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Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History [Kindle Edition]

Stephen Jay Gould
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The Burgess Shale of British Columbia "is the most precious and important of all fossil localities," writes Stephen Jay 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 Gould's book.

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.

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. Simon Conway Morris, one of the subjects of Wonderful Life, has expressed his disagreement in Crucible of Creation. Wonderful Life 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 labor it took to understand the Burgess Shale remains one of the best explanations of scientific work around. --Mary Ellen Curtin


"[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

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.


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Die hilfreichsten Kundenrezensionen
2 von 2 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen One of the author's best 8. März 1999
Von Ein Kunde
Stephen Jay Gould is a great essayist whose musings on the wonders of biology and evolution sometimes range far and wide (witness his essay discussing why Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak is the most remarkable record in baseball). Wonderful Life is my favourite amongst his numerous books, and presents perhaps the clearest exposition of one of his main themes - that while life on Earth itself may have been inevitable, the form it takes today is the product of countless unknown and unknowable contingencies over the ages. All this is illustrated through the remarkable detective story of the Burgess Shale, a rich set of fossils that chronicle a diversity of life in the past far greater than that of today. On first reading this I felt a real sense of wonder for the workings of evolution, and I highly recommend it as one of the most readable and thought-provoking popular books on evolution I've seen.
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3.0 von 5 Sternen Unwittingly Revealing 1. Februar 2000
Von R. Albin
This is a very enjoyable and unintentionally revealing book by the prolific Gould. As pointed out by other reviewers (see below), in some respects this is a melding of 2 books. One book is the story of the discovery and re-interpretation of the Pre-Cambrian fossils of the Burgess Shale formation. This is a very interesting and winning story which Gould presents very well. The second book is a less successful and somewhat muddled attempt to investigate the nature of history and scientific inquiry. Gould is a follower of the late Thomas Kuhn, the very influential historian of science who claimed that science progressed by discontinuous leaps in theory driven by external, that is, cultural or subjective forces. I suspect that Gould intended to write the story of the recent interpretation of the Burgess Shale fossils as an example of Kuhnian progression. Instead, he found an example of progress via conventional modes of incremental progress driven by technical innovation and internal scientific questions. This is an example of what Kuhn somewhat dismissively termed normal science and how the great majority of scientists, and some philosophers, view scientific progress. I think that Gould couldn't digest this contradiction of his preconceptions and consequently made a hash of a good part of the book. Readers should be aware that some of Gould's interpretations, which were held by others at the time the book was written, such as the notion that the Pre-Cambrian fauna displayed a greater variety of body plans than contemporary animals, have been shown to be wrong. Readers interested by this volume and wishing a more up to date and technical account might look at Simon Conway Morris' more recent book.
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4.0 von 5 Sternen Excellent and eye-opening 15. Januar 1997
Von Ein Kunde
In the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" Jimmy Stewart sees life's tape replayed with only a small change - he is missing. He realizes that what he thought of as an insignificant life had far reaching effects. A small change in history multiplies and has a powerful effect on his world. Mr. Gould uses this metaphor to structure his book and to teach us something about the nature of life and the role of contingency in the history of life.

The Burgess Shale is a rock formation in British Columbia, Canada. It is one of the most valuable fossil repositories in the world because of the presence of many soft body fossils from about 570 million years ago - the time of the Cambrian explosion. The Cambrian explosion was when most multicellular life first made it's appearance, all in a relatively short period of time. Soft body fossils are very rare and occur only under very unusual conditions, making them invaluable when found.

In the early part of this century Charles Doolittle Walcott ( a fascinating man whose life story is quite a tale and is partially given in this book) worked in the Burgess Shale and collected thousands of fossils. Most of these were classified as ancestors of modern groups of animals and while interesting, not earth shaking discoveries. In the Seventies Harry Whittington of Cambridge University and two of his talented students revisited the fossils of the Burgess shale and came to a radical and entirely different conclusion. The creatures from this one quarry may well exceed, in anatomical variation, the entire spectrum of invertebrate life in the ocean today. For example, today among the almost one million described arthropod species there are only four major groups. The fossils in the Burgess Shale have representatives from all four groups.
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3.0 von 5 Sternen A Limited Perspective 15. September 1998
Von Ein Kunde
In the nationwide publicity running up to the summer 1998 Powerball Lottery, when the jackpot stood at about $185 million, I heard a radio news reporter state that your chances of falling out of bed and killing yourself were 40 times greater than your chances of winning the lottery. Mr. Gould contends very lucidly for the most radical statement of the theory of evolution, i.e, that each step happened purely be chance, utterly without design of any kind. He develops a particular case study to illustrate how enormous the odds were against human evolution. Gould's response to this is sheer astonishment at how, in the face of such vast odds, we just happened to win the evolutionary jackpot. He repeatedly uses the language of a lottery (as on pages 238-239). Well, perhaps. A remote possibility is still perfectly possible. But I would counter that those of us who posit a creative intelligence, who in some way has designed and guided the process, are not as obstructionist as some would like to think. Mr. Gould is unduly handicapped by not considering all the possibilities.
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Die neuesten Kundenrezensionen
5.0 von 5 Sternen History, evolution, and the strange case of the Cambrian
Gould's book is superb in its own way and deserves five stars for eloquence, and half a star for stubborness. Lesen Sie weiter...
Veröffentlicht am 29. Juli 2000 von John C. Landon
5.0 von 5 Sternen What if our Cambrian ancestor had turned left not right?
Gould sets up a premis in this overview and discussion of animals represented in the fossils of the Burgess shale that makes for interesting reading and thinking. Lesen Sie weiter...
Veröffentlicht am 22. Mai 2000 von Alan R. Holyoak
1.0 von 5 Sternen A Waste of Carbon
It should be called 'Four legs good, two legs better.' I read this book for a Geology report, thinking that it had to do with the odds of intelligence developing in animals if the... Lesen Sie weiter...
Am 2. Oktober 1999 veröffentlicht
5.0 von 5 Sternen Good Gould!
Most has been said, I mostly want to add my five stars to boost the average :-) however, my two cents or bits or whatnot . . .
It is a great credit to Dr. Lesen Sie weiter...
Veröffentlicht am 24. Juli 1999 von
4.0 von 5 Sternen excellent palentology
Not what i expected but still a very good book.
The majority of the book focuses on the pre-cambrian burgess shale and its reconstruction. Lesen Sie weiter...
Am 25. April 1999 veröffentlicht
5.0 von 5 Sternen My favorite Gould and one of my favorites period!
I loved this book! Stephen J. Gould's, Wonderful Life is one of the best works of scientific literture I've ever read, maybe THE best! I have read most of Mr. Lesen Sie weiter...
Am 24. April 1999 veröffentlicht
2.0 von 5 Sternen Science made politically correct.
Gould, who's own actual research concerned snails, has found a more successful niche writing popular science. Lesen Sie weiter...
Am 15. April 1999 veröffentlicht
5.0 von 5 Sternen slightly unorganized but extremely exciting
This is a very good book, especially so if you're into paleobiology. Gould provides a fairly good number of Burgess animals and rich information about their discovery, anatomy,... Lesen Sie weiter...
Am 2. Dezember 1998 veröffentlicht
3.0 von 5 Sternen A compelling account of a fascinating subject
The Burgess Shale is a small quarry in which, millions of years ago, lived a selection of creatures utterly different from any on earth today. Lesen Sie weiter...
Am 29. Oktober 1998 veröffentlicht
5.0 von 5 Sternen Pet rocks? Yes!!! But what about pet fossils??
I couldn't quite decide which one to adopt. Would it be Hallucigenia? or maybe Opabinia? Endearing critters, one and all. And all with a Purpose. Lesen Sie weiter...
Am 4. September 1998 veröffentlicht
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