Vol. 2, No. 4 -- WINTER 1990 Review Article

Gould SJ. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.  347 pp.

In this delightful book Stephen Jay Gould tackles one of the broadest issues that science can address -- the nature of history itself. "The beauty of Nature", he notes, "lies in detail; the message in generality. Optimal appreciation demands both and I know no better tactic than the illustration of exciting principles by well-chosen particulars." Turn that statement around and one has a splendid description of problem-based learning. However to say that Wonderful Life is about paleontology is akin to describing Lolita as a treatise on lepidopterists or Hamlet as a discussion of the Danish rules of succession to high office. Paleontology is central but the book encompasses a great deal more.

In this instance the well-chosen particulars are the fossils of the Burgess Shale, a small limestone quarry high in the Canadian Rockies discovered in August 1909 by a great American paleontologist, Charles Doolittle Walcott. These remarkable fossils, one of the world's most important collections, appear to represent life in the seas soon after the period, some 570 million years ago, in which virtually all major groups of modern multicellular forms made their appearance. This collection is also special in that it preserves in great detail the soft anatomy of organisms.

Walcott, studying these fossils, produced evidence for the existence of primitive ancestral types of later, improved forms. This accorded perfectly with the then-prevalent ethos of a "cone of increasing diversity", a model in which life began with restricted, simple forms and progressed upward to ever more and (by implication) ever better forms.

This interpretation remained inviolate until, in the 1960s, a trio of British paleontologists, Henry Whittington and his graduate students Simon Conway Morris and Derek Briggs, re-examined the fossils and came to radically different views about them. In their model the Burgess Shale was characterized by an amazing variety of life forms, many with no modern counterparts; many unique anatomies; and maximal variety soon after initial diversification. This initial set gave rise to a more limited set, not by diversification, but by elimination or decimation. Contingency thus enters the equation.

Gould argues that this interpretation has profound consequences for our views of life and history. No longer is it possible to think in terms of a rational progression in which current life forms stem inexorably from those gone before. Lottery and Lady Luck play crucial roles. Contingency, which historians, novelists and filmmakers have embraced with gusto, becomes scientifically acceptable.

This complex, witty, erudite book can be read at many levels. Those interested only in the overall conceptual framework may wish to skip the section detailing the painstaking researches of the Cambridge trio. Yet to do so would be a real pity since, as Gould so often notes, there is beauty in detail. The footnotes too are rich with tasty morsels -- I'm a footnote freak inexorably drawn to fine print and this book abounds in the finest of fine print! On page 186, for instance, Gould notes wryly that he too is committed to ecology and, though he believes in the near-sacred integrity of national parks, he regards a fossil on the ground as absolutely worthless; better that it be collected and studied.

Gould is a lucid writer, remarkably free of the strident hyperbole that so often taints scientists who become media gurus or popularizers. He is cast more in the Chomsky mould; facts are piled on facts to make the argument more telling. To those of us involved in the manufacture and dissemination of information the book has much to say about hierarchies in science, scientific administration, attitudes to learning, universities, graduate students and pithy comments about the dimensions of knowledge production, scientific temperaments and imagination.

Wonderful Lifeis truly a wondrous book. Get it, read it, re-read it and cherish it. I can do no better than end with this sample of Gould's wisdom (p.321):

The divine tape player holds a million scenarios, each perfectly sensible. Little quirks at the outset, occurring for no particular reason, unleash cascades of consequences that make a particular future inevitable in retrospect. But the slightest early nudge contacts a different groove, and history veers into another plausible channel, diverging continually from its original pathway. The end results are so different, the initial perturbation so apparently trivial. And so for ourselves, I think we can only exclaim, "O brave -- and improbable -- new world, that has such people in it."

P.K. Rangachari
McMaster University