View Full Version : Conway Morris, Convergence, & Dolphin Minds

James Brody
October 22nd, 2005, 12:12 PM
Written 8/20/05

According to Conway Morris, humans are inevitable but improbable. That is, a chimp, dolphin, whale, or elephant are not all that different from a man; even though each species took a different road, they all reached the same destination. For any of these species, social learning leads to conformity and creates strangers who act like identical twins and get along better. It's back to the hive for all of us...

Nature poses challenges and may be indifferent as to how we meet them so long as we attain specific adaptive endpoints. Conway Morris (2003) refers to these outcomes as "convergence."

For example, he compared dolphins and humans. He found both species to be characterized by fission-fusion societies, long distance signaling, local syntaxes, self-recognition, tool use, and even a split-brain structure whereby one half sleeps while the other half swims and looks for both predators and escapes. (Could it be that our nightmares are a residual of Devonian predator avoidance?)

For Conway Morris, the possibility that dolphins use abstract thought "is not in itself intrinsically absurd" (pp.254-258). Dolphins, however, appear to use more their parietal and temporal areas whereas humans developed their frontal and occipital regions. The dolphin cerebellum is larger than ours and for 18.5 of 20 million years, the dolphins had a larger cerebral cortex than we did. Their cortex is still more convoluted than ours if less layered and their neurons less complex. And dolphins have a paralimbic lobe that we don't understand, perhaps because we don't have one ourselves.

Dolphin society may sometimes be more complex than what we find in humans. I also find the idea of a network of dolphins less frightening than one of spy satellites and robots managed by chimp brains. Further, even humans are not the most consistent innovators. According to Conway Morris, Oldowan culture made a particular kind of axe head for 1 million years and the Mousterian later did another kind for 100,000. The Aurignacian culture started to jump a bit more quickly 50,000 years ago and culture jumped again about 5000 years ago when perhaps another mutation allowed our anticipating the future to a greater extent than ever before and led to agriculture and cities.

Could the lack of a mutation keep not only the Oldowan craftsmen in stasis but also the dolphins? Which Wood's Hole idealist will donate a gene and help our friends into their next evolutionary step? And would a group of dolphins, one smarter than we are, restrict some of the extremes that now exist in human conduct? Dolphins sometimes tell us where to drop our fishing nets. Could their descendants, on their own initiative, advertise all human deceit?

Emergent networks predict that dolphins, whales, elephants, and even monkeys will approach similar plateaux. Hook up enough neurons and selection will sculpt them into jam-free, large membership, clusters. Emergent networks also allow humanity to eliminate its predators but still want a master; if Jesus ain't coming back, then most of us hope for a substitute...


Conway Morris, Simon (2003) Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Watts, D. & Strogatz, S. (1998) Collective dynamics of 'small-world' networks. Nature. 393: 440-442.
Copyright, James Brody, all rights reserved, 2005.