Publisher’s Summary:

“Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (W. W. Norton & Company:  New York – London), 1989:

Publisher’s Summary:

“Tucked into the Canadian Rockies, 2000 feet above sea level, is a small limestone quarry formed 530 million years ago called the Burgess Shale less than a block long and only ten feet high, the Burgess Shale holds the remains of an ancient sea that nurtured more varieties of life than can be found in all of our modern oceans.  Here live dozens of creatures never seen before or since –creatures perfectly preserved in awesome detail, including the five-eyed Opabinia and Anomalocaris whose mouth was a circular nutcracker.

The early 20th century discovery of the Burgess Shale by Dr Charles D Walcott, head of the Smithsonian Institution, could have thrown traditional scholarship on evolution into confusion.  How to account for such abundance and yet not give up the received wisdom of past efforts to classify the things of the earth?  The task fell to Walcott, widely conceded to be the greatest paleontologist of his day.  Unable, however, to read the exciting new message locked in those fossils,

Walcott made a tortured effort to accommodate many truly unclassifiable forms of life within the standard system. He misinterpreted these fossils and shoehorned all Burgess animals into the conventional categories of worms and arthropods.  And there the matter stood until Professor H. B. Whittington reinterpreted forms that had lain in laboratory drawers for over forty years.

The story of why Walcott failed –how he could not have succeeded given his time and his past—and how and why Whittington did succeed tells us much about science and society—and about ourselves.  For it is our view of life that shapes us.

What icon of existence do we follow?  What pictorial represents life?   Is the past a ladder of progress, moving ever onward and upwards?  Or is evolution the story of an inverted cone, small in the kinds of life at the bottom and steadily widening, diversifying?  These are the conventional and comfortable pictures of life’s history, but the Burgess Shale teaches us instead that evolution produced an incredibly prolific bush that spread its branches suddenly half a billion years ago and has ever since seen bits of life fall away. The falling away has the character of a lottery, many called, few chosen and for no particular reason of superior anatomy.

The story of the Burgess Shale also hold the story of Stephen Jay Gould’s intense personal and intellectual struggle with the picture of history.  Play the tape of life again starting with the Burgess Shale, and a different set of survivors—not including vertebrates this time would grace our planet today.  In this masterywork Gould explains why the diversity of the Burgess Shale is important in understanding this tape of our past and in shaping the way we ponder the riddle of existence and the awesome improbability of human evolution.

The telling of this tale displays all of the strength, depth and grace unique to Stephen Jay Gould.”  


“Evolutionary progress:

“Gould favored the argument that evolution has no inherent drive towards long-term “progress“. Uncritical commentaries often portray evolution as a ladder of progress, leading towards bigger, faster, and smarter organisms, the assumption being that evolution is somehow driving organisms to get more complex and ultimately more like humankind. Gould argued that evolution’s drive was not towards complexity, but towards diversification. Because life is constrained to begin with a simple starting point ( like bacteria), any diversity resulting from this start, by random walk, will have a skewed distribution and therefore be perceived to move in the direction of higher complexity. But life, Gould argued, can also easily adapt towards simplification, as is often the case with parasites.[39]

In a review of Full House, Richard Dawkins approved of Gould’s general argument, but suggested that he saw evidence of a “tendency for lineages to improve cumulatively their adaptive fit to their particular way of life, by increasing the numbers of features which combine together in adaptive complexes. … By this definition, adaptive evolution is not just incidentally progressive, it is deeply, dyed-in-the-wool, indispensably progressive.”[40]” …

“Stephen Jay Gould (/ɡld/; September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation.[1] Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In the later years of his life, Gould also taught biology and evolution at New York University.

“Gould’s most significant contribution to evolutionary biology was the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972.[2] The theory proposes that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which is punctuated by rare instances of branching evolution. The theory was contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the popular idea that evolutionary change is marked by a pattern of smooth and continuous change in the fossil record.

“Most of Gould’s empirical research was based on the land snail genera Poecilozonites and Cerion. He also contributed to evolutionary developmental biology, and has received wide praise for his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny. In evolutionary theory he opposed strict selectionism, sociobiology as applied to humans, and evolutionary psychology. He campaigned against creationism and proposed that science and religion should be considered two distinct fields (or “magisteria“) whose authorities do not overlap.[3]

“Gould was known by the general public mainly from his 300 popular essays in the magazine Natural History,[4] and his books written for a non-specialist audience. In April 2000, the US Library of Congress named him a “Living Legend“.[5]


About Harold L Carter

Bachelor of Science, Columbia University Masters degree, Ohio State University Undergraduate National Officer, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Eastern Asst Vice President, when a student at Columbia University Profile Photograph: Mom & Me, when I was a graduate student
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s