The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History: Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life Available as PDF and EPUB
Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould
Have you ever wondered what life was like on Earth more than 500 million years ago? Have you ever heard of the Burgess Shale, a treasure trove of fossils that reveals a bizarre and diverse world of ancient creatures? Have you ever read Wonderful Life, a classic book by one of the most influential scientists and writers of the 20th century, Stephen Jay Gould?
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If you answered yes to any of these questions, or if you are curious to learn more, then this article is for you. In this article, we will explore what the Burgess Shale is and why it is important for understanding the history of life on Earth. We will also introduce you to Stephen Jay Gould, his contribution to science and his masterpiece Wonderful Life. Finally, we will show you how to download Wonderful Life as an epub file, so you can enjoy reading it on your preferred device.
What is the Burgess Shale and why is it important?
The Burgess Shale is a geological formation in the Canadian Rockies that contains some of the oldest and best-preserved fossils in the world. The fossils date back to the Cambrian period, about 530 million years ago, when life on Earth underwent a rapid diversification known as the Cambrian explosion. The Burgess Shale fossils reveal a stunning variety of animals, many of which are unlike anything alive today. Some of them have no clear relatives or ancestors among modern groups, while others show features that are shared by different phyla (major branches of the animal kingdom). The Burgess Shale fossils challenge our conventional views of how life evolved and what it means to be an animal.
The discovery of the Burgess Shale fossils
The Burgess Shale was discovered in 1909 by Charles Walcott, a prominent American paleontologist who was exploring the Rocky Mountains with his family. Walcott noticed some strange-looking fossils on a slope near Burgess Pass, and realized that they were exceptionally well-preserved soft-bodied animals. He collected thousands of specimens over the next 15 years, and named the site after nearby Mount Burgess. Walcott described some of the fossils in his publications, but he did not fully appreciate their significance or diversity. He classified most of them according to his preconceived notions of how animals should look like, based on his familiarity with modern forms. He also kept many of his specimens in storage at the Smithsonian Institution, where they remained largely inaccessible to other researchers for decades.
The diversity and uniqueness of the Burgess Shale animals
The Burgess Shale fossils were rediscovered in the 1960s by a new generation of paleontologists who were more open-minded and adventurous than Walcott. They used modern techniques and methods to study the fossils in detail, and revealed their true nature and complexity. They identified more than 120 different species of animals in the Burgess Shale, belonging to at least 15 phyla. Some of these phyla are still represented by living animals today, such as arthropods, mollusks, echinoderms, chordates, and annelids. Others are extinct or have no clear modern relatives, such as lobopods, vetulicolians, anomalocaridids, and hallucigeniids.
The Burgess Shale animals show a remarkable range of shapes, sizes, and adaptations. Some of them are tiny and simple, while others are large and complex. Some of them have eyes, mouths, appendages, and skeletons, while others lack these features. Some of them are predators, scavengers, filter-feeders, or grazers, while others have unknown modes of life. Some of them are familiar and recognizable, while others are bizarre and enigmatic. Here are some examples of the Burgess Shale animals:
Opabinia: a five-eyed animal with a long flexible proboscis and a fan-shaped tail. It was probably a predator that used its proboscis to grab prey and bring it to its mouth under its head.
Anomalocaris: a giant (up to 1 meter long) arthropod-like animal with a pair of large compound eyes, a pair of grasping appendages in front of its mouth, and a segmented body with lateral flaps. It was the top predator of its time, feeding on trilobites and other animals.
Wiwaxia: a slug-like animal covered with scales and spines. It had a rasping mouthpart called a radula that it used to scrape algae and organic matter from the seafloor.
Hallucigenia: a worm-like animal with seven pairs of long slender legs ending in claws, and seven pairs of tentacles along its back. It had a small head with two simple eyes and two rings of teeth. Its orientation and function are still debated, but it may have been a detritus-feeder or a parasite.
Pikaia: a small (up to 5 cm long) fish-like animal with a notochord (a flexible rod that supports the body), a pair of tentacles, and a series of V-shaped muscles along its body. It is one of the earliest known chordates, the group that includes vertebrates like us.
The table below summarizes some of the main characteristics of these five Burgess Shale animals:
Name Phylum Size Features Mode of life ---- ------ ---- -------- ------------ Opabinia Lobopodia 4-7 cm Five eyes, proboscis, tail fan Predator Anomalocaris Dinocaridida Up to 1 m Compound eyes, grasping appendages, lateral flaps Predator Wiwaxia Mollusca? 2-5 cm Scales, spines, radula Grazer Hallucigenia Onychophora? 1-5 cm Legs with claws, tentacles with spines, teeth Detritus-feeder or parasite Pikaia Chordata Up to 5 cm Notochord, tentacles, V-shaped muscles Swimmer The implications of the Burgess Shale for evolutionary theory
The Burgess Shale fossils have profound implications for how we understand the history and pattern of evolution. They show that the Cambrian explosion was not only a burst of new forms, but also a burst of new possibilities. They reveal that life was more diverse and experimental in the past than it is today. They suggest that many evolutionary innovations and experiments were lost or eliminated by extinction events or competition. They imply that the history of life is contingent and unpredictable, rather than deterministic and inevitable. They challenge the notion of progress and directionality in evolution, and the idea that humans are the pinnacle or goal of evolution.
These implications were eloquently articulated by Stephen Jay Gould in his book Wonderful Life. Gould used the Burgess Shale as a metaphor and a case study to illustrate his views on evolution and history. He argued that if we could rewind the tape of life and replay it again, we would get a different outcome every time. He claimed that the Burgess Shale animals represent a different experiment in animal design that was cut short by chance events. He proposed that most of the Burgess Shale animals belong to extinct or marginal phyla that were outcompeted or replaced by the modern phyla that dominate today's biosphere. He suggested that the modern phyla were not necessarily superior or more advanced than the extinct ones, but rather lucky survivors of history's lottery.
Who is Stephen Jay Gould and what is his contribution to science?
Stephen Jay Gould was one of the most influential 71b2f0854b