The Crucible of Creation

The Burgess Shale and The Rise of Animals By Simon Conway Morris

A fine companion to Bill Bryson’s must-read Short History of Almost Everything, Cambridge Paleontology Professor Simon Conway Morris’ The Crucible of Creation, The Burgess Shale and The Rise of Animals, Oxford University Press, 1998 (“TCOC”), offers us a much shorter but substantially more academic and scholarly account of the subject matter, with detailed photographs – enabling the reader to dive well inside many fossils, perhaps deeper than some may desire, but those with an appetite for understanding “creation”, this book is also a Must Read.

Professor Morris sets the tone early:

    “In many ways our basic [human] biochemistry is little different from that of bacteria.”

(See TCOC, p. 2). The Burgess Shale (“TBS”), as we learned from Bryson’s Short History, is a thin unit of rock in a small quarry in the west of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, which provides fossils from the Cambrian Explosion (of life as we know it) some 600 million years ago, which fossils are so beautifully preserved that we can see full skeletons, soft bodied animal forms and even the imprints of their internal organs! While TBS is not  such find, it is the best known, and it has become the benchmark for fossil excavations. As Professor Morris concludes (TCOC, p. 2),

“Organic evolution can no longer be in dispute.”

Some of his key dates are: 620 million years ago (MYA), the first, so-s0-far animals (as distinguished from bacteria and vegetation) appeared (id, p. 27); 225 MYA, the first mammals first evolved from reptiles and sea creatures; and hominids, the first in our direct lineage, first emerged about 4.5 MYA (id, p. 105), although other scholars have dated chimp-like creatures as early as 8 MYA.

“There is little doubt that all known life forms share one ancestor [the single cell]…because of the shared possession of…DNA.” (Id, p. 24).

While Professor Morris writes well, his technical, scholarly review of TBS can be esoteric and challenging to follow.  Bryson’s Short History of Almost Everything is a much easier and more entertaining read – even for children, as is paleontologist Jay Stephen Gould’s superbly informative Wonderful Life.