Authors: Stephen Jay Gould
Who was, and is, in the most noble
word of all human speech, my teacher
This book, to cite some metaphors from my least favorite sport, attempts to tackle one of the broadest issues that science can address—the nature of history itself—not by a direct assault upon the center, but by an end run through the details of a truly wondrous case study. In so doing, I follow the strategy of all my general writing. Detail by itself can go no further; at its best, presented with a poetry that I cannot muster, it emerges as admirable “nature writing.” But frontal attacks upon generalities inevitably lapse into tedium or tendentiousness. The beauty of nature lies in detail; the message, in generality. Optimal appreciation demands both, and I know no better tactic than the illustration of exciting principles by well-chosen particulars.
My specific topic is the most precious and important of all fossil localities—the Burgess Shale of British Columbia. The human story of discovery and interpretation, spanning almost eighty years, is wonderful, in the strong literal sense of that much-abused word. Charles Doolittle Walcott, premier paleontologist and most powerful administrator in American science, found this oldest fauna of exquisitely preserved soft-bodied animals in 1909. But his deeply traditionalist stance virtually forced a conventional interpretation that offered no new perspective on life’s history, and therefore rendered these unique organisms invisible to public notice (though they far surpass dinosaurs in their potential for instruction about life’s history). But twenty years of meticulous anatomical description by three English and Irish paleontologists, who began their work with no inkling of its radical potential, has not only reversed Walcott’s interpretation of these particular fossils, but has also confronted our traditional view about progress and predictability in the history of life with the historian’s challenge of contingency—the “pageant” of evolution as a staggeringly improbable series of events, sensible enough in retrospect and subject to rigorous explanation, but utterly unpredictable and quite unrepeatable. Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay.
But even more wonderful than any human effort or revised interpretation are the organisms of the Burgess Shale themselves, particularly as newly and properly reconstructed in their transcendent strangeness:
, with its five eyes and frontal “nozzle”;
, the largest animal of its time, a fearsome predator with a circular jaw;
, with an anatomy to match its name.
The title of this book expresses the duality of our wonder—at the beauty of the organisms themselves, and at the new view of life that they have inspired.
and company constituted the strange and wonderful life of a remote past; they have also imposed the great theme of contingency in history upon a science uncomfortable with such concepts. This theme is central to the most memorable scene in America’s most beloved film—Jimmy Stewart’s guardian angel replaying life’s tape without him, and demonstrating the awesome power of apparent insignificance in history. Science has dealt poorly with the concept of contingency, but film and literature have always found it fascinating.
a Wonderful Life
is both a symbol and the finest illustration I know for the cardinal theme of this book—and I honor Clarence Odbody, George Bailey, and Frank Capra in my title.
The story of the reinterpretation of the Burgess fossils, and of the new ideas that emerged from this work, is complex, involving the collective efforts of a large cast. But three paleontologists dominate the center stage, for they have done the great bulk of technical work in anatomical description and taxonomic placement—Harry Whittington of Cambridge University, the world’s expert on trilobites, and two men who began as his graduate students and then built brilliant careers upon their studies of the Burgess fossils, Derek Briggs and Simon Conway Morris.
I struggled for many months over various formats for presenting this work, but finally decided that only one could provide unity and establish integrity. If the influence of history is so strong in setting the order of life today, then I must respect its power in the smaller domain of this book. The work of Whittington and colleagues also forms a history, and the primary criterion of order in the domain of contingency is, and must be, chronology. The reinterpretation of the Burgess Shale is a story, a grand and wonderful story of the highest intellectual merit—with no one killed, no one even injured or scratched, but a new world revealed. What else can I do but tell this story in proper temporal order? Like
, no two observers or participants will ever recount such a complex tale in the same manner, but we can at least establish a groundwork in chronology. I have come to view this temporal sequence as an intense drama—and have even permitted myself the conceit of presenting it as a play in five acts, embedded within my third chapter.