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The Variety of Life: A Survey and a Celebration of all the Creatures that Have Ever Lived Paperback – 7 Mar 2002

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Product details

  • Paperback: 704 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; New Ed edition (7 Mar. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198604262
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198604266
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 3.6 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 176,700 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

It takes a brave writer to tackle the truly Herculean task of describing The Variety of Life: The Meaning of Biodiversity with the astronomical numbers of organisms living today, let alone all those that have fallen by the wayside over the billions of years of life on Earth. No one is quite sure how many living species there are, but it is estimated to be somewhere between 10 and 100 million. Fortunately, since the days of the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, around 250 years ago, life has been grouped and classified into hierarchical schemes. As a result, it is possible to encompass this enormous variety of life by describing the relatively few groups into which it can be clustered. And, since the mid-19th century and the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution by natural selection, classification has taken on an extra, evolutionary dimension.

Colin Tudge is a well-known British science writer, whose last book was Neanderthals, Bandits, and Farmers. With a training in whole animal biology and a self-proclaimed love for the natural-historical foray among our fellow creatures, he is well placed to attempt this survey. The first part (all of 90 pages) of this big book deals with the thorny problems of what Tudge rightly calls the craft and science of classification. Since the 1950s, the word cladistics has terrorised many traditional naturalists and biologists. But it is here to stay and Tudge provides a very welcome guide that will be invaluable to both lay people and students.

The bulk of the text, nearly 500 pages, forms part II and the descriptions of the main groups from the most primitive (alpha proteobacteria) prokaryotes to Eupatorium, a large group of 1800 or so species of plant, which includes the hemp agrimony, common in ditches...In between these two groups, at either end of the biological spectrum, lie all the more familiar bugs and beasts, including ourselves. Inevitably, given so many millions of organisms, difficult choices have to be made, some groups are only dealt with at phylum level (for example, brachiopods) while others are detailed down to family level (for example, primates). Some extinct groups, not surprisingly the dinosaurs, get a look in but not many overall. The short epilogue concerns conservation and is followed by a useful reference list of sources and an index. Altogether, the 600-odd pages are enlivened with a large number of excellent black and white drawings of individual organisms and diagrams illustrating evolutionary relationships. For all natural historians and anyone interested in biology the The Variety of Life is a must. --Douglas Palmer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Review from previous edition The first part of The Variety of Life provides an excellent discussion and explanation of the systematisation of life, which is far from being static and boring. (The Herald 09/02/00)

This is much more thatn a beautifilly illustrated, engagingly written catalogue (The Independent 09/03/2002)

..wonderful encyclopedic "labour of love". (The Herald 09/02/2000)

Hopefully, the success The Variety of Life deserves will help encourage us "to share (our planet) with so many goodly creatures". (The Herald 09/02/2000)

The Variety of Life is far more than just another good popular science book. It's a celebration of the "huge privilege" it is to share the planet with so many fantastical creatures. (Independent Weekend 08/04/00)

Taxonomy may sound dull, but Tudge makes a brilliant case for it. A seasoned science writer with a delightfully light touch, he can make the most arcane subject appealing... a beautifully illustrated introduction to everything that's ever lived. (Independent Weekend 08/04/00)

...exceptionally clear, user-friendly, and up-to-date...a valuable introduction to the higher classification of organisms and an easily accessible reference work to the entire spread of biodiversity. (Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University)

...For all natural historians and anyone professing biology The Variety of Life is a must (Douglas Palmer, Amazon.co.uk January 2000)

Throughout the book, which one might expect to be dryly taxonomical, he inserts adjectives like "fascinating", "marvellous", and "extraordinary". I will let his own words describe his book. (Richard Ellis, The Times 16th March 2000)

This book is a remarkable achievement, giving an authoritative overview of the whole of life in a readable way that should be accessible to anyone with an interest in natural history. Find an excuse to buy it. (Bulletin of the British Ecological Society 2000)

...this is a lovely and accessible book...It will be hugely valuable as a source-book for student libraries, and highly informative for any enthusiastic lay naturalist curious about the life around them and the fossils beneath them. (Nature September 2000)

The book is excellently produced, can be recommended unreservedly to all interested in the life sciences (especially molecular biologists), and is remarkably good value for money. (Galton Insitute Newsletter September 2000)

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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 11 Oct. 2000
Format: Hardcover
I have often been frustrated about the difficulty of getting hold of reliable information about the history of life on earth and the inter-relationships of living things. Now, my frustration is at an end. Colin Tudge has done the impossible, and synthesised the mountain of rapidly changing data about evolutionary history into a single, clearly written volume. The book is beautifully illustrated, and lucidly laid out, so that the reader can use it as a ready reference guide if he so wishes. But it can also be read at length, and the mine of information is rich indeed. The field of systematics is changing rapidly, but Tudge's book is unlikely to go out of date very quickly, as he is clear to indicate the areas where our current knowledge is most precarious. A must for all those interested in evolution.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By M. Wilkinson on 23 Feb. 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Soon after I bought this book, I studied systematics at college and was disappointed that in 5 or 6 weeks the teachers presented a highly flawed, inaccurate and uninteresting view of the field - even believing it to be a boring area of biology. Tudge makes it absolutely fascinating and if the reader perseveres with the first few chapters where he slowly and steadily build a fair technical understanding so that you will get past words like 'polyphyletic' without blinking. For me that is one mark of popular science - it is more than interesting - you learn something and afterwards could approach more technical books such as a few in the well ordered bibliography, with little fear. In short Tudge does something amazing; gives a portrait of every living thing on the planet. Viruses are excluded but in terms of cell based lifeforms it is a comprehensive overview. Even extinct creatures are included so that you will have a complete understanding of the separate dinosaur groups that gave rise to birds and which to mammals. The book is a tremendous achievement as accessible science and as an overview of all life.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 26 Mar. 2004
Format: Paperback
An imposing book by a major science writer, Tudge rightly subtitles this work "a celebration." Although at first glance the book seems overwhelming, Tudge has broken down his feast of life into easily consumed portions. After an excellent overview of the history of classifying life, he allows the reader to choose among the many types of animals and plants. One can jump to insects, birds, fish or reptiles for more detailed evolutionary accounts and modern examples. Unable to resist, i skimmed over a few more esoteric examples to settle down to Primates and Hominids. This section provides a superb overview of current knowledge, distinguishing clearly what is known and what is supposed. This was familiar territory but delving in the other sections proved equally rewarding. However, this also suggests a warning that the book is not a "cover-to-cover" exercise.
Tudge opens with the problem facing many new students of biological sciences - how to deal with the immensity of information confronting them. There are, he notes, over two million species described already. No-one disputes the number is far below the actual total life contains - but what is the realistic total? Estimates range as high as 100 million - an almost inconceivable figure. He accepts the more likely total as around thirty million, recognizing that such numbers remain out of human ken. From this, he builds his case that classification systems are necessary. What's required is a classification method that anyone can grasp. He finds the solution in the idea proposed by German entomologist Willi Hennig - cladistics. This system arranges life by characteristics, avoiding confusing generalities and the arcane mysteries of genetics.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Jake on 20 Sept. 2011
Format: Paperback
I had to buy this for University and it was very enjoyable. I imagine it is still accessible for those who aren't studying Biology, a bit like a Dawkins book would be. It's richly illustrated so acts great as a reference book if needed.

Very small details have since been debunked with emerging molecular evidence, but that's just being pedantic really - it doesn't take away from any of the points. It's a good book that will remain largely relevant for many years to come.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Dr Garry on 15 May 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I love this book to death.

One of my hobbies is phylogenetics, studying the relationships between living things. Ok, I should get out more. I return to this book again and again, even though it represents the state of knowledge from, say, 1995. The amount of information in this book is simply enormous. Tudge lays out and describes all the divisions of life, with many examples, and he does so with great clarity, at each step showing how our current classification system works; and why organisms are classifed as they are. Perhaps a quarter of the book is a clear exposition of biological principles, describing, for example, what triploblasts are, and why triploblasty is an important evolutionary and classificatory division.

I'm not a biologist, and I found the book very accessible. I would recommend it to anyone interested in biology. I suggest you read it in conjunction with The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life.
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