Unreal Nature

April 30, 2016

Decipher the Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… Perhaps he couldn’t bear the thought of running such an exquisite plan for so long, and having no chronicler to admire the work.

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

Harry Whittingham spent four and a half years just writing his first monograph on the genus Marrella. Surprise cascaded upon surprise, starting slowly with doubts about the identity of certain arthropods, and accelerating until a new interpretation jelled in the mid-1970s. This view blossomed to guide all subsequent work toward a new conception for the history of early life.

Marrella_splendens
Marrella

[ … ]

… The model of grab bag is a taxonomist’s nightmare and an evolutionarist’s delight. Imagine an organism built of a hundred basic features, with twenty possible forms per feature. The grab bag contains a hundred compartments, with twenty different tokens in each. To make a new Burgess creature, the Great Token-Stringer takes one token at random from each compartment and strings them all together. Voilà, the creature works — and you have nearly as many successful experiments as a musical scale can build catchy tunes. [footnote admits that Gould exaggerates to make a point].

[line break added] The world has not operated this way since Burgess times. Today, the Great Token-Stringer uses a variety of separate bags — labeled “vertebrate body plan,” “angiosperm body plan,” “mollescan body plan,” and so forth. The tokens in each compartment are far less numerous, and few if any from bag 1 can also be found in bag 2.

[line break added] The Great Token-Stringer now makes a much more orderly set of new creatures, but the playfulness and surprise of his early work have disappeared. He is no longer the enfant terrible of a brave new multicellular world, fashioning Anomalocaris with a hint of arthropod, Wiwaxia with a whiff of mollusk, Nectocaris with an amalgam of arthropod and vertebrate.

The story is old, and canonical. The youthful firebrand has become the apostle of good sense and stable design. Yet the former spark is not entirely extinct. Something truly new slips by now and then within the boundaries of strict inheritance. Perhaps his natural vanity finally got the better of him. Perhaps he couldn’t bear the thought of running such an exquisite plan for so long, and having no chronicler to admire the work. So he let the token for more brain tumble from compartment 1 of the primate bag — and assembled a species that could paint the caves of Lascaux, frame the glass of Chartres, and finally decipher the story of the Burgess Shale.

My most recent previous post from Gould’s book is here.

-Julie

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