Wonderful Life (book)

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Wonderful Life
Wonderful Life (first edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Stephen Jay Gould
Country United States
Language English
Subject Evolutionary history of life, Burgess Shale
Publisher W. W. Norton & Co.
Publication date
Pages 347 pp.
ISBN 0-393-02705-8
OCLC 18983518
560/.9 19
LC Class QE770 .G67 1989
Preceded by An Urchin in the Storm
Followed by Bully for Brontosaurus

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History is a 1989 book on the evolution of Cambrian fauna by Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. The volume was the 1991 winner of The Aventis Prizes for Science Books, and a 1991 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.


Burgess Shale founder Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927) with his children Sidney Stevens Walcott (1892-1977), and Helen Breese Walcott (1894-1965).

Gould's thesis in Wonderful Life was that chance was one of the decisive factors in the evolution of life on earth. He based this argument on the wonderfully preserved fossil fauna of the Burgess Shale, animals from around 505 million years ago, just after the Cambrian explosion. Gould argued that although the Burgess animals were all exquisitely adapted to their environment, most of them left no modern descendants and, more importantly, surviving creatures did not seem better adapted than their now extinct contemporaneous neighbors.

Gould proposed that given a chance to "rewind the universe" and flip the coin of natural selection again, we might find ourselves living in a world populated by descendants of Hallucigenia rather than Pikaia. This seems to indicate that fitness for existing conditions does not ensure long-term survival, especially when conditions change rapidly, and that the survival of many species depends more on chance events and features, which Gould terms exaptations, fortuitously beneficial under future conditions than on features best adapted under the present environment (see also extinction event).

Gould regarded Opabinia as so important to understanding the Cambrian explosion that he wanted to call his book Homage to Opabinia.[1]


Wonderful Life stimulated much debate about the nature of progress and contingency in evolution. Gould's conclusion, if the history of life were replayed over again that human level intelligence would likely not arise, proved controversial. In a review of the book, the British biologist Richard Dawkins wrote that:

Wonderful Life is a beautifully written and deeply muddled book. To make unputdownable an intricate, technical account of the anatomies of worms, and other inconspicuous denizens of a half-billion-year-old sea, is a literary tour-de-force. But the theory that Stephen Gould wrings out of his fossils is a sorry mess.[2]

Some of the anatomical reconstructions cited by Gould were soon challenged as being incorrect, most notably Simon Conway Morris' reconstruction of Hallucigenia.[3] However, the ultimate theme of the book is still being debated among evolutionary thinkers today.[3]

Full House (1996) was deemed a companion book to Wonderful Life by the author.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Knoll, A.H. (2004). "Cambrian Redux". The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth. Princeton University Press. p. 192. ISBN 978-0-691-12029-4. Retrieved 2009-04-22. 
  2. ^ Richard Dawkins, "Hallucigenia, Wiwaxia and Friends. Review of Wonderful Life by S. J. Gould" reprinted in A Devil's Chaplain, Phoenix, 2003 (ISBN 978-0-7538-1750-6).
  3. ^ a b Briggs, D. E. G.; Fortey, R. A. (2005). "Wonderful strife: systematics, stem groups, and the phylogenetic signal of the Cambrian radiation" (PDF). Paleobiology. 31 (2 (Supplement)): 94–112. doi:10.1666/0094-8373(2005)031[0094:WSSSGA]2.0.CO;2. 

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