Scott's Reviews > Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould
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's review
Jul 23, 10

bookshelves: sci-tech
Read from January 27 to February 01, 2010

This is an Important Book. I say that because the discovery of the Burgess Shale, and the explication of the extraordinary creatures found fossilized there, has fundamentally altered scientific thinking about the history of life on Earth. In addition, by comparison with another spectacular finding (the meteorite-induced extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period, found by Alvarez pater and fils), the Burgess Shale has received little public fanfare. Stephen Gould sought to change things with this popularization.

He was successful, at least, in selling lots of books. I would not say that the book itself is an unqualified success, however. I am not fully equipped scientifically for paleontology; my biology knowledge is limited to high-school coursework on extant systems, while my geology is largely self-learned. Paleontological scientific work involves close observation and description of fossils, often found in the drawers of museums rather than discovered in the field. So it is that Charles Walcott received fame for finding the Burgess Shale, while 50 years later the scientists Whittington, Conway Morris, and Briggs revolutionized thinking about the Burgess Shale creatures through a thorough re-examination and comprehensive study. This is not the stuff of scientific breakthroughs in the public eye - it is more the drear, steady plod of good scientific work. How do you maintain the reader's interest? The author waxes poetic about the writing style and descriptions by these scientists, but the quotes from the actual work left me feeling that beauty was in the eye of the beholder. I found Gould's long sections on descriptions of the animals tedious and dimly enlightening, given my weak understanding of animal taxonomy prior to reading this book.

Gould clearly has enthusiasm for the subject and a lively writing style, but this book did not awaken any latent interest in the subject. I know the importance of the Burgess Shale superficially, and I'm aware of the major conclusions. I understand that science can be a painstakingly boring enterprise, and that very small differences can account for large changes in interpretation. However, somewhere between the forest and the trees, I got lost in this one, and I didn't really care to sort it out. Perhaps the book has just not fared well as a popularization with the passage of time (it was first published in 1989). I could not convert my fundamentally sympathetic view toward the subject and the findings into enough energy to finish the book as it bogged down into Gould's broad pronouncements based upon monographic descriptions (largely presented through very limited quotes) of animals and the taxonomies of life.

This has been a popular work with the general public, but I wonder how many people actually read it through. I don't mean to be harsh, but as someone with a decent scientific framework and an understanding of what makes for successful scientific popularizations, I found "Wonderful Life" disappointed me. I have read Gould's "Time's Arrow" and appreciated it very much, but this Important Book didn't work for this reader.
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