but the overall excellence of the writing is hard to deny. Many of the book’s grandest ideas were already covered in his previous publications, but The Runes of Evolution is nevertheless Conway Morris’ most comprehensive statement on convergence to date, and is thus well worth reading." —Abraham H. Gibson, Quarterly Review of Biology (September 2017)

This book was presumably written by Morris more for fellow natural scientists than for philosophers and theologians, but in each case so as to prove that his hypothesis of ongoing convergence in evolution is not a series of fortuitous coinci-dences but empirical evidence of established patterns or in-built mechanisms within the evolutionary process. Three hundred pages of text with double columns of print on each page and 150 pages of endnotes make that clear. Names of different species, genera, families, orders, classes, and so on turn up on virtually every page so that the nonprofessional reader ends up hunting for summary statements by Morris at the end of each major subdivision within the 26 chapters. Yet despite its obvious density and degree of detail for the ordinary reader, the implications of this book for philosophical/theological understanding of the God–world relationship and for the classic distinction between the natural and the supernatural within creation are in my judgment very significant. —Joseph A. Bracken, SJ, Xavier University, Cincinnati

Templeton Press, 9781599474649, 528pp.

Publication Date: June 22, 2015

About the Author

Simon Conway Morris is a leading evolutionary biologist and best known for his work on the Cambrian explosion (especially the Burgess Shale) and evolutionary convergence. He is also active in public outreach, especially in the area of science and religion where he also published extensively. A frequent guest on radio, and also with many television appearances, he has pioneered an extremely successful website on convergence ( and is now constructing a new one addressing the wider issues of evolution. Based in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, where he holds the chair in evolutionary palaeobiology, he is also a fellow of St. John’s College. His work has taken him to many parts of the world, including China, Mongolia, and Greenland.