Gould: Wonderful Life - the Burgess Shale & the Nature of History (Cloth): The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History Hardcover – 22 Nov 1989
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Gould at his best. . . . The message of history is superbly conveyed. . . . Recommended reading for scientists and nonscientists of all persuasions.--Walter C. Sweet
Luminous. . . . Filled with profound and upsetting ideas like the Burgess Shale itself and just as solid. It is surely one of nature's best stories, told with a light touch by a master of the field.--Lewis Thomas, M.D.
There is no question about the historical importance of the Burgess Shale, and Gould is right when he says that it deserves a place in the public consciousness along with big bangs and black holes. . . . A compelling story, told with characteristic verve.--Richard A. Fortey
About the Author
Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Geology at Harvard University. He published over twenty books, received the National Book and National Book Critics Circle Awards, and a MacArthur Fellowship.
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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
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.
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?
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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