Paper No. 13
Presentation Time: 4:00 PM


BUCHANAN, Rex C., Kansas Geological Survey, University of Kansas, 1930 Constant Avenue, Lawrence, KS 66047-3724,

Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, published in 1989, is a seemingly simple story about Cambrian invertebrate fossils discovered high in the Canadian Rockies in the early 1900s. Gould uses these fossils, and their discovery, as a jumping-off point to discuss larger issues: the nature of history and evolution, how scientific beliefs affect scientific observations, and how scientists work. The book conveys Gould’s wonder at the diversity (and the bizarre appearance of some) of the Burgess Shale fauna and lets Gould ponder the contingencies that led to the evolution and extinction of some of these animals. Gould uses the career of C.D. Walcott, who discovered these fossils, as a lesson in scientific accomplishment and the perils of scientific administration. Wonderful Life has been criticized, in part because of Gould’s argument about the uniqueness of these organisms. Yet the book remains an important exemplar of Gould’s popular writing. Today, most big ideas in science are published in scholarly journals (within paleontology, Gould is best known for his contributions to papers on the concept of punctuated equilibrium, the notion that evolution moves in fits and starts in a relatively short amount of time). Today’s scientists are far less likely to produce a highly influential book than would a scientist working in the 19th century. In Wonderful Life, Gould was trying something different, attempting to elucidate concepts and ideas in book-length form for an audience of scientists and non-scientists. Books, especially essay collections, made Gould visible outside the scientific community. His influence was greater than it would otherwise have been if he had restricted himself to writing for his peers. Books allowed him to contribute to public intellectual debates, such as those surrounding creationism or the interface between science and religion. Wonderful Life allowed him to go deeper than any essay would allow. In terms of scientific influence, it may not be the model of a “great book.” But it is representative of his work and conveys much about the excitement (and pitfalls) of paleontology and the way science is done. Wonderful Life, and Gould’s other books, did something all too rare today: They brought science to the public square.