January 19, 2021

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The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.
by Stephen Jay Gould.
Reed Business Information, 1990
(352 pages, illustrated)
(i-xi, 416 pages)

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Note = Numbers in parentheses refer to pages

Quote = The Burgess Shale of British Columbia "is the most precious and important of all fossil localities." by the author of the book, Stephen Jay Gould. (quoted in blurb by publisher)

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SUMMARY = Stephen Jay Gould describes how the Burgess Shale fauna was discovered, reassembled, and analyzed in detail so clear that the reader actually gets some feeling for what paleobiologists do, in the field and in the lab. The many line drawings are unusually beautiful, and now can be compared to a wonderful collection of photographs in Fossils of the Burgess Shale by Derek Briggs, one of Gould's students.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = High in the Canadian Rockies is a small limestone quarry formed 530 million years ago called the Burgess Shale. It hold the remains of an ancient sea where dozens of strange creatures lived a forgotten corner of evolution preserved in awesome detail. In this book Stephen Jay Gould explores what the Burgess Shale tells us about evolution and the nature of history. Burgess Shale animals have been called a "paleontological Rorschach test," and not every geologist by any means agrees with Gould's thesis that they represent a "road not taken" in the history of life. The Burgess Shale of British Columbia "is the most precious and important of all fossil localities," writes Gould. These 600-million-year-old rocks preserve the soft parts of a collection of animals unlike any other. Just how unlike is the subject of the book.

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FROM PUBLISHERS WEEKLY = The Burgess Shale, a small quarry in the mountains of British Columbia, opened a window on the first multicellular animals (late Cambrian, 530 million years ago). These fossils were discovered in 1909 by America's foremost paleontologist, Charles D. Walcott, who classified them according to modern animals. More than 60 years later, three British scientists began an exhaustive re-examination of the Burgess fauna --- with startling results for evolutionary theory and the history of life on earth. Presenting the revision as a play in five acts, Gould, eminent life-historian and author (The Flamingo's Smile). Gould, who was an eminent life-historian and author, introduces us to the creatures of Burgess Shale and to the men who have painstakingly examined them. He explains Walcott's failure to recognize his greatest discovery in terms of his background, then he discusses the value of history as a scientific tool. This is exciting and illuminating material on the beginnings of life, wrote PW Illustrated. Reed Business Information.

BOOKLIST REVIEW = For years Gould has argued with eloquence, humor, and extraordinary intelligence that the theory of evolution shatters the last vestige of our pre-Copernican pride. Were the history of life on Earth reduced to a single book, the part about Homo sapiens would be contained in the bit of ink scraped from the period that closes the story. Here Gould focuses and extends his argument, reminding us to forget about evolution being a pyramid with man on top.

Try an icon like this: a wide, gorgeous waterfall that on its long descent becomes narrowed by the rocks to a handfull of narrower streams and a few, peripheral threads of water running off to the side. The rich, complex streams of early evolution are represented in the early Cambrian animals of the Burgess Shale. And the threads of winnowed, vulnerable trickles? Well, there are only a few of those, of course, but one of them is us. As always, Gould manages to make his point while filling us with wonder, and this time not only in nature but in his hardworking colleagues as well. For that reason among others, this is perhaps the finest of his many fine books. --Stuart Whitwell.

CHOICE REVIEW = Each new Gould book is eagerly awaited by an ever increasing general readership, for he is one of the very few practicing scientists who is also able to write popularly about science. His latest volume is not another collection of essays (although several short pieces on this subject have already appeared) but is, instead, a close look at one of the earliest and strangest collections of fossils known today. The Burgess Shale fauna (a group of animals living together) existed about 530 million years ago in what is now the Canadian Rockies but was then a shallow sea. The Burgess environment preserved soft-bodied animals without shells as well as shelled forms, and most of them do not fit into any of the major phyla known today or in the intervening ages.

Gould describes these animals and the paleontologists who have studied them in a historical narrative, examining why the early students tried to classify these unique animals as varieties of known life and how three modern researchers discerned the organisms' distinctiveness. Gould goes one step further to argue that the Burgess fauna are symbolic of the nature of evolutionary "chance": If, instead of the ancestors of vertebrates and mollusks, some of the stranger Burgess species had been successful, the whole history of life on earth would have been strikingly different, and we would not have been here to observe it, nor to read this literate view of science. Highly recommended for all readers. -- E. Delson, Herbert H. Lehman College, CUNY.

LIBRARY JOURNAL REVIEW = The Burgess Shale, found in the Canadian Rockies, contains an extremely important fossil fauna that includes an assortment of weird and wonderful creatures. Gould, the best-known modern exponent of paleontology and evolutionary biology, interprets, with the wit and grace his many fans expect, the significance of this 530-million-year-old fauna. His arguments entail learning some anatomy of unfamiliar creatures, but Gould gently guides the way. The book does ramble some, but the asides are so fascinating. This book is much more theoretical than Harry B. Whittington's briefer and more matter-of-fact work, The Burgess Shale (Yale University Press, 1985), another good book on the topic. This is an intellectual delight, one of Gould's best recent books. It is highly recommended for the interested layperson, as well as for students from the college level on up. -- Joseph Hannibal, Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

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[1] An extraordinary book... Mr. Gould is an exceptional combination of scientist and science writer... He is thus exceptionally well placed to tell these stories, and he tells them with fervor and intelligence. James Gleick, New York Times Book Review.

[2] Simon Conway Morris, one of the subjects of the book, has expressed his disagreement in Crucible of Creation. This book was published in 1989, and there has been an explosion of scientific interest in the pre-Cambrian and Cambrian periods, with radical new ideas fighting for dominance. But even though many scientists disagree with Gould about the radical oddity of the Burgess Shale animals, his argument that the history of life is profoundly contingent as in the movie It's a Wonderful Life, from which this book takes its title has become more accepted, in theories such as Ward and Brownlee's Rare Earth hypothesis. And Gould's loving, detailed exposition of the hard labor it took to understand the Burgess Shale remains one of the best explanations of scientific work accessible. Mary Ellen Curtin.

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