Burgess Shale (was Re: disparaging Gould)

Jason Spencer (spencer@ualberta.ca)
Thu, 4 Feb 1999 12:37:01 -0700

>CurtAdams@aol.com wrote:
>> Read Dennett and Dawkins, [Gould'] opponents amongst popular writers.
>> They're good too. Dawkins tends to be closest to mainstream biology...
>after reading gould's wonderful life, i decided i had to see
>it for myself (wolcotts quarry) so i arranged to vacation in
>canada. stayed at emerald lake lodge.
>hiked up with a guide who told me a story so good i do hope it is true.
>turns out the esteemed professor was to visit the site and some jokester
>at haahhvahd convinced him or somehow he got the impression that they
>were going to take him up there in a helicopter. he arrived and asked
>when the chopper would get there at which time dr gould was told that
>they had no helicopter and furthermore, if they had one, they would not
>disturb the peacefulness of emerald lake to take him or anyone else up
>there, and he would have to hike like everyone else. to his credit,
>he did so.
>and so did i, five years after, and it was some of the most stunning
>scenery on the north american continent. i was fortunate to go up on
>a day when it was not raining. a group of students were collecting
>samples that day, and i watched as they discovered an anomalocarus.
>greatest trip of my life.

Yes, it's a fun little hike.;) I went up there in the summer of 1997 with about ten paleontologists as part of the Second International Trilobite Conference for which I wrote the field guide.

Here is a QuickTime VR panorama taken on the day I went up there:

http://www.ualberta.ca/~spencer/jason/Burgess_Shale_Panorama.mov (Credit for the shot goes to Jay Holmes of the Museum of Natural History. Extra points for lugging the tripod up there.)

I also put together a bibliography of papers relating to the shale:


and here's me in a very awkward Gouldian pose. This shot (as well as Gould's in _Wonderful_Life_ is actually taken at Raymond's Quarry, just above Walcott's -- the shale itself:


>i believe wolcotts quarry has been declared
>a world heritage site now. (my trip was in late summer 1990).

Yes, it's official now.

>the guide to wolcott's quarry had mixed feelings about sjg. there
>was the expected resentment i guess, but also a deep admiration.
>gould did put them on the map, at least in the public's eye. spike

Gould brings some things (back) into the public eye now and then. I wouldn't really say anything else nice about him. IMO he tends to be more misleading than not. (Some of his older work on heterochrony was good, however). Also, for people like me who can't stand baseball, his _Full_House_ is a tiresome read since he uses endless baseball analogies to illustrate a fairly simple statistical point.

The Burgess Shale IMO has limited importance in explaining the patterns of past life as a whole, as there is little material for comparison. Some of the attention given to the shale may be a distraction from more useful research. Overall the attention is of course beneficial as it increases the public interest in Paleontology necessary for work to continue.