41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So, here we are 4,000 million years later
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...
Published on 28 May 2004 by Joseph Haschka
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars More stuff, less fluff please.
Fortey is surprisingly adept at constructing an elegant English sentence. And he makes this clear to the reader over and over and over again. During the entire page that Fortey spent musing about the early death of the "English Mozart" George Frederick Pinto, finally to compare it to the early extinction of some Cambrian animal, I found myself thinking how...
Published on 12 Feb 1999
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41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So, here we are 4,000 million years later,
This review is from: Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (Vintage) (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. After witnessing the dizzying pace of technological advancement just during the span of my own life, this stagnation for such an incomprehensible length of time is mind-boggling.
I wish I had but a fraction of Fortey's knowledge of our world. LIFE should be required reading in every high school science program.
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fitting title for a rewarding read,
This review is from: Life: an Unauthorised Biography (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. On the other hand, some
Fortey's chapter on mammalian evolution among the finest in print. His awareness is global, not limited to a few well-known sites. He ranges over both time and place with skilled ease, giving the reader vivid pictures of scenarios in life's past. He's comfortable with geology, biology and genetics. In particular, the Australian conditions over time are well drawn, an exception to many of the books of this genre. Australia, of course, brings up the issue of marsupials contrasted with placentals. The adaptive strengths of marsupials should have given them a competitive edge with placental species, but remained mostly isolated on the island continent.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A treasure trove for the curious,
By A Customer
This review is from: Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (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.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring!!!,
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This review is from: Life: an Unauthorised Biography (Paperback)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.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great story,
This review is from: Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (Vintage) (Paperback)If you want to be swept off your feet by the great story that is life on earth, this is the book to read. Fortey is a scientist with the relatively rare gift of making not only scientific facts but also the romance of science accesible to the layperson. His tone is conversational, his language clear and his style humourous. He starts off with an entertaining anecdotal chapter on how he himself became involved in paleonthology and from there jumps back some 4 billion years, to when it all began. I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this book. The only criticism is that the somewhat crummy black and white photographs are rather meagre as illustrations. I would have liked more and better pictures of all the wondrous life forms that Fortey describes with so much panache. Still, in spite of this the book is worth five stars to me.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Making the past accessible,
By A Customer
This review is from: Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (Hardcover)I have to admit that I bought this book at least in part out of a sense of duty. After all, one should have some idea about the history of life on Earth. But now I am getting to work late because I wanted to read just one more chapter in the morning after I got up. "Life" is extremely well written, and rather than just being a list of geological periods with fact sheets, it actually tells a story with many aspects, from the way geology influenced biology, to the constancy of eco-systems, even as the players were being replaced, to finally the way the geological past still influences us today in the form of fossil fuels and feuds among fossilists, among other things. I think it is the later aspect that makes the book so unique. Fortey is very skillful in making the past relevant for us today. He vividly describes the things we would see at a beach of the Silurian, but he also talks about the places where we can find today the traces and fossils left by those plants and animals from hundreds of million years ago. Aside from all that, he also shows the scientists involved in finding out about these things, and all their petty fights and mistakes, as well as their enthusiasm, their sense of wonder, and their insights.
If there is one drawback, it's the weakness of the book when it comes to biochemistry and molecular biology. For example, Fortey doesn't cover the new results about the developmental biology of insect wings that also throw light at their evolution, and his description of the evolution of photosynthesis jumps straight from zero to Chlorobium, without much inbetween. Same with the Archea - there is a lot more weirdness going on there than Fortey lets on. But this obviously this is nit-picking in the extreme - most people wouldn't notice that the author is cutting some corners, and these minor details certainly aren't necessary if you want to squeeze some 4 billion years into 400 pages.
All in all it is a wonderful book that captivates the reader's attention, and it certainly makes you understand why Fortey stuck to the field even after being trapped on a 2 month trip to Spitzbergen in a tent with a disgruntled graduate student. I would rate it among the top 3 science books I read this year.
43 of 49 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A brief history of life,
By A Customer
This review is from: Life: an Unauthorised Biography (Paperback)This book is about the history of living things on earth, how it all started, and how they diversified. Fossils and other data are used as hints to tell such a story and an important point that Fortey keeps repeating is that such data is minimal given that the story of life takes more than 4 million years, and therefore much has to be guessed or is still unknown. The book reads very well; I'm no paleonthologist and I learned some really interesting stuff while reading this book.
"Life" tries to be non-scientific, and Fortey keeps on quoting poetry and history, which some readers may enjoy. However, I prefer to see more diagrams, tables, graphs, maps, etc to visualise some quantitative data. This book is also pretty much useless as a reference book. If you forgot when the Jurassic started and ended, then you'll have a hard time using this book to find it out.
So, this book is well written and very fun to read, but does not answer a fraction of the scientific/factual questions it stimulates. An apetizer to the history of life, and a very interesting read for the non-scientists.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Story of Life,
This review is from: Life: A Natural History Of The First Four Billion Years Of Life On Earth (Hardcover)A fascinating text and a beautiful production by The Folio Society. What more could you ask for?
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a wonderful "Life",
By A Customer
This review is from: Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (Hardcover)Science is cold.
At least that's the image we get most of the time when we read about science. What's usually missing is a sense of the passion. The inner fire that drives scientists to devote their lives to studying tiny parts of a much larger picture. The pay isn't very good, job security is non-existent (unless you have tenure) and you're looking at a minimum of a decade of training before you start. You don't last in science unless you have the passion.
And passion is what drives Richard Fortey's book, Life. Ambitiously subtitled: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, Fortey has produced that rarest of oddities ... a scientific page-turner.
The reason his book is so engaging is that it's so personal. The book starts on Spitsbergen Island, with Fortey at the start of his career as a scientist. Continually referring to elements from his own life and career, Fortey then starts us on the odyssey of life itself. From its mysterious creation to its evolution into recognizeable forms, Fortey presents a rich pageant of life's mystery and majesty. For the rest of my review, come to exn.ca/printedmatter
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars ...From the beginning,
This review is from: Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (Vintage) (Paperback)Fortey sounds like he needed no research for this. He simply began writing what he knew and carried on. It just happenned to include 4 billion years of life!
Fortey has an engaging style, not pacy like Dawkins, but reminiscent of a wise old fox, keen to lace his own personal experiences into the story.
This can variable results. While I thoroughly enjoyed the recalling of student adventures, Fortey's first love of trilobites sees too much (IMO) time spent meandering through the Palaeozoic. This is a minor minor gripe!
A wonderful book.
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Life: an Unauthorised Biography by Richard Fortey (Paperback - 6 April 1998)