‘tells a great story and manages to be informative at all levels. Conway Morris has a collector’s eye for the sort of entertaining yet informative snippets that keep readers on their toes.’ New Scientist Located in the west of Canada, the Burgess Shale contains a unique collection of fossil remains, and has become an icon for those studying the history of life. This remarkable book takes us on a fresh journey back in time through the Burgess Shale and its astonishing collection of pre-Cambrian creatures. In an entertaining and readable style, Simon Conway Morris paints a vivid picture of the critical period which saw the diversification of all the major animal groups, and takes a controversial stance on current evolutionary theories that is sure to provoke much interest and debate. ‘It is less bleak in its assessment of life on earth and it is spiritually uplifting, rather than dry and mechanistic as some would have us believe’ THES R ‘The centerpiece of The Crucible of Creation is a description, authoritative and readable, of the animals themselves. New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Simon Conway Morris is Professor of Palaeontology in the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge. He was one of the team of three scientists who uncovered many of the fossils and worked on the interpretation of the Burgess Shale in the 1970s, for which work Stephen Jay Gould said "Palaeontology has no Nobel prizes though I would unhesitatingly award the first to Whittington, Briggs, and Conway Morris. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1990, and presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1996. His search for fossils has taken him all over the world, including China, Mongolia, Australia, and Greenland.
By turns engrossing and mildly annoying, October 24, 1999
This book begins with a rather difficult glossary, then goes on to confront the reader with sentences that have opening clauses such as "Embedded in Spenglerian cyclicity…" The book does lighten up after a while (or perhaps the reader simply becomes accustomed to the style), but at the very least it seems fair to say that Morris doesn’t underestimate the intellect of his readers. He has written an interesting book about the Burgess Shale that reviews familiar facts and adds some illuminating new material.
Morris’s prose does get out of hand from time to time, making dark hints or arch asides with no explication, leaving the reader thinking "and exactly what would THAT be?" (A case in point is his footnote reference to "the poisonous ideas of such individuals as Derrida." Huh? Deconstructionism is relevant to paleobiology? Spare me an explanation of THAT.)
Still, most of the book is coherent and informative – particularly if you give up on reading the footnotes and stick with the main text.
The book does annoy in its relentless disparaging of Steven J. Gould, not because Morris dares to disagree with the role of punctuated equilibrium and (more importantly) contingency, but because of his condescending and not altogether consistent dismissal of the larger implications that flow from Gould’s ideas. In the first chapter, Morris tells us that Gould’s "arid manifesto" is "unequivocal. The likelihood of Man evolving on any other planet is extraordinarily unlikely." This is a philosophical criticism because Morris doesn’t like what he thinks Gould implies by this. Since Morris never plainly explains, it is hard to be sure, but evidently he feels that Gould’s view says that the human race has no larger meaning and needn’t take any responsibility for things because we’re just a chance, and highly unlikely, event.
Personally, I never took that message from anything written by Gould (he’s one of the most engagingly literate humanists I read) but Morris certainly has the credentials to form a knowledgeable opinion otherwise. What annoys is that Morris closes his book with a somewhat intellectually messy essay noting that it is at least statistically possible that humans are unique and therefore we have a special responsibility to our planet. Let me get this straight: if GOULD says humanity is a unique, wondrous event, then Gould is the proponent of some evil, nihilistic philosophy. But if MORRIS says we’re unique, it is cause for celebration, humility, and stewardship. Oh well – at least Morris compels you to think, even if you wish his own thoughts were a bit clearer.
Superb study on the Burgess Shale, September 1, 2002
Morris, one of two contemporary specialists on the Burgess Shale, has produced an exceedingly well-written survey of the Burgess shale fauna and their meaning for evolutionary biology. The book is loaded with scores of B/W photos, 4 color drawings, a 13-page glossary of terms for the uninitiated, an imaginative underwater excursis with time-travelling paleontologists to the middle Cambrian, and a chapter on developmental evolutionary genetics (wherein he argues that many Burgess forms *are* related to contemporary forms). Stephen Jay Gould’s view of the significance of the Burgess Shale is that the bizarre life-forms seen then demonstrate the historical contingency of evolution–rewind the tape and let it play out again, and things would turn out differently (a la Jimmy Stewart’s "Wonderful Life"). Morris’s thesis is that Gould’s tape-player metaphor is misleading, overemphasizing contingency at the cost of ignoring the powerful role played by ecology . One need only consider the evolution of convergent traits in insular life-forms (e.g., Australian marsupial cat-like predators) to get the point. (I should point out that I am suspicious of monolithic theories from either pole of the necessity-chance spectrum.) I find it unfortunate that Gould never discussed Bradley Efron’s Bootstrap, a technique used widely in evolutionary and population genetics, or cellular automata, a la Stuart Kauffman, which give rise to the same recurrent patterns with astonishing regularity.) Morris is an adaptationist senstive to the power of ecology to shape evolution, who sees Burgess forms not as deviant freaks that accidentally went extinct but as ancestral to contemporary animals. As usual, there is likely to be truth to both positions; indeed, in some ways, their different views turn on different understandings of probability. For anyone with more than a passing interest in evolutionary biology and paleontology, who finds Gould’s incessant digressions distracting, or wonders about the hypertrophy of contingency, this book should not be missed.
I think some of the reviews make far too much about the author’s comments about Stephen Jay Gould. That these two disagree about certain things is just fine with me and if it gets a little personal at times, so what? Consider that just a little spice in the dish. What is wonderful about this book is its concise expression of ideas and concepts and its use of apt illustrations to help us understand the points it makes. Simon Conway Morris obviously cares very deeply about the subject of the book and his skillful writing helps us catch some of that fervor. Whether you end up believe Dr Gould or Dr Conway Morris or make up some other conclusion isn’t really the point. You will be better off having read this book (as well as Gould and other authors). This book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the implications of the Burgess Shale and what we believe we are learning from it and other sites. There are many valuable concepts discussed in this book and valuable references to other reading so you can take your investigations as deep as you care to go. If you read this book I believe you will enjoy it and learn from it.
Fascinating book – don’t get distracted by side issues, August 24, 2001