Sunday 30 August 2009

Hail the Shale

A hundred years ago today, Charles Walcott discovered the astonishing depository of bizarre and exceptionally well preserved fossils known as the Burgess shale. Stephen Jay Gould's book about the Burgess lifeforms, Wonderful Life, is one of the most enjoyable science-related books I've read. His demolition of the simplistic 'Tree of Life' model of evolution strikes me (layman and fop that I am) as very persuasive, as does his argument that the species that survived this explosion of lifeforms were no better adapted - and often worse adapted - than those that became extinct. It all boils down to one simple truth - Nothing's that simple. Even that.


  1. My husband's favorite saying (usually when he's doing some small home repair) is "Nothing is ever simple."

  2. Nige, the comment about foppishness was not directed at you. But the derisive responses to Anonymous from some of your readers were most certainly foppish. I struggle to understand how, in their eyes, earnestness about butterflies, crows or the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald is praiseworthy, but earnestness about mathematics or science is farcical.

    Gould's book is great for all of the reasons you noted. The role of simple contingency in the history of life is beautifully illustrated by the story told in the Burgess Shales.

  3. Oh I'll throw you a bone then, Waldo and Anonymous (or if you happen to be one and the same, Waldonymous).

    I do understand and always have understood your point about the difference between short-term prediction and long-term trends. Really and honestly. I'm not a denier either - as a layman I am in no position to be a denier. Like Nige, I'm sceptical about the economic effects of buying into the full warmist picture, and I'm sceptical generally of mankind's ability to predict anything about anything.

    But there are only so many times a chap, unless he is completely devoid of humour and perspective, can have the same argument in the kind of earnest manner that you crave. There are, however, plenty of bloggers out there who still have the energy should you wish to find them.

    Or if you like, you could girdle your loins, grab a sense of humour and dive in. I for one bear no grudges (well not many) and I've been called a lot worse than a snorting fop before, without suffering any serious mental scarring. 'Snorting fop' is rather good, actually, and is just the sort of thing you could bandy about here to good effect - you just need to ditch the assumption that everyone except you is an idiot; it doesn't endear.

  4. Brit -- not one and the same, so there are are at least two of us. I can only lay claim to two, or perhaps three, comments on any topic here. With your permission, I'd like to adopt the nom de plume Waldonymous. Must I pay a copyright fee?

  5. that trilobyte in the picture is terrifying. Glad im not a Devonian copepod

  6. No you can have it gratis, Waldonymous.

    (God if I had a pound for every time I've said "you can have it gratis"...)

  7. If I had a pound for every time I've heard "you can have it gratis", I'd be just as impecunious as I am now. Thanks for the gift.

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