Nepali Times
Here And There
Wonderful life


This month of May saw the world become a lesser place. No, it wasn't the dissolution of the Nepali parliament and subsequent cacophonous political mayhem. Nor was it the murderous violence in Kashmir and the threat of nuclear war in South Asia, though both those events were shocking enough on their own. For me, the saddest event of the past four weeks was the death of the American palaeontologist and science writer, Stephen Jay Gould.

There aren't many people that I would describe as "wise". He was one of them. There are intellectuals, savants, wonks, swots, geeks, nerds and eggheads-each word a pejorative wrapped up in a description of sheer mental ability. Mr Gould was quite simply a wise human being whose writings and thinking bubbled over with warmth and enthusiasm about the never-ending quest for knowledge. I doubt he ever stopped poking through his fossils and piles of stones, or reading papers and books and e mails from colleagues in the field, even as he lay dying from the cancer known as mesothelioma.

It was Mr Gould's book from 1990, Wonderful Life, that captivated me most, yet is about the most unlikely of topics. I can imagine a commissioning editor at a popular publishing company sniffing with disbelief at receiving a proposal from a young scientist-a younger Gould perhaps, not, as he was then, at the height of his powers. Had this been so, Wonderful Life might never have been written for a mass audience, simply because it appears to be about the most dreary and anodyne of scientific topics. It is a story of an outcropping of sedimentary rock in the northern Rocky Mountains of North America, known as the Burgess Shale.

I can hear the editor at the publishing company now, snorting with increasing derision and calling out to his colleagues in other offices. "This Gould bloke wants to tell us all about some sandstone in Canada, full of mythical creatures, he says, everyone a phantasmagorical metaphor for the process of life itself." More laughter, rude remarks about "rocks between the ears" and the sound of rejection slips being slapped on a manuscript that thankfully was never treated so.

For I have seen the Burgess Shale, and gazed upon reconstructions of the wondrous creatures therein in the world's best palaeontology museum, the Royal Tyrrell, in the western Canadian town of Drumheller. The horrid and fantastic shapes that life took in those early years are beyond belief, so much so that the discoverer of the Burgess Shale-a Victorian pioneer of palaeontology with the marvellous moniker of Charles Doolittle Walcott-gave them scientific names that seem rooted in his own dismay at what he had found. Anamalocaris resembled nothing less than a two-metre long shrimp, with clacking claws and a mouth made of revolving armour plates. Marella, the lace crab, had dozens of legs and appendages and was an early version of one of Jules Verne's robots. Of Hallucenagenia, a stumpy legged amalgam of worm and aquatic dachshund with pointy hairs on its back, or perhaps a hairy creature with stumpy legs extended skywards, the less said the better.

Of course, none of these creatures survived past the Cambrian age. Nor do any of them have any descendants at all among subsequent species. For Gould, that was most crucial. He proposed then what still seems the most plausible explanation for the march of natural selection. This was not the favoured, neo-Darwinian, steady, slow progression towards stronger, more logical body designs, but an evolution that creates an optimum species quickly than sees it wiped out by some unpredictable and catastrophic external event. For this, Gould was pilloried by an establishment that preferred a more linear form of evolution, but he wrote on, modified his theories, even admitted mistakes and kept astounding us all with his-yes-wisdom.

Where Gould shone brightly was in his stirring and relentless denunciation of the canard known as "creationism". This is the notion put about by some Christians-fundamentalists, I dare say-that the words of their religious text, the Bible, are to be interpreted literally on matter of the creation of life on earth. Thinking people of any faith have little difficulty reconciling religious belief and evolution. But creationists are disproportionately influential, especially in America. Gould and his fellow palaeontologists stood shoulder to shoulder against those who would have us think that dinosaurs, cave men and the creatures of the Burgess Shale blinked into being overnight, and shared a crowded planet before obligingly becoming fossils, just to confuse us.

For that and much else I'll venerate this man, and I shall read aloud his words-and those of Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins, Charles Doolittle Walcott-to my children for as long as they'll let me. Stephen Jay Gould, scientist, b1942, d2002.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)