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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 [via]