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Wonderful Life The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

High in the Canadian Rockies is a small limestone quarry formed 530 million years ago called the Burgess Shale It hold the remains of an ancient sea where dozens of strange creatures lived—a forgotten corner of evolution preserved in awesome detail In this book Stephen Jay Gould explores what the Burgess Shale tells us about evolution and the nature of history


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    A book about wonder and a wonderful book The story of the Burgess Shale—from its initial misinterpretation to its reassessment 50 years later—is mind blowing This limestone outcropping which sits at an altitude of 8000 feet in the Canadian Rockies near British Columbia was at equatorial sea level 530 million years ago Its shale has revealed about 150 previously unknown arthropod genera and entirely new species with anatomies that would be unimaginable to us today had Charles Doolittle Walcott not discovered them in 1909 Gould calls these animals with their diverse anatomies weird wonders and explains that their broad proliferation was possible because the middle Cambrian was a time of filling the so called ecological barrel In other words it was a time of low ecological competition among animals which ultimately permitted unsuccessful anatomies to flourish for a few million years before the full panoply of evolutionary pressures natural selection began to eliminate the less successful designs Another thing learned from the Burgess Shale is the imprecision of the concept survival of the fittest Certainly adapting to environmental change is vital but it's not the whole ballgame The adapted animal also needs luck on its side luck that it cannot possibly have any direct role in affecting I refer to the importance of contingency Gould calls it decimation by lottery and given its sway unyielding adherence to classic evolutionary principles like gradualism etc reveal their short sightednessFinally if you will accept my argument that contingency is not only resolvable and important but also fascinating in a special sort of way then the Burgess not only reverses our general ideas about the source of pattern – it also fills us with a new kind of amazement also a frisson for the improbability of the event at the fact that humans ever evolved at all We came this close put your thumb about a millimeter away from your index finger thousands and thousands of times to erasure by the veering of history down another sensible channel Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again It is indeed a wonderful life p 289If you're like me one who wonders why we were set down on a speck of interstellar dust in the midst of a universe so vast we daily fail to comprehend its age and scale this book is for you Gould is a fabulous writer He writes with a minimum of jargon and concepts of any complexity he is careful to explain But he does this without being tedious he does it in fact while sharing his own boundless sense of fascination Gould was a brilliant man a rare amalgam of top flight scientist science writer and teacher When he died 10 years ago he left a great hole in the landscape of writers who could engagingly write for the general reader about evolutionary biology and paleontology There is simply no one else like him working today I'm in the process of reading all of his books There are about 20 Highly recommended for those with an interest in science particularly the life sciences