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Wonderful Life: Burgess Shale and the Nature of History Paperback – 3 Aug 2000

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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (3 Aug 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099273454
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099273455
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 103,171 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Amazon Review

The Burgess Shale of British Columbia "is the most precious and important of all fossil localities", writes Stephen Jay Gould. These 600-million-year-old rocks preserve the soft parts of a collection of animals unlike any other. Just how unlike is the subject of Gould's book.

Gould describes how the Burgess Shale fauna was discovered, reassembled and analysed in detail so clear that the reader actually gets some feeling for what paleobiologists do, in the field and in the lab. The many line drawings are unusually beautiful, and now can be compared to a wonderful collection of photographs in Fossils of the Burgess Shale by Derek Briggs, one of Gould's students.

Burgess Shale animals have been called "a palaeontological Rorschach test", and not every geologist by any means agrees with Gould's thesis that they represent a "road not taken" in the history of life. Simon Conway Morris, one of the subjects of Wonderful Life, has expressed his disagreement in Crucible of Creation. Wonderful Life was published in 1989, and there has been an explosion of scientific interest in the pre-Cambrian and Cambrian periods, with radical new ideas fighting for dominance. But even though many scientists disagree with Gould about the radical oddity of the Burgess Shale animals, his argument that the history of life is profoundly contingent--as in the movie It's a Wonderful Life, from which this book takes its title--has become more accepted, in theories such as Ward and Brownlee's Rare Earth hypothesis. And Gould's loving, detailed exposition of the labour it took to understand the Burgess Shale remains one of the best explanations of scientific work around. --Mary Ellen Curtin


"A masterpiece of analysis and imagination...It centres on a sensational discovery in the field of palaeontology - the existence, in the Burgess Shale... of 530-million-year-old fossils unique in age, preservation and diversity...With skill and passion, Gould takes this mute collection of fossils and makes them speak to us. The result challenges some of our most cherished self-perceptions and urges a fundamental re-assessment of our place in the history of life on earth" (Sunday Times)

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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Mrs. M. J. Rimmer on 25 Mar 2001
This fascinating and thought-provoking book has two main stands; a description and (controversial) interpretation of some surprising fossils from the earliest period of multicellular animals, and an appeal to overturn the idea of evolution as a "cone of increasing diversity". Instead, Gould argues, evolution should be thought of as a "copiously branching bush".
All the while, he provides insights into what it is paleontologists actually *do*, and how theories about life and evolution develop and change over time.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 8 May 2011
Gould never ceases to astound me with his talents. Not only does he have fascinating insights into science, but each of his books is a literary event of exceptional clarity, with elegant yet distinctively quirky prose and humor. Reading his books, I think, is like drinking truly fine wine, each sip to savor and each vintage subtly different. His early death is a great loss.

This book covers a revolution that Gould argues was hidden from the public, that is, the complete reinterpretation of the Burgess Shale, which is the most important Cambrian fossil bed ever to have been found. In my reading, there were two fundamental ideas Gould wanted to get across: 1) that, with explosions of new forms of life that follow grand extinctions or leaps in evolutionary development, there is actually more rather than less diversity in basic forms; 2) this fact flatly contradicts our assumptions that life "progresses" by becoming ever more complex (and to some, evolutionarily superior, culminating in man). What Gould says is that, if you rewound the tape of life through all the contingencies that led to homo sapiens, it is more likely than not that we would never have existed. He would, in other words, remove us from the inevitability of occupying the apex of life's hierarchy.

For anyone familiar with Gould's essays, which I believe rank as works of genius in the genre of science popularization, will recognize these themes. What sets this book apart is his systematic, highly technical argument from the evidence of the re-interpretation. Much of the revolution depends on the numbers of joints in fossil legs, rendering them different than all the insect species that evolved from different ancestors, and other minutiae that Gould describes with peerless elegance.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Sebastian Palmer TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 7 Aug 2010
This one really hit the spot!

Excepting the poorly reproduced photos (still, they're better than nothing), this is a well illustrated book (with diagrams of specimens by scientists, and nice line drawn illustrations of reconstructions of the fauna by Marianne Collins), and technical enough to be challenging without being so technical as to completely lose the layman.

Gould is also good on broader contexts, situating the whole story in amongst a biography of Walcott himself, and a portrait of the times, and drawing out how the man and the times conspired to, according to Gould, mis-read the story of the Burgess Shale quite spectacularly. I'm totally with Gould in wondering why knowledge of this episode in evolution isn't more widely discussed and known... it's so incredibly exciting and fascinating.

Gould's another of these science proselytisers that I find very inspiring. Sometimes a bit up himself perhaps (tho' it's a different brand of up himself from Dawkins, who he apparently had something of a tiff with!), but undoubtedly able to tell an interesting story very well, covering much ground and many bases with verve.

Subsequently I've discovered that things have moved on in this area, and Gould's interpretation has itself been called into question. Sadly he's now dead, and can't continue to be involved in this fascinating and ever evolving debate. But his books live on, and make great reading.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By SammyB on 19 Jun 2013
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I think this book is a classic of popular science writing. Although some small parts may be outdated now (for example earlier examples of vertebrates than Pikaia have since been discovered) the book is still worth a read.

The book tells the story of the pain staking methodical re-classification of the tiny fossils of the Burgess Shale into completely new phylums (a fantastic piece of science) and looks at the bigger picture and how at the time this had massive implications for our view of life - although we think of "survival of the fittest" there is also a massive element of chance in the evolutionary process and makes you realise of the extreme improbability of human evolution - for example - it took a meteor to wipe out the dinosaurs to allow the mammals to rise and diversify. Evolution isn't a cone of ever increasing diversity with a trend towards increased complexity.

If you're interested in evolution, nature, the bigger picture etc this is a great choice. There is a good proportion of the text devoted toward detailed descriptions of the morphology of the animals and is quite detailed but I felt that helped the reader understand the methodical and detailed nature of the research of Whittington and Morris et al.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Andrew on 23 Feb 2009
For anyone in the dark, the Burgess Shale is one of the greatest fossil discoveries in palaeontological history. Uncovered in British Columbia by Charles Doolittle Walcott, one of America's most distinguished scientific minds, the Burgess Shale contained an astonishing diversity of forms - but most significantly, from a time at which no solid evidence for life had yet been found.

Palaeontology had suffered from a critical absence in the fossil record. Dinosaurs, trilobites and many other extinct lifeforms had long been known of, of course, but while the hard body parts of dead creatures make for good fossilisation, the soft do not, tending to decay long before they can leave their mark. The sorry fact was that, prior to the Mid-Cambrian period (over five hundred million years ago), fossil evidence simply was not to be found. Whatever creatures had existed before the evolution of such hard structures as bone, chitin or shell, they had left no clue behind.

...until 1909. In the years that followed, C.D. Walcott collected nearly ninety thousand fossils, and though his time in the field was hampered by wide-ranging commitments as an administrator and leader of several of his country's most significant scientific bodies, he somehow found the time to study and report on his discovery as well. What he had found was nothing less than what the palaeontological community had longed for: evidence of simpler forms of life, early links in the chain that, over millions of years, would eventually produce fish and insects, amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals and man.

Or, do I hear you cry, DID he?
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