Conrad Black: Socialists may be scandalized by the millions raked in by the ultra-successful. But they’ve earned every penny

National Post

The Lady Gaga Principle

Conrad Black

Saturday, May 22, 2010

There is room for more optimism about America’s economy than there is for Europe’s. One reason for this is that polls in the United States show that for every person who wants government to equalize individual economic outcomes by playing the role of Robin Hood, two people want government policy to promote growth and job creation through tax reduction.

Barack Obama is out of touch with this pattern. He thinks that a family with an income of $250,000 is wealthy, but it isn’t. If there are two or three dependent young people in such a unit, including one in university or a private school, present taxes in most states would take about half of income; and if the family did not already own its home free and clear, it would be a scramble even to afford a new car or take an out-of-town holiday, without joining the national debt-binge. (In the United States, 94% of automobile sales are on some sort of variant of a lease or installment plan.)

As the brief hero Joe the Plumber pointed out to candidate Obama (before the liberal media took after him hammer and tongs because he wasn’t a master plumber and his dues to the plumbers’ union were in arrears), taking money from people who have earned it and giving it to people who haven’t is not fair.

The widespread theory that the American tax system is skewed to the advantage of the rich is not true. The highest-income 5% of Americans receive 37% of the income of the population, but pay 60% of the personal income taxes. The lower 50% of income earners, on the other hand, earn 12% of the income, but pay only 3% of the income tax; and include the 38% of Americans who pay no income tax at all and most of the 60% of Americans who receive a greater value in government services than they pay in tax.

It is true that a few very high incomes — earned by athletes, show-business people and some participants in the more rarefied strata of creative finance — scandalize general opinion by their massive size. The late William F. Buckley was, as he put it, “offended culturally by the fact that the Rolling Stones make more money in one night than Mozart did in his life, but it’s their money” (with great emphasis on “their”).

If society puts a high value on the talents of a Lady Gaga, (Stephanie Joanne Angelina Germanotta, of the New York Germanottas), no one has the right to say that those talents as a vocalist and entertainer should be surtaxed. (I have never heard or seen her, other than in still photographs, but I must say that a 23-year old woman from a working-class home in Brooklyn, who has five best-selling song recordings in one year and whose informal motto is “I get up on stage in front of the whole world in my underwear and I don’t give a f–k if they like me or not” has earned her money, no matter how screechy, trashy or outrageous she may be.)

There is fairness in wishing to help the disadvantaged, but none inheres either to tearing down the high-income earner nor to conferring an ex gratia salary from the productive earnings of others on the low-income earner. It is not naturally fair to penalize the hard-working, the imaginative, efficient or daring (Ms. Germanotta is all of those). It is fair to help the unlucky, but not the wilfully indolent. No one wishes to seem hostile or even indifferent to the poor and relatively few people are. But unequal incomes are not, in themselves, unfair; artificially leveled ones are.

While there seems to be a growing consensus in the United States that the country cannot enhance the welfare and health-care systems, and maintain an invincible national defence capability, without raising taxes (which this administration already has effectively done, effective January 2011, by raising the rates for high-income taxpayers), soaking the rich is not the answer: Any first line of attack on red ink should be to impose taxes on non-essential financial transactions, such as short-term stock trades and financial-advice fees on mergers, acquisitions

and bond and equity issues; and on elective gasoline sales (i. e., not on taxis and commercial delivery vehicles etc.). The gasoline tax would have the added benefit of reducing American oil imports, which is a matter of national security as well as economic stability.

If the richest Americans are to be enlisted in the fight against poverty, it should be in the form of private-sector anti-poverty projects that wealthy taxpayers could design and administer themselves. This would involve the best financial minds in poverty reduction and would give the wealthiest people an incentive to eliminate poverty, as the rate of tax would decline as poverty declined and would vanish when poverty, as reasonably defined, vanished.

Otherwise, income taxes are already too high and further tax burdens should be on consumption, not on effort or ingenuity. This, objectively, is fair; and as it is comparatively stimulating to job creation and economic growth, has less damaging consequences to future government revenue potential than the much-tried, oft-failed policy, now the core of Obamanomics, of describing the middle class as the rich, raising its taxes and paying a straight cash dole to the relatively or absolutely poor and calling it a “refundable tax credit.” (One of the most reliable criteria of poor government is more frequent recourse to Orwellian Newspeak.)

Incentivizing private-sector anti-poverty projects is better policy than just soaking the rich at one end and augmenting welfare dependency at the other. It would directly attack the problem without sluicing the money used through the clogged sieve of government welfare administration.

This would also be preferable to government taking unto itself the right to assess, for purposes of varied tax rates, the utility of different kinds of work and surtaxing the income of Lady Gaga and Alex Rodriguez. Free societies can’t get into this kind of thing, any more than, as I fear will shortly be advocated, they can surcharge the obese, smokers or those who engage in random unprotected sex because these are greater risks against the publicly funded health-care system.

The circle of spending requirements and health-care needs can be squared without confiscatory taxation, with a little imagination. This is even more true in Canada, where there is not a colossal defence responsibility as there is in the United States, nor a tremendous accumulation of past debt.

Fiscal management is not a zero-sum game, and we must banish to the proverbial dustbin of history the heirloom of Fabian attitude that any benefit to society’s shortchanged must be wrung from the sweat of the diligent and transformed into the penalization of success.


Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” quickly took its place among those touchstones of modern art that signified a decisive break with what came before — 50 years ago this year

The New York Times

Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 breakthrough, “Breathless.”


May 23, 2010

A TIME-HONORED tradition: Stand outside a movie theater with a camera and microphone and poll the audience members for their reactions. What did you think of the film? A grandmotherly woman makes a face and waves her hand in disgust: Revolting! Idiotic! A middle-aged gentleman, stout and respectable, takes a more tolerant view: This is a movie about how young people live today, he says, a movie made by young people, and he is generally in favor of young people. But a sober-looking, well-dressed younger fellow demurs. “I don’t think it’s very serious,” he says dismissively.

This little scene of impromptu amateur film criticism — or market research, if you prefer — occurs in Emmanuel Laurent’s new documentary, “Two in the Wave,” about the filmmakers François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, whose friendship was a driving force and a central fact (as well as, eventually, a casualty) of the French New Wave. Those people outside that Parisian cinema in 1960 have just seen “Breathless,” Mr. Godard’s debut feature, starring Jean Seberg as an American exchange student who teases, loves, protects and betrays a French hoodlum played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, who smokes and runs his thumb pensively over his lips. Some of the patrons are baffled, some enthusiastic, some noncommittal, a mixed bag of responses that seems a bit deflating. Aren’t they aware of the historical significance of what they have just witnessed?

Is it possible now, 50 years later, even to imagine seeing “Breathless” for the first time? Mr. Godard’s film quickly took its place among those touchstones of modern art that signified a decisive break with what came before — paintings and books and pieces of music that have held onto their reputation for radicalism long after being accepted as masterpieces, venerated in museums and taught in schools.

Somehow, the galvanic, iconoclastic force of their arrival is preserved as they age into institutional respectability. So even if you were not around to hear, let’s say, the catcalls greeting Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” or to unwrap a copy of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” smuggled over from Paris in defiance of the postmaster general, or to examine Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” or Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans when they were first exhibited, the works themselves allow you to place yourself among the brave vanguard who did. And even if you did not see “Breathless” during its first run at the dawn of the ’60s, surely every frame carries an afterimage of that heady time, just as every jazz note and blast of ambient street noise on the soundtrack brings echoes of an almost mythic moment.

At the same time, though, such legendary status can also be a burden, weighing down what was once fresh and shocking with a heavy freight of expectation and received opinion. There is perhaps no episode in all of film history quite as encrusted with contradictory significance as the cresting, in 1959 and 1960, of the Nouvelle Vague. It was a burst of youthful, irreverent energy that was also a decisive engagement in the continuing battle to establish cinema as a serious art form. The partisans of the new — Truffaut and Mr. Godard, along with comrades like Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer — were steeped in film history. Before taking up their cameras they had been critics, polemicists and self-taught scholars, and yet, like other aesthetic insurgents before them, they attacked a reigning style they believed was characterized by unthinking and sclerotic traditionalism. And their drive to reassert the glory of French cinema was grounded in an almost fanatical love of American movies.

Mr. Godard, who had made a handful of shorts before turning to a true-crime scenario that Mr. Truffaut had been working on, was perhaps the most extreme and paradoxical figure in this movement, and would go on to become a prolific and polarizing filmmaker. He would pass through a period of intense, if not always intelligible, political militancy in the late ’60s and early ’70s before settling into his current status somewhere between grand old man and crazy uncle of world cinema. His most recent feature, “Film Socialism,” showed up at the Cannes Film Festival last week, though the director himself did not, offering as explanation for his absence a cryptic reference to the Greek financial crisis. He has, for as long as some of us can remember, walked the fine line between prophet and crank, turning out films that are essayistic, abstract, enraging and intermittently beautiful and issuing variously grandiose and gnomic statements about his own work, the state of the world and the future of cinema.

But that is now. Back then it was surely different. An immaculate and glowing new print of “Breathless” will be shown, starting Friday, at Film Forum in Manhattan, and while no restoration can scrub away the accumulated layers of history, its anniversary can be taken as an invitation to take a fresh look. What if, instead of seeking out an artifact of the past, you could experience the film in its own present tense? Not, in other words, as a flashback to 1960, enticing as that may be, but as 90 minutes of right now.

That kind of time travel is part of the special allure of movies, and “Breathless,” precisely because it so effortlessly, so breathlessly, captures the rhythms of its time and place, erases the distance between the now and then. And yet even as Mr. Godard and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, record the sights and sounds of Paris with documentary immediacy, the images are infused with an unmistakable nostalgia. This is not something a latter-day viewer — perhaps besotted by secondhand memories of vintage cars circling the Place de la Concorde or pretty young women selling The New York Herald Tribune in front of cafes — brings to “Breathless.” Rather, the film’s evident and self-conscious desire to tap into a reservoir of existing references and associations is a sign of its director’s obsession with other movies.

You don’t have to recognize this film’s overt cinematic allusions to be aware of its indebtedness. When Michel (Mr. Belmondo) pauses in front of a movie theater to admire an image of Humphrey Bogart, he is confirming what we already know about him, which is that he is a cinematic construct, a man who has perhaps seen too many movies invented by another man who has spent his adult life doing almost nothing else. As a satellite orbiting the twin suns of the Paris Cinémathèque and the journal Cahiers du Cinéma, Mr. Godard was an ardent champion of the Hollywood directors whose reputation as artists is one of France’s great gifts to America and the world. Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Fritz Lang — and perhaps above all Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchock: these were not just influences on “Breathless,” but axioms in its universe of meaning.

The phenomenon of movie-mad moviemakers is a familiar one by now. The young American directors of the 1970s — including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich and George Lucas — used to be identified as members of “the film generation” because they had grown up compulsively watching movies, assimilating genre conventions and shot selections that would become the raw material of their own work. Twenty years later, Quentin Tarantino, whose production company is named after Mr. Godard’s 1964 film “Bande à Part,” would refresh and extend this tradition of film-geek filmmaking. Mr. Tarantino’s career consists of a series of genre pastiches and homages that manage to feel startlingly novel, esoteric formal exercises that are nonetheless accessible pieces of popular entertainment.

“Breathless” was there first. Which is to say that it was already late. Seen from its most unflattering angle, it is a thin and derivative film noir. A generic tough guy steals a car, shoots a policeman, sweet-talks a series of women, hobnobs with his underworld pals and tries to stay a step ahead of the dogged detectives on his trail. His poses and attitudes seem borrowed, arising less from any social or psychological condition or biographical facts than from a desire to be as cool as the guys in the movies.

The wonder is that he surpasses them, and that “Breathless,” quoting from so many other movies (and shuffling together cultural references that include Faulkner, Jean Renoir, Mozart and Bach as well as Hollywood movies), still feels entirely original. It still, that is, has the power to defy conventional expectations about what a movie should be while providing an utterly captivating moviegoing experience. A coherent plot, strong and credible emotions and motivations, convincing performances, visual continuity — all of these things are missing from “Breathless,” disregarded with a cavalier insouciance that feels like liberation. It turns out that a movie — this movie, anyway — doesn’t need any of those things, and that they might get in the way of other, more immediate pleasures. You are free, in other words, to revel in the beauty of Paris and Jean Seberg, the exquisite sangfroid of Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the restless velocity of Mr. Godard’s shooting style. And style, for those 90 minutes, is — to phrase it in the absolute, hyperbolic terms Mr. Godard has always favored — everything.

In a way, that skeptical young man was right: “Breathless” is not serious. It is a lark, a joke, a travesty of everything earnest and responsible that the cinema can (and perhaps should) provide. Is it a love story? A crime story? A cautionary tale or an act of brazen seduction? All of these things and none of them. It proceeds entirely by its own rules and on the momentum of its director’s audacity. That music! Those tracking shots that seem to snake through the streets of Paris in a single sprint! That long scene — almost a third of the movie’s running time — in which the two main characters laze around in a long postcoital seminar, talking about love, death, literature and music while the camera floats around them.

“Breathless” is a pop artifact and a daring work of art, made at a time when the two possibilities existed in a state of almost perfect convergence. That is the source of its uniqueness. Much as it may have influenced what was to come later, there is still nothing else quite like it. Its sexual candor is still surprising, and even now, at 50, it is still cool, still new, still — after all this time! — a bulletin from the future of movies.

Throat Exercises Can Relieve Sleep Apnea

The New York Times


May 24, 2010


For people suffering from sleep apnea, specialized breathing machines are the standard treatment.

The machines use a method called continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, which keeps the airway open and relieves potentially dangerous pauses in breathing during the night. But the machines are expensive, and some people complain that the mask and headgear cause uncomfortable side effects, like congestion.

One free and fairly simple alternative may be exercises that strengthen the throat. While they aren’t as established or as well studied as breathing machines, some research suggests they may reduce the severity of sleep apnea by building up muscles around the airway, making them less likely to collapse at night.

In a study published last year in The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, scientists recruited a group of people with obstructive sleep apnea and split them into two groups. One was trained to do breathing exercises daily, while the other did 30 minutes of throat exercises, including swallowing and chewing motions, placing the tip of the tongue against the front of the palate and sliding it back, and pronouncing certain vowels quickly and continuously.

After three months, subjects who did the throat exercises snored less, slept better and reduced the severity of their condition by 39 percent. They also showed reductions in neck circumference, a known risk factor for apnea. The control group showed almost no improvement.

Other randomized studies have found similar effects. One even showed that playing instruments that strengthen the airways, like the didgeridoo, can ease sleep apnea.


For people with sleep apnea, throat exercises may be a cheap and useful therapy.

Brain scans reveal that the mammillary bodies, shown in box and circled, of a sleep apnea patient (right)
are smaller than those of a healthy control subject (left).(U.C.L.A./Harper Lab)

The Burgess Shale fossils, a Rocky Mountain treasure trove found in 1909 just west of the B.C.-Alberta border, represent the planet’s single most important snapshot of life as it existed during the so-called “Cambrian explosion” of organisms about 530 million years ago.


African find shades of B.C.’s Burgess Shale: Paleontologists


MAY 18, 2010

The bizarre, long-extinct creatures that make up Canada’s world-famous Burgess Shale fossil site have been given a new lease on life after a half-billion years or so — thanks to a major paleontological discovery in Africa that resets the clock on a key moment in animal evolution.

The Burgess Shale fossils, a Rocky Mountain treasure trove found in 1909 just west of the B.C.-Alberta border, represent the planet’s single most important snapshot of life as it existed during the so-called “Cambrian explosion” of organisms about 530 million years ago.

But because nearly all of the exquisitely preserved animals at the B.C. site have been absent from the fossil record after the 500-million-year mark, the Burgess Shale animals are typically seen as evolution’s losers — a flash-in-the-pan community of trilobites and other ill-adapted, doomed dwellers on the ancient ocean floor.

Now, an international scientific team’s discovery of a much younger fossil bed — which appears to include scores of species also found at the renowned Canadian site — has added at least 20 million years to the evolutionary timeline of the Burgess Shale fauna.

The new fossil bonanza, located near the Atlas Mountains of southeastern Morocco, dates from about 480 million years ago and includes a huge array of Ordovician-era sponges, worms, mollusks and other soft-bodied organisms, many typical of the Burgess Shale site and thought to have died out eons earlier during the Cambrian age.

The discovery, which so far includes more than 1,500 individual specimens, was made by a team of eight researchers from the U.S., Britain, France, Ireland and Morocco. An article detailing the “exceptionally preserved fossils” and highlighting their significance in rewriting the Burgess Shale story appears in the latest issue of Nature.

The African fossils “indicate that Burgess Shale-type taxa continued to play an important role in the diversity and ecological structure of deeper marine communities well after the Middle Cambrian,” say the authors, led by Yale University paleontologist Peter Van Roy.

The team’s discovery “upends a long-held belief” that the Burgess Shale organisms went extinct abruptly, a summary of the study states.

“There was an anomaly in the fossil record,” states Van Roy. “Most of these animals just seemed to disappear.”

Now protected within Yoho National Park as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Burgess Shale fossil bed is considered one of the planet’s most important sites for the study of evolution.

The B.C. fossils were created at a time when the future Canadian land mass was situated near the Earth’s equator. The Burgess Shale creatures were preserved when an entire marine ecosystem was buried in mud that eventually hardened and became exposed hundreds of millions of years later in an outcrop of the Rockies.

U.S. paleontologist Charles Walcott, following reports of fabulous fossil finds by Canadian railway workers laying tracks through the mountains in the late 19th century, is said to have tripped over a block of shale that revealed the area’s remarkable supply of specimens.

Scientists have gathered or recorded tens of thousands of fossils from the site, capturing in remarkable detail the rich diversity of organisms that suddenly filled the world’s oceans a half-billion years ago, before their subsequent eclipse.

Among the imprints of animal remains excavated from the Burgess Shale is one called pikaia, an eel-like creature that has been classified as the earliest known, identifiable ancestor of modern vertebrates, including humans.

Last year, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the site’s 1909 discovery, the limited edition Shale Ale brand of beer was unveiled at a geologists’ conference in Calgary.

© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service

The New York Times

Creatures of Cambrian May Have Lived On


May 17, 2010

Ever since their discovery in 1909, the spectacular Burgess Shale outcrops in the Canadian Rockies have presented scientists with a cornucopia of evidence for the “explosion” of complex, multicellular life beginning some 550 million years ago.

The fossils, all new to science, were at first seen as little more than amazing curiosities from a time when life, except for bacteria and algae, was confined to the sea — and what is now Canada was just south of the Equator. In the last half century, however, paleontologists recognized that the Burgess Shale exemplified the radiation of diverse life forms unlike anything in earlier time. Here was evolution in action, organisms over time responding to changing fortunes through natural experimentation in new body forms and different ecological niches.

But the fossil record then goes dark: the Cambrian-period innovations in life appeared to have few clear descendants. Many scientists thought that the likely explanation for this mysterious disappearance was that a major extinction had wiped out much of the distinctive Cambrian life. It seemed that the complex organisms emerging in the Cambrian had come to an abrupt demise, disappearing with few traces in the later fossil record.

Not everyone was convinced, however, and now a trove of 480-million-year-old fossils in Morocco appears to strike a blow to the idea of a major extinction. The international team of scientists who discovered the 1,500 fossils said their find shows that the dark stretch in the fossil record more probably reflects an absence of preservation of fossils over the previous 25 million years.

The team reports in the current issue of the journal Nature that the large number of “exceptionally preserved” Moroccan species exhibits apparently strong links to Cambrian species known from fossil beds in China, Greenland and, most notably, the Burgess Shale. The scientists think this solves the mystery. The Moroccan fossils, they said, establish that Burgess Shale-type species “continued to have an important role in the diversity and ecological structure of deeper marine communities well after the Middle Cambrian.”

The Moroccan fossils include sponges, worms, trilobites and mollusks like clams, snails and relatives of the living nautilus. Another fossil was similar to today’s horseshoe crab, a biological throwback familiar to beachcombers. Now, the scientists said, its antiquity appears to be even greater — some 30 million years earlier than previously thought, possibly in the late Cambrian.

The discovery team’s principal scientist and lead author of the journal article was Peter Van Roy, a Belgian paleontologist who is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. He has worked in Moroccan fossil beds the last 10 years, but it was only last year on a field trip, financed by the National Geographic Society, that he and other scientists uncovered the riches of a site near the Atlas Mountains and the city of Zagora.

Scientists from Britain, France, Ireland, Morocco and the United States participated in the research and were co-authors of the team report. A local fossil collector, Mohammed Ou Said Ben Moulal, directed Dr. Van Roy to the rock outcrops he had scouted.

Soon it became clear, Dr. Van Roy said last week in an e-mail message from Morocco, that the team had “really discovered the whole gamut of these Burgess animals, the majority of which had never been found after the Middle Cambrian.”

A leading member of the team, Derek E. G. Briggs, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, cut his academic teeth studying the Burgess Shale. Dr. Briggs figured prominently in “Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History,” the 1989 book by Stephen Jay Gould about what the author called the “weird wonders” of the Cambrian period.

In the book, Dr. Gould, who died in 2002, pondered the mystery of the relatively sudden burst of new life designs in the Cambrian, followed by their apparent disappearance. “What turned it off so quickly?” he asked. A few pages before, quoting Charles Darwin, he seemed to despair of finding the fossils to answer the question.

“Darwin wrote,” Dr. Gould recalled, “that our imperfect fossil record is like a book preserving just a few pages, of these pages few lines, of the lines few words, and of those words few letters.”

Darwin’s metaphor pertained to the chances of preservation for bones and teeth. So referring to the predominance of soft-body anatomies of Cambrian life, Dr. Gould asked, “What hope can then be offered to the flesh and blood amidst the slings and arrows of such outrageous fortune?”

Dr. Briggs said in an interview that scientists for some time have suspected that “we were just not finding the right deposits and only seeing a small piece of the picture of what was going on in life back then.”

For that reason, Dr. Briggs said, he expected other scientists would be less surprised by the discovery than reassured. The fossil record for a long stretch after the Middle Cambrian may be spotty and minimal, but has not vanished. The Moroccan fossils not only reveal the continuation of many Cambrian life forms, he said, but show “the high potential that there are other places for finding these Cambrian-like organisms persisting in time.”

As a consequence, the discovery team wrote, the Moroccan sediments offer promising links between the Cambrian Explosion of multicellular life, exemplified in the Burgess Shale, and the early stages of what is known as the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event, which is considered “one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of marine life.”

This led to the emergence of fish about 400 million years ago and the migration of four-limbed vertebrates from water onto land 360 million years ago. After the catastrophic mass extinction at the end of the Permian period, about 250 million years ago, the dinosaurs came to the fore in a reptilian world, and after their extinction 65 million years ago, mammals came into their own, hominids evolving probably less than 8 million years ago, modern humans less than 200,000 years ago.

That any of these early Ordovician remains endured verges on the miraculous. Some with shells could be expected to fossilize, but most of these were soft-bodied creatures, prone to rapid decay. The Moroccan fossil beds, Dr. Briggs noted, were once the muddy bottom of an ocean. Storms stirred up the seabed, burying doomed creatures safe from scavengers and in recesses with little or no oxygen to promote decomposition. The sediment chemistry transformed iron and sulfide into pyrite, which coated and preserved the shapes of the animals, including their appendages, and mineralized internal tissue.

“The exquisite preservation of the soft anatomy,” Dr. Van Roy said, “allows more complete, accurate reconstructions of their genetic affinities and ecology than has hitherto been possible.”

Hard at work last week in the Moroccan fossil beds, Dr. Van Roy said, “I obviously intend to exploit this fantastic research opportunity to the fullest.”

Newly discovered fossil revealed as the mother of modern-day molluscs

Steve Connor, Science Editor

27 May 2010

It looks like something out of a Salvador Dali dreamscape but this bizarre sea creature, which lived about 500 million years ago, turns out to have been the mother of all squids – indeed it is the ancestor of octopuses, cuttlefish and all other cephalopod molluscs.

Scientists discovered the creature, named Nectocaris pteryx, after studying samples of fossilised rocks from the famous Burgess Shale of Canada, which provides a remarkably preserved snapshot of the weird and immensely diverse forms of life that evolved during the Cambrian period of geological history.

Nectocaris, which grew to a length of about 5cm, including its two front tentacles, is thought to have been a fast-moving predator which swam using its undulating, wing-like fins.

But crucially it could also shoot a jet of water from a funnel-like nozzle which it could swivel in various directions – a hallmark of modern-day cephalopods.

The researchers believe that this key anatomical detail, discovered by analysing 91 newly discovered fossils of Nectocaris, strongly suggests that it must be the original common ancestor of squids, octopuses and the beautiful chambered-shelled nautilus; the reason is that no other group of animals uses this form of jet propulsion.

“Our discovery allows us to push back the origin of cephalopods by at least 30 million years, to the famous Cambrian explosion about a half-billion years ago,” said Jean-Bernard Caron of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

“Soft tissues of cephalopods tend to decay quickly, so it was difficult to know what primitive cephalopods looked like. The Burgess Shale is well known for its exceptional preservation of soft-bodied animals,” Professor Caron said.

Until 500 million years ago, most life on Earth took the form of simple, single-celled micro-organisms. But during the Cambrian period it exploded into a huge variety of macroscopic, multicellular forms, with a diverse range of body architecture; some of these life forms gave rise to the major groups of animals alive today.

The cephalopods – the word means “head-feet” – are the most intelligent of the invertebrates, animals without backbones.

They have large brains, good vision and can use camouflage to hide from predators or ambush their prey. Despite the fascination they generate, scientists had been unsure of their origins, believing that they had evolved from snail-like molluscs with shells that became filled with gas to allow them to swim freely.

However, the latest study, published in the journal Nature, suggests that all cephalopods can now be traced back to Nectocaris, which shares the ability to hunt its prey using its two stalked eyes and a sophisticated system of jet propulsion, said Martin Smith of the University of Toronto.

“It’s long been thought that cephalopods evolved in the late Cambrian period, when gradual modifications to the shells of creeping, snail-like animals made them able to float. Nectocaris shows us that the first cephalopods actually started swimming without the aid of gas-filled shells,” Dr Smith said.

Modern cephalopods are very complex, with intricate organs and startling intelligence.

“We go from very simple pre-Cambrian life forms to something as complex as a cephalopod in the geological blink of an eye, which illustrates just how quickly evolution can produce complexity,” he said.

“We think that this extremely rare creature is an early ancestor of squids, octopuses and other cephalopods. This is significant because it means that primitive cephalopods were around much earlier than we thought, and offers a reinterpretation of the long-held origins of this important groups of marine animals.

“Our findings mean that cephalopods originated 30 million years earlier than we thought, and much closer to the first appearance of complex animals in the Cambrian explosion,” he added.