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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars utterly superb, 8 May 2011
This review is from: Wonderful Life: Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (Paperback)
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.

Warmly recommended.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 20 Jun 2016 14:18:44 BDT
Enthusiast says:
I totally agree with your high estimate of Gould's writing talents: along with Steve Jones and Richard Fortey, he is one of the great popularizers of our time. His early death was truly a sad loss to us all.

However, you should be aware that his central point in Wonderful Life, about multiple body plans evolving and then dying out in the Cambrian, is no longer accepted by scientists. The turn-around came as a result of work by Simon Conway Morris, much praised in Gould's book, who showed later on that the "new" body plans were simply versions of things we already knew. Morris wrote his own popular account of this, The Crucible of Creation. Fortey covers the acrimonious controversy that resulted in his excellent book "Trilobite!" (yes, complete with exclamation mark: I blame the publisher).

It is hardly fair to criticize Gould for getting this wrong, since these conclusions were only arrived at after he had written his own book, though he was perhaps a little to blame for being so dogmatic about his views. But that was often part of his charm: at least you knew where you stood with Gould. Personally I think Gould will in the long run be appreciated not mainly for his theoretical contributions (all too often mistaken) but for his excellence as a historian of science. His account in Wonderful Life of the discovery - and rediscovery - of the Burgess shales is quite brilliant.

I just wish someone would now write an updated version of this book. For as long as it continues to be published without any critical commentary, people who haven't heard of the new findings will continue to be persuaded of what is basically a complete misinterpretation of the evidence from the Burgess shales. That is in itself a kind of back-handed tribute to Gould: few other people could write so persuasively in support of an error.

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Jun 2016 21:13:18 BDT
rob crawford says:
Thanks for your fascinating comment. I think you are correct about his dogmatism and his historical work and I am no scientist, so can't judge the validity of his theories. In 1988, I met him at Harvard as a student and later did some journalistic work with him. He was arrogant and demanding. But I loved his work.
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