Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and The Nature of History - Stephen Jay GouldLondon, Sydney, Auckland & Johannesburg: Century Radius, 1990, Hardback in Dust Wrapper.
Condition: Very Good — in Very Good Dust Wrapper. Dust wrapper very slightly rubbed at the edges. Previous owners' name to the half-title page. Text complete, clean and tight otherwise.
Contains: Black & white photographs; Charts; Black & white drawings; Diagrams; Tables;
From the cover: “At the centre of Wonderful Life is a group of strange 530-million-year-old creatures. Stephen Jay Gould, the world’s most gifted writer on evolution, tells the story of how three British scientists rediscovered them, and how they have shaken our view of the history of life.
High in the Canadian Rockies is a small quarry formed over 500 million years ago. It is called the Burgess Shale, and it holds more varieties of life — preserved in fantastic fossilized detail — than can be found in all our modern oceans. But when the fossils were first discovered, by the great American palaeontologist Charles Walcott, their extraordinary significance was overlooked. Walcott could not bring himself to see that many of these creatures bore no relation to today’s animals: to do so would have upset his widely-shared view of evolution as a great tree of ever-increasing diversity, and of inevitable progress culminating in human beings.
Three Cambridge scientists looked again at these fossils and made a quiet revolution with the finest and most detailed reconstructions of ancient creatures in twentieth-century palaeontology. As Gould writes, these bug-like animals from the dawn of life ‘are the Old Ones, and they are trying to tell us something’.
What they are trying to tell us overturns many of our most comfortable illusions about how we got here. For instead of a pattern of ever-ascending diversity, the denizens of the Burgess Shale force us to admit that early life was an explosion of creativity, far surpassing in variety of bodily forms today’s entire animal kingdom. Most of these forms were wiped out in mass extinctions; but one of the survivors was the ancestor of the vertebrates, and of the human race. The wonder of life is that it need not have happened. Replay the tape of life again, starting with the Burgess Shale, and a different set of survivors, worthy of our science-fiction dreams, would grace out planet today. We would not be among them. The story of the Burgess Shale is also the story of Stephen Jay Gould’s intense personal struggle with the nature of history. He persuades us that the theory of evolution is powerful and true, but that there is little ‘cosmic comfort’ to be had from its study. The decimation of species, and the survival of the winners, is more like a lottery than a tree of progress. Yet the author’s conclusion is that we should find joy in our ‘fragility and good fortune’.
Wonderful Life is the tale of a great and unsung scientific breakthrough. It is Stephen Jay Gould’s masterpiece.”