Wonderful Life is a 1989 book by Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould. The book is nominally about the Burgess Shale, but is actually about the issue of how science contrasts with natural history. And since it is written by Steven Jay Gould, it could be about the history of toothpaste and it would be worth reading. The book is equally a scientific and humanistic work, including the title allusion to Frank Capra's classic film, It's A Wonderful Life.
The Burgess Shale fossils, which were formed during the Cambrian Explosion about 500 million years ago. During the Precambrian, life had been very simple, mostly single celled or colony organisms. Within the relatively brief period of five to ten million years, a bewildering variety of unusual, complicated life forms sprung up. These were unearthed in the late 19th century, and investigated by the president of the Smithsonian, Charles Walcott. They were later reinvestigated, with more modern ideas and concepts, in the 1960s, which led to their reinterpretation.
The differing interpretations of the fossils leads to the book being of social, instead of just biological interests. Charles Walcott lived in a time where even when evolution was accepted, it was still couched in terms of Providence. So when he looked at the fossils, he tended to see them as resembling differing forms of living organisms, and of showing a clear progress from single-celled life up to more complex organisms, leading eventually to human beings. When they were later reinterpreted, they were believed to belong to totally separate phyla, having lineages and bodyplans that were in no way related to the half-dozen or so common phyla that were to make up the next half billion years of evolution, and which continue to dominate present day biology. And Gould goes even further by stating that there is no particular reason that the phylum that did survive succeded, that it was merely a matter of chance. In other words, there is no particular reason that the early chordates survived, and therefore there is no particular reason that there would later be fish, dinosaurs or people. This is where the book takes its parallel to the film "It's a Wonderful Life", saying that if we were able to "rewind the tape" and make one small change, the world we lived in would be radically different.
Although some of Gould's scientific material has been debated and reevaluated since he wrote the book, with some of the seemingly weird creatures now believed to belong to more familiar phylums, the overarching position still holds. It is perhaps a scientific position that will not be settled for a while, since we have a sample size of one, but there is much speculation about how rare life, and particularly intelligent life is in the universe. In this way, "Wonderful Life" could be considered as a type of precursor to "Rare Earth", which argues the earth only supports life because of a collection of rare factors.