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The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact (T. H. Huxley)
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?