Tuesday, 1 January 2008
Wonderful Life: Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould
Ok a few scene setting comments; I have read most things Dawkins has written and the book I read before this one was Dawkins versus Gould - I even did a quick review if you want to have a look for it.
This book is both far more and far less than I expected.
Far less in the sense that I had built up my expectations for the writing style and narrative quality which simply were not met. Of course these expectations were very high indeed and on reflection If I had simply picked up the book and read it cold, then I would be saying that this is well written, simple but not simplified, clear without seeming to skim and allows the author's contagious enthusiasm for his field to shine through.
Far less in the sense that this book really is about just one fossil bed and a small proportion of the fossils found there when the title might have lead you to expect a tour of life on earth.
Far more in that you do get a glimpse into the detailed workings of scientists in one tiny corner of the world and we realise just how this whole science thing hangs together.
Far more in that you see something of the personalities and human motivation behind some pretty distinctive characters and how they knuckle down to the facts and the evidence before them.
Far more in that whilst the general hype and indeed the book itself most the way through, labels this as a story of how one scientist's mistakes and his blind following of convention is overturned by three brilliant minds re-examining the evidence, that is not, in fact, what we are given at all. With apologies to other LT reviews who have read this very differently from me (ironic or what?) Gould explores more of the mind and personal history of Walcott (the guy who got it wrong) and concludes that he did not in fact spend very much time looking at these fossils as he was a very busy administrator, and a good one to boot.
Far more in that we can glimpse the life of a scientist 100 years ago, and the life of people everywhere at that time, when personal tragedies through family illness would make the kind of medical advances science has made since then, and which we seem to take for granted all too often, appear to the people of that time as truly magical.
Far more in that this one small fossil bed can give us clues which do start to give some hints that there are more patterns in the history of life than we at first thought.
Much is made of the dispute between Dawkins and Gould. A careful reading of the actual bones of both of their arguments, and not the rhetorical flourishes they employ, or their publishers copy for that matter, reveals an awful lot of agreement combined with some humbly offered thoughts on possible alternative/additional considerations in a complex field. Then again I haven't read the exchange of book reviews which apparently encapsulates the essence of the dispute - it is on my to do list.
Overall an excellent book for anyone interested in the topic. For anyone who thinks they are interested but has yet to read around evolution and natural history then I would not recommend it as a first introduction to the topic - get some wool on your back reading more general works first. Blind Watchmaker, Selfish Gene, Ancestor's Tale, that kind of thing.
4 out of 5 stars