The Burgess Shale bestseller

by Mary Caperton Morton
Monday, December 3, 2012

The Burgess Shale owes much of its fame to a book called “Wonderful Life” by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Published in 1989, the book was a bestseller. The title is a reference to the scene in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which George Bailey’s guardian angel replays the tape of life as if George had never been born, to dramatic effect.

In his book, Gould argued that if the tape of life on Earth were to be rewound to the time of the Burgess Shale and played again, the history of the world would unfold completely differently. He argued that catastrophic extinctions — like the impact that took out the dinosaurs and opened the door to the rise of mammals, including us — and what survives those extinctions often come down to pure chance.

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