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Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  7,839 Ratings  ·  197 Reviews
High in the Canadian Rockies is a small limestone quarry formed 530 million years ago called the Burgess Shale. It holds 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 & the nature of history.
Hardcover, 1st, 347 pages
Published October 1st 1989 by W.W. Norton & Co. (NY) (first published 1989)
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A book about wonder and a wonderful book. The story of the Burgess Shale—from its initial misinterpretation to its reassessment 50 years later—is mind blowing. This limestone outcropping, which sits at an altitude of 8,000 feet in the Canadian Rockies, near British Columbia, was at equatorial sea level 530 million years ago. Its shale has revealed about 150 previously unknown arthropod genera and entirely new species with anatomies that would be unimaginable to us today had Charles Doolittle Wal ...more
A decent, but certainly out of date book. The most interesting section is that regarding the anatomy of the Burgess biota, and the historical narrative of Whittington, Conway Morris, and Briggs is also a highlight. The more technical details of chapter three might throw some readers off, but I found them to be fascinating.

Unfortunately, most of the book is out of date. Most of the "weird wonders" that Gould describes have been taxonomically re-evaluated in the previous two decades, and technical
Sep 05, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to C. by: Bill Bryson: a Short History of Almost Everything
Shelves: non-fiction, science, 2010
This book was unlike anything else I'd ever read, I suspect because it owes something to the scientific monograph. Maybe? Not having ever read a scientific monograph (they don't even call them that these days), I don't know. Anyway, Gould repeated and repeated and repeated the same conclusions over and over and over and over, until I was ready to embrace the iconographies of the cone of increasing diversity and the ladder of progress just to spite him.

Despite that, this was an excellent book. Go
Jan 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
“The drama I have to tell is intense and intellectual. It transcends these ephemeral themes of personality and the stock stage. The victory at stake is bigger and far more abstract than any material reward – a new interpretation of life’s history.” In these sentences Gould not only tells us the theme of his book but how much his work means to him. His passion for paleontology and the story of life resonate from every page. His tone, perspective and considerable writing skills make Wonderful Life ...more
The Burgess Shale is a fossil deposit of importance equal to that of the Rift Valley sites of East Africa in that it provides truly pivotal evidence for the story of' life on earth. The shale comes from a small quarry in the Canadian Rockies discovered in the early 20th century by Charles Walcott, then a leading figure at the Smithsonian. The Burgess fossils come from the Middle Cambrian Period, around 350 million years ago. They form one of the earliest assemblages of soft-bodied creatures from ...more
Lois Bujold
Aug 22, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: persons interested in the history of science
Wonderful book.

Some of the science has been overtaken in the quarter century since it was written, but mainly in the details, not in the main thrust of the arguments. (And it is very much a long argument, if mostly with someone other than me.) I could have stood to be a bit less tired and distracted when I chugged through it, but then, I don't have a quiz next period, so.

If one were actually studying the creatures and evolutionary periods, I'd think one would want something more recent, but all
Katherine Addison
I'm not saying anything startling or new when I say this book is awesome.

So, for one thing, it's a book about writing and about mythology, and how what we think we know limits what we see and therefore what stories we can tell, a problem which Gould addresses both in terms of paleontologists looking at the Burgess Shale and in terms of Gould himself looking at the paleontologists looking at the Burgess Shale. So he talks about how Charles Doolittle Walcott got everything wrong (except for the na
Once upon a time, when I was on the path to being a geologist, I carved into the moist depths of a sandstone gorge in Clinton County, Iowa, and watched the sand crumble in my hand. I jarred it, took it back to my lab, and sorted out the grains using a sequence of sieves of varying mesh, matched it to the known sedimentary facies from different depositional environments, and realized its origins. A beach from the Silurian Period, still not entirely turned to rock.

And that's when I knew that sedim
Stephen Jay Gould performs a really unlikely feat in this book; he makes arthropods as fascinating as dinosaurs! In fact he makes a subject that could be extra-ordinarily dull - the process of taxonomic classification of a bunch of extra-old fossils of small, squidgy animals - into a dramatic and gripping read.


See the complete review here:
Deborah Ross
Jan 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was 8, about the time I fell in love with horses. My passion for fantasy and science fiction followed later, during my teenage years. I've never gotten over any of them. I'd heard about the paleontological discoveries in the Burgess Shale (in Canadian Rockies), first described in the earky 1900s and then re-analyzed with startlingly different results in the 1970s and 1980s. The Burgess Shale deposits date from the early Cambrian period, roughly 560 million ye ...more
Nadine Jones
I think maybe I am not right audience for this book. This is probably a great book for the proper audience. If you know what a "chelicerate arthropod" is, then dive right in! You probably have the proper knowledge base to allow you to appreciate and enjoy this book! I, on the other hand, do not.

Here's my takeaway message (and this may not be right, since I skimmed a lot): evolution is random, and weird. Also, paleontologists are always correcting each other.

Reading this felt like a chore. I kept
Jan 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Wonderful life, indeed!!

One of the best science books I have ever read because the story is so extraordinary. Most of the late Stephen Jay Gould’s published works are collections of his essays but this is a full-length book that tells the story of the fossils found in the Burgess Shale in Canada. Normally, when you think of paleontology, you think of dinosaur bones as big as small cars. But this deposit held the fossilized remains of small small-tissued animals that lived 530 million years ago,
Nihal Vrana
Jul 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a pinnacle in popular science writing. As Gould refers in the book, many experimental scientist like myself despise taxonomy. So I could have never thought a book mainly about taxonomical inferences and anatomical definitions would be one of my favourite books.
The story of Burgess shale is fascinating, but only if you are as talented as Gould to make it fascinating. Without his spin, the content of this book can be as boring as 8th grade history book. But Gould has an unique talent of de
Jul 15, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Getting through Wonderful Life was an arduous exercise in critical reading. I could never be certain if what I was reading was true, or if the conclusions the author was making were safe ones.
From the outset the author's bias for his subject is apparent. He explicitly states over and over that this material is a revolution, that it overturns the establishment, and that it's an incredible drama. He says that it's the most important paleontological discovery ever, and it fundamentally changes our
Jun 08, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: books-read-2013
This is a book primarily about the abundance of life in that had been preserved in fossils in the Burgess shale.

Gould writes about the people who spent hour after painstaking hour examining the samples, deciphering the forms and understanding the compressed fossils in this rock formation. In the second part of the book he writes about Walcott, administrator at the Smithsonian institute until he died, and his error in the analysis in the samples. He then considers the what if questions that evolu
Nov 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent. I wish more creationist's would take the time to read and absorb whole books like this. Unfortunately I have not found whole books written from their perspective at this level (or others referred to below). I will include here a link to HingePoints, an article I wrote last year on biblical hermeneutic. It was the beginning in a shift in perspective that was afforded by regarding biblical interpretation as malleable. The world isn't, the text isn't, but how we view it is. From here, ot ...more
Hershel Shipman
Great overview on the Cambrian period and how honestly weird life was at that time. Also gives a nice biography of Walcott, the man who discovered the Burgess Shale. The Burgess shale has many examples of phylums of invertebrates that flat out do not exist anymore. Most arthropods now only have about 4 different body types. At this time there were more. Even known arthropod phylums such as trilobites give forms that became lost after this geologic time period.

Gould gives his biography on Walcott
Steven Peterson
Nov 14, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a fascinating book about science, interpretation, and the sometimes fractious way of development of knowledge. The focus? The Burgess Shale, located in British Columbia. A treasure trove of fossil findings. Gould's take on this is one person who "imposed" understanding of the meaning of the fossils versus others who proposed a different explanation. Gould is with the "others," and proposes that contingency is an importamnt component of evolution. A fascinating story, with Gould's analysi ...more
Very interesting, but the edition I read had some information which has been reinterpreted since. Possibly later editions added corrections. I had a great time reading the chapters and then googling follow-ups on the various theories and organisms, and much has changed since the book was written. Still, very useful as insight into the process of discovering and understanding life forms.
Joe Ward
Dec 18, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A lot of misinformation in this dated book. Not just about the organisms, either, which might be excusable since the book was written before many were re-evaluated, but the whole point he tries to make about the role of contingency in evolution is badly over-stated. Please read newer works about the fascinating Cambrian organism preserved in the Burgess Shale.
Nov 15, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
This book describes the trials and tribulations of understanding the fauna of the Burgess Shale. I was riveted by the process of actually scraping away the shale to study the underlying parts that were also preserved, like disecting a fossil! Amazing.
Aug 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: My daughters, son-in-laws, and wife.
Along with the Galapagos Islands, I want to visit the Burgess Shale in Canada. The life forms discovered in the Shale are cause for rethinking life on Earth. Gould tells the great story of their discovery and possible implications for evolutionary theory.
Gave up after 100+ pages. Shame on me for getting bored with science. The lobster thingy isn't a trilobite. Why does it even matter? Can't you just tell me instead of making me read through years of correspondence between biologists?
Sep 18, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Not a for fun read. But his main point about evolution being based on contingency is very interesting.
Jul 03, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Always look for biramous or uniramous appendages. Always.
Bastian Greshake
If you have at least some interest in paleontology, evolution or the history and philosophy of science this will be a worthwhile book for you.
Stephen Simpson
Feb 05, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Horribly dull and extremely disappointing. Fails as both history and science. The Burgess Shale is indeed a very interesting scientific find, but this book does no justice to how interesting it is.
Max Maxwell
To be clear, Wonderful Life is not a perfect book, but it is certainly an amazing book. It's pertinent to ask, "Where does the book fall flat?"

First, the middle section of the book, "The Reconstruction of the Burgess Shale," is just a little bit too long. I mean exactly what I said; a few pages, say, 20 or so, after you've said, "OK, I'm ready to get out of this murky details section and get on with the implications of it all," the section ends. As Gould points out, the section is, admittedly, i
Andrew Hudson
For anyone in the dark, the Burgess Shale is one of the greatest fossil discoveries in palaeontological history. Uncovered in British Columbia by Charles Doolittle Walcott, one of America's most distinguished scientific minds, the Burgess Shale contained an astonishing diversity of forms - but most significantly, from a time at which no solid evidence for life had yet been found.

Palaeontology had suffered from a critical absence in the fossil record. Dinosaurs, trilobites and many other extinct
Jason Hare
Jun 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked the story of the Burgess Shale and the Precambrian life forms. The discussion of phyla that once roams the seas 500MYA was more detailed than I had imagined. To be candid, there are very few scientists or naturalists whose personal stories I am interested in. This is true for the person(s) that discovered the Burgess Shale. Don't get me wrong, I really like reading anything by Gould. Sometimes his tangents into the personal lives of the scientists are a bit long winded. If this is for yo ...more
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Stephen Jay Gould was a prominent American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Most of Gould's empirical research was on land snails. Gould
More about Stephen Jay Gould...

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“Alter any event, ever so slightly and without apparent importance at the time, and evolution cascades into radically different channel.” 4 likes
“Some fifteen to twenty Burgess species cannot be allied with any known group, and should probably be classified as separate phyla. Magnify some of them beyond the few centimeters of their actual size, and you are on the set of a science-fiction film...” 2 likes
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