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50 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2000
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. But, given what Gould had to work with at the time, this is an admirable work.
If this general topic interests you, you may want to take a look at another book -- "The Crucible of Creation" by Simon Conway Morris. Morris' book provides addtional excellent graphic presentations of cambrian fauna, a different explanation of some possible paleo-ecologies of those animals, and a fundamentally different read on why we have the kinds of animals that we have today. Morris also includes information about newly discovered Burgess shale-like fossil beds and specimens.
All in all, Gould's book is a 5-star work. I'd recommend reading it AND Morris' book for a balanced set of different opinions about this important animal group.
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83 of 93 people found the following review helpful
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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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 1, 2007
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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30 of 39 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon February 1, 2000
This is a very enjoyable and unintentionally revealing book by the prolific Gould. As pointed out by other reviewers (see below), in some respects this is a melding of 2 books. One book is the story of the discovery and re-interpretation of the Pre-Cambrian fossils of the Burgess Shale formation. This is a very interesting and winning story which Gould presents very well. The second book is a less successful and somewhat muddled attempt to investigate the nature of history and scientific inquiry. Gould is a follower of the late Thomas Kuhn, the very influential historian of science who claimed that science progressed by discontinuous leaps in theory driven by external, that is, cultural or subjective forces. I suspect that Gould intended to write the story of the recent interpretation of the Burgess Shale fossils as an example of Kuhnian progression. Instead, he found an example of progress via conventional modes of incremental progress driven by technical innovation and internal scientific questions. This is an example of what Kuhn somewhat dismissively termed normal science and how the great majority of scientists, and some philosophers, view scientific progress. I think that Gould couldn't digest this contradiction of his preconceptions and consequently made a hash of a good part of the book. Readers should be aware that some of Gould's interpretations, which were held by others at the time the book was written, such as the notion that the Pre-Cambrian fauna displayed a greater variety of body plans than contemporary animals, have been shown to be wrong. Readers interested by this volume and wishing a more up to date and technical account might look at Simon Conway Morris' more recent book.
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59 of 79 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2001
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).
Why, Gould asks, did essentially all modern phyla arise in a short period in the cambrian, as well as, allegedly, a large number of phyla which today are extinct, when no new phyla have arisen in the subsequent 550 million years? And the extinct phyla, they seem complex and 'seaworthy' enough - surely which phylum lived and which went extinct must have been purely decided by chance? Surely, if we re-played evolution, the world today would be very different?
There are two errors in that line of reasoning. Firstly the most pervasive: the reification of the taxonomic rank of Phylum and of the concept of 'body plan'.
Gould in this book equals the taxonomic rank of Phylum to the concept of 'fundamental body plan': one body plan = one phylum. This is a bit backwards - the rank of phylum is arbitrary and lacks a definition, but is historically (but not always) afforded the most inclusive groups of animals between which interrelationship is unclear. The concept of 'bauplan' or 'fundamental body plan'is similarly wholly arbitrary - a body plan is a collection of traits deemed characteristic for the group, and can be created for any group, regardless of inclusivity: you take a group of species, such as a phylum, determine what is characteristic for the group, and voilá, there's the fundamental body plan.
What does this mean? That neither the rank of phylum nor the concept of 'bauplan'/'fundamental body plan' has any evolutionary significance - and yet this is what Gould bases his argumentation on in this book.
The second error is a logical one, and is that _even if_ Opabinia, Anomalocaris and the others had represented "new" phyla, and _even if_ phylum had been the same as "fundamental body plan", and _even if_ that had meant something from an evolutionary point of view, this isn't support for Goulds view that evolution is stochastic, driven by chance extinctions rather than adaptation.
All we know is that Burgess Shale organisms went extinct - we do not know why. For all we know these organisms were outcompeted, and would be outcompeted again and again if we 're-played' the history of Earth. The support Gould thinks they give his pet theory isn't there.
So, to sum things up - in this book Gould uses psychosocial arguments to dismiss the science of Walcott and support that of Simon Conway Morris; misunderstands what a phylum is; misunderstands what a "fundamental body plan" is; bases his reasoning on misidentified fossils; and draws conclusions which aren't supported by the supplied evidence.
But he does it in a really enthusing way. There's no denying it's a good read.
Simon Conway Morris, the chief "hero" in this book, has since done his best to distance himself from Gould - to the point that he tends to deem it necessary to explain what a phylum is in his articles, and has written the Gould-critical book "Crucibles of creation" (which isn't that great either).
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 15, 1997
In the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" Jimmy Stewart sees life's tape replayed with only a small change - he is missing. He realizes that what he thought of as an insignificant life had far reaching effects. A small change in history multiplies and has a powerful effect on his world. Mr. Gould uses this metaphor to structure his book and to teach us something about the nature of life and the role of contingency in the history of life.

The Burgess Shale is a rock formation in British Columbia, Canada. It is one of the most valuable fossil repositories in the world because of the presence of many soft body fossils from about 570 million years ago - the time of the Cambrian explosion. The Cambrian explosion was when most multicellular life first made it's appearance, all in a relatively short period of time. Soft body fossils are very rare and occur only under very unusual conditions, making them invaluable when found.

In the early part of this century Charles Doolittle Walcott ( a fascinating man whose life story is quite a tale and is partially given in this book) worked in the Burgess Shale and collected thousands of fossils. Most of these were classified as ancestors of modern groups of animals and while interesting, not earth shaking discoveries. In the Seventies Harry Whittington of Cambridge University and two of his talented students revisited the fossils of the Burgess shale and came to a radical and entirely different conclusion. The creatures from this one quarry may well exceed, in anatomical variation, the entire spectrum of invertebrate life in the ocean today. For example, today among the almost one million described arthropod species there are only four major groups. The fossils in the Burgess Shale have representatives from all four groups. But it also holds more than twenty other arthropod groups that are unknown today! The conventional notion that life starts with a few basic types that eventually diversify into many types of animals and plants is turned on it's head. The contention here is that life's story is one of maximal diversity early and a continuing reduction of basic types of life.

Mr. Gould goes into fairly explicit details of some of the animals from the Burgess Shale. There is the five-eyed Opabinia, the two foot long Sidneyia, and the aptly named, strange and wonderful specimen, Hallucigenia. These animals fit into no modern group. For some readers the detail and jargon used to describe these animals may be discouraging. It is somewhat difficult for the layman but not to the point of making the book unreadable. Most of the information can be readily understood and what can't is not important for understanding and enjoying the book as a whole.

For Mr. Gould, it is indeed a wonderful life. In fact he marvels that we are here at all to contemplate this subject. His main thrust is that if the tape of life's history was played again it is almost inconceivable that things would turn out anything like they are now, including the existence of man. Why do the arthropods of today include the present four groups and not four of the other twenty or so present in the Burgess Shale? Mr. Gould `s answer is chance, pure chance. He contends that the groups that survived were not inherently better or more likely to survive than the groups that didn't. In Mr. Gould's view, no present day scientist could go back the days of the Cambrian explosion, survey the existing forms of life and predict which types would survive to the present day and which types would perish. He concludes the book with a short discussion of Pikaia, a Burgess Shale fossil now classified as a Chordate, a member of our phylum and the first recorded member of man's immediate ancestry. Pikaia was a rather limited and inconspicuous member of the Burgess community. Why did it survive to perhaps eventually lead to humankind? Pure and utter chance is Mr. Gould's answer. Our existence today is entirely contingent on the survival of this one strange animal among many that did not survive.

Mr. Gould's interpretation may be upsetting to some. It certainly flies in the face of much conventional wisdom and religious belief. However, I find his case compelling. Like George Bailey, if we were able to replay life's tape with small changes we would likely view a very unfamiliar world.

Mr. Gould is the author of numerous books on evolution and the history of life. Most of these are collections of essays. I recommend any of these to the reader. All are interesting and enlightening reading
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2006
I have a love-hate relationship with Gould's books: I love the science information he presents, usually with great illustrations. But I hate his arrogance and ego, which invariably get in the way of otherwise a good story (someone should count the number of times he uses "I"or "me" .. far too often for a science book).

"Wonderful Life" is no different: He lays out the story of one particular excavation site, and the new species discovered there. Great reading for us armchair paleontologists.

But he just can stop there. No, he has to trot out a pet theory which will revolutionize paleontology. A theory he came up with all by himself. Again? Punctuated equilibrium wasnt enough? This time, his big blockbuster theory is that the "diversity" of life has been DECREASING since the Cambrian period. All the pictures and teachers that told us that the tree of life grew more lush as time went forward in time were wrong! The tree was "diverse" in Cambrian times, but has become less diverse since then!

There is only one flaw with his argument: His definition of "diversity" is unacceptable.

Here are some definitions of "diversity" that are acceptable:

- DNA differences

- Anatomical differences

- Ecological niches inhabited

But no, the definition he uses is "number of low-level branches with living progeny". The more low-level branches (from the tree of life) that have progeny alive ... the more diverse.

But that is tautological: As time marches forward, new low-level branches cannot be created, so of course diversity will decrease as time moves forward (with that definition).

For example: Say in the Cambrian period there where 10 major branches on the tree of life, each with 10 genuses. Thats 100 genuses. Now say that 570 million years go by and we arrive at the present time. Say (picking arbitrary numbers for the sake of argument) that 5 of the 10 branches died out, leaving only 5 of those 10 branches with living progeny. Say that each of those 5 branches now have 100 genuses each. So we now have 500 genuses.

Under Goulds definition of diversty: Diversity has decreased in those 570 M years because there were 10 low-level branches, and now there are just 5. But under his definition: diversity will ALWAYS decrease as time goes on, because any new branches that spring from the tree of life cannot be "low level branches".

He conveniently ignores other definitions of diversity (DNA, anatomy, ecological niches inhabited) which could show that diversity has increased since the Cambrian period.

In summary: Lots of good info aboout paleontolgy, but you have to ignore Gould's grandstanding.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2003
This is exactly what you would expect from the combination of one of the great scientific prose writers of our generation and one of the most important, yet counterintuitive sources of data regarding the history of life. This fascinating, popularly written text focuses on the critters of the early Cambrian and a bold interpretation of their fossils that insinuate a rapid diversification of multicultural life, referred to by some as the "Cambrian explosion". It also becomes a platform from which Gould expands upon several of the general observations on Natural History that emerge as themes from his essay collections. His uncompromising fidelity to the data (interpreting what he sees rather than what he thinks he should see), his gift for weaving a narrative around a bunch of rocks, and the importance of the animals of the early Cambrian combine to make this a truly outstanding text. Far from widely accepted, this rendering has sparked debate in the paleontology community and is often referenced in popular scientific literature. I highly recommend it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon February 27, 2009
I teach a junior-level (university) course having to do with fossils and the history of life. It's for non-geology majors and I've taught it off and on for over 20 years. It's a fun course for me to teach and I enjoy getting students thinking about the history of the Earth and the history of life. I use a textbook called "History of Life (4th ed.)" by Richard Cowen and I like it very much. Every year, I also call students' attention to other paleontology books, not so much as an assignment, but as source of interesting information that they might benefit from reading if they have the interest. One of those books is "Wonderful Life: the Burgess Shale and the Nature of History" by Stephen Jay Gould.

The Gould book has been around for some time (1989) and seems rather stale and dated to me but beginners would never know. In the book Gould belabored ideas that were considered old and outdated when I was in graduate school (early 60s), but he carried on and on patting himself on the back all the way. I've never met the man, but I've seen him on TV and I've read his book and I'd say he came across as a somewhat pompous windbag. Please don't take that as a totally negative comment; I actually rather like the book and find it useful or I wouldn't recommend it to my students. Furthermore, I'm somewhat envious that I couldn't come up with such a tome. I imagine he was a popular professor with a big following, and I'm envious there too. Well, such is life. In any case, I think it's an excellent book for beginners and it gives them a good feeling for fossils, paleontology and paleontologists. The Burgess Shale is one of the most important fossil finds in the world and Gould's account is quite good. However, I have reservations about it as a scientific treatise and I'd be hesitent to recommend it to advanced level students or colleagues. Stephen Jay Gould is sort of the Carl Sagan of the Earth Sciences, if I might put it that way. Every science needs that type of person. He's entertaining, informative and amusing. Gould, or Sagan, can speak to the populace in a way that few scientists can, and they both have wide followings.

One part of Gould's book that I particularly like are the scientific illustrations of Burgess Shale fossils by Marianne Collins. First rate! Collins studied the two-dimensional carbon prints and constructed three dimensional shaded drawings which really brings the critters to life. These are the some of the best illustrations I've ever seen in a paleontology book.

Gary Peterson
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2003
Gould presents his thesis that the evolution of life on earth developed through luck; Gould uses the word contingency. Luck serves as the raw material on which the creative processes of evolution, such as Natural Selection, operate.

His device is the fauna of the Burgess Shale, animals from just after the Cambrian explosion, half a billion years ago.

Wonderful Life gives us the story of the re-evaluation of the Burgess fauna that revealed them to be animals utterly different from anything alive today. Gould gives a fascinating biography of Charles D. Walcott, administrator extraordinaire, who discovered the Burgess Shale and classified all its animals into existing phyla. Gould uses the image of a shoehorn to stress that these classifications were forced.

Gould then introduces us to the three men who re-evaluated the fauna: Harry Whittington, Derek Briggs, and Simon Conway-Morris. They return to the Burgess fauna with a suspicion that these animals might not be correctly identified after all. Gould describes their work in detail, letting Whittington, Briggs, and Conway-Morris show us how very different these creatures are.

Gould's point is that though the Burgess animals were exquisitely adapted to their environment, their phyla are today extingt so of course most of them left no descendant. More importantly, the surviving creatures from that age did NOT seem better adapted than their now dead contemporaries. The lesson is that the fittest died too and that surviving lineages made it because they were just plain lucky. Survival of the luckiest.

To underscore his point, Gould uses the plot of Frank Capra's movie "It's a Wonderful Life": what would happen if we started again, if this or that event in the history of life on earth was different? His conclusion is that we probably wouldn't be here.

I read Wonderful Life for the first time in 1992. One of the rewards was that I was reading science as it was happening. If today we read Darwin, we can still converse with his thought and still appreciate the works, but we can never experience the thrill of reading the Origin of Species right off the press as a completely new and (r)evolutionary theory.

Some of the facts in WL have been already shown incorrect, but most of the book's conclusions are still being debated. Gould is often condemned by his peers. Even Derek Briggs and Simon Conway-Morris, two of the heroes of WL, severely criticize his work. Is Gould right? Are we all just lucky to be here? Time will tell.
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