Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of Historyby Stephen Jay Gould
Pub. Date: 09/01/1989
Darwinian theory says that animals living so long ago were necessarily simple in design
Tucked into the Canadian Rockies is a small limestone quarry formed 530 million years ago called the Burgess Shale. Discovered early in the century, the shale holds the remains of an ancient sea that nurtured more varities of life than can be found in all of our modern oceans.
Darwinian theory says that animals living so long ago were necessarily simple in design and limited in scope. But more recent interpretations unexpectedly reveal the great diversity locked in the shale.
Explosive stuff, for it blasts the belief that the history of life has been a broadening of options and challenges the idea that humans crown the evolutionary process.
Stephen Jay Gould advocates the role played in this process by chance. Things could easily have gone differently. It makes the reader wonder what might have been, and lets each of us provide our own answer.
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I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was 8, about the time I fell in love with horses. My passion for fantasy and science fiction followed later, during my teenage years. I've never gotten over any of them. I'd heard about the paleontological discoveries in the Burgess Shale (in Canadian Rockies), first described in the early 1900s and then re-analyzed with startlingly different results in the 1970s and 1980s. The Burgess Shale deposits date from the early Cambrian period, roughly 560 million years ago, before the development of creatures "hard parts" that lend themselves more readily to fossilization. When Charles Walcott collected specimens of these small, soft-bodied animals, he assumed they were primitive forms of known lineages (like arthropods, annelid worms, and trilobites). The traditionalist attitudes of his day, his personal predilections, and his lack of time to thoroughly study the specimens (due to his burgeoning administrative duties at the Smithsonian) induced him to "shoehorn" strange and bizarre creatures into established phyla. When H. B. Whittington and his brilliant students took another look, they came to realize (over a period of time and excruciatingly painstaking work) that this Cambrian fauna abounded in new phyla, in creatures that are fundamentally different from the (relatively few) lineages we know today. Gould, nature writer and paleontologist, weaves several story threads: the history of the discoverers and their work; the creatures themselves; and a new look at how life forms develop and change. Instead of the popular image of "the march of progress" culminating in human intelligence, and increasing diversity as a function of superiority over time, he builds an argument for an explosion of diversity very early in the evolution of multicellular animals, followed by a decimation that left only a few branches. Chance, or as he puts it "contingency," not inherent superiority, all too often played the pivotal role in which life forms survived and which equally competent ones did not. Whether or not you agree with his thesis, his arguments are fascinating, but not as incredible and wonderful as the animals themselves.
The late Stephen Jay Gould writes with such a impassioned and poetic sense of scientific style that even the most difficult and driest parts (i.e. describing the anatomy of Opabinia to any non-paleontologist) of the subject matter can come across as engaging and enlightening even to beginners. The content is there and the message is conveyed with little sacrificed, a truly difficult feat to accomplish when beginning to explain the explosion of life 530 million years ago in what we call the Cambrian. A must read to any aspiring Paleontologist or person interested in past life. Very reminiscent of Charles Darwin in his thinking and writing, this work is truly a classic for Stephen Jay Gould was by far one of the most brilliant evolutionary biologists of the 20th century.
THIS BOOK IS GREAT
Wonderful Life, The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, by Stephen Jay Gould. ISBN 0-393-30700-X This book describes for the lay reader the interesting animals found in the Burgess Shale; a middle Cambrian formation in the Canadian Rockies. These fossils teach us a lesson about the diversity of life so different from the way we normally think of it that the author coins a new term the "Disparity" of Life to describe this lesson. My wife and I have read this book to one another over the course of several months and have enjoyed the new understanding of the history of multiceluar animal life which this book promotes. So here is my overview of this book trying not to give away the author's main point for which you must read the book yourself. Wonderful Life: Describes the wide spread popular ideas of evolution as progressive. Describes how the discover of the Burgess fossils missed an important message the fossils contained. Describes the fossils themselves as analyzed by recent professional paleontologists. Describes how the understanding of the remains of these early life forms contradicts the popular view of evolution by natural selection as creating progress in organisms as if there was an inevitable outcome of that process. Describes how chance was probably the dominant force in determining the winners and losers in the game of survival for animals of the Cambrian explosion. Coins the term Disparity of Life to help describe the distribution of phyla and species over time.