Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, by Stephen Jay Gould, 1989

Discussed with the BUUF Senior Sages, Dec. 11, 2008

Tom von Alten

Let me start with some questions, and a couple of observations, mined from the new Alexandria of human knowledge, the internet:

There are two kinds of book reviews in the world: the ones you read before reading a book, and the ones you read after. Since Jeanette spotted this particular book in the Boise Library! donations and brought it home and put it on my reading pile, I hadn't seen any of the first kind, but since I figured it would be easier to just copy someone else's review than do my own, I read some of the other kind.

To connect my opening list and those reviews, I have Kurt Wise's observation about the long, central, and third of five chapters, that "at least one reviewer (erroneously, I think) found the chapter boring."

Wise's opinion should be interesting since the book's author, Stephen Jay Gould, was his advisor for his Harvard Ph.D in Geology. (As a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science, Gould knew a lot about Geology, but an advisor for a Ph.D. in the field? Isn't that a bit off?)

Wise has what you'd call an agenda shining through his review, and hinted at by his position as of his 1997 writing: "Assistant Professor of Science and director of an origins research program at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee."


Yes, Dayton. The home of the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial."

Bryan College styles itself in the title of its home page as "a highly ranked Christian College." The motto in the logo on the page—amusingly placed highest of any text—is "Christ above all."

And its Assistant Professor of Science directing an origins program is happy to agree with Gould's assessment of the profundity of the the implifications of the fossils in the Burgess shale, even though he takes them for his own little joy ride:

"Though that is by no means what my mentor intends in this book, I do see reasons to believe that Gould's chimeras are constructed not by the hand of evolutionary theory but by the loving hand of an omnipotent and all-knowing God."

Dr. Wise has since moved on: the Bryant College announcement of "a young-age creation conference," held last month lists him as director of the Center for Science and Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Bryant now has a Center for Origins Research, and it describes its "Origins 2008" program as being

"designed for a lay audience high school age and older. Topics to be addressed include why the biblical doctrine of creation is important to Christians and to science, why science came to regard the Bible as a book of morality rather than being relevant to all of life, the flood, and how plants, animals and humans filled the earth after the flood."

The program summary says:

"Even 150 years after Charles Darwin published Origin of Species, people are still bitterly debating the origin of the universe, the earth, and life. [Bitterly?!] At Origins 2008, students and educators will have the opportunity to learn the latest findings in young-age creation research directly from the research experts! This will be an excellent time to enrich your faith, have your questions answered, and fellowship with other creationists. Register soon, space is limited!"

I'm a little sorry I missed my chance. The detailed schedule included one hour on "Science: What Went Wrong and How to Put It Right," Dr. Wise on "The Flood," Roger Sanders on "Filling the Earth after the Flood," and wound up with Wise as the after-dinner speaker, on "The Future of Creationism."

I'm assuming his talk was titled without intended irony.

The four central characters in Gould's narrative are the scientists who extracted, studied, and described the biota fossilized in Canada's Yoho National Park, west of Lake Louise, in British Columbia. The first was the man who discovered the rich fossil treasure in the Burgess Shale in 1909, Charles Doolittle Walcott, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Gould calls him "premier paleontologist and most powerful administrator in American science." He served as President of the National Academy of Sciences, and helped found the Carnegie Institution and the National Park Service. He collected some 65,000 specimens of the 500 million year old (give or take) Cambrian fossils and sent them to Washington, describing 100 of their species.

The second character is Harry Whittington of Cambridge University, "the world's expert on trilobites," and then two of his graduate students who went on to build their careers in the 1980s and afterwards, studying the fossils, Derek Briggs and Simon Conway Morris.

Briggs, in a beautifully descriptive 1994 book published by the Smithsonian, The Fossils of the Burgess Shale, describes Gould's role in the drama succinctly:

"Gould's brilliant account of Walcott's discovery, and of the progress of research and development of our understanding of the evolutionary significance of the Burgess Shale fossils, has done far more than make the story accessible to a wider public. It has also served as an important stimulus to further research on the Cambrian radiation."

(Or "filling the Earth after the Flood," as the case may be.)

When Gould wrote about the collection and its study, it was unique in the world of fossils. Subsequent discoveries in Utah, China, Greenland and Australia have shown that the fauna of the Burgess Shale was apparently not unique to British Columbia, but rather typical of the Cambrian seas.

Gould's narrative style pleases some reviewers more than it did me, although he does a fine job of providing the technical background to put the observations and inferences in context, and to enable the lay reader to make sense of at least the essential jargon. A quick primer on geologic eras, the basics of taxonomy, and arthropod anatomy set the stage for what he calls "the Burgess Drama," which he proceeds to unfold in entertaining fashion.

Since my own study of taxonomy was in the 1970s, and focused on botany rather than zoology, I especially appreciated the detailed introduction to Arthropoda. I didn't know they were the most successful animals on the planet, for example.

Just as many of the taxonomic pigeonholes that I memorized for plants have been subsequently revised—merging, splitting, shuffling as more specimens are found, and a better map of relationships made possible—the subsequent discoveries and analysis have burnished off some of the spiky novelty of extinct forms that Gould raves about, such as Hallucinegia regaining bilateral symmetry and being set right-side up and front-end forward.

Gould has ample detractors among his peers, in addition to the other-wordly Creationists. His storytelling and scientific description is confounded with his own interpretations of what the evidence tells us about the story of evolution, and a preference for iconoclasm that has not stood up as well as you might believe from his own account.

In 2004, Chris Clowe wrote that he felt "Gould was rather too often hell-bent upon iconoclasm for its own sake, and much of his otherwise excellent popular writing suffered for it," with this book perhaps "his greatest casualty," and then proceeds to dissect the problems in some detail. Under "extrapolating outrageously," he writes that

"...as early as the late 1970s [studies of RNA showed] that the living world was profoundly divided into three vast 'super-kingdoms' now named Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya. It is the last of these which contains the plants and animals with which we have daily familiarity, but not as the major constituents. Among the Microsporidia, Ciliates, slime moulds and fungi, the animal kingdom is but one small branch, and the arthropod clade - great as it is - but one twig on the end of that. Pretty small fry from which to be extrapolating to the whole of nature."

Clowe recommends Gould's book, but "only with 'parental guidance'... you have to know which is useful stuff and which is simply Gould sounding off."

Clowe's "no frills" website has some good related materials on paleontology and arthropods in general, and also short reviews of two related books. I mentioned the one by Briggs, et alia earlier, and of Simon Conway Morris' The Crucible of Creation. The Boise Public Library! had them both on the shelf, and I checked them out.

Richard Dawkins' review when Gould's book first came out raved about Gould's "beautiful" (and sometimes "right over the top") writing, but railed at his "deeply muddled" thinking. (Take the literary assessment with a grain of salt: Dawkins made up the word "unputdownable" in his next sentence.) The theory Gould came up with is "a sorry mess" to Dawkins.

The problem is what an Amazon reviewer called the "pervasive" reasoning errors from "the reification of the taxonomic rank of Phylum," that is, supposing that our useful and descriptive category of living things is a thing in its own right. Gould wants us to find it astonishing (but convincing) that a single specimen with sufficiently unique features could implicate both a new species and a new phylum. There's a phylum for everything, and everything in its phylum; tidy, but an artificial arrangement of our own device.

You may recall 'phylum' as the 2nd item in a 7-item mnemonic such as "King Peter Called Our Family Great Scientists." That is:

The current version of "family tree" is something they didn't have when I studied taxonomy, only coming into favor in the the 1990s: a cladogram—from the Greek word for "branch"—shows common parentage based on... the best evidence at hand, not "just" the superficial characteristics we see from genes expressing themselves as organisms. Consider Figure 1 on Chris Clowe's page on the arthropods, with "supersubphylum," "subphylum" and "superclass" stuffed between the phylum Arthropoda and 30 or more classes comprising insects, crustaceans, spiders, trilobites, and so on.)

Figure 1, rotated

"The map is not the territory," and there is still too much we don't know. Dawkins writes:

"[Gould] is hamstrung by dyed-in-the-wool essentialism and Platonic ideal forms. He really seems unable to comprehend that animals are continuously variable functional machines. It is as though he sees the great phyla not diverging from early blood brothers but springing into existence fully differentiated."

And he accuses Gould of "strawmandering," in attacking ideas that scientists no longer believe anyway, such as the idea that evolution has "progressed" from algae and worms to us, as its pinnacle. This, by the way, is the very idea that Creationists must argue, unless they prefer the theory that the universe and our memories of it were created intact, last Wednesday.

The more specific scientific criticism from Dawkins is that natural selection acts on individuals, not their lineages, and the idea of "selection between higher-level groupings" is a minority view, for which Gould was "the most prominent advocate." Gould criticizes the thinking of the early 20th century that led Walcott to "shoehorn" his fossil discoveries into existing categories; Dawkins accuses Gould of simply wielding a different sort of shoehorn.

In his 1998 book The Crucible of Creation, Simon Conway Morris notes that Gould was a champion of the idea that "the Darwinian explanation"—that is, natural selection acting on individuals, and favoring the winners by having them pass on their winning ways to their offspring—"is in some way incomplete."

"Again and again Gould has been seen to charge into battle... Eventually the dust and confusion die down. Gould announces to the awestruck onlookers that our present understanding of evolutionary processes is dangerously deficient and the theory is perhaps in its death throes. We look beyond the exponent of doom, and there standing in the sunlight is the edifice of evolutionary theory, little changed."

Conway Morris compresses Gould's argument regarding "contingency" in evolution:

"In brief his argument, largely using the Burgess Shale faunas, was that the range of variation in the Cambrian was so huge and the end result in terms of the diversity of today's world so restricted that the history could be regarded as one colossal lottery."

Gould's title—Wonderful Life—comes from the Frank Capra film, and that alternate, less wonderful life shown to George Bailey by his guardian angel, that world into which George Bailey had never been born. Gould's idea is that the decimation of inch-long, mud-sucking Cambrian arthropods was such that we popped up 500 or so million years later, but it might not have turned out that way. And looking at the myriad forms of life in those fossils, it's not at all obvious who the winners and losers would be. So, did we just get lucky, or was God guiding creation to a happy ending?

While we wait for planetary explorers to find the second occurrence of life in the universe—and I think they will, sooner, rather than later—we can reflect on other pathways that bring us to the Kopper Kitchen on a Thursday morning to wonder how we came to be. "Convergence" is a ubiquitous phenomenon whereby multiple species find the same successful patterns of being, without sharing ancestors who had that same pattern. Conway Morris surmises that "the tape of life can be run as many times as we like and in principle intelligence will surely emerge," as it has in octopi and humans on our planet.

Chris Clowe sums up Conway Morris' book as "rather idiosyncratic—though amusingly so—combining quirky metaphors with hard science...." He was "rather put off by the gratutious I-have-a-Cambridge-education scholarship, though your own mileage may vary." I also saw that he was put off by Stephen Jay Gould's grandstanding, and wanted to distance his own work from it.

And so, the paleontologists chase their tales, and we delight to hear their stories around the campfire.

Tom von Alten