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When Palaeontology and Philosophy Meet

By John Long

The Cambrian explosion of animal diversity, evident at the Burgess Shale fossil site, is fertile ground for philosophers to ponder.

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This year at the Annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Conference in Calgary, Canada, delegates could opt for two special events. I enrolled in both. The first was a 1-day field trip to the world-famous Cambrian Burgess Shale fossil site, in the high mountains of British Columbia outside Banff. The second was a “Philosophy and Palaeontology” workshop held at The University of Calgary. While it might seem both are unrelated events, they actually meshed together beautifully, especially because the field trip came first with the workshop the day after.

The field trip was a long, hard day. We had to be on the bus by 4.30 am to get to the site and walk up the mountain in three groups so that only a limited number of people could each be at the Walcott Quarry to look for fossils. The Burgess Shale quarries have been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980 because of the incredible preservation and diversity of these Middle Cambrian fossils (505 million years old), which include a wide range of soft-bodied forms as well as typical hard-shelled creatures like trilobites and marine shells.

Nonetheless, the only way to get to the site is by walking the 21 km round trip to the site and back. The site is at an altitude of about 2350 metres, and the first leg of the hike is rather steep. When some of the group turned back at that stage, we all knew we were in for a...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.