A book about the 1909 discovery of fossilized prehistoric multi-celled creatures in a rocky outcrop in the Canadian mountains? Really? That’s what’s being recommended?
Really. Completely and utterly, yes.
Stephen Jay Gould was a brilliant paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, a skilled science writer and essayist, and a very witty human being. In his 1990 book about the Burgess Shale (it being one of the earliest fossil beds where the soft parts of fossilized animals were preserved, as well as shells and other exoskeletons, etc.), he brings to life the discovery of a bevy of never before seen, small, strange, yet incredibly diverse and marvelous creatures. Creatures that never evolved, that came to an end in the Cambrian period (around 500 million years ago).
He also used this discovery to illustrate his theory that contingency played a large role in evolution – that flora and fauna survived in a large part, or perhaps better said, a potentially important part, due to chance. “There but for the grace of God go I”, as it were.
Belief in this theory notwithstanding, Wonderful Life made me realize just how marvelous – how truly astounding – it is that we humans now inhabit this Earth as we know it. That had one critter taken a left instead of a right, had survived rather than died out, how different the world might be. And how incredible is it, how much of a gift it is, to be the ones now holding the future of that world in our hands.
Wonderful life, indeed. Five hundred million years ago, and right now, all of it, every twist of fate, everything that survived AND everything that didn’t. Making today breathtakingly possible.
Makes our need to take care of our world even more urgent -and necessary.