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Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

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ISBN-13: 978-0393307009
ISBN-10: 039330700X
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Editorial Reviews Review

The Burgess Shale of British Columbia "is the most precious and important of all fossil localities," writes Stephen Jay Gould. These 600-million-year-old rocks preserve the soft parts of a collection of animals unlike any other. Just how unlike is the subject of Gould's book.

Gould describes how the Burgess Shale fauna was discovered, reassembled, and analyzed in detail so clear that the reader actually gets some feeling for what paleobiologists do, in the field and in the lab. The many line drawings are unusually beautiful, and now can be compared to a wonderful collection of photographs in Fossils of the Burgess Shale by Derek Briggs, one of Gould's students.

Burgess Shale animals have been called a "paleontological Rorschach test," and not every geologist by any means agrees with Gould's thesis that they represent a "road not taken" in the history of life. Simon Conway Morris, one of the subjects of Wonderful Life, has expressed his disagreement in Crucible of Creation. Wonderful Life was published in 1989, and there has been an explosion of scientific interest in the pre-Cambrian and Cambrian periods, with radical new ideas fighting for dominance. But even though many scientists disagree with Gould about the radical oddity of the Burgess Shale animals, his argument that the history of life is profoundly contingent--as in the movie It's a Wonderful Life, from which this book takes its title--has become more accepted, in theories such as Ward and Brownlee's Rare Earth hypothesis. And Gould's loving, detailed exposition of the labor it took to understand the Burgess Shale remains one of the best explanations of scientific work around. --Mary Ellen Curtin

From Publishers Weekly

The Burgess Shale, a small quarry in the mountains of British Columbia, opened a window on the first multicellular animals. Gould, eminent life-historian and author, introduces us to the creatures of Burgess Shale and to those who have painstakingly examined them. "This is exciting and illuminating material on the beginnings of life," wrote PW. Illustrated.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (September 17, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039330700X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393307009
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (98 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #60,984 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Alan R. Holyoak on May 22, 2000
Format: Paperback
Gould sets up a premis in this overview and discussion of animals represented in the fossils of the Burgess shale that makes for interesting reading and thinking. The author uses the same premis of the Frank Capra classic, "It's a Wonderful Life" starring Jimmy Stewart.
What would life be like if one of the players had never existed? poor old George Bailey who thought everyone would be happier and better off without him.
In this book Gould takes the position that animals that exist today do so primarily because they were lucky during their early evolutionary history, along with having characteristics that allowed them to survive and succeed in their environment long enough to reproduce -- a contingency hypothesis. They turned right instead of left and consequently avoided predation...OR...they turned left instead of right, were eaten, and that was the end of an entire ancestral line.
This book is a must read for anyone interested in ideas surrounding the diversity of early animal life. The book provides an informative overview of what evolution is, how the now famous Burgess shale fossil beds were discovered and studied, and why some of the body plans found amongst the Burgess shale fauna are not found today. There are also excellent drawings of Burgess shale fossils and the animals they may once have been, and a reasonable selection of descriptions of their possible behaviors based on animal form and function.
Gould also recounts ideas others have had about the Burgess shale fauna and its contribution to our understanding of the Cambrian fauna in general.
It's interesting to note that this book was written prior to the discovery of several other Burgess shale-type fossil beds around the world, most notably in China.
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78 of 87 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Edelman TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 20, 2004
Format: Paperback
Gould does a nice job of presenting the Burgess Shale and its place in paleonotological history, but his interpretation of the meaning of the shale and its contents has little support today. Gould's thesis- really, the thesis of Harry Whittington and some of his contemporaries- was that the unique organisms found in the shale represented a multitude of dead ends; potential phyla of the Cambrian era that could have, but did not, evolve into modern organisms. Gould and his predecessors cited the many mysterious fauna of the shale, such as Hallucigenia, as evidence of this notion.

But as the flora and fauna of the Burgess Shale were further examined, it became clear that waht were thought to be uniqie species actually were related to many contemporary organisms. Hallucigenia, it turned out, was being looked at upside down, and was probably a relative of the modern velvet worm. And so as well for many other "unique" phyla.

Gould is no longer around to defend his veiws, but many still cling to the idea of the Cambrian as the time of great experimentation by nature, influenced, no doubt, by Gould. Amateurs are particularly prone to this sort of fallacious argument-by-authority. Nonetheless, few if any paleontologists still subscribe to this notion, and readers should be aware that it is possible to read and enjoy "Wonderful Life" without accepting all of Gould's ideas as presented.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By frumiousb VINE VOICE on December 1, 2007
Format: Paperback
In the beginning of Wonderful Life, Gould writes:

"Words, of course, must be varied, if only to eliminate any jargon and phraseology that would mystify anyone outside the priesthood, but conceptual depth should not vary at all between professional publications and general exposition. I hope that this book can be read with profit both in seminars for graduate students and-- if the movie stinks and you forgot your sleeping pills-- on the businessman's special to Tokyo."

I am not qualified to discuss whether it should be taught in graduate seminars. I am more qualified to discuss reading it on a plane, since that is exactly where I did read the book. I think for my audience type, at least, he hits the mark.

I resisted the book quite a bit in the beginning. Honestly, reading it felt a little bit like homework. The casual reader needs to pick his or her way through a variety of classifications and discussions on methodology in order to begin to understand the point(s) of the book. Once I stopped resisting and got through the necessary definition chapters, I found that I really enjoyed the book and felt as though I learned a great deal about something which I had earlier known very little.

Gould's points are both about the remnants found in the Burgess Shale and, more largely, about the role of history and bias in interpreting data. Walcott is a fascinating character, and Gould is by turns both critical and affectionate about his nature and work.

I understand that there is quite a bit of debate regarding Gould's ideas-- many people taking notion with the contingency vs. ecology discussion. I'm not arrogant enough to join that discussion. It is worth noting to future readers that although this book is by most accounts a classic in its area, it is dated and there have been a number of corrections and revisions over the years.

Recommended. At least, I liked it.
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59 of 78 people found the following review helpful By Mike Noren on July 20, 2001
Format: Paperback
I gave this book 3 stars because it is well written, if a bit ornate; the reader is really left with a sense of awe and wonder at the wonderfulness of Life. At least I know I was.
I didn't give it more than 3 stars because, scientifically speaking, it stinks. It is by far Goulds worst book.
I would recommend people to read this book, but when you do, try to remember that the taxonomic rank of phylum, contrary to what Gould claims, lacks a definition; that a 'fundamental body plan' is a wholly arbitrary after-the-fact construction; that neither the rank of phylum or 'fundamental body plans' has any whatsoever evolutionary significance; and that no-one knows why or how the animals of Burgess Shale went extinct.
But on to the book. It is, on the surface, about some remarkable fossils found at a place called Burgess Shale.
Gould spends a substantial part of the book expounding how the psychosocial background of the original discoverer, C. Walcott, led him ("preconditioned" is the word Gould uses) to Get It All Wrong when he classified ("shoehorned") the fossils in known phyla, whereas the zeitgeist of the late 20th century allows a group of whacky new researchers to Get It All Right and see that they belong to previously unknown phyla.
One is then treated to a nice exposé of some really interesting fossils, and there's not much to say about them except that most have since the book was published been re-evaluated, and are today classified as velvet worms, arthropods or annelids (still as interesting, but less enigmatic - and ironically much like Walcott first "shoehorned" them).
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