Sunday, May 06, 2012

Wonderful Life: Notes Toward A Medium Opus IX

I grew up watching all those great old nature programs on television. Marlin Perkins and Wild Kingdom, obviously, but there were others. When I was older, episodes of Nova and Nature on anything having to do with animals or natural history would find me seated front and center. Ours is a world filled with wonders and horrors, sometimes both at the same time - nothing gives me the willies quite like contemplating parasitic wasps, let me tell you - and every time we learn something new about the world, it just becomes all the more wonderful.

In the winter of 1989-1990, I read one of two books* that would shape the way I thought about all sorts of thing. Stephen Jay Gould was the nature columnist for Natural History magazine, a professor of biology at Harvard University, and a die-hard baseball fanatic of the first water. He published many of his columns as collections; Wonderful Life, however, was a marvelous study in historical detective work. It concerns the reconstruction of the fossilized remains of the Burgess Shale, a massive formation in Canada that was discovered and mined for what it told paleontology about an extinct ecosystem. The only major deposit from a mass extinction during the Cambrian period, hundreds of creatures, many of which found nowhere else, had their deaths recorded despite the fact they were all invertebrates, soft-shelled creatures without any bony structures to survive the hundreds of millions of years between them and us. Gould recounts how decades of accepted interpretations of the creatures within the Burgess was overturned once it became possible, through three-dimensional computer modeling, to recreate the creatures who left, in essence, two-dimensional representations of themselves. What had been understood as separate creatures suddenly, through the images offered by the computers, became parts - organs and body sections - of the same creature. The end result was a completely different understanding of the fauna of the Cambrian oceans.

Gould took the title of his book from the 1947 Frank Capra film, in which Jimmy Stewart discovers what the world would look like without him. Part of the problem with the original reconstruction of the Burgess Shall fauna was the scientists who worked on the remains began with known classifications of various animalia. The results, therefore, found precursors to later creatures. The new models, on the other hand, demonstrated whole ecosystems in which later families, orders, even phyla were totally absent. The Burgess Shale, rather than capturing in stone a snapshot of the evolution of known animals, in fact showed us a mass of animals that bore no relation to later creatures. Through the historical accident of mass-extinction (one of several that have hit our planet; the one during the Cambrian is only second in terms of the extent to which it extinguished so much life, with something like 92% of animal and plant species disappearing completely) these creatures left no trace of their existence in the genetic record. The question this reality posed, for Gould, was simple enough: What might our world have looked like had that mass extinction not occurred?

Our world, from the perspective of natural history, is an accident. Nothing like necessity lies behind the marvelous diversity of life, including human beings. These creatures, of which we only know anything thanks to chemistry and geology, would have made the Earth a very different planet had they not been extinguished in one of the several Great Dyings. Stripped of the wonder such thoughts should inspire, there is something terrifying in this thought. We human beings, regardless of our religious or ideological or other commitments - even those that insist they owe nothing to metaphysics - insist there is something special about us as a species. We continue, even when we should know better, to celebrate the significant difference between us and all other animals, even as those things we insist mark that difference - tool-making and using; language as the communication of discrete bits of information; sociability; even the capacity for the violation of accepted social norms - continue to show up in animals both near and far from us in the genetic tree.

Gould's humbling narrative, offering the merest hint not only that things could have been different, but that they were, indeed, very different, was little less than the equivalent of a nuclear bomb for me. In all honesty, I can't even remember how I thought about such things before reading Gould. Take a gander at the birds out in your feeder. The dog curled up on the floor or cat on your lap. Look in to the eyes of the person who shares your life, the faces of your children. None of this exists because it has to. There is nothing of necessity here. That we human beings, with our vaunted skills and intelligence and language and all the rest exist is not necessary. Indeed, going back to the creatures who exploded in development and variation after the Cambrian mass-extinction - even those things didn't exist because they had to. Our world is as it is, including we human beings contemplating it as it is, as an accident. Period. I realize this makes people uncomfortable. That doesn't make it any less the way things are.

*The other is Parke Godwin's Waiting for the Galactic Bus, the only work of science fiction I read at least once a year. If you want to know what I really think about things like life, death, the afterlife, ethics, politics, and John Wilkes Booth, check it out.

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