S. J. Gould Wrong? What’s Up With That?

How can this be? How could someone question the writings of one of my favorite authors, Stephen Jay Gould? Noted paleontologist Simon Conway Morris of Burgess Shale fame has done just that in a new book from Oxford University Press entitled: The Crucible of Creation, the Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals. Crucible... was published in 1998 at $30.00 In hard cover. The 242 page book is illustrated with numerous black and white photographs of Burgess Shale fossils, line drawings, and color recreations of Burgess Shale animals and their environment.

I picked up this book initially because of the subject matter and noted author (Conway Morris is Professor of Evolutionary Paleontology at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of the Royal Society). Crucible... appeared at first sight to be yet another book with new information about this very famous locality and its’ fossils. The book came through in that regard as hoped. I was surprised to discover however that one of the reasons Conway Morris wrote Crucible... was to respectfully disagree with the theories expressed by Gould in his book Wonderful Life.

Gould’s work was the first book to discuss evolutionary theory based upon recent findings and re-analysis of existing Burgess Shale fossils. He emphasized the contingency of evolutionary pathways pertaining to the history of life on earth. He had discussed the "what if" possibilities if the tape of life’s history could be rewound to Burgess Shale time allowing life to rerun history. The end result would be very different after another 600 million years because, as Gould stated, evolution and life are influenced by contingencies.

Conway Morris de-emphasizes the role of contingency as logical but not the main influence on evolutionary pathways. His analysis and studies indicate that evolution is limited in possibilities by constraints and that these provide a reduction in the number of paths evolution can follow. Proof of this lies in the myriad cases of convergent evolution according to Conway Morris. Familiar examples exist: ichthyosaurs vs. modern dolphins, placental mammals vs. their marsupial counterparts, etc. Crucible... is an argument refuting the claims made by Gould and a proposal of a logical alternative.

I can imagine that the above description probably won’t make many of you seek out this work. But wait! Don’t discount it too soon. The organization of Crucible... should change your mind - it is not 200 plus pages of rhetorical chat. The first chapter presents Conway Morris’ views as I have briefly described above. The second chapter deals with the organization of life, evidence of the first forms of life, and the first multicellular life forms of Ediacara. Chapter three is a discourse on the discovery and history of the Burgess Shale. Journey to the Burgess Shale, chapter four, takes the reader on an imaginary time machine voyage back 600 million years. The following chapter explores and documents the searches and discoveries of "Burgess Shale- type" fauna in other areas: Greenland, China, the U.S.A., Canada, Poland, and South Africa. Chapter six deals with the significance of the Burgess Shale including subjects such as the sudden "explosion" of life and the architecture of animals. Animal Architecture and the Origin of Body Plans, the title of chapter seven, is descriptive of the contents. Also included in this chapter is cladistical analysis which, by the way, is very well explained in understandable language. The last two chapters provide summary and conclusions of Conway Morris’ ideas and final parting shots at Gould’s Wonderful Life proposals.

Crucible... is very well organized and presented with information flowing logically and building upon itself throughout the book. An eleven page glossary is presented at the beginning of Crucible... which should tip you off to the copious use of technical terms. The text provides references to literature used with complete citations at the end of each chapter. The first appendix provides a seven page list for further reading of which only three items are popular books (the rest being scientific papers). Appendix two lists places which have Burgess Shale fossils on public display. One is in the U.S., one in England, and three in Canada. The last appendix lists three worldwide localities where Burgess Shale fossils can be found (don’t pack your bags, they are all restricted to legitimate researchers).

Crucible... was yet another learning experience for me. It is a bit technical in parts and you will find that Conway Morris is well versed in the English language. I never look at these two items as problems. Much more they provide us with another opportunity to learn. As to the disagreement with Stephen Jay Gould, that’s the way science is supposed to work. At some point in the future these varying opinions may evolve into a universal theory accepted by all.

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