is a description of one of the biggest fossil finds ever
— a collection of invertebrate remains dating from the early Cambrian
(550 million years ago) dug out of the Burgess Shale in British Columbia.
Gould presents an outline of the analysis of the remains and uses it
to support his own ideas about evolution and history, in particular
the theory of "punctuated equilibrium", which argues that the course of
evolution, rather than being smooth, is more like some kind of fractal.
Intertwined with the rest of the book is Gould's usual brilliant
analysis of how the interpretation of scientific evidence is moulded by
the beliefs and assumptions of scientists — the hero/ villain in this
case being the American geologist and palaeontologist Walcott.
The fossils in question are all invertebrates, mostly under an inch
long, but they have weird and wonderful shapes and are quite
enthralling. The book contains a few technical sections (including a
very brief introduction to invertebrate anatomy) but they are presented
with a minimum of jargon and are among the best parts of the book.
Wonderful Life will be compulsory reading for anyone interested in
man's place in the universe, the sociology of science or the evolution
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