Unreal Nature

March 27, 2016

Hoops of Steel

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… the comfortably familiar becomes a prison of thought.

Continuing through Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould (1989):

… Without hesitation or ambiguity, and fully mindful of such paleontological wonders as large dinosaurs and African ape-men, I state that the invertebrates of the Burgess Shale, found high in the Canadian Rockies in Yoho National Park, on the eastern border of British Columbia, are the world’s most important animal fossils. Modern multicellular animals make their first uncontested appearance in the fossil record some 570 million years ago — and with a bang, not a protracted crescendo.

[line break added] This “Cambrian explosion” marks the advent (at least into direct evidence) of virtually all major groups of modern animals — and all within the minuscule span, geologically speaking, of a few million years. The Burgess Shale represents a period just after this explosion, a time when the full range of its products inhabited our seas. Those Canadian fossils are precious because they preserve in exquisite detail, down to the last filament of a trilobite’s gill, or the components of a last meal in a worm’s gut, the soft anatomy of organisms.

… The fauna was discovered in 1909 by America’s greatest paleontologist and scientific administrator, Charles Doolittle Walcott, secretary (their name for boss) of the Smithsonian Institution. Walcott proceeded to misinterpret these fossils in a comprehensive and thoroughly consistent manner arising directly from his conventional views of life … Walcott’s work was not consistently challenged for more than fifty years. In 1971, Professor Harry Whittington of Cambridge University published the first monograph in a comprehensive reexamination that began with Walcott’s assumptions and ended with a radical interpretation not only for the Burgess Shale, but by implication for the entire history of life, including our own evolution.

Harry Whittington and his colleagues have shown that most Burgess organisms do not belong to familiar groups, and that the creatures from this single quarry in British Columbia probably exceed, in anatomical range, the entire spectrum of invertebrate life in today’s oceans. Some fifteen to twenty Burgess species cannot be allied with any known group, and should probably be classified as separate phyla.

[line break added] Magnify some of them beyond the few centimeters of their actual size, and you are on the set of a science-fiction film; one particularly arresting creature has been formally names Hallucigenia. … Consider the magnitude of this difference: taxonomists have described almost a million species of arthropods, and all fit into four major groups; one quarry in British Columbia, representing the first explosion of multicellular life, reveals more than twenty additional arthropod designs!

Hallucigenia_smithsonian
Hallucigenia

[ … ]

… Familiarity has been breeding overtime in our mottoes, producing everything from contempt (according to Aesop) to children (as Mark Twain observed). Polonius, amidst his loquacious wanderings, urged Laertes to seek friends who were tried and true, and the, having chosen well, to “grapple them” to his “soul with hoops of steel.”

Yet, as Polonius’s eventual murderer stated in the most famous soliloquy of all time, “there’s the rub.” those hoops of steel are not easily unbound, and the comfortably familiar becomes a prison of thought.

My previous post from Gould’s book is here.

-Julie

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