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. As such, I believe, he has succeeded in producing that most difficult of books: hard science for specialists that is also intended for the interested (and persistent) lay reader. This is a true virtuoso performance that is an incredible pleasure to read. As always, the persona he presents in the book is wonderfully companionable and open-minded.
As a reporter of science, I was surprised to learn that Gould was disdained by many of his colleagues at Harvard and the wider Cambridge area as having fallen behind the more mathematical and progressist-evolutionary approaches that have taken over the field of paleontology and biology. As I understood it - and this does not fully do justice to the objections of these scholars to Gould - they seemed to feel that he was wrong when he argued that many attributes did not have meaning or evolutionary significance and hence all should not be treated as such (i.e. catalogued ad infinitum in a scholastic manner that ignores certain assumptions). Instead, in my reading, Gould argued that, when catastrophic changes in the environment killed off huge numbers of species, the traits that allowed some to survive were usually evolved for other reasons and were perhaps redundant or useless at the time of the event. This book makes the most detailed case for Gould's position on these issues. I happen to believe that Gould is correct and that the vogue may one day shift back in his direction, i.e. become less determinist.
on 25 March 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.
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.
on 19 June 2013
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.
on 23 February 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?
Nearly sixty years after Walcott's discovery an Englishman named Harry Whittington, the world's leading expert on trilobites, began a process which would shine new light on a subject widely considered as fact. With the help of a small group of allies, they began to uncover details of the Burgess artefacts never before recognised; details which challenged Walcott's accepted wisdom regarding what his discoveries were; details which even called into question the basic nature of the evolutionary process itself.
Whittington and his fellows proved with their efforts that, contrary to the traditional notion of simple creatures gradually improving over time, early evolution represented a chaotic period of sophisticated experimentation, with only blind chance in control of which forms of life would survive to define the future.
Or, do I hear you cry, DID they?
In Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould takes us on a remarkable journey. Setting the scene with an examination of our expectations in conventional evolutionary theory, we join him with Walcott on the Canadian slopes, then follow the various players as they unveil the unseen or unveil it again. He celebrates both the pioneer and the revolutionaries for, he claims, achievements to rank beside any undertaken by the more recognised "hard" sciences. Finally, after leading us through a fascinating and surprisingly accessible education in the field of ancient evolution, he demonstrates how these revelations about early life hang the probability of our own existence in a frighteningly - or, to another palate, thrillingly - slender thread.
Or, do I hear you cry, DOES he?
Because, not to put too fine a point on it, not everyone agrees with Gould's conclusions - even the visionaries he celebrates in the book. Subtitled "The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History", Gould's overview of the re-examination of palaeontology's crown jewel begins as a heartfelt celebration of the scientific method and ends as, arguably, an overenthusiastic departure towards his belief in mankind's unlikeliness, and a variation on the standard evolutionary theory which is far from universally accepted. However, between and through these extremes, he treats us to an engaging, enthusiastic and entertaining experience, and it is for this that the book will continue to deserve a readership, even if some of his conclusions draw fire from various detractors as time marches on.
It should not be assumed though that the book is closed on Gould's perspective, that He Was Wrong and That Is That. Ten minutes of layperson level browsing underlined for me that there remains debate; and while some of those lined up in opposition to Gould's claims are pretty big guns of the scientific world, even amongst them there is great respect for his writing - and that there can be disagreement and simultaneous support for his work is as interesting to me as his argument itself.
It would be nice, reassuringly so, if every science writer, presenting and then interpreting evidence, could be shown to produce undeniable fact; to raise the bar for others to jump from, not at; but this isn't what science necessarily does. Science may be just a system of beliefs no different from any other, religious or not, and as such just as fallible - no, infinitely more so, as for science the facts may sometimes show the beliefs to be wrong.
Subject to the righteous threat of constant revision, every theory may eventually come apart at the how it seems - but if great theories give rise to great books only for greater theories to take their turn, then it's a small price to pay to have such good things to read while we wait for the next in line. Gould would, I think, happily accept this form of progressive improvement over time, if no other.
on 20 June 2016
I bought this book when it first came out in paperback, and read it in a couple of sittings. As always with Gould's work, it is well and persuasively written and keeps the reader's attention to the final page. I'm no expert on evolution, and I accepted Gould's central thesis which was the main selling point of the book. This was that the early Cambrian was a time of radical experimentation when multiple new phyla appeared, had their day in the sun and then died out, to be survived by our present much reduced range of basic body plans.
Gould argued that the truly weird fauna of the Burgess Shales represented one-off attempts to build an animal which walked on its spines, an animal with a mouth on a long trunk, a terrifying predator with two spiked claspers and a kind of guillotine mouth, and so on and so forth, each of which, Gould maintained, represented a separate phylum which had died out leaving no descendants. At the time it was gripping stuff and had a kind of tragic resonance: how much more interesting the world might be if these crazy creatures had survived....
Well, we now know that this idea was totally mistaken. It turns out that the animal that "walked on its spines" had actually been reconstructed upside down: the "tentacles" on the top were actually legs, and the "legs" were just protective spines. The other nightmare monsters, looked at with a more sceptical eye, could be seen to be versions - admittedly extreme ones - of arthropods, velvet worms and other types well known to science. The irony is that this revision was carried out by Simon Conway Morris, who was praised unreservedly in Gould’s book. Morris responded by writing “The Crucible of Creation”, which has been described as a hatchet job on Gould. There is truly no gratitude in science.
Meanwhile Gould’s book is still worth reading, if not for its evolutionary theories which are simply wrong, but for its gripping account of the work of Morris and his co-workers who went back to the original collection of Burgess shale samples and wrestled out of them this bizarre zoo of new animals. We now need an updated account of the Burgess shales which will correct Gould’s errors and omit Morris’ bile. That would truly be a wonderful book. Richard Fortey, what are you waiting for?
on 6 February 2009
Not a quick read.347 pages (inclusive of bibliography) and to a non scientist it appeared initially daunting but I was drawn into the fascination of early paleontology and the startling new light shed on the re-interpretation of some of the earliest discovered life-form fossils.Darwin's ideas on the "Tree of Life" also come under review. Don't worry about the "jargon" as Gould takes you step by step (perhaps a little too repetitively)to the fascinating climax.
on 1 February 2009
This book was a wonderful read, the author expects you to come up to his level. It took time and concentration on my part to complete the book and I am glad I did. It led me to Richard Dawkins book the 'Blind Watchmaker' The development of the story line was good. It unfolds to show the brilliance, dedication and imagination of the various people involved overturning the original theory by Walcott. I liked the end, but you will have to read it.
on 9 September 2014
Crammed full of scientific (paelontological) detail, 240 pages of the book's 320 are devoted to the Burgess Shale and its contents, this excellent work is not 'light reading.' Be prepared to dip in and out as you become saturated with facts and feel the need to stroll around the room for a few moments.
I preferred the sections on Darwinism, including quotes attributed to the great man, eg "The universe runs by law, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we might call chance." Thus Homo-sapiens struck lucky with a roll of Nature's roulette wheel. The chapter: 'Possible Worlds' was particularly thought provoking.
on 12 October 2010
I bought this to supplement a palaeontology course that I was taking after a recommendation from a friend;. If you want to know a more about the unique conditions of Burgess Shale and how this has changed our knowledge and understanding of how life developed and evolved then this is th ebook for you, but you need to be prepared to work at it
everything you want to know can be found in this book, along with illustrations but it had work. This book is written by scientists and it can be a little on the dry side, but if you can get passed that then you will find something you can really enjoy