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Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth

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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice "Extraordinary. . . . Anyone with the slightest interest in biology should read this book."--The New York Times Book Review "A marvelous museum of the past four billion years on earth--capacious, jammed with treasures, full of learning and wide-eyed wonder."--The Boston Globe From its origins on the still-forming planet to the rece A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice "Extraordinary. . . . Anyone with the slightest interest in biology should read this book."--The New York Times Book Review "A marvelous museum of the past four billion years on earth--capacious, jammed with treasures, full of learning and wide-eyed wonder."--The Boston Globe From its origins on the still-forming planet to the recent emergence of Homo sapiens--one of the world's leading paleontologists offers an absorbing account of how and why life on earth developed as it did. Interlacing the tale of his own adventures in the field with vivid descriptions of creatures who emerged and disappeared in the long march of geologic time, Richard Fortey sheds light upon a fascinating array of evolutionary wonders, mysteries, and debates. Brimming with wit, literary style, and the joy of discovery, this is an indispensable book that will delight the general reader and the scientist alike. "A drama bolder and more sweeping than Gone with the Wind . . . a pleasure to read."--Science "A beautifully written and structured work . . . packed with lucid expositions of science."--Natural History


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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice "Extraordinary. . . . Anyone with the slightest interest in biology should read this book."--The New York Times Book Review "A marvelous museum of the past four billion years on earth--capacious, jammed with treasures, full of learning and wide-eyed wonder."--The Boston Globe From its origins on the still-forming planet to the rece A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice "Extraordinary. . . . Anyone with the slightest interest in biology should read this book."--The New York Times Book Review "A marvelous museum of the past four billion years on earth--capacious, jammed with treasures, full of learning and wide-eyed wonder."--The Boston Globe From its origins on the still-forming planet to the recent emergence of Homo sapiens--one of the world's leading paleontologists offers an absorbing account of how and why life on earth developed as it did. Interlacing the tale of his own adventures in the field with vivid descriptions of creatures who emerged and disappeared in the long march of geologic time, Richard Fortey sheds light upon a fascinating array of evolutionary wonders, mysteries, and debates. Brimming with wit, literary style, and the joy of discovery, this is an indispensable book that will delight the general reader and the scientist alike. "A drama bolder and more sweeping than Gone with the Wind . . . a pleasure to read."--Science "A beautifully written and structured work . . . packed with lucid expositions of science."--Natural History

30 review for Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth

  1. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    I've read this story before, many times. The interesting thing is how different each approach is to telling the story of the appearance and evolution of life on Earth. Carl Sagan approaches it with reverent awe, one of the Universe's great mysteries. Bill Bryson, on the other hand, took an outsider's view, since he is not really "in" on the whole paleontology thing. And Terry Pratchett and his buddies told the tale through the eyes of the Wizards of the Unseen University, which always makes thin I've read this story before, many times. The interesting thing is how different each approach is to telling the story of the appearance and evolution of life on Earth. Carl Sagan approaches it with reverent awe, one of the Universe's great mysteries. Bill Bryson, on the other hand, took an outsider's view, since he is not really "in" on the whole paleontology thing. And Terry Pratchett and his buddies told the tale through the eyes of the Wizards of the Unseen University, which always makes things interesting. Fortey's approach is somewhat different. He got into this by being a student of the Ancient, and has been studying the history of life since his boyhood. So, his take on the story is one of excited discovery. He does a very nice job at explaining just how thrilling it is to find a fossil tooth in a place where no one had found fossil teeth before, or why the fact that chalk is made of countless billions of dead sea creatures is cause for wonder. He was thrilled to find his first trilobite back when he was fourteen, and the thrill has never worn off. It is a testament to his talent that he is able to transmit that enthusiasm and love of the science to his writing. He takes us through the four billion years of life's evolution, keeping it interesting whether its the miracle of the cell or the miracle of the Homo sapiens diaspora. If you're interested in how you got here - and you want to kick some "intelligent design" nutbars in the ass - you'll enjoy this book.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kristen

    Great book but as much as I enjoyed it I'd recommend one of his more recent books instead. Fortey is one of those rare science writers that combines a gift for explanation with the rare feat of being a great writer and often invokes a Saganesque beauty of science. His description of tetrapods wandering across Pangaea as 'perfectly pandemic perambulation' and his constant inclusion of numberless quotes of fine literature and poetry sucks the reader in (in a way another British science author, who Great book but as much as I enjoyed it I'd recommend one of his more recent books instead. Fortey is one of those rare science writers that combines a gift for explanation with the rare feat of being a great writer and often invokes a Saganesque beauty of science. His description of tetrapods wandering across Pangaea as 'perfectly pandemic perambulation' and his constant inclusion of numberless quotes of fine literature and poetry sucks the reader in (in a way another British science author, who shall not be named, has always failed miserly at.) The religious language used in chapter two and in the conclusion as a means to show how an acceptance of science need not contradict ones beliefs was, I admit, a bit distasteful for a godless heathen like myself, but it's all for a good cause, is brief and is done is a way tasteful enough to make me consider giving this book to my science-hostile friends in hopes that Fortey can win them over. The thing I like best is Fortey's rather valiant attempt to give each period of geologic time the attention it deserves rather than concentrating on what is only most interesting to us humans and focusing on that disproportionately. Sure, most science books I've read mention how single-cell life makes up most of our biologic history and how very long the process of oxygenation of the atmosphere really took but it's always a fleeting mention whereas Fortey really makes you feel and appreciate the long passage of time these things entail. Fortey has a gift for really fleshing out the history of life on Earth and really making one appreciate the immense scale of geologic time in a way most pop science books do not.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Max

    Fortey, an exceptionally engaging science writer, takes us on a tour through four billion years of natural history. His review is neither focused nor comprehensive but more of a wide ranging travelogue touching on each period in evolutionary history and the author’s explorations. The high points are his evocative descriptions of landforms, flora and fauna both present and past. We traverse the terrain with him on his fossil collecting expeditions to remote corners of the world where he describes Fortey, an exceptionally engaging science writer, takes us on a tour through four billion years of natural history. His review is neither focused nor comprehensive but more of a wide ranging travelogue touching on each period in evolutionary history and the author’s explorations. The high points are his evocative descriptions of landforms, flora and fauna both present and past. We traverse the terrain with him on his fossil collecting expeditions to remote corners of the world where he describes what the earth and its inhabitants must have looked like in eras long ago. For example, he takes your imagination to a primitive Carboniferous forest with giant millipedes and dragon flies as big as seagulls. Fortey discusses the process and history of paleontology as he describes the progression of the flora and fauna through time. He includes his own personal experience and that of other paleontologists. It’s a big topic and a short book so Fortey offers up selected bite sized portions of the activity of each era. He describes the cyanobacteria and microbes that formed floating mats in the ocean 3,000 million years ago (mya) leaving their vestiges in fossilized stromatolites. Then he moves onto the Cambrian period (520 mya), its explosion of multicellular life and his personal specialty, trilobites, about which he has a separate book. So we get good coverage of these extinct arthropods along with graptolites and other creatures that prospered in the Ordovician. After 60% of marine species expire at the end of the Ordovician (443 mya), Fortey moves on to the Silurian when bony fish proliferate and plants and animals invade the coasts, streams and rivers ending with the conquest of land in the Devonian . Sadly a late Devonian extinction (375 mya) left only one order of Forty’s beloved trilobites. Fortey then gives us a succinct overview of the dinosaurs and their demise in the Permian extinction (250 mya) which also took out the last trilobite after a 270 million year run. Lastly he covers mammals that interest him including hominids right up to the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. While a fun quick spin through the eras, I do have some quibbles. It’s difficult to keep track of the flow of life from period to period amidst Fortey’s frequent diversions into the history of fossil discovery and his personal expeditions. Also, he often refers just to the period name without dates. I found myself going on line frequently to be sure I had the time periods and their creatures in proper relation to each other. The book lacks time line charts, an odd omission, although it has many excellent pictures of specimens and locations. His use of extended analogies often seems contrived. In one case he compares the rise and demise of animals in the ecosystem to the changes in orchestras as new instruments appeared and old ones disappeared over the centuries. In another he compares the ever increasing size of dinosaurs to the trend of ever bigger black pepper grinders in Italian restaurants. I would have been happier with less fluff. Still I enjoyed the book. Other readers may find his style a welcome relief from books that can overwhelm with one scientific detail after another.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Wanda

    I love the combination of autobiography and science in this book. I love Richard Fortey's writing style and I appreciate his sense of humour. Because of this book, I still have a strong desire to see Spitzbergen! I have always loved paleontology and use this book as a basis for the teaching that I have done on the subject. I have found it a very useful starting point for further research on the fossils which catch my attention. It is starting to show its age, as science moves on and a lot has bee I love the combination of autobiography and science in this book. I love Richard Fortey's writing style and I appreciate his sense of humour. Because of this book, I still have a strong desire to see Spitzbergen! I have always loved paleontology and use this book as a basis for the teaching that I have done on the subject. I have found it a very useful starting point for further research on the fossils which catch my attention. It is starting to show its age, as science moves on and a lot has been discovered since the book's publication, but it still provides a thoughtful history of life on earth.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    My brother realizes I am a paleontology geek, so I was hooked to "Life" the moment I picked it up! Like Fortey, I revel in the minutiae of life's march through the ages, from the Pre Cambian, Ediacarian fauna Spriggina, a possible precursor to trilobites, to the effects of bolides, which will really ruin your day.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Darrin

    This is my second book by Richard Fortey, retired paleontologist and science writer. I complained in the past about Fortey's flowery writing style but once I settle into his books, I find myself enjoying it so I am not going to take any stars away. For a science writer, he puts a lot of effort into his use of english to write what I find to be very engrossing science books about one of my favorite subjects, paleontology. I liked that the book focused on the little stuff...the microorganisms that This is my second book by Richard Fortey, retired paleontologist and science writer. I complained in the past about Fortey's flowery writing style but once I settle into his books, I find myself enjoying it so I am not going to take any stars away. For a science writer, he puts a lot of effort into his use of english to write what I find to be very engrossing science books about one of my favorite subjects, paleontology. I liked that the book focused on the little stuff...the microorganisms that transformed the earth during the proterozoic and the slow evolution of larger organisms in the oceans and the latter movement onto land that ended in the permian. This incredibly long time period encapsulating many millions of years in geologic time is really what set the stage for everything that came after. Dinosaurs, mammals and ultimately humans are not covered as extensively but still get their due. I own a copy of a large format picture book published by Dorling Kindersley titled Prehistoric Life: The Definitive Visual History of Life on Earth. I found it very useful to follow along in this picture book as I read Life. Fortey's chapters roughly covered geological time periods...ordovician, devonian, etc...which is how Prehistoric Life is laid out as well. It was enlightening to see the actual fossils Fortey describes and just added to what I learned about this time period in earth's history. A thoroughly enjoyable overview of life on earth.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Nicky

    This isn't my favourite of Fortey's books, possibly because I've read similar types of books by other writers before, so he isn't bringing me a new subject I don't expect to like in the same way as he was in his books about geology, or a key passion of his as in his book about trilobites (though trilobites have their place here, too, as you'd expect with Fortey). Still, I enjoy the way he writes and the way he draws together his themes, and this isn't a bad book -- it's just that he and others h This isn't my favourite of Fortey's books, possibly because I've read similar types of books by other writers before, so he isn't bringing me a new subject I don't expect to like in the same way as he was in his books about geology, or a key passion of his as in his book about trilobites (though trilobites have their place here, too, as you'd expect with Fortey). Still, I enjoy the way he writes and the way he draws together his themes, and this isn't a bad book -- it's just that he and others have covered a lot of this ground before. Actually, my favourite history-of-evolution type book is Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale. (When Dawkins sticks to science, he's great. When he decides to comment on twitter, rarely so.) That's just a quirk of the way he organises it, though, while Fortey's method is a little less organised, lingering on things of special interest to him. Which is fine, but didn't work so well for me in this case. That, and he doesn't deal with DNA as much as I'd like, because that's my special interest and not his. Nonetheless, Fortey knows his stuff and how to make it enjoyable, though I think I can understand people who complain about his writing style not being easy -- I tend to take it slow and savour it, myself.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Tomislav

    Like Richard Fortey, one of my own first experiences of the full biography of life on Earth was Disney’s animation of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, in the film Fantasia. This book is a more accurate and complete version of the same. At the time he wrote this, Fortey was a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, and a frequent BBC guest. I had previously read his Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind (US title), Like Richard Fortey, one of my own first experiences of the full biography of life on Earth was Disney’s animation of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, in the film Fantasia. This book is a more accurate and complete version of the same. At the time he wrote this, Fortey was a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, and a frequent BBC guest. I had previously read his Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind (US title), and enjoyed it enough to seek out this earlier and more foundational book. More than the story told by paleontology, this book is also the story of paleontology, with Fortey relating his personal experiences and perspectives on various episodes in the history of the field. Chapters are arranged chronologically, starting with the inception of life on Earth four billion years ago, moving through his own specialization during and around the Ordovician Period, up to just before the onset of recorded history. As you might expect, his writing is best when working in those fascinating undersea and early terrestrial worlds of the Cambrian through Permian Periods of the Paleozoic Era. Outside that area of his passion, the origins of life are better explained and understood from the perspective of molecular biology. And after those periods, he acknowledges the intense popular fascination with dinosaurs and early humans and turns more to stories of the paleontologists themselves – and he is someone to know them. All together it is a thorough, if light, overview. One shortcoming is that the book is now 23 years old, and state-of-the-understanding has changed in a few areas. The other is his showy style of writing. I think he must see himself as an entertaining polymath, drawing frequent references to classical literature of the British educated class. I speak the American dialect of the same language, and do not share that background. I’m aware of the references, but they are just not the touchstone for me that they must be for his audience. In summary, I appreciated the book, but I did not find it as fascinating as his book on fossil species that have survived with only small adaptation into modern times.

  9. 4 out of 5

    jade

    With Life: An Unauthorized Biography, British palaeontologist Richard Fortey attempts to pen down four billion years of life and evolution on earth for his readers in only 400 pages total. An ambitious aim, to be sure, and one that Fortey manages to live up to, though perhaps not in ways everybody might’ve expected (and there’s no doubt that he’s had to sacrifice a large amount of detail in order to fit four billion years into 400 pages). First and foremost, this is in no way a book that can be With Life: An Unauthorized Biography, British palaeontologist Richard Fortey attempts to pen down four billion years of life and evolution on earth for his readers in only 400 pages total. An ambitious aim, to be sure, and one that Fortey manages to live up to, though perhaps not in ways everybody might’ve expected (and there’s no doubt that he’s had to sacrifice a large amount of detail in order to fit four billion years into 400 pages). First and foremost, this is in no way a book that can be considered an academic textbook, since Fortey spends a lot of time weaving his own story as a beginning scientist through his tales of life’s history. I didn’t find this annoying or distracting, because I enjoyed the wonderment and enthusiasm it brought me via his own personal experiences, especially when he starts detailing his first big findings and expeditions. However, I can imagine that some readers, especially those with more advanced knowledge of the field, might be looking for something more than the image of a joyous young Fortey digging up his first trilobite. In short, something in a format closer to that of a textbook or a scientific book, giving more information and scrapping a lot of the autobiographical parts. I didn’t mind this though, and thought it brought a lot of life (no pun intended) to the book. Fortey’s style of writing was quite accessible, and his passion and enthusiasm for his own field of work managed to spark my interest even more as I read on. Very engaging, though I did have problems with the fact that Fortey always refers to practically every single species that turns up by its Latin name, sometimes without explaining what the life form in question actually is (or in a very vague manner). And I, being the “… curious and intelligent but perhaps mildly uninformed reader” that’s described on the back cover of my edition (with emphasis on the ‘uninformed’), couldn’t always keep up with this. It led to many frustrated look-ups, and made me wonder: why do this if curious yet uninformed people are your aimed audience? Another thing that bothered me is that Fortey doesn’t provide any information on scientists and/or researchers other than himself who have had a hand in providing the information that we now have on the origin and development of life. Along with the references and sources that, well, simply weren’t present, this felt like something that was truly missing from the book. Anyhow, let’s get back to the other good parts, shall we? I liked both style and most of the general substance in this book, and was particularly smitten with the chapters on the very earliest stages of life, and those on dinosaurs. Throughout this entire book, Fortey also stresses the importance of the fossil record, and how much we can actually learn from it. I also thought the links he made to plate tectonics to be superb, but I might be a little biased here since that is one of my own favourite topics. In conclusion, I thought this was a solid read and I think Fortey was brave when attempting to write something like this. Though near impossible, he sincerely tries to provide his audience with as many details as he can within the confines of 400 pages, yet ultimately fails a little in this goal. His enthusiasm was catching, I enjoyed the book wholeheartedly, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a book on life’s history with an autobiographical tone.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    After Fortey's Earth: An Intimate History nearly turned me into a geologist, I had pretty high expectations of 'Life.' In some respects, these were met. Fortey's prose is very nice, his metaphors creative, and his references erudite. Yet this book was fundamentally lacking most of the things I was looking for it - expectations I had no right to expect it to fulfill, really. I was disappointed first of all that Fortey really doesn't cite sources. If he had, anything I felt he'd short-shrifted wou After Fortey's Earth: An Intimate History nearly turned me into a geologist, I had pretty high expectations of 'Life.' In some respects, these were met. Fortey's prose is very nice, his metaphors creative, and his references erudite. Yet this book was fundamentally lacking most of the things I was looking for it - expectations I had no right to expect it to fulfill, really. I was disappointed first of all that Fortey really doesn't cite sources. If he had, anything I felt he'd short-shrifted would have been easy to continue digging into on my own. I was also disappointed that Life lacked the in-depth character histories of scientists and their discoveries that made Earth so great. This was not absent, but merely underdeveloped. I had been hoping in general for more detail, more information, and a greater sense of thoroughness and connection. The book felt superficial - I knew most of the material going in, and had been hoping for more of a focus on the broad changes in Earth's geochemistry and, for instance, how climatic cycles and supercontinent cycles interacted with evolution. This was tantalizingly alluded to frequently, but never approached more explicitly or in any detail. It is interesting to see Fortey treat evolution as a given but prove it in some ways much more convincingly than Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker. The fossil record is indomitable evidence – how else could you explain it? It's disappointing that Fortey doesn't discuss evolution in any more interesting ways though. I mean, it's the subject of his book, after all. He doesn't ever really seem interested in the connections between periods and the forces driving change, though. He just sort of tells what happens and then apologizes for writing as though there were any kind of intentional progress involved. If you're new to the history of life (i.e., young) then this book would be great for you. If you're already into it, you probably shouldn't waste your time.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Carlos

    An absolutely fantastic book that I would recommend to everyone, everywhere, from late high school on. Fortey turns entire epochs into captivating stories that make me immediately want more. His exploration of the Ordovician and Carboniferous were particularly captivating. Being a 1998 book, there were a few things that seemed dated, but none of those small issues took away from the sweeping magnitude of the overall story. Should particularly be required to be read by anyone you hear espousing c An absolutely fantastic book that I would recommend to everyone, everywhere, from late high school on. Fortey turns entire epochs into captivating stories that make me immediately want more. His exploration of the Ordovician and Carboniferous were particularly captivating. Being a 1998 book, there were a few things that seemed dated, but none of those small issues took away from the sweeping magnitude of the overall story. Should particularly be required to be read by anyone you hear espousing creationist, "intelligent design", other flat earth nonsense. I might start this again right now...

  12. 5 out of 5

    Susan Hanberry

    Very well-written. Very literate writer. I didn't learn much new about the topic, but the writing is so beautiful it was a lovely review.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jordan Venn

    It sprawls a little but it's a great history of life and had some really beautiful and thoughtful moments. One of my favourite all-time books.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Deborah Cordes

    Beautifully written, informative, and evocative. I've never read Fortey before, and I will add his newer works to my "to do" list.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Viktoria Tomcheva

    To many Americans, and nearly all young ones, paleontology can be summed up in one word: dinosaurs. Amid all the current dinomania, in fact, it is easy to forget that the dinosaurs constitute only one small chapter of the history of life, which is filled with countless tales of creatures equally engaging, if not as large. This imbalance is skillfully redressed in Richard Fortey's ''Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth,'' an account of the history of life incor To many Americans, and nearly all young ones, paleontology can be summed up in one word: dinosaurs. Amid all the current dinomania, in fact, it is easy to forget that the dinosaurs constitute only one small chapter of the history of life, which is filled with countless tales of creatures equally engaging, if not as large. This imbalance is skillfully redressed in Richard Fortey's ''Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth,'' an account of the history of life incorporating much of the latest research. Surprisingly, this is the first popular but scholarly narrative of life's history written by a professional (Fortey is a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London). By filling this empty niche Fortey performs a valuable service, for to understand evolution we must begin with the facts of life, the biological history of earth. His tale is not a boring slog through the strata, but an eclectic waltz among organisms at once extraordinary and extinct, the ''endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful'' admired by Darwin in ''The Origin of Species.'' With a deep understanding of his science, extensive experience prospecting for fossils and considerable writing skills, Fortey brings to life not only dinosaurs and fossils of human ancestors but also less renowned creatures like bear-sized rodents, dragonflies with five-foot wingspans and carnivorous kangaroos. Reconstructing the slow process of evolution is not an easy job, but paleontologists occupy an advantageous position. While other students struggle to understand evolution by observing living species, paleontologists have a direct window on the history of life. For them, evolution is written in the rocks. Their work is plagued, however, with its own special difficulties. As Fortey notes, fossils represent a biased and eccentric sample of life's story. Fragile, squishy, or land-dwelling organisms are less likely to be preserved than heavier-boned or marine creatures, and much of the fossil record is either buried too deep for access or has been destroyed by the endless churning of the earth's crust. It has been estimated that fewer than 1 percent of all the species that ever lived are known to us through fossils. Despite these problems, the past two decades have brought rapid prog-ress in understanding the development of life. Fortey does not merely recite this history chronologically; he focuses on recent, major evolutionary finds. These include a remarkable series showing the evolution of whales from their terrestrial ancestors, and evidence for an ''arms race'' that occurred 150 million years ago when the sudden rise of a fierce array of marine predators -- including venomous octopods, drilling snails and shell-crushing crabs and fish -- touched off a round of defensive adaptations in their helpless prey. Fortey enhances his basic story with many asides, including lessons on relevant aspects of geology (such as continental drift and the dating of rocks), entertaining portraits of eccentric paleontologists and many tales of his experiences on fossil digs throughout the world. The book opens with a long and lively account of his first expedition, a six-month trip to the island of Spitsbergen, during which numbing cold, bad food and personal squabbles all but prevented his team from mining a rare cache of 500-million-year-old Ordovician fossils. Among biologists, field ecologists tend to be seen as ''tough guys,'' forever grappling with lions or pythons in obscure parts of the world. Now, however, I have a new respect for paleontologists as they engage in their own perpetual battles with unforgiving rock. Finally, Fortey details many recent controversies in paleontology, including the debate about the demise of the dinosaurs. Here he provides a much-needed correction of Stephen Jay Gould's famous conclusions about the creatures of the Burgess Shale, an area of the Canadian Rockies rich in fossils. In his book ''Wonderful Life,'' Gould portrays these bizarre animals as victims of ''bad luck'' who died without issue, bolstering his view that much of present life reflects a blind and random pruning of an earlier and vastly more diverse world. As Fortey notes, Burgess Shale animals are now known to be forerunners of existing species, undermining Gould's claim that if evolution were replayed, the vagaries of chance would populate the modern world with creatures substantially different from those we know. While Fortey has corrected some of Gould's scientific conclusions, he has also borrowed some of his literary tendencies. Just as museums have evolved from places of science to palaces of entertainment (a trend loudly decried by Fortey), so popular writing on evolution has developed from spare but gracefully descriptive prose to the jazzed-up style favored by Gould, studded with digressions, rhetorical flourishes and obscure literary allusions. Fortey has obviously been influenced by this trend, and while his tangential material often spices up the text, it occasionally makes the book hard to digest. Exercised by some particularly juicy fossil, Fortey sometimes lapses into overheated prose, extended metaphors (including an unfortunate comparison of evolutionary arms races to the increasing size of pepper mills in Italian restaurants), or breezy but annoying interpolations (dilating on the persistence of an ancient plant, he suddenly exclaims ''Live and let liverwort!''). The text, though eminently readable, would have been improved by including more bones and fewer bon mots. The weakest chapter is the penultimate one, describing human evolution and the rise of society. This is well-trodden ground that has received better coverage in several recent books. After telling the tale of hominids, still subject to much controversy, Fortey cannot resist a detour into philosophical territory. He concludes that two features set us apart from all other animals: our consciousness and our ability to deceive other members of our species. Both claims are dubious. Although consciousness is a thorny problem, many behaviorists have concluded that it is widespread in primates and other animals. Moreover, members of many species deceive their fellows. Some male fish, for example, pretend to be female in appearance and behavior, a deception that allows them to approach spawning males and steal their mates. Because it is largely a recitation of facts, ''Life'' lacks the intellectual challenge that permeates some popular accounts of evolution; readers weaned on the writings of Gould or Richard Dawkins may feel the need for thicker gruel. While the book dwells on the products of evolution and not the forces producing them, much of the attraction of paleontology lies in pondering the mechanisms driving the process. Readers wanting a fuller picture should follow the ingestion of ''Life'' with a digestif of Dawkins, who has written several absorbing books on the power of natural selection. Nevertheless, no one can finish ''Life'' without having accrued considerable knowledge of evolutionary history and a sense of the excitement of discovery that can be conveyed only by a professional scientist chipping away at the rock face of his discipline. Anyone with the slightest interest in biology should read this book, pass it along to those who think that paleontology begins and ends with dinosaurs and then reflect on the many other curious creatures that, as part of the missing 99 percent of the history of life, will be forever unknown to us.

  16. 5 out of 5

    John

    Richard Fortey has almost done the impossible, describing in vivid, elegant prose, the history of life on Earth in a mere 322 pages. Yet I fear he gives too cursory a treatment; one which have benefited immensely from including additional drawings, diagrams, and perhaps, photographs, offering readers more visual insights on Planet Earth's rich biological history. Among his finest achievements are his excellent descriptions of cladistics as an important methodological tool for classifying animal Richard Fortey has almost done the impossible, describing in vivid, elegant prose, the history of life on Earth in a mere 322 pages. Yet I fear he gives too cursory a treatment; one which have benefited immensely from including additional drawings, diagrams, and perhaps, photographs, offering readers more visual insights on Planet Earth's rich biological history. Among his finest achievements are his excellent descriptions of cladistics as an important methodological tool for classifying animal species and higher taxa (The best I've read in popular science literature so far.), the role of plate tectonics in influencing the history of life, dinosaurs, and the terminal Cretaceous mass extinction which killed off non-avian dinosaurs. Although his professional specialty is invertebrate paleobiology, Fortey does an admirable job describing the conquest of the land by plants and arthropods and the terrestrial reptilian and mammalian faunas which follow. I also commend his frequent insights on the history of paleontology, offering interesting vignettes which give readers an inside look on paleontology as a profession. He opens with an introductory chapter about his graduate education that ought to appeal to anyone thinking of pursuing paleontology as a vocation. It's cast in vivid, exciting prose that could be drawn from the pages of a bestselling thriller. Yet there are some major omissions. Fortey dismisses or ignores the important contributions of University of Chicago paleontologists David Raup and the late Jack Sepkoski in transforming paleontology into a more rigorous, statistically oriented science. And he ignores major contributions from other important American paleontologists such as Niles Eldredge (However, he does cite Eldredge in his bibliography.), George Gaylord Simpson, and Steven M. Stanley, to name but a few, in favor of those from Great Britain. Judging from Fortey's comments, you might think that Stephen Jay Gould was the most important 20th Century American paleontologist. So anyone who thinks that this is simultaneously an excellent history of paleontology and an elegant history of life will be sadly mistaken. Despite its numerous flaws, I do recommend Fortey's book, as the most succinct overview of the history of life on Earth yet published. (Reposted from my 2001 Amazon review)

  17. 4 out of 5

    James

    An incredibly journey starting with a cosmological timeline and the formation of the planets, moving into a geological timeline covering the earliest days of planet Earth and several hundred million years of 'planetary evolution'. Starting when Earth begins to take shape from base materials in the solar system orbiting the sun, moving forward to the first single cell lifeforms appearing in the fossil records, how the early atmosphere was formed by cellular life, and how each successive generatio An incredibly journey starting with a cosmological timeline and the formation of the planets, moving into a geological timeline covering the earliest days of planet Earth and several hundred million years of 'planetary evolution'. Starting when Earth begins to take shape from base materials in the solar system orbiting the sun, moving forward to the first single cell lifeforms appearing in the fossil records, how the early atmosphere was formed by cellular life, and how each successive generation of life had an impact on the planet and atmosphere - which led to yet another batch of evolutionary changes and developments. Single celled life thrived and eventually came together building colonies, groups, and adapting until simple celled life grew into more complex forms. Eventually clusters of single celled life gave way to multi-cellular life which had effects on the planet and atmosphere, which in turn led to more adaptation and more evolutionary steps. Multi-cellular life gave way to more complex forms and bigger forms of life, each step taking thousands upon thousands, millions upon millions of years. Each small step either failing to continue or leading to something new, eventually the small steps added up to medium steps, those led to larger and larger steps as life grew more complex. The Folio Society edition did have a bit of a textbook feel to me, but not in a bad way. It was a very well put together book with detailed graphics and images demonstrating many of the steps taken over time.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sohail

    Many years ago, when I was back in the university, there were certain professors who were the undisputed masters of storytelling. They'd tell you about the meal they had the night before. They'd talk - non-stop- about their awesomeness, and they'd always find an excuse to tell you about their personal lives. The interesting thing is that they were 'supposed' to lecture on certain subjects, and if you were patient enough, you'd find out that this they did, occasionally, when they were not talking Many years ago, when I was back in the university, there were certain professors who were the undisputed masters of storytelling. They'd tell you about the meal they had the night before. They'd talk - non-stop- about their awesomeness, and they'd always find an excuse to tell you about their personal lives. The interesting thing is that they were 'supposed' to lecture on certain subjects, and if you were patient enough, you'd find out that this they did, occasionally, when they were not talking about their last meal. Many students loved them: those professors were so awesome after all! These student loved them because instead of hearing a boring scientific lecture, the professors would lecture about their marital problems, personal drama, and interesting adventures in Thailand. How romantic! Students loved those professors! Because while listening to stories, they got the illusion that they were doing something scientific. I hated those professors. They wasted my time with their stories. They forgot that I did not attend those classes for stories. I had no interest in their adventures in Thailand. I didn't care about Thai girls. Reading this book was a very nostalgic experience. It reminded me of those 'awesome' professors and their adventures in Thailand. Some chapters are better than others, especially towards the end of the book. So, now that I have finished the book, I have to increase my rating from 2 to 3. Nevertheless, this book is far from scientific, and there is to little to learn.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Stewartwalker

    A major disappointment. Some of the worst writing I have seen. A couple of examples: "You do no have to be a fanatical reductionist to understand that the soul of life is carbonaceous and the soul of rock siliceous." "You might say that our atmosphere, and the possibility of life itself, was the consequence of a vast, terrestrial flatulence risen from the bowels of the Earth." In addition to the style, the author treats scientific research as speculation and uses "may believe" and "must assume" wit A major disappointment. Some of the worst writing I have seen. A couple of examples: "You do no have to be a fanatical reductionist to understand that the soul of life is carbonaceous and the soul of rock siliceous." "You might say that our atmosphere, and the possibility of life itself, was the consequence of a vast, terrestrial flatulence risen from the bowels of the Earth." In addition to the style, the author treats scientific research as speculation and uses "may believe" and "must assume" without explaining the science. I couldn't get beyond the 2nd chapter.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Cassandra Kay Silva

    Of the two books I have read by this author. His book entitled Earth was much better than this. This was still fairly comprehensive for the size and was enjoyable in a sense, but I think the writing was not as good and the layout was a bit less well conceived. I should have liked this one better for subject matter alone but he really does a wonderful job from the geology perspective, much more than the biology side of things.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Lowed

    Am I aspiring to become a scientist? Or a Biologist- for that matter? I think not! I have NOT always been a fan of the quantitative part of Science. But to say that I did not learn anything new from this book will be a big lie. It was not so much as what I have learned new but more of how this part of history is being approached by the author. It's refreshing, interesting and totally enlightening! And I even got the folio edition of this book which I consider a plus point! :)

  22. 4 out of 5

    Martha

    Engaging, fascinating, beautifully written. So full of information that I'll need to read it again (or again and again) to better remember many of the stages and epochs of life's evolution. Would highly recommend.

  23. 4 out of 5

    The Final Chapter

    Low 4. Fortey has provided an accessible and highly informative account of evolution. The book follows a line of development which mirrors ‘stratigraphy’ – the study of sedimentary rocks and the fossil faunas they contain, thus dating the emergence of all life-forms - in following a linear trajectory through history of life on Earth. What such analysis reveals is that there have been clear moments in the history of the Earth in which a cataclysmic event, such as the impact of a great meteorite, Low 4. Fortey has provided an accessible and highly informative account of evolution. The book follows a line of development which mirrors ‘stratigraphy’ – the study of sedimentary rocks and the fossil faunas they contain, thus dating the emergence of all life-forms - in following a linear trajectory through history of life on Earth. What such analysis reveals is that there have been clear moments in the history of the Earth in which a cataclysmic event, such as the impact of a great meteorite, or an ice age, has punctuated the fossil record, like chapter headings in a story. The author notes that despite development of more accurate radiocarbon dating, this area of science has held on to labels such as Jurassic, which band together tens of millions of years. Fortey maintains that the history of evolution is equally a story in which ‘teleology’, or evolutionary development in line with purposeful pursuit of perfection, plays a part, just as chance, like an evolutionary throw of the dice, does. The earth was born from dust from a nascent star which accumulated in a mass as it spun trapped in the thrall of the Sun. It was formerly believed that such accretion was a gradual process, but currently it is argued that such a creative event was conceived violently, with meteorites continually annealing to the chaotic mass. On especially violent impact spun off the Moon between just over 4,500-3,500 million years ago. The feverish cauterisation shuffled and recombined elements while heating up the interior of the planet. What gave life its first potential foothold on the planet was the remarkable correlation between the planet’s size and temperature – a smaller planet would have burnt out, while a larger one may not have attained surface temperatures to sustain life. Another important contributing factor to the emergence of life on the planet, was the fact that it spun on its axis, thereby allowing all faces to be presented to the Sun, while the distance to the latter is not too short to absorb dangerous radiation levels. The chemical elements found in the Earth’s layers are the legacy of those early meteoric impacts, the central one being carbon, a ubiquitous and indispensable ingredient of life. Carbon atoms link in chains and bind with other atoms to fashion a whole array of organic chemicals. As the Earth’s solid crust developed, vents and volcanoes allowed gases to escape which created the planet’s atmosphere, retained by gravity while heated and processed by the Sun’s rays. What Fortey reveals is that Darwin had been extremely prescient in his suggestion that life had emerged from a ‘primeval soup’ with the correct balance of ingredients and transformed by heat. What is clear is that all life shares common characteristics at a molecular level. All scientists agree that the planet’s original atmosphere would have been poisonous to oxygen-dependent life-forms, with less than 0.1% present of oxygen’s current levels. However carbon-based elements were able to harness such poisonous ingredients for creative ends, in conjunction with other elements identified by Darwin – phosphorous and clay. Ironically, the Bible’s retelling of the creation of Adam from clay may have some element of truth as its atoms are arranged in sheets between which other chemicals can concentrate and thereby react. The first life-forms were bacteria such as ‘methanogens’ which thrive and reproduce in intense heat, and are found near volcanic vents and at great depth in the layers of the Earth – such organisms are termed ‘Archae’ in scientific papers. These organisms are ‘anarobes’ in that their biochemistry only operate in the absence of oxygen and recent research speculates that the real cradle of life occurred around ‘pyritferous seeps’, places where emanations from the planet’s interior seeped into the oceans. The quantity of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere built up over millennia; released as a by-product of primitive organisms’, ‘cyanobacteria’ or ‘blue-greens’ which still abound under dripping taps, ponds, and arctic climes, breaking down of carbon dioxide for their own nourishment. This accumulation of oxygen eventually paved the way for development of more advanced organisms. Although the first obvious biological structure was formed of skins or mats of interweaved ‘cyanobacteria’, it was within such structures that more complex cells were born with a nucleus holding a genetic blueprint. The latter captured ‘cyanobacteria’ within their cell structure, transforming them into ‘chloroplasts’, found in every plant cell today, thereby enabling them to photosynthesise. As evolution progressed, these advanced cells incorporated other structures such as ‘mitochondria’, aiding aerobic respiration; and ‘lysosomes’ enabling food processing. The first animals appeared in the Pre-Cambrian era, among which were the ‘Edicara Fauna’ or jellyfish. Foley states that what is indisputable is that one of the greatest transformations in the history of this planet took place at the end of this era, and consisted of an episode of mass extinction. After millennia of gradual painstaking development, evolution underwent a rapid revolution in the subsequent Cambrian period with, in a shortened passage of time, the emergence of a great variety of life-forms, some accompanied by shells. Among the latter were the ‘brachiopods’, distant relatives of snails and clams, ‘trilobites’, and ‘arthropods’, insects and crustaceans with jointed bodies. Fortey points out that ‘trilobites’ were not primitive organisms, possessing nervous systems, eyes, and brains of a sort, while their shell of calcium carbonate ensured their prevalence in the fossil record. The Cambrian era witnessed the first recognisable marine ecology and the first emergence of predatory behaviour with clear hunters and hunted. The author considers how the evolutionary tree has been reinterpreted. Whereas in the past it was regarded as one which ever branched outwards, it is now equated to resembling a Christmas tree, where it is wider at the base and thins upwards. Despite the plethora of Cambrian organisms which fell foul of the ‘survival of the fittest’ Foley indicates that there are few which would be unrecognisable to us. Moreover, he compares the rapid changes as a virtual primeval ‘arms race’ in which appearance of the first predators led to species developing ever more advanced protective skeletons, which prompted further developments in an endless cycle. The manner in which life evolved was heavily dependent on the manner in which the continents drifted as a result of plate tectonics. Originally, this process was understood to have resulted from the division of a supercontinent, Pangaea, some 220 million years ago, during the Triassic era. However, modern interpretation regards Pangaea itself as resulting from earlier continental drifts reaching back to the Pre-Cambrian period. The third of the planet not containing life-forms in the Cambrian period equates to the land mass, and the colonisation of the land by plants was only possible once several obstacles were surmounted. This would reveal that there had to exist many precursors to those species which eventually succeeded. One obstacle consisted of avoiding desiccation by developing waxy coats to cut out or reduce water loss, and a subsequent necessary development was the emergence of ‘stomata’, which admit air but which close when the plant needs to retain water. The next major development occurred with the emergence of land animals. By the Devonian era, between 410-360 million years ago, jawed fish with backbones appeared, which were the ancestors of all land animals Just as plant species developed ‘stomata, so land species developed lungs, with the appropriately named ‘lungfish’ developing the organ to enable them to survive periods of drought when rivers dried up. The Devonian period is so named as most of the rocks which underlie Exmoor date from this period, and it is ironic that one of this country’s most peaceful counties has lent its name to one of the most revolutionary periods of this planet’s history. It was only in the 1970s that ‘cladistics’ gained acceptance in the scientific community. This centres on the study of points at which the evolutionary tree branches out, estimating the relationships between distinct species, where each new branch coincides with the development of a new characteristic. The founding father of such studies, Willi Hennig, after initial hostility from the establishment, is now regarded akin to a secular saint. The greening of the Earth which occurred in the Devonian era became a luxurious forest of trees in the Carboniferous period, though flowers were yet to bloom in colour. During the latter period, the mergence of trees equipped with lignin and a trunk to bear the weight, and capillary action to transport water was extremely rapid. The exact dating for the evolution of the reptilian egg and the emergence of flight cannot be known for certain but it does appear that the Carboniferous period was one whose atmospheric conditions lent itself to gigantism in terms of both plants and insects. This period was unusual in that oxygen production from photosynthesis outstripped its removal, allowing for the appearance of monster arthropods. It was in this heady atmosphere that the first amniote egg, protected by a membrane, appeared, giving birth to the first reptile. What fuelled the emergence of both dinosaurs and mammals was the formation of Pangaea, with the subsequent story of terrestrial life denoted by superiority of one or the other. Yet, it would be the mass extinction at the end of the Permian era, some 250 million years ago, which would herald the appearance of most of the animal species we share the planet with today. It has been estimated that 96% of the marine species died out, including the trilobites, while the extinction of land vertebrates was less marked. The cause of this extinction remains a mystery but was probably due to a combination of climactic and geographical factors, as movement of the tectonic plates led to sweeping changes in local environments. The Cretaceous period witnessed the blossoming of flowers which developed chemical irritants as protection, which, in turn, led to evolutionary changes in insects to not only counteract such defences, but also to incorporate the same chemicals into their own means of self-defence. In tandem with such developments was that of inducements to pollination. The mystery surrounding the disappearance of the dinosaurs, was first explained as being the result of a mass extinction event by Luis Alvarez in 1980, and then by the subsequent discovery of an impact crater off the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. What is obvious is that their disappearance led to the predominance of warm-blooded mammals. In the early 1990s molecular biologists estimated the divergence between Man and his closest relative as occurring some 5 million years ago. It would be the ecological change from forest to savannah, between 4-5 million years ago, which would trigger the most important steps in human evolution. Fortey concludes with a short summary of twentieth century findings in terms of fossil records of the early ancestors of Man.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Nick

    To me this was an experiment. I am not used to reading books on paleontology but as a child I had a sidenote interest in animals both living and extinct that I have nourished from time to time with the odd documentary and article. This however is the first book I have read on the subject and it left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand it is well written and with a clear objective to get as many people as possible exited about trilobites (and all the other stuff in the book). I can't shake th To me this was an experiment. I am not used to reading books on paleontology but as a child I had a sidenote interest in animals both living and extinct that I have nourished from time to time with the odd documentary and article. This however is the first book I have read on the subject and it left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand it is well written and with a clear objective to get as many people as possible exited about trilobites (and all the other stuff in the book). I can't shake the feeling that Fortey is somewhat nostalgic for what he perceives as the glorious time when upper class and middle class UK society were enthusiastic about ferns, fossils and learning to draw plants and animals based on a glance or a few bits and pieces preserved in rock. The above along with his personal anecdotes on how he experienced his life in the field, science conventions and major debates in his field made the book a lot less worthwhile for me. I get why it is there, to make it more lively but I can't shake the feeling I would have rather read more about the many forms of life that were common and rare in place of how he accidentally scared a waitress in Thailand. I did like his remarks and "think about this little idea" moments as I did appreciate the glimpse we get off how theories in paleontology come to be wide accepted (a lot less cordial then I expected) by all means he is rather brutally honest about the lesser aspects of his colleagues and general social norms that governs his field. With pride and greed intermixing with disdain and provincialism to result in often toxic conventions of colorful characters (they do seem a lot more interesting even if less efficient). The book also did have its moments of wonder when I was swept away to other places and times, saw incredible beings and wondered if the dice had fallen just a little different. But these positive parts of the book mixed with the aspects I did not appreciate were even more so downplayed by a final flaw, chaos. His chapters read like his mind, it jumps back and forth and we follow along his train of thought that as trains of thought go is rather incoherent. For me a good book is one I can pick up and check a few chapters and parts of those chapters. Say I would like to refresh my knowledge of early birds well I have to read the whole chapter of triasic to cretateous for it is spread allover. So in conclusion, I liked the book for it's moments of wonder it evoked as well as the glimpse into the social norms of paleontologists but it was not quite what I was looking for.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Martin Oetiker

    This is an excellent, personal and very lyrical account of the history of life on planet Earth. Richard Fortey is a great story teller, an expert in geology and evolution, who is able to make a vast & intricate subject understandable and interesting to a general reader. He gracefully interweaves events from his own life with the main theme of the book, noting how chance events, competition and the environment played a similar role in his personal journey as it did in the evolution of life, start This is an excellent, personal and very lyrical account of the history of life on planet Earth. Richard Fortey is a great story teller, an expert in geology and evolution, who is able to make a vast & intricate subject understandable and interesting to a general reader. He gracefully interweaves events from his own life with the main theme of the book, noting how chance events, competition and the environment played a similar role in his personal journey as it did in the evolution of life, starting slowly and gradually building in speed & complexity like Ravel’s Bollero. The book opens with an amusing description of his first geological expedition to the Arctic island of Spitzbergen as a raw Cambridge university undergraduate. He introduces us to the vastness of geological time as he contemplates the origin of life in the vast, endless ocean. He debates various theories on the origin of life approx 4 billion years ago, and then traces the major developments which have led from single celled bacteria & archea, the symbiotic origin of eukaryotes and the development of multicellular organisms, to the Cambrian Explosion 540 million years ago, which established all the major phyla of modern day plants, fungi & animals. He describes the major innovations of life like the formation of membranes, the nucleus, mitochondria, photosynthesis & sexual reproduction which enabled the evolution of complex life. He then describes the evolution of all the major phyla from sponges & jellyfish, coral, molluscs, crustaceans, cephalopods, fish, insects, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, birds & mammals as life moved onto the land and into the air. He often refers to the interaction between the geology & life, such as the oxidation of the atmosphere, the formation of volcanic islands, the movement of the continents via plate tectonics, and the formation of coal and hydrocarbons from organic matter and the various mass extinctions. Finally he talks about human evolution as we emerged from our mammal / primate / ape ancestors. This section seems a bit dated as there have been major discoveries and new ideas in the 23 years since this book was published, especially in the field of genetics. However, despite this, it is an excellent and well written book and provides a great overview of this fascinating subject.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jerald Pinson

    Richard Fortey's narrative of life is rich in detail and exuberant prose. As with most books on the subject, Fortey begins the first cells and photosynthetic bacterial mats that populated the world's oceans without much company for hundreds of millions of years. Beginning some 750 million years ago, the temp of diversification increased, as evidenced by the Ediacaran fauna, the Burgess Shale, and the transition of plants and animals onto land, all within a relatively short space of time. But For Richard Fortey's narrative of life is rich in detail and exuberant prose. As with most books on the subject, Fortey begins the first cells and photosynthetic bacterial mats that populated the world's oceans without much company for hundreds of millions of years. Beginning some 750 million years ago, the temp of diversification increased, as evidenced by the Ediacaran fauna, the Burgess Shale, and the transition of plants and animals onto land, all within a relatively short space of time. But Fortey's narrative isn't written in the form of a textbook. Being written for a broad audience, it's an enjoyable and easy read, with plenty of diversions to keep the reader's interest piqued. At least 1/3 of the book deals with the human stories associated with the history of life: of fossil discovery, the development of theory, and the various ways researchers pieced together the history of Earth, often using nothing but scant clues, running into multiple dead ends, and having to contend with the vitriol and bile of adversarial colleagues. While these stories add flavor to Fortey's history of life — and open a window into the history of science — they do detract somewhat from the overall narrative. Instead of covering deep time history in each chapter sequentially, Fortey presents history piecemeal, often in a disjointed fashion that's constantly interrupted or guided by the human aspects of the tale. Consequently, there's a lot of detail that's lacking in the book. Otherwise, Fortey provides a vivid and — at times — poignant account of the history of life on Earth. And unlike some, Fortey doesn't place much of a special emphasis on the evolution of humans, to which he devotes a chapter near the end. Rather, the origin of Homo sapiens is presented in just the same way as every other group he records, albeit with a bit more detail. While this books is a bit dated by now, I recommend it for anyone approaching the history of life for the first time, or for anyone looking for a quick refresher.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sebastian

    I really wanted to like this book more than I did. Turns out, I know most of what it tells us – besides the obvious point that it is a familiar story to anyone with a decent general education in biology (at least the outline is). I have read this story, better written, in a number of other works. Fortey even quips about “the common perception of geological history” at the start of Chapter 9, but then more or less goes along with it for the remaining chapters, touching on most of the familiar bas I really wanted to like this book more than I did. Turns out, I know most of what it tells us – besides the obvious point that it is a familiar story to anyone with a decent general education in biology (at least the outline is). I have read this story, better written, in a number of other works. Fortey even quips about “the common perception of geological history” at the start of Chapter 9, but then more or less goes along with it for the remaining chapters, touching on most of the familiar bases; hello to the main groups of dinosaurs and those pesky aquatic fellows and those other flittering ones who aren’t really dinosaurs but what can you do, hello to the Smilodon and the horse and all the jolly wooly elephantine family, hello to the giant sloths and miscellaneous marsupials of Australia, and finally, hello to Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus boisei, and of course, cap it off with our nearest family of Homos. The thing is, I have picture books from way back when I was a wee tot that go through this same sequence. The writing, although very beautiful, also seems a bit disjointed. There are bits about more or less famous scientists and bits about their discoveries, but rarely is there a clear narrative link between the two that would, possibly, interweave the story of the discovery with what we now know about these facts into a whole that would be greater than its parts. Now that the grumbling is out of the way, I have to add that it is not a bad book per se – the first part about the very beginnings of life is fascinating stuff and it shows that Fortey’s specialty are earlier life forms, such as his trilobites – but it faces truly stiff competition in the sub-sub-genre of “overview of all life” and despite the fact that the author may be more legit science-wise than some of his competitors, he does lag a bit writing-wise.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    This is my second book by Fortey and I enjoyed it and learned a lot despite it being 20 years old. In those 2 decades many new fossils have been discovered and molecular biology has made huge strides in our understanding of the genetic relationships between living organisms. Fortey does a wonderful job summarizing the earliest fossils of simple life forms and where the rocks that bare them are found. Throughout the book he relates the fossils with the types of habitats they inhabited and the posi This is my second book by Fortey and I enjoyed it and learned a lot despite it being 20 years old. In those 2 decades many new fossils have been discovered and molecular biology has made huge strides in our understanding of the genetic relationships between living organisms. Fortey does a wonderful job summarizing the earliest fossils of simple life forms and where the rocks that bare them are found. Throughout the book he relates the fossils with the types of habitats they inhabited and the positions and states of the continents. He tells the stories of the discovery of many important fossils and the people who discovered them and the disputes about their interpretations. His stories include his own personal explorations and discoveries around the globe. Much of his story is a search for tropical or equatorial fossil environments looking for Trilobites that favored those habitats. I found it very interesting that those fossils could be used to indicate the past positions of those locations relative to the movement of the continental plates. Fortey gives detailed descriptions of how specific groups of fossils can be used as "index fossils" to show relative ages of sedimentary formations around the globe. The later chapters detail human fossils and what they tell us about human evolution. Much of his view of human evolution is outdated because so many discoveries in terms of fossils and molecular data have occurred in the past 20 years. All in all, I can recommend this book to anyone interested in paleontology and paleo-biogeography.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Welton

    Richard Fortey is one of my heroes. He writes in such an accessible way, I can hear his voice in my head. I read half this book 20 years ago, a process that was interrupted by the arrival of 4 kids in 3 years. When I rediscovered it on my bookshelf, it still had the bookmark in it waiting for me. I had to start from the beginning again. This is a wonderful romp through the ages of the planet, in glorious sensory detail. The details are maybe easier for me to absorb now than 20 years ago. Some of Richard Fortey is one of my heroes. He writes in such an accessible way, I can hear his voice in my head. I read half this book 20 years ago, a process that was interrupted by the arrival of 4 kids in 3 years. When I rediscovered it on my bookshelf, it still had the bookmark in it waiting for me. I had to start from the beginning again. This is a wonderful romp through the ages of the planet, in glorious sensory detail. The details are maybe easier for me to absorb now than 20 years ago. Some of the science has changed in the intervening years, as you would expect (e.g. birds are dinosaurs and many non-avian dinosaurs had feathers), and there is one obvious typo (the universe is not 5Ga - that's the solar system you are thinking of), but overall, this is a marvellous book. Well worth the read for scientists and the layman alike.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mark Walker

    Really illuminating whizz through "Life: The Early Years". Fortey is such an entertaining writer able to mix in some personal observations and anecdotes without intruding on the flow of the narrative. He's definitely stronger on the earlier rather than the later -- you get the sense that by the time the dinosaurs come along he's lost a little of his enthusiasm (he is the Trilobite expert after all) -- and it's certainly a little outdated already, as research in this field seems to move very rapi Really illuminating whizz through "Life: The Early Years". Fortey is such an entertaining writer able to mix in some personal observations and anecdotes without intruding on the flow of the narrative. He's definitely stronger on the earlier rather than the later -- you get the sense that by the time the dinosaurs come along he's lost a little of his enthusiasm (he is the Trilobite expert after all) -- and it's certainly a little outdated already, as research in this field seems to move very rapidly with each new discovery, but a great book for putting more specific texts in a broader context.

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