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Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth Paperback – Sep 1999


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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (Sep 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037570261X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375702617
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 2.1 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 280,628 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Fortey retired from his position as senior palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in 2006. He is the author of several books, including 'Fossils: A Key to the Past', 'The Hidden Landscape' which won The Natural World Book of the Year in 1993, 'Life: An Unauthorised Biography', 'Trilobite!', 'The Earth: An Intimate History', and most recently 'Dry Store Room No.1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum'. He was elected to be President of the Geological Society of London for its bicentennial year of 2007, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on 28 May 2004
Format: Paperback
British paleontologist Richard Fortey has written a marvelously concise and erudite historical synopsis of terrestrial life from around 4,000 million years ago, when meteors seeded the planet with the elements, most importantly carbon, that allowed for the evolution of organic molecules, to around 25,000 years ago, when Cro-Magnon Homo sapiens founded interior decorating by painting animals on the walls of his cave living-rooms. Fortey's account necessarily leaves off with the beginning of recorded history. (Blessedly, the life forms "Benifer" and Michael Jackson fail to appear in the narrative even once.)
The author hits the high points, including the evolution of single cells, the formation of bacterial colonies, the initiation of chlorophyll-based photosynthesis (that ultimately charged the atmosphere with oxygen), the specialization of cells into tissues, the population of the seas, the advance onto land, the greening of the earth, the separation of ancient Pangaea into today's separate continents, the Age of Dinosaurs, the advent of live-birth from wombs, the ascendancy of mammals, and finally the evolution of Man. For me, the most interesting chapter was on the apocalyptic cataclysm which ended the Age of Dinosaurs, i.e. the asteroid which apparently slammed into the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula creating the Chicxulub Crater. The volume also includes several photo sections that provide an adequate visual summary of the text.
The time spans of Fortey's tale are almost beyond mental grasp. For instance, at one point the author states that tool making by hominids began about 2.5 million years ago. Yet the style of the tools, the "technology" if you will, then remained virtually unchanged for the next million years.
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 26 Mar 2004
Format: Paperback
Successfully melding personal adventure with good science and skilled narrative techniques, Fortey's book compels attention. "An Unauthorized Biography" is a telling catch phrase conveying the idea that paleontology is a dynamic science. New ideas emerge almost with every fossil discovery and dogmatic thoughts have no place in the science. As a professional paleontologist [ i almost said "practicing", but his approach is far to serious for that!]. he has all the qualifications to relate this story. With the growing number of general level books on the development of life being released recently, it's difficult to choose among them. This book certainly ranks among the top choices.
Quite simply, this book is what it claims to be: a history of 3 500 million years of earth's plant and animal inhabitants. Fortey achieves masterful balance between presenting general themes with illustrative details. In one example, he shows the value of mites in soil development and what their loss would mean to global environment. The unspoken message about the use of pesticides is a silent outcry for us to recognize such details.
Merged with the scientific work of many researchers are Fortey's accounts of his personal experiences as a paleontologist. His scenario of the scientific conference makes compelling reading for anyone wishing to grasp the underlying themes of scientific conflicts. Reaching beyond his own work, he introduces us to many noteworthy colleagues. Few are criticized for the value of their work, but their personal habits are subjected to pointed comments. None of these are out of place; Fortey clearly mourns the loss of colleagues who would have continued producing welcome results had they not been lost.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By J. P. Sykes on 26 Jan 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This was on the Oxford University geology recommended reading list when I applied, so I suppose thats a good recommendation in itself. I read the book it is an absolute work of genius, without doubt one of the best popular science books I've ever read. The book is as good a 'page-turner' as any bestseller thriller novel but based on fact rather than fiction! The style is that of a world weary but ever happy British scholar who thought he should sit you down and just tell you a wonderful story, delivered as if the story was little red riding hood rather than the history of life, though typically understated Prof. Fortey's passion for the subject is clear and adds even more to the book. Recommmeded to anyone with an interest in science or where we came from.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 6 July 1999
Format: Hardcover
It is refreshing to read a book like this: a scientific book for the layman, but one that does not take for granted that its readers are ignorant or stupid. This is not a book for scientists or specialists, but for ordinary people, scientifically literate but only to some degree, who are curious about about the origin and evolution of Life, who ever wondered how was Earth like in the first years of its history, and in later periods, when our planet was still an alien place. This book does just that, taking us to sweltering Carboniferous forests, to oceans teeming with life and deserted land, to landscapes inhabited by strange animals, the like of which exist no more. It explains us how, step by tiny step, life changed the face of the Earth. I was not bothered by the personal references or apparent digressions; all these served as examples to illustrate different points. I was indeed bothered however by the lack of charts. For example, an chart illustrating the different geological eras would have been useful: not all of us know by heart the exact order of the geological periods, and sometimes it is easy to get lost. I ended up copying such a chart from an encyclopedia and keeping the slip of paper inside the book, for reference. It would also have been interesting to have charts (like the cladistic charts of which there are some examples), illustrating how different species are related.
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