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.
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 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 9 August 2015
The author admits this edition corrects some of the earlier misconceptions, including his own.
While modern ideas on evolution may have moved on a bit, in my opinion this remains a wonderfully informative work and certainly added to my understanding and appreciation of early animal evolution. Anyone should be able to read this and gain both enjoyment and knowledge at the same time. Surely this has to be a must read for people interested in anything to do with animals, life sciences, conservation, biology, earth history, etc,