We recently watched a documentary about David Attenborough and the making of his most recent TV series First Life. This was an excellent series about the first life on earth and included a large section on the fossils of the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. The Burgess Shale fossils date from the Cambrian period and contain a huge diversity of early life forms. (If you missed the TV series, the First Life website is a comprehensive resource).
Watching these programmes inspired me to read Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould's classic account of the discovery of the Burgess Shale fossils and their implications for the history of life on earth. It's a brilliant book in its exploration of the creatures that were preserved in the Burgess Shales (complete with illustrations - some of these creatures look truly weird!). It is also a fascinating insight into how science works. Charles Walcott who first discovered the Burgess Shales had conservative beliefs about evolution and saw in these fossils only what he expected to see, he thought that although weird, they fitted in with already known groups of organisms. It was left to later scientists, who could free themselves from preconceptions, to show just how weird these creatures really are. Wonderful Life also looks at alternative patterns of evolution, what would have happened for life on earth if different species from the Burgess Shales had survived to become successful and to give rise to future life on earth.
A definite recommendation for anyone interested in the history of life on earth.
Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould published 1989 by Penguin
As ever, text in red, contains hyperlinks which take you to other pages where you can find out more.