Book Review – The Runes of Evolution

Book review – The Runes of Evolution by Simon Conway Morris

I loved this book. I hated this book.

Simon Conway Morris is an accomplished biologist. From what I understand, his main claim to fame for a layperson’s audience was his analysis of fossils from the Burgess Shale, arguably made famous by the late Stephen Jay Gould. In particular, Conway Morris is an evolutionary biologist with a deep interest on the phenomenon of evolutionary convergence (EC), and this book is an embarrassment of riches as far as examples of EC is concerned. I immensely enjoyed the wide variety of examples and I have to say that I learned quite a few new things. The book is well-documented and thorough if nothing else. The endnotes section is a good 155 pages long! I was rather amused when I saw that the first two endnotes of the Introduction, which were approximately 2 1/4 and 3 pages long respectively! Forgive me if I am ignorant in these matters, but I think footnotes and endnotes should be short. The notes in this book must be some kind of a record or something. This is a minor point though. Overall, I enjoyed the book.

However… there are a few negatives that didn’t let me enjoy this work to the fullest. For example:

**The writing style is convoluted, and I do not mean technical or scientific, in fact, the material does not warrant a degree in evolutionary biology or even in the hard sciences. The thing is that as one of the other reviews in the “…azon” site said, you need a dictionary to look for terms quite frequently. This took some of the pleasure away because one almost cannot read in a steady flow. It is almost as if the author’s attitude was something like “…look at me, aren’t I erudite?” He is famous enough to need this validation, so the reason for this style is a mystery to me.

**How many times does the word “coruscant” or “coruscating” is needed in a single book?

**Because of the above points, this book is a puzzle to me because it is not overtly technical, yet it is certainly not for the casual science reader either. Ironically, I had a much better time with his previous book, “Life’s Solution”, an explicitly scientific book on the same topic.

**The references were embedded in the endnotes rather than alphabetically, which made really annoying to look for a specific reference, and a science no-no.

**There were quite a few typos liberally distributed throughout the book, including an unforgivable and particularly irritating one that I noticed by chance in the index: “Puerto Rica” instead of “Puerto Rico”, which happens to be the place I was born at … (:-)…

**There were several allusions to less than kind book reviewers. Preemptive strike or the were the reviewers the reason why this ostensibly scientific book was not published by a university press?

**On that note, the publisher, Templeton Press, explicitly fosters an understanding between science and religion, which is great! But in some places within the text, the author flirts with the possibility that consciousness (whatever that is), is “accessed” rather than “produced” by nervous systems, a point that will surely lead to less than kind scientific reviews, particularly from neuroscientists.

**I was hopeful and excited to read chapter 21 on neurobiology. He mentioned flatworms and several points on the evolution of the nervous system. However, I was disappointed not to see my own popular science book listed in the notes or anywhere else (I admit to some ego bruising there), because I made use of some of the examples that the author used, and my book was published more than a year ago by a well-known university press, so I do not think that it was that bad …

**The subtitle “How the universe became self-aware” was not alluded at all in the book (did I miss it?).

Overall, The Runes of Evolution is full of fascinating information, but its style and execution took some luster off it. It is not a book for the typical science enthusiast who may be interested in this matter.

Credit: Templeton Press


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5 thoughts on “Book Review – The Runes of Evolution

  1. Pingback: My book reviews so far, and other goodies… | Baldscientist

  2. Re: long footnotes and endnotes. I was trained as a historian, and long, discursive notes are a never-ending temptation. We overdo it, but at least in history, such long notes can be justified, especially if the historian is trying to subtly tease out information from a patchwork of sources and wants to show her/his work, which can’t always be done in the main text. That said, it’s possible to rely too much on notes and to “hide” (and therefore decline to take responsibility for) one’s arguments.

  3. I appreciate your review very much. I will still read it for professional reasons, but now I know what to expect. By the way, Conway Morris is organizing a special issue of Royal Society Interface that should touch on these topics in more detail. I’ll be sure to post a link to it when it comes out.

  4. I will stay away from it. One of my reading pet peeves is when well educated authors try to hard to come across as well educated. If you are, it shows. No need to dress it up and talk down to an audience.

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