Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Charles Doolittle Walcott and the Burgess Shale of British Columbia, Canada

Charles Doolittle Walcott
March 31st, 1850 to February 9th, 1927

Mention must be made of this date for the birth of Charles Doolittle Walcott who was an American paleontologist and Director of the United States Geologic Service, and then Director of the Smithsonian Institution but best known for his discovery in 1909 of well-preserved fossils in the Burgess Shale of British Columbia, Canada. It was a unique discovery in that it contained many soft shell fossils heretofore unknown.

Bill Ashworth in the Linda Hall Library Newsletter wrote...

The Burgess Shale dates to just over 500 million years ago, in the Cambrian period, and the site is unusual in that it preserves the remains of many soft-bodied organisms, which are normally left out of the fossil record. These Cambrian animals were like no other that Walcott had ever seen, but he managed to sort them into the known phyla of jellyfish, worms, echinoderms, etc, and give them exotic names, like Wiwaxia, and Hallucigenia. Then, in the 1970s, a Canadian, Harry Whittington, re-examined the fossils and argued that most of the fauna of the Burgess Shale were actually entirely unknown organisms, experiments in evolution that left no descendants in the modern world, and not members of any existing phylum. Stephen Jay Gould, who had always maintained that evolution is highly contingent, and governed by chance and circumstance, used the example of the reinterpretation of the Burgess Shale as the centerpiece for a book, Wonderful Life (1989), which was close to a best-seller. In particular, Gould argued that , were we to rewind the evolutionary panorama and run it again, the line that produced vertebrates, and thus us, would in all likelihood never have survived, just like most of the animals of the Burgess Shale. Gould's view, in turn, was attacked by Simon Conway Morris (interestingly, one of the heroes of Gould's book), in The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals (1998).

Charles Doolittle Walcott

Burgess Shale of British Columbia, Canada

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