Wonderful Life (book)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
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
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
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 made The New York Times Best Seller list,[1] was the 1991 winner of the Royal Society's Rhone-Poulenc Prize, the American Historical Association's Forkosch Award, and was a 1991 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Gould described his later book Full House (1996) as a companion volume to Wonderful Life.[2]


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 extraordinarily well 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 tape of life" and let it play 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 traits, which Gould terms exaptations, fortuitously beneficial under future conditions rather than being features best adapted under the present environment (see also extinction event).

Gould regarded Opabinia—an odd creature with five eyes and frontal nozzle—as so important to understanding the Cambrian explosion that he wanted to call his book Homage to Opabinia.[3] Gould wrote:

I believe that Whittington's reconstruction of Opabinia in 1975 will stand as one of the great documents in the history of human knowledge. How many other empirical studies have led directly on to a fundamentally revised view about the history of life? We are awestruck by Tyrannosaurus; we marvel at the feathers of Archaeopteryx; we revel in every scrap of fossil human bone from Africa. But none of these has taught us anywhere near so much about the nature of evolution as a little two-inch Cambrian oddball invertebrate named Opabinia.[4]


Wonderful Life quickly climbed the national bestseller lists within weeks of publication.[5] It stimulated wide discussion regarding the nature of progress and contingency in evolution. Gould's controversial thesis was that if the history of life were replayed over again, human level intelligence would be unlikely to ever arise again. In his review, the 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."[6] The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr argued that Gould, "made such contingencies a major theme in Wonderful Life, and I have come to the conclusion that here he may be largely right."[7]

Modern artistic rendering of Hallucigenia.

Biologist John Maynard Smith wrote, "I agree with Gould that evolution is not in general predictable. … Although I agree with Gould about contingency, I find the problem of progress harder. … I do think that progress has happened, although I find it hard to define precisely what I mean."[8] Philosopher Michael Ruse wrote that, "Wonderful Life was the best book written by the late Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist and popular science writer. It is … a thrilling story that Gould tells in a way that no one else could equal."[9]

Some of the anatomical reconstructions cited by Gould were soon challenged as being incorrect, most notably Simon Conway Morris' 1977 reconstruction of Hallucigenia.[10] Conway Morris' reconstruction was, "so peculiar, so hard to imagine as an efficiently working beast" Gould speculated that Hallucigenia might be "a complex appendage of a larger creature, still undiscovered."[11] It was later brought to light by paleontologists Lars Ramskold[12] and Hou Xianguang[13] that Conway Morris' reconstruction was inverted upside down, and likely belonged to the modern phylum Onychophora.[14] The ultimate theme of the book is still being debated among evolutionary biologists today.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McDowell, Edwin (1989) "Book Notes." The New York Times Nov. 8.
  2. ^ Gould, S. J. (1996). Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin. New York: Harmony Books, p. 4.
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ Gould, S. J. (1989) Wonderful Life. New York: Norton, p. 136.
  5. ^ Mehren, Elizabeth (1989). "The Cosmic Lottery." Los Angeles Times Nov. 28, pp. E1, E6.
  6. ^ Dawkins, Richard (1990). "Hallucigenia, Wiwaxia and Friends." Sunday Telegraph Feb. 25; reprinted in A Devil's Chaplain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, pp. 203-205. (ISBN 978-0-7538-1750-6).
  7. ^ Mayr, Ernst (2001). What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, p. 229.
  8. ^ Maynard Smith, John (1992). "Taking a Chance on Evolution." New York Review Books 39 (May 14): 34-36.
  9. ^ Ruse, Michael (2004). "Are we here by chance?" The Globe and Mail, Jan. 17.
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Gould, S. J. (1989). Wonderful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., p. 157.
  12. ^ Ramskold, L. (1992). "The second leg row of Hallucigenia discovered." Lethaia 25 (2): 221-224
  13. ^ Ramsköld L. and Hou Xianguang (1991). "New early Cambrian animal and onychophoran affinities of enigmatic metazoans." Nature 351 (May 16): 225-228.
  14. ^ Gould, S. J. (1992). "The reversal of Hallucigenia." Natural History 101 (January): 12-20.

External links[edit]