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Wonderful Life: the cosmic lottery of evolution

What if evolution had gone differently? What if a series of events had allowed species now extinct to survive? The world could be completely different and maybe humans would not exist. In this classic of the popular science literature, Stephen Jay Gould tells the story of a great scientific event, the discovery of Precambrian fossils in the Burgess Shale, British Columbia, and its impact on our understanding of evolution.

The book starts with a funny and interesting observation about the common understanding of evolution, reporting amusing examples of animal evolution illustrated in books and journals. Most of the time, evolution is considered as progress, like Gould’s Guinness beer analogy where the highest evolutionary point of human beings is represented by a massive pint of Guinness. This idea of evolution and progress causes, for Gould, the misconception where people consider species that share a common ancestor to be comparable, even if they evolved independently; it would be like considering frogs ‘less evolved’ than dogs.

The duality of evolution and progress takes the reader to the second part of the book, dedicated to the actual story of the Burgess fauna discovery. It’s the common meaning of evolution that seems to explain why the discoverer of the Burgess Shale fossils classified them within known taxonomic groups. 60 years later, those fossils were analyzed again by a group of British scientists and the reader can follow their story, understanding their initial doubts and their experiments.

One by one, Gould describes all the amazing creatures of the Burgess fauna and this feeling of discovery is what keeps the reader hooked. A new idea of evolution then takes place: those who survive do so accidentally, not because they are better than the others. In this scheme, evolution is a lottery where humans could be just a cosmic accident.

This volume is with no doubt a worthwhile read, where it’s possible to understand the human side of science and all the psychological implications of a scientific discovery. Even though Gould’s theories have been and are still debated by scientists, this book gives all science lovers a fascinating idea of evolution. Although it’s a science book, sometimes necessarily technical, Wonderful Life begins with science and finishes with philosophy. After all, life is wonderful.

Flavia Stefani is a PhD student in Cell Organisation and Dynamics at the University of Manchester

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