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

Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould
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May 23, 2010

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bookshelves: science, biology, evolution, non-fiction, paleontology
Read from May 23 to 26, 2010

A decent, but certainly out of date book.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Unfortunately, most of the book is out of date.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 developments in systematics (the concept of "stem groups" in cladograms), now show that much Burgess biota, ironically, belong closer to the original classifications of Walcott. Much of the biota are now considered to be stem groups of modern taxa, evolutionary aunts and uncles.

I also found Gould's continued emphasis on the "cone of increasing diversity" to be quite exhausting. Based on Gould's own definitions of diversity and disparity, there is no fundamental problem with depicting increased diversity in more modern geological eras, because there simply are more species (Gould's diversity) than in the Cambrian and Pre-Cambrian. Additionally, Gould seems to be railing against concepts that either haven't been present in the evolutionary literature for decades, perhaps centuries (depiction of an evolutionary ladder), or his examples of phylogenies are either strawmen or misinterpreted. For example, in Haeckel's illustrations, Gould does not analyze the taxonomic groups represented, nor does he consider that Haeckel perhaps wanted to show the phylogenies of the taxa he placed close to the top, and thus gave them more visual importance, because, after all, there is only so much space on the page.

In cladograms (and other methods of depicting phylogenies), if the diagram is "rooted", the root is meant to depict the hypothetical last common ancestor. Since clades are monophyletic (all descended from a single common ancestor), there is always going to be a "cone of increasing diversity", because the clade always depicts hierarchical branching lineages of descent. The only way there would not be a cone is if there truly was a ladder within a single lineage, something that Gould (rightly) disparages! One could argue that this is because Gould was simply arguing against older methods of depicting phylogeny, rather than the relatively new (at the time) cladistics, but even these do not generally follow his pattern. For example, in a classic depiction of fossil horse phylogeny (to use one of Gould's examples from chapter one), the maximum "disparity" is reached in the Miocene, and then scales back as it gets closer the the present.

Overall, the book is certainly not bad, especially when it comes to the historical and anatomical aspects. But in too many instances, Gould is simply engaging in his typical "revolutionary" grandstanding and hyperbole. Proceed carefully, and read more up-to-date texts as a follow up.
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05/23/2010 page 78
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02/07/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Kevin (new)

Kevin K Great review. Thank you. Do you have any recommendations for more up-to-date books on this topic?


Elentarri Hello. I would also like to know if you can recommend any up-to-date or even other books on the subject that aren't college text books (too expensive).


message 3: by Richard (new)

Richard You've saved me a time-consuming read, thank you. However exciting the intellectual drama in this book, I'd prefer to have up-to-date knowledge.


message 4: by Marco (new)

Marco Pontual I'm also here to request the same as my friends above: your reading recommendations. Thanks!


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