The books on this page are not currently on the Biological Sciences Reading List. However, they are relevant to some modules and were dropped into the Suggestion Box, so …
In Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould describes the slow uncovering of the Cambrian Explosion nearly a century after Charles Walcott stumbled across the Burgess Shale. The book has won more prizes than you would expect for a book about fossils, and rightly so. I am ashamed to admit that I had not read this book until recently, but when I did, it opened my eyes to an alternative and fascinating view of evolution, moving away from the “certainties” of those nice neat evolutionary trees towards a more uncertain world where if we were to rewind the universe and flip the coin of natural selection again, we might find ourselves living in a world quite different from this one – except that we wouldn’t be here to find it, some other sort of life form would.
But that’s not the reason I love this book. This is one of the best descriptions of the way in which science works I have read. Slow, painstaking, turning down blind alleys before dawning realizations that push the field forward and on to new discoveries. The massive efforts of largely unsung PhD students and junior post-docs who do the actual science while trying to carve out their careers and who actually push the discipline they are working in forward while principal investigators wrestle with bureaucracy and paperwork. If anyone knows a better description of what doing science is actually like on a day to day basis, please let me know.
But there’s a problem.
In The Crucible of Creation, Simon Conway Morris – one of the stars of Wonderful Life – contradicts Gould’s interpretation of the Burgess Shale and the implications Gould draws about the nature of evolution. In its own way, this book is a good as Wonderful Life, and certainly as important scientifically.
So what’s the problem?
The School Reading List is directed at Biological Sciences students, and while both are relevant to some aspects of their degree, it is unreasonable to expect them to read both of these. The question is, for for this group of students, does Wonderful Life stand on its own? Should it be in or out?