Wonderful Life

For anyone in the dark, the Burgess Shale is one of the greatest fossil discoveries in palaeontological history. Uncovered in British Columbia by Charles Doolittle Walcott, one of America’s most distinguished scientific minds, the Burgess Shale contained an astonishing diversity of forms – but most significantly, from a time at which no solid evidence for life had yet been found.

Palaeontology had suffered from a critical absence in the fossil record. Dinosaurs, trilobites and many other extinct lifeforms had long been known of, of course, but while the hard body parts of dead creatures make for good fossilisation, the soft do not, tending to decay long before they can leave their mark. The sorry fact was that, prior to the Mid-Cambrian period (over five hundred million years ago), fossil evidence simply was not to be found. Whatever creatures had existed before the evolution of such hard structures as bone, chitin or shell, they had left no clue behind.

…until 1909. In the years that followed, C.D. Walcott collected nearly ninety thousand fossils, and though his time in the field was hampered by wide-ranging commitments as an administrator and leader of several of his country’s most significant scientific bodies, he somehow found the time to study and report on his discovery as well. What he had found was nothing less than what the palaeontological community had longed for: evidence of simpler forms of life, early links in the chain that, over millions of years, would eventually produce fish and insects, amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals and man.

Or, do I hear you cry, DID he?

Nearly sixty years after Walcott’s discovery an Englishman named Harry Whittington, the world’s leading expert on trilobites, began a process which would shine new light on a subject long considered as fact. With the help of a small group of allies they began to uncover details of the Burgess artefacts never before recognised; details which challenged Walcott’s accepted wisdom regarding what his discoveries were; details which even called into question the basic nature of the evolutionary process itself.

Whittington and his fellows proved with their efforts that, contrary to the traditional notion of simple creatures gradually improving over time, early evolution represented a chaotic period of sophisticated experimentation, with only blind chance in control of which forms of life would survive to define the future.

Or, do I hear you cry, DID they?

In Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould takes us on a remarkable journey. Setting the scene with an examination of our expectations in conventional evolutionary theory, we join him with Walcott on the Canadian slopes, then follow the various players as they reveal the unseen for the first time, or unveil it anew. He celebrates both the pioneer and the revolutionaries for, he claims, achievements to rank beside any undertaken by the more recognised “hard” sciences.

He examines, with appropriate respect, how Walcott could make such a critical mistake regarding his subjects, how it was effectively impossible for him to conceive of an alternative to the notion of slow but inevitable “upward” development. In fact the revisionist work to come didn’t utilise amazing breakthroughs of thought or technology. Nothing that was done in the 70s and 80s was beyond Walcott’s technical capacities – but as a product of his time and place he was simply predisposed to see what he wanted or needed to see, so he did.

Finally, after leading us through a fascinating and surprisingly accessible education in the field of ancient evolution, Gould demonstrates how these revelations about early life hang the probability of our own existence in a frighteningly – or, to another palate, thrillingly – slender thread.

Or, do I hear you cry, DOES he?

Because, not to put too fine a point on it, not everyone agrees with Gould’s conclusions – even the visionaries he celebrates in the book. Subtitled The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Gould’s overview of the re-examination of palaeontology’s crown jewel begins as a heartfelt celebration of the scientific method and ends as, arguably, an overenthusiastic departure towards his belief in mankind’s unlikeliness, and a variation on the standard evolutionary theory which is far from universally accepted. However, between and through these extremes, he treats us to an engaging, enthusiastic and entertaining experience, and it is for this that the book will continue to deserve a readership, even if some of his conclusions draw fire from various detractors as time marches on.

It should not be assumed though that the book is closed on Gould’s perspective, that He Was Wrong and That Is That. Ten minutes of layperson level browsing underlined for me that there remains debate; and while some of those lined up in opposition to Gould’s claims are pretty big guns of the scientific world, even amongst them there is great respect for his writing – and that there can be disagreement and simultaneous support for his work is as interesting to me as his argument itself.

It would be nice, reassuringly so, if every science writer, presenting and then interpreting evidence, could be shown to produce undeniable fact; to raise the bar for others to jump from, not at; but this isn’t what science necessarily does. Science may be just a system of beliefs no different from any other, religious or not, and as such just as fallible – no, infinitely more so, as for science the facts may sometimes show the beliefs to be wrong.

Subject to the righteous threat of constant revision, every theory may eventually come apart at the how it seems – but if great theories give rise to great books only for greater theories to take their turn, then it’s a small price to pay to have such good things to read while we wait for the next in line. Gould would, I think, happily accept this form of progressive improvement over time, if no other.

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