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Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

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High in the Canadian Rockies is a small limestone quarry formed 530 million years ago called the Burgess Shale. It hold the remains of an ancient sea where dozens of strange creatures lived—a forgotten corner of evolution preserved in awesome detail. In this book Stephen Jay Gould explores what the Burgess Shale tells us about evolution and the nature of history.


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High in the Canadian Rockies is a small limestone quarry formed 530 million years ago called the Burgess Shale. It hold the remains of an ancient sea where dozens of strange creatures lived—a forgotten corner of evolution preserved in awesome detail. In this book Stephen Jay Gould explores what the Burgess Shale tells us about evolution and the nature of history.

30 review for Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

  1. 5 out of 5

    William2

    A book about wonder and a wonderful book. The story of the Burgess Shale—from its initial misinterpretation to its reassessment 50 years later—is mind blowing. This limestone outcropping, which sits at an altitude of 8,000 feet in the Canadian Rockies, near British Columbia, was at equatorial sea level 530 million years ago. Its shale has revealed about 150 previously unknown arthropod genera and entirely new species with anatomies that would be unimaginable to us today had Charles Doolittle Wal A book about wonder and a wonderful book. The story of the Burgess Shale—from its initial misinterpretation to its reassessment 50 years later—is mind blowing. This limestone outcropping, which sits at an altitude of 8,000 feet in the Canadian Rockies, near British Columbia, was at equatorial sea level 530 million years ago. Its shale has revealed about 150 previously unknown arthropod genera and entirely new species with anatomies that would be unimaginable to us today had Charles Doolittle Walcott not discovered them in 1909. Gould calls these animals with their diverse anatomies "weird wonders" and explains that their broad proliferation was possible because the middle Cambrian was a time of filling the so-called "ecological barrel." In other words, it was a time of low ecological competition among animals which ultimately permitted unsuccessful anatomies to flourish for a few million years before the full panoply of evolutionary pressures (natural selection) began to eliminate the less successful designs. Another thing learned from the Burgess Shale is the imprecision of the concept "survival of the fittest." Certainly, adapting to environmental change is vital, but it's not the whole ballgame. The adapted animal also needs luck on its side, luck that it cannot possibly have any direct role in affecting. I refer to the importance of contingency. Gould calls it "decimation by lottery," and given its sway, unyielding adherence to classic evolutionary principles like gradualism etc. reveal their short sightedness.Finally, if you will accept my argument that contingency is not only resolvable and important, but also fascinating in a special sort of way, then the Burgess not only reverses our general ideas about the source of pattern – it also fills us with a new kind of amazement (also a frisson for the improbability of the event) at the fact that humans ever evolved at all. We came this close (put your thumb about a millimeter away from your index finger), thousands and thousands of times, to erasure by the veering of history down another sensible channel. Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again. It is, indeed, a wonderful life. (p. 289) If you're like me, one who wonders why we were set down on a speck of interstellar dust in the midst of a universe so vast we daily fail to comprehend its age and scale, this book is for you. Gould is a fabulous writer. He writes with a minimum of jargon, and concepts of any complexity he is careful to explain. But he does this without being tedious; he does it, in fact, while sharing his own boundless sense of fascination. Gould was a brilliant man, a rare amalgam of top-flight scientist, science writer, and teacher. When he died 10 years ago he left a great hole in the landscape of writers who could engagingly write for the general reader about evolutionary biology and paleontology. There is simply no one else like him working today. I'm in the process of reading all of his books. There are about 20. Highly recommended for those with an interest in science, particularly the life sciences.

  2. 5 out of 5

    James

    A decent, but certainly out of date book. The most interesting section is that regarding the anatomy of the Burgess biota, and the historical narrative of Whittington, Conway Morris, and Briggs is also a highlight. The more technical details of chapter three might throw some readers off, but I found them to be fascinating. Unfortunately, most of the book is out of date. Most of the "weird wonders" that Gould describes have been taxonomically re-evaluated in the previous two decades, and technical A decent, but certainly out of date book. The most interesting section is that regarding the anatomy of the Burgess biota, and the historical narrative of Whittington, Conway Morris, and Briggs is also a highlight. The more technical details of chapter three might throw some readers off, but I found them to be fascinating. Unfortunately, most of the book is out of date. Most of the "weird wonders" that Gould describes have been taxonomically re-evaluated in the previous two decades, and technical developments in systematics (the concept of "stem groups" in cladograms), now show that much Burgess biota, ironically, belong closer to the original classifications of Walcott. Much of the biota are now considered to be stem groups of modern taxa, evolutionary aunts and uncles. I also found Gould's continued emphasis on the "cone of increasing diversity" to be quite exhausting. Based on Gould's own definitions of diversity and disparity, there is no fundamental problem with depicting increased diversity in more modern geological eras, because there simply are more species (Gould's diversity) than in the Cambrian and Pre-Cambrian. Additionally, Gould seems to be railing against concepts that either haven't been present in the evolutionary literature for decades, perhaps centuries (depiction of an evolutionary ladder), or his examples of phylogenies are either strawmen or misinterpreted. For example, in Haeckel's illustrations, Gould does not analyze the taxonomic groups represented, nor does he consider that Haeckel perhaps wanted to show the phylogenies of the taxa he placed close to the top, and thus gave them more visual importance, because, after all, there is only so much space on the page. In cladograms (and other methods of depicting phylogenies), if the diagram is "rooted", the root is meant to depict the hypothetical last common ancestor. Since clades are monophyletic (all descended from a single common ancestor), there is always going to be a "cone of increasing diversity", because the clade always depicts hierarchical branching lineages of descent. The only way there would not be a cone is if there truly was a ladder within a single lineage, something that Gould (rightly) disparages! One could argue that this is because Gould was simply arguing against older methods of depicting phylogeny, rather than the relatively new (at the time) cladistics, but even these do not generally follow his pattern. For example, in a classic depiction of fossil horse phylogeny (to use one of Gould's examples from chapter one), the maximum "disparity" is reached in the Miocene, and then scales back as it gets closer the the present. Overall, the book is certainly not bad, especially when it comes to the historical and anatomical aspects. But in too many instances, Gould is simply engaging in his typical "revolutionary" grandstanding and hyperbole. Proceed carefully, and read more up-to-date texts as a follow up.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Max

    “The drama I have to tell is intense and intellectual. It transcends these ephemeral themes of personality and the stock stage. The victory at stake is bigger and far more abstract than any material reward – a new interpretation of life’s history.” In these sentences Gould not only tells us the theme of his book but how much his work means to him. His passion for paleontology and the story of life resonate from every page. His tone, perspective and considerable writing skills make Wonderful Life “The drama I have to tell is intense and intellectual. It transcends these ephemeral themes of personality and the stock stage. The victory at stake is bigger and far more abstract than any material reward – a new interpretation of life’s history.” In these sentences Gould not only tells us the theme of his book but how much his work means to him. His passion for paleontology and the story of life resonate from every page. His tone, perspective and considerable writing skills make Wonderful Life a wonderful read. The Burgess Shale in the mountains of British Columbia is notable for its rich assortment of 500 million year old fossils. Many were formed by soft bodied creatures never before known. Typical fossils are from shells, bones or teeth, but these were thin residues left on shale stone. These compressed layers of animals may have resulted from a mudslide on a shallow ocean floor which became sedimentary rock. The site was discovered in 1909 by Charles D. Walcott, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and a leading paleontologist of his time. He brought back many specimens to Washington. Walcott classified his new specimens into existing major categories, primarily arthropods or annelid worms. In the 1970’s, Harry Whittington, a Cambridge paleontologist and his graduate students, Simon Conway Morris and Derek Briggs, began reassessing Walcott’s collection along with newer specimens. Gould relies on their and Walcott’s monographs, drawings and findings to develop a new interpretation. He holds that many of these animals were from extinct phyla and neither arthropods or annelid worms. He goes into great detail about the features of many unusual specimens to make his case. Gould’s skill as a writer is aptly demonstrated by his ability to explore taxonomic differences and still hold the interest of the lay reader. Gould sees these animals as uniquely specialized not as primitively simple as Walcott’s classifications imply. Gould holds that the Burgess Shale discoveries are representative of the Cambrian Explosion which produced many distinctly different body plans few of which survived. Thus most Burgess Fossils were not precursors of modern forms. He calls the variety of distinct body plans comprising different phyla “disparity” and differentiation within phyla “diversity”. Gould posits that over time we have increased diversity but reduced disparity, or to put it another way abundant variation within a limited number of anatomical designs. Gould believes Walcott’s erroneous classifications were driven by preconceptions, “The greatest impediment to scientific innovation is usually a conceptual lock not a factual lock.” Walcott’s preconceptions included a strict view of Darwinian gradualism, thus he invented circumstances to explain the lack of Precambrian fossils. Gould conversely is famous for his theory of punctuated equilibrium, the idea that evolutionary change occurs in brief periods of rapid change, albeit on geologic timescales, in between longer periods of slow change. Walcott had a religious belief that meant evolution had to lead to man. Inherent in this belief is that evolution always goes in the direction of “progress”. Thus Gould thinks Walcott “shoehorned” his specimens into existing phyla and major groups to show the progression he expected. Gould does cut Walcott some slack noting that he had numerous high level administrative duties and that while a prolific collector he never had the time to spend with his specimens to adequately analyze them. Detailed analysis would have to wait for Whittington and his students who studied them carefully. Walcott did not dissect the fossils to get at underlying structures. Whittington, Morris and Briggs did. Amazingly they were able to expose individual layers despite the extreme compression revealing features hidden from Walcott. A central theme of the book is Gould’s belief that evolution is based on contingency not progress. Evolution occurs to accommodate immediate not future needs. When some fish developed forearm like fins it was for use in water not to colonize land. Dinosaurs did not first acquire feathers to fly. That these features proved useful later for something unrelated Gould feels is a contingency. Those Burgess Shale lifeforms that have modern day progeny were lucky. Most did not. Thus, in terms of the number of unique anatomies, Gould sees decline not expansion. So that today despite a proliferation of species there are fewer phyla. Gould describes the phrase “survival of the fittest” as a tautology. What does fittest mean except those that survive? He sees no way to have predicted which Burgess forms would make it to the present and which would not. Given the many mass and lesser extinctions, the dramatic changes in ocean and atmospheric conditions, what features would later became critically important was a crap shoot. Thus Gould holds that the fauna we see today, even our own existence, was entirely contingent on unpredictable events. He points out that mammals lived alongside dinosaurs for 100 million years before the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction. They survived as small animals in their holes and hideouts as dinosaurs ruled. Without that huge asteroid striking 65 million years ago, why would things be different today? It should be noted that Gould’s interpretations are controversial. Simon Morris changed his views and in a 1998 book held that most Burgess Fossils were related to current forms. More recently gene sequencing has identified relationships between animals that the fossil record missed. Still the phyla determination of many Burgess Fossils remains unresolved. Some people see Gould’s idea of punctuated equilibrium as inconsistent with phyletic gradualism, the predominant theory. Many paleontologists see no contradiction. Evolutionary change may be more or less rapid but even “rapid” change operates over geologic timescales of millions of years. Lastly, some may find Gould’s theory of contingency upsetting. It makes me appreciate just being here and having the opportunity to read wonderful books like Wonderful Life.

  4. 5 out of 5

    C.

    This book was unlike anything else I'd ever read, I suspect because it owes something to the scientific monograph. Maybe? Not having ever read a scientific monograph (they don't even call them that these days), I don't know. Anyway, Gould repeated and repeated and repeated the same conclusions over and over and over and over, until I was ready to embrace the iconographies of the cone of increasing diversity and the ladder of progress just to spite him. Despite that, this was an excellent book. Go This book was unlike anything else I'd ever read, I suspect because it owes something to the scientific monograph. Maybe? Not having ever read a scientific monograph (they don't even call them that these days), I don't know. Anyway, Gould repeated and repeated and repeated the same conclusions over and over and over and over, until I was ready to embrace the iconographies of the cone of increasing diversity and the ladder of progress just to spite him. Despite that, this was an excellent book. Gould's thesis is that life did not begin with a single (or limited number) of organisms who formed the precursor(s) of all modern life - i.e. life got more and more diverse as time went on. In fact, Gould argues, life began with rampant diversification - a large variety of organisms of radically different form evolved rapidly around the time of the Cambrian explosion, only to be decimated drastically by a combination of (bad) luck, evolution and possibly other unsuspected mechanisms. The proof he holds up to support this is the fossils of the Burgess Shale (found in the Canadian Rockies early last century by the eminent geologist Charles Walcott), most of which have no relation at all to modern species. [Actually, one of the most interesting things he said was that he believes that the initial development of life was inevitable; I wish he'd explained that a bit more.:] I suppose this is technically popular science, but it's much more rigorous than anything else I've read in the genre. Gould doesn't just say/imply 'this is how it is and you're just gonna have to believe it because you're too stupid to know otherwise', he actually lays out the proof before one's eyes. His respect for the reader as an 'intelligent layperson' is refreshing and makes this book a real pleasure to read. The sometimes unfortunate corollary of this is that this book isn't exactly light reading in places, but it is always comprehensible, even if it sometimes takes a bit of effort. I was interested to see that I didn't hold some of the preconceptions he argues against - I hope because this book is rather out of date, being published in 1989 (the year I was born! Shit) and that the thinking and teaching of evolution has moved on somewhat since then. I like to believe that science, and the world in general, is moving ever onwards towards the better, though this meliorist approach usually leaves me disappointed. Maybe it's just that I have studied more science than the average member of the target audience. Gould's prose is quite unusual by any standards, and very unusual for writing about science. Sophisticated, eloquent, at times personal and always passionate, Gould peppers his writing with allusions to literature, popular culture, the occasional Bible verse and once, memorably, an entire poem by Robert Frost. This worked best in the sections about the history of the Burgess Shale; these parts could have been excerpts from a well-written novel. His asides about the nature of research, the relationships between different scientific disciplines, and many other topics were often just as interesting as his discussion of the conceptual basis for his work. Unfortunately, this type of prose I found entirely unsuited to writing about the science itself. When he got down to describing things like the anatomies of the individual species and the techniques used to excavate and analyse the fossil specimins, this prose suddenly seemed overblown, convoluted and overly purple; in short, distracting. I wished he could temporarily have adopted something closer to the dispassion and objectivity that is usually associated with science. I suspect, though, that his answer to this criticism would probably be that science is never objective and scientists are rarely dispassionate, and naturally he'd be completely right.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lois Bujold

    Wonderful book. Some of the science has been overtaken in the quarter century since it was written, but mainly in the details, not in the main thrust of the arguments. (And it is very much a long argument, if mostly with someone other than me.) I could have stood to be a bit less tired and distracted when I chugged through it, but then, I don't have a quiz next period, so. If one were actually studying the creatures and evolutionary periods, I'd think one would want something more recent, but all Wonderful book. Some of the science has been overtaken in the quarter century since it was written, but mainly in the details, not in the main thrust of the arguments. (And it is very much a long argument, if mostly with someone other than me.) I could have stood to be a bit less tired and distracted when I chugged through it, but then, I don't have a quiz next period, so. If one were actually studying the creatures and evolutionary periods, I'd think one would want something more recent, but all the historical background and sidelights on the lives of scientists remain quite pertinent. Ta, L.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Eric_W

    The Burgess Shale is a fossil deposit of importance equal to that of the Rift Valley sites of East Africa in that it provides truly pivotal evidence for the story of' life on earth. The shale comes from a small quarry in the Canadian Rockies discovered in the early 20th century by Charles Walcott, then a leading figure at the Smithsonian. The Burgess fossils come from the Middle Cambrian Period, around 350 million years ago. They form one of the earliest assemblages of soft-bodied creatures from The Burgess Shale is a fossil deposit of importance equal to that of the Rift Valley sites of East Africa in that it provides truly pivotal evidence for the story of' life on earth. The shale comes from a small quarry in the Canadian Rockies discovered in the early 20th century by Charles Walcott, then a leading figure at the Smithsonian. The Burgess fossils come from the Middle Cambrian Period, around 350 million years ago. They form one of the earliest assemblages of soft-bodied creatures from the first era 1'0 multicelled animals. They include various worms, crustaceans, etc., but also a large number of unique and unclassifiable forms. In the late 60s Harry Whittington began to study the Burgess fossils in detail and discovered that many of them beloned to lineages which left no modern descendants. The identification of Marrella, Opabinia and other strange Cambrian creatures dropped. a real bombshell in paleontological circles. They prove that the Cambrian was a time of incredible evolutionary experimentation. In the space of a few tens of millions of years there evolved not only the ancestors of everything alive today, but also dozens of lineages that never went anywhere. Most of them were simply wiped out during mass extinction episodes: that of the Permo-Triassic resulted in the extinction of 96% of the species then alive. Stephen Jay Gould has chronicled the story of the Burgess shale in detail. But in true Gould fashion he has drawn broader lessons. He looks at the career of Walcott and examines why Walcott felt it was necessary to shoehorn all of the Burgess forms into a progressive theory of ancestry and diversification. Historians (and paleontologists are a subspecies of historian) like all people are often deeply constrained by what they expect to find. The Burgess shale did not fit previous theory and was therefore made to fit. The implication of Whittington's discoveries is that evolution depends upon an enormous number of accidents, each so contingent upon the other that it would be impossible to replay the tape and get the same story again. Gould ends his book with an extended meditation on the nature of historical truth. He rejects the idea that the historical sciences are in principle less accurate than the experimental sciences: they are both capable of arriving at the truth, often through the progressive detection and correction of error

  7. 4 out of 5

    Aurélien Thomas

    The Burgess Shale's creatures, with their anatomies as striking as bizarre, are a perfect illustration of the history of life on Earth: just a matter of contingency. We are, but we could never have been, owning our survival only to chance in the darwinian sense of the word. Indeed, among the multitude of all these organisms since long extinct (according to Gould) were found, alongside the ancestors of the arthropods, Pikaia that is, the oldest known chordate -OUR ancestor, then. Modify one detail The Burgess Shale's creatures, with their anatomies as striking as bizarre, are a perfect illustration of the history of life on Earth: just a matter of contingency. We are, but we could never have been, owning our survival only to chance in the darwinian sense of the word. Indeed, among the multitude of all these organisms since long extinct (according to Gould) were found, alongside the ancestors of the arthropods, Pikaia that is, the oldest known chordate -OUR ancestor, then. Modify one detail, just a single one, imagine Pikaia not surviving the Cambrian era and, homo sapiens would have never existed at all. Looking at these fossils, towering at a mere 545 million of years, it's all our fragility that we contemplate in here, in a majestic and breathtaking vision. Gould turns science into poetry. Yet, this book is not without defects. The descritpions of the said fossils are far too long, and, if they are necessary so as to fully show their repercussions, quite a bore over more than 350 pages. He also argues for his punctuated equilibrium hypothesis, which may annoy some readers (for example, when he claims such fossils to be the remains of previous species having evolved suddenly). As for the idea that most of these creatures are since long extinct, it's false -two of the paleontologists having worked on them (Derek Briggs and Simon Convey Morris) having corrected that mistake since then. The main idea of the book (life as a matter of contingency) stays intact, but a careful reading remains thus necessary. Despite it all, it's a real pleasure to read thanks to Gould and his inimitable writing style.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Nicky

    Wonderful Life is pretty, well, wonderful. If your curiosity about the Burgess Shale or the weird and wonderful beings of the Cambrian period needs sating, this book should more than do it. It is quite dense — Gould may have been a popular science writer, but he didn’t dumb it down — but it’s worth the time investment. It’s true that some of the reconstructions of these beings have been challenged since Gould wrote, but it’s still worth reading for his overall theory about the development of life Wonderful Life is pretty, well, wonderful. If your curiosity about the Burgess Shale or the weird and wonderful beings of the Cambrian period needs sating, this book should more than do it. It is quite dense — Gould may have been a popular science writer, but he didn’t dumb it down — but it’s worth the time investment. It’s true that some of the reconstructions of these beings have been challenged since Gould wrote, but it’s still worth reading for his overall theory about the development of life, and much important (and correct) detail about the Burgess Shale. Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    Stephen Jay Gould performs a really unlikely feat in this book; he makes arthropods as fascinating as dinosaurs! In fact he makes a subject that could be extra-ordinarily dull - the process of taxonomic classification of a bunch of extra-old fossils of small, squidgy animals - into a dramatic and gripping read. THIS REVIEW HAS BEEN CURTAILED IN PROTEST AT GOODREADS' CENSORSHIP POLICY See the complete review here: http://arbieroo.booklikes.com/post/33... Stephen Jay Gould performs a really unlikely feat in this book; he makes arthropods as fascinating as dinosaurs! In fact he makes a subject that could be extra-ordinarily dull - the process of taxonomic classification of a bunch of extra-old fossils of small, squidgy animals - into a dramatic and gripping read. THIS REVIEW HAS BEEN CURTAILED IN PROTEST AT GOODREADS' CENSORSHIP POLICY See the complete review here: http://arbieroo.booklikes.com/post/33...

  10. 4 out of 5

    Katherine Addison

    I'm not saying anything startling or new when I say this book is awesome. So, for one thing, it's a book about writing and about mythology, and how what we think we know limits what we see and therefore what stories we can tell, a problem which Gould addresses both in terms of paleontologists looking at the Burgess Shale and in terms of Gould himself looking at the paleontologists looking at the Burgess Shale. So he talks about how Charles Doolittle Walcott got everything wrong (except for the na I'm not saying anything startling or new when I say this book is awesome. So, for one thing, it's a book about writing and about mythology, and how what we think we know limits what we see and therefore what stories we can tell, a problem which Gould addresses both in terms of paleontologists looking at the Burgess Shale and in terms of Gould himself looking at the paleontologists looking at the Burgess Shale. So he talks about how Charles Doolittle Walcott got everything wrong (except for the names--surely some subconscious tingle was telling him these little animals were weirder than he thought they were) because he saw what he expected to see when he looked at them. And then Gould talks about himself looking at Drs. Whittington and Conway Morris and thinking he knew what he was looking at; surely when you have a conservative paleontologist ("conservative" in its proper dictionary meaning, not its political meaning) and his young, radical, fire-breathing graduate student, the two must butt heads. But they don't. Gould is perfectly transparent about the tangle he gets himself in because he lets his mythology do his thinking for him. So he's talking about how the stories we tell create mythology (like the myth of the discovery of the Burgess Shale, which in point of fact happened in an utterly undramatic field-science kind of way) and then how, in turn, that mythology once created limits the stories we can tell. The paleontologist and his graduate student collaborate with the other graduate student (who gets left out of the picture in the mythology precisely because he doesn't fit the false binary) to completely re-form our understanding of the evolution of multicellular life on Earth. The animals of the Burgess Shale are mostly not proto-crustaceans as Walcott labeled them. Some of them aren't arthropods at all. This book is also awesome for two other reasons: (1) Gould's enthusiasm (which I admit I found both endearing and infectious) for explaining the creatures of the Burgess Shale to his lay audience. And his passionate commitment to the notion of an intelligent lay audience that he can explain them to. (2) the creatures themselves which are holy shit not even kidding the most unheimlich things I have ever seen, including tarantulas, which used to be my #1. (I like spiders, but there's something about tarantulas, the way they move, or the way they look like they ought to be inanimate but aren't . . .) I kept having to remind myself that Opabinia is (a) two inches long and (b) extinct, and even then it didn't really help with the way my spine kept trying to crawl up into my skull to hide. But the animals of the Burgess Shale are weird and amazing and beautiful in their own way, and their principles of design are far more imaginative than anything I've ever read or seen in science fiction . . . except maybe "Or All the Seas with Oysters." Maybe.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    Once upon a time, when I was on the path to being a geologist, I carved into the moist depths of a sandstone gorge in Clinton County, Iowa, and watched the sand crumble in my hand. I jarred it, took it back to my lab, and sorted out the grains using a sequence of sieves of varying mesh, matched it to the known sedimentary facies from different depositional environments, and realized its origins. A beach from the Silurian Period, still not entirely turned to rock. And that's when I knew that sedim Once upon a time, when I was on the path to being a geologist, I carved into the moist depths of a sandstone gorge in Clinton County, Iowa, and watched the sand crumble in my hand. I jarred it, took it back to my lab, and sorted out the grains using a sequence of sieves of varying mesh, matched it to the known sedimentary facies from different depositional environments, and realized its origins. A beach from the Silurian Period, still not entirely turned to rock. And that's when I knew that sedimentology was just as much history as scientific method. Stephen Jay Gould tells us to forget everything we think we know about evolution-- the slow, gradual processes, the eternal move upward-- and embrace a radically different vision, as reflected in the Cambrian explosion. By telling the story of how the Burgess shale came to be interpreted, we not only have a story about life on this planet, but also a story of how scientists work, and how their efforts are constantly subject to revision and flux, especially in a discipline like paleontology in which there isn't much in the way of experimentation, but there is a lot in the way of history and narrative.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Deborah Ross

    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 earky 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 ye 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 earky 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.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Terri Jones

    I appreciate the author's delving into the history of this dig and related topics, but I did skim through a huge chunk of the text. My memory for history details is deplorable, so I didn't waste time reading stuff that ultimately I don't care about. That said, I appreciated the take on what the Cambrian Explosion meant for evolution generally, and the further musings on what it meant for humans specifically, much much later. If you want to read this, know the text is 85%, the rest appendices. Si I appreciate the author's delving into the history of this dig and related topics, but I did skim through a huge chunk of the text. My memory for history details is deplorable, so I didn't waste time reading stuff that ultimately I don't care about. That said, I appreciated the take on what the Cambrian Explosion meant for evolution generally, and the further musings on what it meant for humans specifically, much much later. If you want to read this, know the text is 85%, the rest appendices. Since I skimmed so much, I'm glad I could borrow the ebook via my library. :)

  14. 4 out of 5

    Nathan

    Getting through Wonderful Life was an arduous exercise in critical reading. I could never be certain if what I was reading was true, or if the conclusions the author was making were safe ones. From the outset the author's bias for his subject is apparent. He explicitly states over and over that this material is a revolution, that it overturns the establishment, and that it's an incredible drama. He says that it's the most important paleontological discovery ever, and it fundamentally changes our Getting through Wonderful Life was an arduous exercise in critical reading. I could never be certain if what I was reading was true, or if the conclusions the author was making were safe ones. From the outset the author's bias for his subject is apparent. He explicitly states over and over that this material is a revolution, that it overturns the establishment, and that it's an incredible drama. He says that it's the most important paleontological discovery ever, and it fundamentally changes our view of life. This is before he has even begun, and immediately puts me on the defensive. My first reaction is that if an idea is indeed amazing, one probably wouldn't need to keep declaring it to be so. So why does the author feel the need to keep telling the reader how wonderful his idea is, instead of simply showing it? The writing is drab and textbook-esque, interspersed with uninhibited editorializing and grand claims. I don't know which claims to retain and which to discard as biased or inaccurate It makes for an at once boring and exhaustingly defensive read. Wonderful Life was written at a time when the classification of the creatures in question had yet been unresolved. It takes place in the middle of a discovery and a debate, but is presented as the end of one. A quick glance on Wikipedia shows the inaccuracy of much of the taxonomic classifications in this book, which act as the crux of the author's argument. The vast majority of the ideas are not left to speak for themselves, but the author must, for every new idea, construct an opposing idea so that he may expertly dismantle it. It's tedious to listen to someone argue against ideas I don't hold. Indeed, ideas that perhaps few science-minded people hold today. His main punching bag is Charles Walcott, a prominent Christian paleontologist who died in 1927 (Wonderful Life was published in 1989). When the author sinks to the point of defending paleontology proper against its lack of respect among scientists, I'm just aghast at how petty and argumentative this book is. In one footnote the author actually says that he doesn't "like" Charles Walcott, the man. Is this a science book or a diary? Wonderful Life has some novel and valuable ideas (the book's overarching points seem sound), but they're buried beneath reams of bias, pettiness, and insecurity. By framing these ideas as a "revolution" and as a response to an amalgamation of opposing beliefs, he condemns the book to instant obsolescence. I don't want to read a book explaining why the earth isn't flat. I just want to know why the Earth IS round. At least it has sparked my interest in early life and the Cambrian explosion. The idea of these primitive segmented gene-machines adorning themselves with armor and spikes and battling to the death for sustenance and survival is very cool and somewhat disturbing, being that these creepy alien creatures are our own ancestors (in some cases). It takes a certain skill to make something so inherently interesting so boring. But then, that's not what the book is about. In the end (one at last realizes), this book is about "contingency" (the role of chance in the development of humans, or in the development of any particular path of history). The last couple of chapters are fascinating, if somewhat self-evident in today's understanding of evolution. Who would argue that HUMAN consciousness is an ordained eventuality, but someone trying to justify a belief in a god or higher purpose? The single real takeaway from the book is the idea that life had the highest degree of morphological diversity at the inception of multicellular life and has since only decreased in anatomical diversity (not to be confused with the increase in speciation over time). To be fair, that IS the subject of the book, but it's a subject that could perhaps have been elucidated with 200 fewer pages of grandstanding and petty squabbling with the scientific establishment. Wonderful Life has left me with that one interesting thought and two ringing ears.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Nadine Jones

    I think maybe I am not right audience for this book. This is probably a great book for the proper audience. If you know what a "chelicerate arthropod" is, then dive right in! You probably have the proper knowledge base to allow you to appreciate and enjoy this book! I, on the other hand, do not. Here's my takeaway message (and this may not be right, since I skimmed a lot): evolution is random, and weird. Also, paleontologists are always correcting each other. Reading this felt like a chore. I kept I think maybe I am not right audience for this book. This is probably a great book for the proper audience. If you know what a "chelicerate arthropod" is, then dive right in! You probably have the proper knowledge base to allow you to appreciate and enjoy this book! I, on the other hand, do not. Here's my takeaway message (and this may not be right, since I skimmed a lot): evolution is random, and weird. Also, paleontologists are always correcting each other. Reading this felt like a chore. I kept reading, because I kept hoping it would become interesting (and it did! eventually ! the final two chapters, 4 & 5, are much more interesting to me than the rest). Even my review is going to be dull, don't even bother reading it. Really. Just read the book if you're interested, don't if you're not. Then just read this, and be done: Finally, if you will accept my argument that contingency is not only resolvable and important, but also fascinating in a special sort of way, then the Burgess not only reverses our general ideas about the source of pattern—it also fills us with a new kind of amazement (also a frisson for the improbability of the event) at the fact that humans ever evolved at all. We came this close (put your thumb about a millimeter away from your index finger), thousands and thousands of times, to erasure by the veering of history down another sensible channel. Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again. It is, indeed, a wonderful life. I was looking for something that would give me some interesting science history, some interesting details about the life forms discovered at the Burgess Shale, and relate that to our general knowledge of evolution. I thought this would be a broad overview of evolution. You know, tell us what is so wonderful about life on this planet, with just a few detailed examples thrown in for flavor. I've never read a paleontology book before, and I don't know any of the scientific names for fauna, and this book dives right into the details. Too many details to hold my attention. Two examples, from chapter 2: Four such papers appeared in 1911 and 1912 (see Bibliography)—the first on arthropods that he considered (incorrectly) as related to horseshoe crabs, the second on echinoderms and jellyfish (probably all attributed to the wrong phyla), the third on worms, and the fourth and longest on arthropods. He never again published a major work on Burgess metazoans. (A 1918 article on trilobite appendages relies largely on Burgess materials. His 1919 work on Burgess algae, and his 1920 monograph on Burgess sponges, treat different taxonomic groups and do not address the central issue of disparity in the anatomical design of coelomate animals. Sponges are not related to other animals and presumably arose independently, from unicellular ancestors. The 1931 compendium of additional descriptions, published under Walcott’s name, was compiled after his death by his associate Charles E. Resser from notes that Walcott had never found time to polish and publish.) and I dreamed, before I understood my utter lack of administrative talent or desire, about convening an international committee of leading taxonomic experts on all phyla represented in the Burgess. I would then farm out Amiskwia to the world’s expert on chaetognaths, Aysheaia to the dean of onychophoran specialists, Eldonia to Mr. Sea Cucumber. None of these taxonomic attributions has stood the test of subsequent revision, but my dream certainly reflected the traditional view propagated by Walcott and never challenged—that all Burgess oddities could be accommodated in modern groups. and then this: In 1975, Des Collins of the Royal Ontario Museum mounted an expedition to collect fossils from the debris slopes in and around both quarries. He was not permitted to blast or excavate in the quarries themselves, but his party found much valuable material. (The Burgess Shale is so rich that some remarkable novelties could still be found in Walcott’s spoil heaps.) In 1981 and 1982, Collins explored the surrounding areas, and found more than a dozen new sites with fossils of soft-bodied organisms in rocks of roughly equivalent age. None approach the Burgess in richness, but Collins has made some remarkable discoveries, including Sanctacaris, the first chelicerate arthropod. I don't know about you, but my eyes glazed over and I started skimming. I don't know who Des Collins is, I have no idea what a chelicerate arthropod is, and I am clearly not the intended audience! I searched my ebook, and found that "chelicerate" appears 19 times, and this is the third instance. I suppose this first reference counted as a definition, but I had completely forgotten about it in the face of all the other information! The Burgess Shale includes, for example, early representatives of all four major kinds of arthropods, the dominant animals on earth today—the trilobites (now extinct), the crustaceans (including lobsters, crabs, and shrimp), the chelicerates (including spiders and scorpions), and the uniramians (including insects). To make matters worse, my county library system does not have a hard copy of this book, so I'm reading an ebook borrowed from NYPL. The illustrations in the ebook are black and white and very very tiny. Yes, I can zoom in, but really kills any flow of the book. On top of all that, this book and I started off on the wrong foot, with the first sentences of the first chapter: Not since the Lord himself showed his stuff to Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones had anyone brought such grace and skill to the reconstruction of animals from disarticulated skeletons. Charles R. Knight, most celebrated of artists in the reanimation of fossils, painted all the canonical figures of dinosaurs that fire our fear and imagination to this day. I beg to differ. Knight may have come first, but his work is not what fires my imagination. Anyone who has visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC has probably seen the gorgeous murals of ancient life under the sea, done by Eleanor Kish. She worked with scientists to create clay models of each creature, then sketched it, and created her mural. She especially loved the cartoonish violence aspects of the work, and for her the more violent and bloody she could make it, the happier she was. Her paintings of dinosaurs can also be seen in museums in New Mexico and the Canada Museum of Nature, and her work is included in An Odyssey in Time: The Dinosaurs of North America and yes even in a National Geographic publication, Dinosaur Babies, a pop up book. Now, maybe Gould did not know Kish, but I did, and her art is what fires my imagination. Now, admittedly, Knight has a Wikipedia page and Kish does not, although she is mentioned on the "paleoart" wiki page. So, once I calmed down a bit, I conceded that perhaps Knight influenced more imaginations than Kish. Still, I'm miffed. (I'm tired of women being erased from history.) Repeated mentions of the paleontologist Leif Størmer in chapter 3 just kept making me think of Peter Stormare, especially his character in the movie Fargo. :-) Aside from all that (for anyone who might still be reading my review!), Gould is a lovely writer, and passionate about his subject! He gets all worked up about subjects that don't really bother me. I find his passion charming. Chapter 4, a brief biography of Charles Walcott, is far more interesting to me, the layperson, than the previous three chapters. Chapter 5, about the complete unlikelihood of homo sapiens having evolved, was great! Also, this sounds like a great idea for sci-fi: a far future world ruled by giant intelligent arthropods, who are studying fossils of humans and trying to make sense of our culture. Surely this book has been written? Don’t accept the chauvinistic tradition that labels our era the age of mammals. This is the age of arthropods. They outnumber us by any criterion—by species, by individuals, by prospects for evolutionary continuation. Some 80 percent of all named animal species are arthropods, the vast majority insects.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Nick Edkins

    There's a trap that a lot of science writing falls into: when the author finds the subject matter beautiful and awe-inspiring, they tell you "this is beautiful and awe-inspiring!". To give you context for some fact, they'll tell you numbers of Olympic swimming pools or football stadiums or Earth masses or lightyears. This is not interesting! You can't make me feel awe by telling me how much awe I should be feeling, and you have to do more than just say a very large or very small number. Gould is There's a trap that a lot of science writing falls into: when the author finds the subject matter beautiful and awe-inspiring, they tell you "this is beautiful and awe-inspiring!". To give you context for some fact, they'll tell you numbers of Olympic swimming pools or football stadiums or Earth masses or lightyears. This is not interesting! You can't make me feel awe by telling me how much awe I should be feeling, and you have to do more than just say a very large or very small number. Gould is the best writer I know at letting the awe build up organically. Here, he takes you through the whole story of how we know what we do about the Burgess Shale and the Cambrian explosion of animal diversity. He explains in great detail how the original workers were constrained by their worldview, and he presents that worldview in a compelling way, so that you can buy into it. Then, piece by piece, he reveals and explains the new evidence that nibbles away at that worldview, and eventually overturns it. Because he really feels the need to convince you of what he's saying, he makes the case in considerable detail. There's such a huge volume of background information needed to explain, for example, why it's remarkable that Marella splendens, which looks a lot like a trilobite, is not a trilobite. Gould trusts that, if he gives you that information, the payoff will be sweeter and your understanding richer. It's this level of trust in the reader that I really appreciate.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

    Wonderful life, indeed!! One of the best science books I have ever read because the story is so extraordinary. Most of the late Stephen Jay Gould’s published works are collections of his essays but this is a full-length book that tells the story of the fossils found in the Burgess Shale in Canada. Normally, when you think of paleontology, you think of dinosaur bones as big as small cars. But this deposit held the fossilized remains of small small-tissued animals that lived 530 million years ago, Wonderful life, indeed!! One of the best science books I have ever read because the story is so extraordinary. Most of the late Stephen Jay Gould’s published works are collections of his essays but this is a full-length book that tells the story of the fossils found in the Burgess Shale in Canada. Normally, when you think of paleontology, you think of dinosaur bones as big as small cars. But this deposit held the fossilized remains of small small-tissued animals that lived 530 million years ago, long before dinosaurs or dodos or dachshunds ever existed. Unraveling the story the flattened creatures told and the story of the Cambrian Explosion is fascinating. It seems once multi-cellular life began to appear in the oceans of our planet it evolved quickly into a remarkable smorgasbord of forms. Many soon went extinct leaving no ancestors, and their strange likes have never been seen again. Great book. Wonderful life.

  18. 5 out of 5

    BrokenAndroid

    One of my favourite books. Whenever I read these types of books, or books on history, I feel as though I am in a time machine going back to these places and time periods. Reading this book, I imagined myself wading through a shallow beach discovering and examining all these weird and wonderful creatures. Wow!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Greg

    I've decided to stop giving star ratings altogether. I recommend this book to anyone with a few caveats. First, Gould is an engaging but expansive writer. It's my natural tendency to write that way as well, therefore I'm aware that a lot of people prefer writing that "gets to the point" and simplifies and omits sideline considerations. In fact, I suspect that most people do, and that's why so much popular science writing foregoes nuance and focuses on narrative drama to pull the reader through su I've decided to stop giving star ratings altogether. I recommend this book to anyone with a few caveats. First, Gould is an engaging but expansive writer. It's my natural tendency to write that way as well, therefore I'm aware that a lot of people prefer writing that "gets to the point" and simplifies and omits sideline considerations. In fact, I suspect that most people do, and that's why so much popular science writing foregoes nuance and focuses on narrative drama to pull the reader through subjects that are technical or abstract. Gould doesn't do this. This book will teach you about arthropod anatomy even though the overarching message of the book can be said without that digression. But Gould will assume that any good science reader should be evaluating the material on its own merits without relying on the authority of the narrator to justify the conclusions. I agree with this stance. But most modern books either don't attempt or don't permit the kind of lengthy discussions that Gould sets out in this book. So much of the argumentation of those books is relegated to references in the bibliography. Take the book Impossible Destinies that led me to read this book. Impossible Destinies is a modern pop-sci book that focuses on the tension between two views of evolution, Gould's view (evolution is contingent on environmental circumstance) and Simon Conway Morris's view. Morris is also one of the paleontologists lauded in this book, and he is presumably an advocate of "convergent evolution." Convergent evolution posits that certain body designs are essentially inevitable because the constraints imposed on beings living in certain ecological niches will always tend push their design in predictable directions. However, I find that that book, Impossible Destinies somewhat misrepresents the arguments in Wonderful Life. Destinies talks about convergent evolution within the scope of extant phyla adapting to occupy empty ecological niches. Neither Gould nor Morris seem to argue that existing animals would provide the basis for the explosions of diversity that happened periodically in the fossil record if only they were left to exploit depopulated areas. Gould states explicitly that despite the enormous diversity in body plans represented by the fossils in the Burgess Shale, the consensus is that these designs are various plans to occupy a certain number of ecological niches that still exist today. For example, animals may have 6 modified legs on their head or none, but they're still essentially scavengers, predators, or parasites. Gould argues that maybe 6 modified legs and 0 legs are equally well-adapted to these niches, since the animals seemed to coexist, and it's reasonable to believe that the extinction of one body type instead of the other had to do more with ecological contingencies than with bullying or exceptional anatomical advantage. One interesting example in support of this view is the South American avian fauna which occupied the niches that in other continents were occupied by mammals. It's interesting that this is the same argument that the author of Destinies invokes with regard to New Zealand in support of Gould's argument. But he doesn't mention Gould's own example of the same bird-based phenomenon in Life. Why is that? I wonder if the author of Destinies read Wonderful Life once long ago but didn't reread it carefully before preparing his book. That's the problem with breezy, high-level popular science writing. The drive to condense and simplify inevitably cross over the line from distilling the argument for clarity into discarding important parts of the argument altogether. Gould's view is much more nuanced and more well-founded than was represented in Destinies, and what's more, it doesn't even seem to directly contradict the "opposing" view advocated by Conway Morris. And therefore the explorations in that book involving such things as guppies and E. coli cultures, though interesting in themselves, don't actually seem to directly address the argument that Gould was making, despite the number of times his name was invoked in that book. Gould is there simply as a framing device and a recognizable name, but the book doesn't have the word count to accurately express his ideas, and as a result his argument comes off transformed, even deformed, contorted by the exigencies of 2020 popular science writing conventions. But Wonderful Life itself is not breezy and high-level. It's not light reading full of factoids. It will not hesitate to spend 20 pages describing the pre-requisites and reasoning that went into a paleontological idea that turned out to be wrong. But also, there are lots of interesting pictures and drawings in the book, so that helps. Another thing that I expect will discomfit some readers is Gould's readiness to criticize his predecessors. Some will likely think that he goes too far, gleefully pillorying Walcott's overblown sunset rhapsody in a footnote and pillaging his archives to critique Walcott's frame of mind and career. I for one feel like the dead are owed nothing more than the truth, and I found that Gould does a compelling job of illustrating the dangerous margin between human observation and objective reality by illustrating Walcott's frame of mind and career situation during his "work" on the Burgess Shale fossils. Gould tends to say plainly what other authors might offer as a carefully-hedged implication; that someone's ego or religion or personal disposition had caused them to make inexcusable errors in reasoning. He documents his reasoning in these lines with source quotations, but no doubt many will still find the pointed critiques of the dead (and the living) to be a bit too much. Smug or self-righteous, even. But I give him credit--what he means to say, he says, without pussyfooting around the issue. These are the two reasons that I think some people will object to the book--it's too technical and accurate in its language (to the point of verbosity at times), and it can be a bit cruel. But the information contained in it is very, very interesting to anyone who is interested in evolution or paleontology or ecology. It will probably change your perspective on what the path of evolution has been, and how the ways we choose to illustrate the concepts of evolution guide us to serious misunderstandings of the history and present state (and future) of life on Earth. In particular, does the fact that there are so few great ape species left imply that we're reaching the pinnacle of primate design? Or might it simply be that we're the last leaf on a dying branch of the evolutionary tree, outmaneuvered by the bats, of which there are thousands of extant species, or the insects, which comprise the greatest part of the biomass of terrestrial animals? From a certain point of view, our uniqueness looks less like destiny and more like certain doom.

  20. 4 out of 5

    tom

    excellent book. the few goodreads reviews saying that the book is "out of date" are by readers who have missed the forest for the trees. it doesn't really matter that uniramia has been replaced by hexapoda + myriapoda or that many of the strange stars of this story have since been demoted from possible new phyla to just stem groups. the two main points still stand; 1.) animals are classified by body plans that are very highly conserved, the burgess shale yielded species that exhibited unusual pa excellent book. the few goodreads reviews saying that the book is "out of date" are by readers who have missed the forest for the trees. it doesn't really matter that uniramia has been replaced by hexapoda + myriapoda or that many of the strange stars of this story have since been demoted from possible new phyla to just stem groups. the two main points still stand; 1.) animals are classified by body plans that are very highly conserved, the burgess shale yielded species that exhibited unusual patterns of segmentation etc. and the desire to try wedge some of these guys into more familiar groups was obviously a mistake and in some cases caused evidence to be overlooked 2) contingency played a larger role in the history of life on earth than most people typically care to think about. SJG does a great job spinning the scientific reevaluation of the burgess fossils into an entertaining story and bearing with him through all the emphasis on arthropod anatomy will pay off. i find it funny that the people who criticise gould's popular works fall into two opposite camps, those who think his writing is too dry for the layman and those who are offended at the thought of a scientist talking about science as social activity. maybe he could have just written a nice book about stamps instead?

  21. 4 out of 5

    Nihal Vrana

    This is a pinnacle in popular science writing. As Gould refers in the book, many experimental scientist like myself despise taxonomy. So I could have never thought a book mainly about taxonomical inferences and anatomical definitions would be one of my favourite books. The story of Burgess shale is fascinating, but only if you are as talented as Gould to make it fascinating. Without his spin, the content of this book can be as boring as 8th grade history book. But Gould has an unique talent of de This is a pinnacle in popular science writing. As Gould refers in the book, many experimental scientist like myself despise taxonomy. So I could have never thought a book mainly about taxonomical inferences and anatomical definitions would be one of my favourite books. The story of Burgess shale is fascinating, but only if you are as talented as Gould to make it fascinating. Without his spin, the content of this book can be as boring as 8th grade history book. But Gould has an unique talent of developing exhilirating tangents, giving a feeling of big picture and suspense. I think that you can give him any topic and he can spin you a passable story. Now that is writing genius. Burgess shale oddballs as Gould puts it are breathtaking for any biologist and what they say about the history of earth and life is deeply moving. The only critique I have against the book that it beats a dead horse on the effect of contingency in the evolution of life a bit too much; but maybe in the era it was written it was not that obvious. It is a must read book if you are into popular science.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mario Krapp

    What a book. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much as I did just a few years ago. Let me just speak for myself: Without a little background knowledge about the „Cambrian explosion“ and a the tree of life (and all the Latin names involved) this book is a tough read, a tour de force through the history of life. I can’t say how he did it, but Stephen Jay Gould managed to sparkle a continues curiosity and overwhelming excitement. It feels almost like I’ve lived through the marvelous years, b What a book. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much as I did just a few years ago. Let me just speak for myself: Without a little background knowledge about the „Cambrian explosion“ and a the tree of life (and all the Latin names involved) this book is a tough read, a tour de force through the history of life. I can’t say how he did it, but Stephen Jay Gould managed to sparkle a continues curiosity and overwhelming excitement. It feels almost like I’ve lived through the marvelous years, back then, when the Burgess Shale fossils have been revisited in the mid-1970s. Stephen Jay Gould has combined the history of scientific discovery, several biographies, and paleontology while discussing his own take on what this all means for life in general. It even makes me think about reading one of the introductory paleontology textbooks. Very good stuff.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jimmy

    Here is a link to find out more about the Burgess Shale: https://burgess-shale.rom.on.ca/en/sc... Always a joy to read Mr. Gould's work. This one is tougher than many others but the humor and fantastic knowledge are still there. It was my honor to have heard him speak shortly before he died. Here is a link to find out more about the Burgess Shale: https://burgess-shale.rom.on.ca/en/sc... Always a joy to read Mr. Gould's work. This one is tougher than many others but the humor and fantastic knowledge are still there. It was my honor to have heard him speak shortly before he died.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Keith Peterson

    I enjoy Gould's books, as her writes about evolution at a level that's challenging enough to make me feel I'm really learning something, but he's able to make it feel like it's fun (not like studying for a test). I enjoy Gould's books, as her writes about evolution at a level that's challenging enough to make me feel I'm really learning something, but he's able to make it feel like it's fun (not like studying for a test).

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jesper

    Wonderful life, wonderful book

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ken Muldrew

    An upcoming trip to the Walcott Quarry in Yoho National Park to celebrate the return to normal (and wonderful) life after covid-19 caused me to reread Stephen Jay Gould’s “Wonderful Life” over 30 years after first reading it. I had only fond memories of the book but soon after picking it up I was reminded of the intense frustration I felt on first reading, though Gould sprinkles reasonable alternatives throughout the book to defuse those tensions. One of Gould’s main themes is about how Charles An upcoming trip to the Walcott Quarry in Yoho National Park to celebrate the return to normal (and wonderful) life after covid-19 caused me to reread Stephen Jay Gould’s “Wonderful Life” over 30 years after first reading it. I had only fond memories of the book but soon after picking it up I was reminded of the intense frustration I felt on first reading, though Gould sprinkles reasonable alternatives throughout the book to defuse those tensions. One of Gould’s main themes is about how Charles Doolittle Walcott, the discoverer of the Burgess Shale fossil trove, was unable to see the evidence right in front of his face and so shoehorned all of the bizarre creatures in the Burgess Shale into conventional taxonomic categories. Gould goes to substantial trouble to understand how Walcott came to do that. There is a great irony in the fact that Gould himself uses the re-interpretation of the Burgess Shale to force his own understanding of evolution into an ideological shoehorn. Although Gould is correct to note that the history of life is highly contingent, he insists on equating contingency with pure chance instead of realizing that we simply don’t have the information to know why things turned out the way they did. More egregious, however, is his palaeontologist’s bias of insisting that diversity, as applied to evolutionary history, can only mean the overall body plan used to classify organisms (and that complexity must serve as a virtual synonym for diversity). These biases lead Gould into many intemperate declarations in service to his theme of the contingency of life on earth. I will endeavour to show where “Gould’s Shoehorn” has coloured his interpretation of the Burgess Shale revolution in our understanding of life. The book begins with an introduction to “Walcott’s Shoehorn”, the preconceived notion that Cambrian fossils are primitive forms of later, improved life, on the evolutionary journey that leads inexorably toward the glory of mankind, the pinnacle and purpose of evolution. One of Gould’s stated aims is to counteract this view and show the undirected nature of evolution and the importance of historical contingency to the collection of plants and animals that inhabit the earth today. Another aim is to recount the human drama that played out with the reinterpretation of the Burgess Shale fossils, both to show what these fossils can tell us about evolution and because the story is an illustration of scientific progress; how the scientific method can produce reliable knowledge despite the social milieu in which it is embedded. His final stated aim is to try to find an explanation for why this story isn’t celebrated worldwide as one of the crowning achievements of human progress. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on this final aim but he clearly believes that the lower status of scientific work that cannot use controlled experiments is a mistake that flows from an overly simplified understanding of how science works (not just among laypeople, but among scientists as well). At the time of writing, philosophers of science were busy trying to demolish the high status of controlled experimental work as well, so it is not surprising that Gould leaves the reader to make their own inferences on this matter. The people of the Burgess drama are, first, Walcott: a workaholic administrator who ran the Smithsonian and served on countless boards and committees that oversaw virtually all scientific activity in the U.S. Walcott is a man of great will and power, often directing that power to crush his ideological opponents. He was an excellent collector but a poor analyst. The other major players are Harry Whittington, Derek Briggs, and Simon Conway Morris: rigorous analysts with highly skilled technical abilities; all three of whom were not the kind of people to seek out positions of immense social power, let alone wield that power in service of ideological goals. Much of Gould’s portrayal of Walcott is an apology for those who (like Gould himself), take on the burden of administration to the detriment of their scientific work. He understands the problem (specialization requires a full-time commitment, those who make decisions about how resources should be diverted to support specialists need to understand the nature of the work as only specialists can, making decisions about resource allocation takes more time than any specialist can spare) but has no suggestions on how to improve matters and so insists that we honour administrators for their self-abnegation and leave the criticism of their scientific failings to future generations. One of Gould’s favourite themes that recurs in almost all of his popular writing is the strength of conservatism in science. For example, the theory of continental drift was doggedly put down for decades even though any idiot can look at a globe and see that South America fits almost perfectly alongside Africa. Only when the indisputable evidence of sea-floor spreading, shown by the embedded magnetic signature of pole swapping, became available was the new theory embraced. Gould suggests that this is a strength of scientific progress because it serves as a check against fads and fashion. His presentation of the Burgess drama invokes this principle once again, to show how the radical re-interpretation was only done reluctantly, when the evidence became overwhelming. In order to understand why the removal of several Burgess fossils from modern phyla, along with the admission that these organisms simply cannot be classified in existing categories, is a radical re-interpretation, we need to understand what I will call “Gould’s Shoehorn”. The first aspect of this shoehorn is the premise that “progress” in evolution means one, and only one, thing: that self-conscious humans are the inevitable result of evolution. That is to say that any mention of “progress” is a mistake even if progress is carefully defined, because all such definitions are merely sophistry in the service of putting human pre-eminence back into evolution. Gould insists that diversity in evolution must be similarly constrained to mean only one thing, and in Gould’s opinion that one thing is the pattern of tagmosis (how body plans arise from repeated segments that are fused together with particular modifications to some segments – basically the large-scale body plan of an organism). He also believes that complexity should similarly be taken as a synonym for diversity, although he will allow it to be defined in other ways such as the number of species at a given time. With these rigid definitions in place, Gould is able to insist that there is no direction to evolution; the Burgess fossils show unequivocally that the maximum diversity of animal life happened in the mid-Cambrian and thus there was an increase in diversity followed by a decrease, ergo no direction or “progress”. One further conceit of “Gould’s Shoehorn” is the idea that crack palaeontologists should be able to study the various body plans within a given ecology and pick out the winners and losers that will result from evolution. If they are unable to do this, then that means there is no way to make this prediction even in theory. Gould’s greatest blunder is his refusal to consider the role of computation in evolution. By equating contingency with chance, where chance represents truly random events, he screens himself from the possibility of progress without any teleology or bias toward humanity. He can accept the blind watchmaker, but not the blind programmer. The computational aspect of contingency and evolution are easier to appreciate if we think of an ecosystem as a phase space where every point represents unique genotype with an index at each point to indicate the instantaneous fitness potential (defined as the energy that is available to that organism and the potential for shedding entropy into the environment). It is clear that this phase space for any real ecosystem will be almost entirely empty; since it’s just a thought experiment we can restrict each point to represent a viable organism under some ideal environmental conditions (the space is still mostly empty, but easier to think about). The problem for organisms is to live and reproduce in the environment that they find themselves in (immortal organisms could just live, but then they don’t evolve and an evolving organism might show up and eat their lunch). The environment, however, is not just a background physical and chemical milieu, other organisms (of the same type and of other types) are also part of that environment. The other organisms may provide energy to a given organism (e.g. as food) or they might clear waste products that might otherwise poison a given organism. Thus the fitness of any given organism is a constantly changing variable. The appearance of a new organism in the ecosystem can dramatically change the fitness of a particular organism by changing the environment and thus changing the potential for acquiring energy and shedding waste. The computational problems of organisms (finding food, evading predators, reproducing, etc.) need to be distinguished from the computational problem of evolution (find a location in the phase space of an ecosystem with high fitness). The latter problem is solved through mutation and recombination. A germ-line point mutation only moves an organism’s offspring to an adjacent point in phase space, thus the change in fitness is small (though repeated movements along an increasing gradient might yield substantial gains). With recombination, though, an organism’s offspring can jump to an uninhabited region of phase space that is well separated from the parent. This is the primary advantage of eukaryotic sexual reproduction. Having an extra set of genes allows duplications and random mutations of some segments without harm while providing the building blocks of new functional modules that can be tried out through recombination. The Cambrian explosion was where multicellular life began moving into unoccupied regions of phase space with high fitness potential in all directions. As these new organisms formed, they each changed the fitness landscape for all other organisms. Where the fitness of new organisms was relatively unaffected by other organisms, large-scale changes to overall body plan would dominate as empty regions of phase space were explored. Where highly interdependent networks developed, such that changes to one organism changed the fitness landscape of all the organisms in the network, then specialization would dominate—variations on a particular body plan would be explored in a highly connected arms race. As these networks evolve, some body plans will prove more appropriate to finding success through specialization than others. These body plans will be the winners (though even crack palaeontologists will not be able to know enough about the complex interdependencies to have any hope of predicting which body plans will win out). Specialization, however, fixes a body plan in place. Once an organism commits to a path of specialization, it is an irreversible commitment to that body plan as subsequent genetic changes are premised on the particular plan. Only in the free-for-all where vast regions of phase space are empty can organisms find a path (retrospectively, this is a path of descent with modification) to new body plans. The pattern of the Cambrian explosion—extensive diversification of body plans followed by a decimation with specialization of only a small percentage of body plans—is an expected result of the computational view. The particular result of which body plans win out is still highly contingent, and truly random events can have large influences, but it is mainly a story of cause-and-effect. Evolution does progress, not toward humanity, but towards a global ecosystem where the available energy sources and entropy shedding opportunities are maximally used. There will be many strategies that prove exceptional at increasing an organism’s fitness (e.g. flight as a mechanism for avoiding predation), thus convergent evolution will further provide a notion of progress as organisms that discover these windfall solutions will thrive. That spiders have 8 legs instead of 10 is a matter of contingency, that they spin webs to catch small, flying creatures is a matter of computational success in finding a high-fitness niche. In a counterfactual history where spiders have 10 legs, a vastly different body plan (8 legs vs 10) makes no difference to the success of this class of organisms. Within a mature ecosystem, body plan provides a reasonable proxy for fitness in phase space, but that doesn’t apply to the Burgess organisms. Gould is mistaken to transport that proxy back in time to the Cambrian where it doesn’t work. That is where “Gould’s Shoehorn” leads him astray. The description of the human drama behind the reinterpretation of the Burgess Shale fossils is a remarkable story, told by someone who knows the field and the individuals involved. The plea for respect for palaeontology, and indeed all the “softer” sciences, is well argued and passionately persuasive. On these grounds, Gould’s book is truly excellent. His discussion of the nature of history, however, can be terribly aggravating to a particular class of reader. Contingency also applies to readers of books, and if you happen to be in this class of readership, this book will be both wonderful and wretched at the same time.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Vinayak Raj

    The last chapter of the book added one extra star to the rating.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    After visiting the Burgess Shale in August 2017, I decided to reread this book by SJ Gould, which I first read (and loved) sometime in the 1990s, shortly after it was published in 1989. Full disclosure, for years I used to devour Gould's This View of Life columns in Natural History magazine every month, and thoroughly enjoyed his books in the 1980s and 1990s, but haven't had the heart (or the stamina) to attempt his final and massive book (2002's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory). A brief fo After visiting the Burgess Shale in August 2017, I decided to reread this book by SJ Gould, which I first read (and loved) sometime in the 1990s, shortly after it was published in 1989. Full disclosure, for years I used to devour Gould's This View of Life columns in Natural History magazine every month, and thoroughly enjoyed his books in the 1980s and 1990s, but haven't had the heart (or the stamina) to attempt his final and massive book (2002's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory). A brief foray into that tome made me realize that, at that late stage of his career, his writing style had become a bit too florid, his long and frequent asides too peripheral, and his tendency to show-off his obvious erudition had gotten a bit out of control. 1989's Wonderful Life, The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, on the other hand, demonstrates Gould at his full powers. Wringing general principles out of specific geological, paleontological, or historical events, he brilliantly deconstructs iconic ideas (preconceptions?) in paleontology (e.g., increasing cone of diversity, gradualism, and adaptationist notions), offering in their place historical contingency, hierarchical levels of selection, and a "neo-catastrophist" approach to mass extinctions. It's true that the numerous quotations from Milton and Frost (no Gilbert and Sullivan, at least!), the ostentatious multilingualism, and the sometimes florid prose can seem to some readers a bit over the top, but these tendencies never take over in this book. The story he tells in this book about Walcott's discovery of the Burgess Shale high in the Canadian Rockies of British Colombia in 1909, and the revolutionary reinterpretation of the meaning of this Middle Cambrian "explosion" of life by the brilliant paleontologist Harry Whittington and his two equally brilliant students Derek Briggs and Simon Conway Morris is an inspiring one for scientists everywhere, and paleontologists in particular. Highly recommended.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Gary Reger

    I was not impressed with this book when I read it many years ago. Gould's use of contingency struck me as resting on some fundamental misunderstandings of what historians mean by that. Although I couldn't critique his analysis of the Burgess Shale fossils, his thesis struck me as simply wrong. Now we know he was mistaken about the fossils, too. The Burgess Shale doesn't preserve wild critters without present-day descendants; rather, the fossils have been fit into the larger story of evolution. I was not impressed with this book when I read it many years ago. Gould's use of contingency struck me as resting on some fundamental misunderstandings of what historians mean by that. Although I couldn't critique his analysis of the Burgess Shale fossils, his thesis struck me as simply wrong. Now we know he was mistaken about the fossils, too. The Burgess Shale doesn't preserve wild critters without present-day descendants; rather, the fossils have been fit into the larger story of evolution.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jlawrence

    Gould does an excellent job balancing readability and technical details in this account of the discovery and classification of fossils found at the Burgess Shale in Canada. Some of the fossils reveal truly bizarre creatures of the Cambrian period, which were shoehorned into existing phyla when originally classified, but upon recent, closer study were shown to belong to completely new phyla of their own. The fascinating creatures are thoroughly described. Gould convincingly argues that these examp Gould does an excellent job balancing readability and technical details in this account of the discovery and classification of fossils found at the Burgess Shale in Canada. Some of the fossils reveal truly bizarre creatures of the Cambrian period, which were shoehorned into existing phyla when originally classified, but upon recent, closer study were shown to belong to completely new phyla of their own. The fascinating creatures are thoroughly described. Gould convincingly argues that these examples of wild early diversity undermine the idea of evolutionary 'progress' from a few basic forms 'up' towards ever-increasing complexity and diversity. Instead, the Burgess Shale points to huge diversity early-on, which was decimated by outside chance, its survivors (not obviously 'fitter' than those that didn't survive) determining life as we know it. Gould argues that this 'decimation by lottery' means that evolution could have very easily taken many entirely different paths than it did (the power of contingency), including no humans and no conscious creatures of any kind. Fascinating stuff. Conway Morris, one of the paleontologists responsible for the re-classification of the Burgess Shale 'weird wonders' and who is featured prominently in this book, has written a book (Crucible of Creation) opposing Gould's interpretation of the Burgess Shale, and I'll probably give that book a go at some point.

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