Top banner


Doolittle Too Early

Peter Bowler

Charles Doolittle Walcott, Paleontologist. Ellis L. Yochelson. 510 pp. Kent State University Press, 1998. $49.

Charles Doolittle Walcott was an eminent invertebrate paleontologist and an important figure in the organization of American science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He would be little known today, except by specialist historians of science, were it not for his appearance as the "villain of the piece" (if that is not too strong a phrase) in Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life (1989). In that book, Gould argued that evolution has been an essentially unpredictable procees, and as evidence he cited the alleged diversity of life in the Cambrian era, especially as revealed by the spectacular fossils of the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. It was Walcott who first explored the shale and decribed its fossils, and according to Gould he deliberately played down the differences between them and the familiar invertebrate forms known from the rest of the fossil record and the present.

Gould's interpretation of the Burgess Shale fossils is highly contentious (see my review this past issue of Simon Conway Morris's The Crucible of Creation), and many paleontologists would now take a much less negative view of Walcott's descriptions and of the theoretical perspective that shaped them. Unfortunately, Yochelson's biography of Walcott misses this whole episode because it deals only with the first part of his life up to his move from the U.S. Geological Survey to the Smithsonian Institution in 1907 (the Burgess Shale was not discovered until 1909). Although this limitation is noted on the book's dust jacket and in its advance publicity, I cannot help feeling that it should have been flagged in the title too, considering the prominence that Walcott has been given in the modern debate. The title surely leads the reader to expect a complete survey of Walcott's contributions to paleontology, Burgess Shale and all. Yochelson notes in the introduction that he thinks Gould's characterization of Walcott's descriptions is unfair, but he can offer only a general defense based on the range and quality of his subject's previous work.

What we do have is an immensely detailed account of Walcott's career as a paleontologist and his work in the Geological Survey. He joined the survey in 1879 and rose to become its director in 1894. He worked especially on the Cambrian, making numerous field trips and linking the fossils to the sequence of rocks in a way that made important contributions to stratigraphy. He served as director of the survey for 13 years, displaying a talent for organization—as Smithsonian secretary he would go on to become one of the most powerful figures in the American scientific community.

Yochelson's biography provides a mine of information about how Walcott balanced his scientific work and his strategies in the politics of state-funded science. This information wil be of immense value to historians seeking to understand the professionalization of American science in this key period. But Yochelson is by training a paleontologist, not a historian, and his approach focuses on the details of Walcott's life at the expense of any interpretation that might have been informed by the substantial historical literature of the professionalization of science. This is a biography written by an enthusiast, and it has all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre: a passion for detail that can make it difficult for the reader to get an overview of exactly what the subject achieved.—Peter J. Bowler, Social Anthropology, The Queen's University of Belfast

comments powered by Disqus


Bottom Banner