Wonderful Life

Stephen Jay Gould

If you wish to learn about the origins of life, here is a marvelous starting point. Stephen Jay Gould, scion of the wealthy Jay Gould family, a renowned Professor of paleontology, biology and science-history at Harvard and the recipient of prestigious book awards, wrote Wonderful Life (WL) in 1989. Like Professor Simon Conway Morris’ scholarly Crucible of Creation (1998), WL deals with the origins of all life forms and focuses on the Burgess Shale (the Burgess), which is the world’s most complete yet-discovered repository of fossils of all antecedents of today’s life forms.

The Burgess-fossils happened to emanate from the Cambrian explosion 570 million years ago (570MYA). The Burgess resulted from a mud slide in what is now a quarry in the Canadian Rockies and is only about one block long and ten feet high. Approximately a dozen sister sites have been found within 20 miles of the Burgess, all effectively confirming the conclusions reached by scientists from the Burgess. The world’s leading paleontologists have studied the Burgess relentlessly, since it was discovered in 1909 by the then head of the Smithsonian Institution, Charles Doolittle Walcott. This laboratory of fossils has given rise to more advanced theories on evolution, which Gould articulates in erudite, flowing and intermittently arresting prose that will challenge the vocabularies of even the most well read. If the reader will move swiftly through the more arcane microscopic analyses of fossil-data, he/she will be riveted and rewarded by Gould’s refreshing return-to-the-classics-style of prose and philosophic hypotheses.

The title of “Wonderful Life” is a symbol and a tribute: a symbol for the theme of Frank Capra’s immortal film (“It’s a Wonderful Life” with James Stewart), which depicts life as it would have been if George Bailey had never been born – i.e., so much less for so many – and a tribute to Clarence Odbody (“Clarence”), Bailey’s guardian angel, and to the others who brought that masterpiece to life; the film’s thesis, then, is that each of us play a valuable role in the lives of those around us and impact, for better or worse, whatever follows us. So, too, it is with fossils. Gould notes: Remove a fossil or two (a George Bailey) from our lineage, and we would not be here. Indeed, like 99% of all species ever evolved, our inexorable destiny is extinction and a reoccurrence of anything like us, Gould laments, is highly improbable. That is, if we rewound the tape of the history of our planet (much less of our nine-planet-solar system, or of our expansive galaxy or of the vast universe) and replayed any of same from the beginning, mankind would almost surely not have evolved, and, when mankind reaches its inevitable extinction, the chances of a re-emergence of anything like us are virtually nil. None of this abates the joys of our lives, and those who never are shall never be the wiser. So, what about his fossil-findings?

In the last 75 years, the earth has given up abundant Pre-Cambrian marine sediments but still with zero fossils of complex invertebrates. Anti-evolutionists have revised their Adam-and-Eve commencement date to accept the Cambrian explosion 570MYA as God’s moment of creation. Darwin’s view on point (now the consensus among scientists) is that less complex predecessors of the Cambrian life forms had to exist for hundreds of millions of years before the Cambrian explosion; scientists now believe that the molten heat and pressure in the earth’s crust destroyed whatever evidence existed of those pre-Cambrian life forms. Bacteria and algae, of course, were likely our fist antecedents, followed by unicellular organisms, including Amoeba and Paramecium, being found in fossil records some 1.4 billion years ago. Scientists today generally accept this as proof that the Cambrian explosion was the dawn of multi-cellular life, from which all existing life forms sprung. (The first mammals evolved about 300MYA and lived “in the nooks and crannies of the dinosaurs’ world”; larger mammals couldn’t likely have co-existed with dinosaurs, but they were extinguished 65MYA (by the KT Meteor, in the view of some), and the first chimp-like creatures emerged about 8MYA; homo erectus evolved into homo sapiens some 50-100KYA.) Professor Walcott, who died in 1927 (long before Big Bangs, Big Crunches, black holes, etc. were painted upon the canvasses of modern scientists), tried to “shoehorn” all life forms into tidy evolutionary progressions, but his theories have now been relegated to the trash bin of erroneous scientific postulates. Modern scientists embrace the concept of maximal disparity and later decimation (extinction), by lottery as the most plausible explanation for the disappearance of 90% of the Cambrian life forms and explains Gould’s overriding thesis: “Our origin is the product of a massive historical contingency, and we would probably never arise again.” (WL, 233)

Conventional iconography had held that the tree of life is a cone of increasing diversity, shaped like an upside down Christmas tree, and that evolution unfolds as though the tree were growing up a funnel, always filling the continually expanding cone of possibilities. To the contrary, the scientific consensus, as mandated by Burgess et al, now holds that there is no “order” to the evolutionary process; it is random and thus affords no pattern. Gould notes that mankind has been on the earth roughly 1/30,000th of the earth’s existence and asserts that mankind is a cosmic accident, among the tiniest twigs on evolution’s Tree of Life. The vast majority of simpler creatures are not human ancestors or even prototypes but, rather, collateral branches on life’s tree. He quotes the immortal Mark Twain’s humorous spoof of man’s importance, “If the Eiffel Tower [then the world’s tallest edifice] were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; of course anybody would perceive that this skin of paint was what the tower was built for? I reckon so -- I dunno.”

The current earth may hold more species than ever before, but most are iterations upon a few basic anatomical designs. Compared with the Burgess Shale, today’s oceans contain many more species, but they are based on many fewer anatomical designs. Evolution has settled down to generally endless variants upon a relative paucity of surviving models. That is, there has been massive elimination of basic models, and future history is dependent upon the survival of ever decreasing lineages. There thus has been a decimation of species in a lottery-like process. Gould says “decimation” because only about 10% of the Burgess’ lineages survive today; he says “lottery” because the extinction of 90% of the Cambrian-lineages has no discernable pattern or selection process other than the randomness that episodic extinctions sanction. The earth’s survivors have had a crucial edge in competitive ability and/or have serendipitously avoided the episodic extinctions imposed by “Lady Luck as The Decision Maker”.

The Burgess’ ocean of discovered truths washes over the data-pebbles with every wave, and “the pebbles rattle and clink with a wondrous din,” and the Burgess and its sister-sites provide abundant facts and inescapable truths about our lineage and its disquieting but implacable future. The meaning of life may always remain unknown, but the fossils and DNA of prior life forms demonstrate the cycles of evolution and decimation irrefutably. This leads Gould to conclude, “We leave assertions of certainty to preachers and politicians.” (WL, 282) “We know that evolution must underlie the order of life, because no other explanation can coordinate the disparate data…of fossil records, vestigial organs, taxonomic relationships, [DNA] and so on.” (WL, 292) The comfortable familiarity offered by outdated beliefs becomes a prison of thought, and such conventions and tranquillizers cannot bury documented fossil and DNA evidence of our real heritage. Reality is what it is, ostrich-like pretensions and wishful thinking notwithstanding. When Voltaire, France’s greatest philosopher passed, he opined with this similar chord, “I die loving my friends, not hating my enemies and detesting superstition.”

Wonderful Life is a fine sequel to Bill Bryson’s light-hearted, brilliant, entertaining and beautifully illustrated and broader-scoped Short History of Almost Everything, and to Conway Morris’ 1998 Crucible of Creation. Gould’s tedious scholarship and torpid fossil-minutiae can overwhelm all but the most intrepid lay-paleontologists, but WL is saved by his inspired prose, and is punctuated by forays into memorable fiction, poetry, philosophy and the author’s innate profundity. It is, therefore, an educational journey well worth taking.