Happy Canada Day!

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This post is a small tribute to the great nation of Canada. This amazing country has many reasons to hold it’s head up high. It is a progressive advanced country which is on my list of must see destinations. One day I may even make it my home. Those open spaces….We have plenty of space here, but I yearn to stand atop the cliffs of Newfoundland, or look out across the vastness of Canada’s wilderness. I also have close friends there, but Canada holds a special place in my heart for another reason.

I have loved prehistory all my life. I think my late father infected me with a chronic case of curiosity, and my earliest memories involve dinosaurs and fossils. As I got older, my interests diversified somewhat. One day I picked up a book at random in a second hand bookshop. This book stayed with me forever, and reading it was one of those life changing experiences for me. The book was “Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History” by the famed American paleontologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould.

Wonderful_Life_(first_edition)

I devoured this book quickly, reading most of it whilst waiting for my kids at swimming lessons. The book virtually forced itself into my brain. Gould’s ideas on punctuated equilibrium and contingency have butted heads with other thinkers in the years since the book’s publication. I myself have had several friendly jousts with a scientist colleague over the years!

The book showed me the Burgess Shale up close. Even now I can still smell the mud and cracked rock being sorted as generations of palaeontologists have unearthed some of the most bizarre and scientifically interesting creatures ever known. These creatures hailed from the Cambrian Period. It was a time when multi-cellular life had truly arrived and was exploding onto the evolutionary scene.

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Hallucigenia; one of the more controversial denizens of the Shale. Artwork: Joshua Evans

Not only was it exploding, it was something like an evolutionary bomb going off, as representatives of all modern animal phyla suddenly appeared in fossil records. Not only did all modern animals appear, but a host of other phyla all appeared seemingly at once. Then, for whatever reason, many of these mysterious other groups vanished, to leave no descendants. All of this in approximately ten million years, between 580 to 590 million years ago. A quickening took place indeed.

The book took me up the slopes of Walcott Quarry with Charles Doolittle Walcott, the founder of the Burgess Shale. For the next fourteen years after the site’s discovery in 1910 Walcott and his children climbed the slopes of the Shale, collecting more than 65,000 specimens, many of which have almost single-handedly turned taxonomy and natural history on their respective heads.

Charles_Doolittle_Walcott_(1850-1927),_Sidney_Stevens_Walcott_(1892-1977),_and_Helen_Breese_Walcott_(1894-1965)
Walcott and his children during one of their summers spent working at the Shale. Photographer unknown. 

 

Walcott was an American, but the Shale was an intrinsic piece of Canada, a fragment of a lost world without borders or names. To stand on it’s slopes and feel such history would be quite a thing. The Shale represented an incredible and critical chapter in the history of life. Whether you believe in contingency or of inevitable progress toward life as we know it today, the Shale preserved whatever tales the world had to leave behind. We can interpret it any way we like, but there is only ever one truth.

This piece of Canada belongs to the story of the world. I appreciate that not all Canadians see the Shale as I do, but it’s still super cool. So on Canada Day 2017, I salute the Burgess Shale, Canada’s greatest gift to science.

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Anomalacaris, the first true super-predator. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
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