"The Burgess Shale included a range of disparity in anatomical designs never again equaled, and not matched today by all the creatures in the world's oceans," Gould wrote.
Unfortunately, according to Gould, Walcott failed to discern the significance of what he had found. "Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," Gould wrote in another work, Eight Little Piggies, "Walcott then proceeded to misinterpret these magnificent fossils in the deepest possible way." He placed them into modern groups, making them ancestral to today's worms, jellyfish, and other creatures, and thus failed to appreciate their distinctness. "Under such an interpretation," Gould sighed, "life began in primordial simplicity and moved inexorably, predictably onward to more and better."
Walcott died in 1927 and the Burgess fossils were largely forgotten. For nearly half a century they stayed shut away in drawers in the American Museum of Natural History in Washington, seldom consulted and never questioned. Then in 1973 a graduate student from Cambridge University named Simon Conway Morris paid a visit to the collection. He was astonished by what he found. The fossils were far more varied and magnificent than Walcott had indicated in his writings. In taxonomy the category that describes the basic body plans of all organisms is the phylum, and here, Conway Morris concluded, were drawer after drawer of such anatomical singularities—all amazingly and unaccountably unrecognized by the man who had found them.