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Life: an Unauthorised Biography [Paperback]

Richard Fortey
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
RRP: 10.99
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Book Description

6 April 1998

A magisterial exploration of the natural history of the first four thousand million years of life on and in the earth, by one of Britain’s most dazzling science writers.

What do any of us know about the history of our planet before the arrival of man? Most of us have a dim impression of a swirling mass of dust solidifying to form a volcanic globe, briefly populated by dinosaurs, then by woolly mammoths and finally by our own hairy ancestors. This book, aimed at the curious and intelligent but perhaps mildly uninformed reader, brilliantly dispels such lingering notions forever. At the end of the book we understand the complexity of the history of life on earth, and the complexity of how it has come to be understood, as, perhaps, from no other single volume. The result is enthralling.


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Life: an Unauthorised Biography + The Earth: An Intimate History + Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
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Product details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Flamingo; New Ed edition (6 April 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 000638420X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0006384205
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 94,342 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.

Product Description

Review

‘This is not a book for people who like science books. It is a book for people who love books, and life… [Fortey] has written a wonderful book.’
Tim Radford, Guardian

‘Read this book because it is, indeed, the best natural history of the first four billion years of life on earth.’
John Gribbin, Sunday Times

‘Fortey writes beautifully and this is a wonderful biography of rock and life… He has restored palaeontology to its rightful place in the pantheon.’
Lewis Wolpert, Observer

‘Richard Fortey is a scientist… but his big, rich history of four billion years of evolution is written with an artist’s zest for life and language… In his last chapter Fortey quotes Goethe:
“Zum Erstaunen bin ich da – I am here to wonder.”
Richard Fortey has the rare gift of making his readers share that wonder. Anyone who wants to understand how we came to be here on earth, 4,000,000,000 years after life began, should read this sparkling book.’
Maggie Gere, Daily Telegraph

‘The tale of life needs constant retelling. Thank some happy accident of history that we have Fortey to tell it to us anew.’
Ted Nield, New Scientist

From the Back Cover

What do any of us know about the history of our planet before the arrival of man? Most of us have a dim impression of a swirling mass of dust solidifying to form a volcanic globe, briefly populated by dinosaurs, then the woolly mammoths and finally are own hairy ancestors.

This book, aimed at the curious and intelligent but perhaps mildly uninformed reader, brilliantly dispels any such lingering notions forever. It guides us through the barren globe swirling through space, through the very earliest signs of life on the rims of volcanoes, the appearance of cells, the creation of an atmosphere and the myriad forms of plants and animals (happily including dinosaurs) which could then evolve and be sustained, right up to the first appearance of Homo Sapiens. But it is not simply what Richard Fortey has to tell us that makes this book so distinctive. His grasp of the significant detail and his power of allusion mark him as one of the finest explicators; his book seeks to entertain his readers as much as to inform them. The result is enthralling.

“Richard Fortey is a scientist… but his big, rich history of four billion years of history is written with an artist's zest for life and language… There is a Darwinian grandeur of imagination in his retelling of the history of our planet, from the first solidifying of debris circling the sun, across the long millennia… Anyone who wants to understand how we came to be here on earth, 4,000,000,000 years after life began, should read this sparkling book.”
MAGGIE GEE, 'Daily Telegraph'

“Richard Fortey is something much rarer than an eminent palaeontologist. He can write too… The tale of life needs constant retelling. Thank some happy accident of history that we have Fortey to tell us anew.”
TED NIELD, 'New Scientist'

“Read this book because it is indeed, the best natural history of the first four billion years of life on earth.”
John Gribbin, ' Sunday Times'

“Fortey writes beautifully and this is a wonderful biography of rock and life… He has restored palaeontology to its rightful place in the pantheon.”
LEWIS WOLPERT, ' Observer'


Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So, here we are 4,000 million years later 28 May 2004
By Joseph Haschka HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Fitting title for a rewarding read 26 Mar 2004
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring!!! 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
4.0 out of 5 stars A treasure trove for the curious 6 July 1999
By A Customer
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Enchanting book with exquisite illustrations, a must to read. I would definitely recommend this product and service to a friend. Excellent!
Published 3 months ago by AJ
2.0 out of 5 stars Borderline bad science
It seems a little strange to me that the publisher has chosen to quote a review on the front cover of the book which begins 'This is not a book for people who like science books'. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Reviewer
5.0 out of 5 stars Fortey's Life
This is an excellent book. It arrived very quickly in good condition. I took it abroad to read and was savouring it when my son forced me to finish it quickly so he could have... Read more
Published 14 months ago by tonycook
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant !!
A very well written and thought provoking account of the major evolutionary influences and our planets 4.6 Billion year history. Employing personal anecdotes and insightful quotes. Read more
Published on 5 Mar 2012 by odin the great
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderdul and life-enhancing read
It's a daunting prospect to cope with a book that purports to explain all about life from its very origins through to the present day. Read more
Published on 22 Jan 2011 by Michael Bernard
3.0 out of 5 stars The origins of life - what we think.
This is a well written and professional piece of work. Unfortunately - to me at least - it seems to expose the guesswork involved with this type of pre-historical study. Read more
Published on 29 Sep 2010 by KeithBarry
3.0 out of 5 stars Solid but stodgy.
Fortey surveys the progress of life over 4 billion years, detailing the developments and kinds of organisms, as well as their effects on and reactions to an ever-changing... Read more
Published on 13 Sep 2010 by Jason Mills
4.0 out of 5 stars Life: by Richard Fortey
I like this book, in spite of the author's propensity for analogy and digression. My first impression was that he was just padding it out: perhaps, I thought, this veritable... Read more
Published on 15 April 2010 by R. Rowland
4.0 out of 5 stars glad I brought it
A good overview of fossil history, occationally drifts off the subject as Fortey offers 'endearing' views of himself, but a bloody good read.
Published on 13 Jun 2009 by Andrew C. Sewell-crooks
5.0 out of 5 stars The Story of Life
A fascinating text and a beautiful production by The Folio Society. What more could you ask for?
Published on 26 Oct 2008 by Book Nut
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