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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
contemporaries are given short shrift: although Graham Cairns Smith's proposal of clay crystals providing the template for replicating molecules is well described, his name appears neither in the text nor the brief bibliography.
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.
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on 26 January 2007
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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on 22 September 2001
This is a stunning book. It is a sort of "David Attenborough meets Laurie Lee" type book. Richard Fortey explains the complexities of evolution with a rare turn of prose. It takes some reading-I had to keep referring to a dictionary, such is the richness of Dr Fortey's english. A book that is difficult to put down-honestly. An impressive mix of science, philosophy and wonderful prose.
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on 31 August 2000
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.
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on 13 June 2016
You pick up this book and you think to yourself, "Wow: look at all that great critical feedback!" You then start reading the blurb, and you think, "Okay, interesting - err, okay, this blurb is way too long - I'm getting bored now". It's never a good sign if the very blurb of a book bores you. Then you open the book, and if you've got anything like the same taste in books as I have, you'll wish you hadn't. It's VERY boring indeed. And that seems weird to me, because one of the critics who liked this book said, "Fortey isn't just your average palaeontologist; he can write too." No he bloomin' well can't! Honestly, I don't know whether said critic had taken twelve shots of neat vodka when they put that comment, but how could ANYONE find Fortey's writing entertaining?! It's as dull, boring and washed out as you like. Fortey writes so badly in places that some of the chapters in this book are about as enjoyable as eating a bar of soap.
"Well," I hear you say, "Fortey's writing skill aside, is the scientific material in this book good?" Well, yes, it is - BUT...and this is one brachiosaurus-sized BUT...Fortey doesn't really give us any new scientific material that we're actually interested in. I'll clarify. This book just re-iterates what we already know...and then adds loads and loads of tripe on top of that to disguise the fact that this book is such a cheap excuse for a natural history of life on Earth. We already know how it all happened, don't we? We already know the general history of life on this planet. So when you open this book, you're hoping that it will fill the gaps in your knowledge of the history of life on this planet, and give you a richer insight. Nope, it doesn't! It simply re-tells you the general story, and then adds page upon page upon page upon page upon page upon PAGE of random facts and figures, and sometimes even completely random references to fiction works and poetry, WHICH DON'T LINK IN TO THE MAIN STORY AT HAND IN ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM. WHAT has Fortey been PLAYING at?! He's supposed to be a bona fide scientist, not a geeky nerd who tries to parasitise cash off people by cooking up a waste of the rainforest in good-science-book's clothing, (in fact, even the clothing's dodgy; think back to that painful blurb!) One of the other critics who gave this book good feedback said, "The story of the history of life on Earth is one that needs constant re-telling." First off, to that I say, see?! That critic actually ACKNOWLEDGED that this book just re-told what we already knew! And second, I have to ask myself why that guy thinks that science books should be allowed to just re-tell something. I think that a book which does so is a heinous and manipulative waste of precious paper. But hey, that critic had probably had so much rum when they put that comment that they'd have made Captain Jack Sparrow look like a poised Kung Fu master.
Gosh, is there ANYTHING good about this book? Well, yes, otherwise I'd have given it a one-star without hesitation. There are SOME sections of it which bring across vaguely interesting facts and fairly entertaining narrative, but these are VERY infrequent, and most of this book is about as interesting as a hospital waiting room wall.

Really rather horrible, even for the little-informed. It contains about as much sharp science as an eight-year-old's dino book, and even that's me being generous. If you want a book which gives you an in-depth, readable, thorough account of the natural history of life on Earth, Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything comes highly recommended by me. Leave this monster to crawl back to the slimy depths from whence it came.
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on 5 March 2012
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. Well worth a read.
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VINE VOICEon 13 September 2010
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 environment. A paleonotologist himself, he illustrates the account with fossils and geology, with pleasant asides, anecdotes about other scientists and light allusions to poetry and literature. There are 4 sections of black-and-white photo plates, a glossary, reading list and index. (A diagram of the geological timeline would have helped, a strange and glaring omission.)

If that sounds like faint praise, I'm afraid it is. This feels like a long book (~350 pages): the small print and absurdly long paragraphs do the reader no favours, and I found Fortey's prose dry. More importantly, the book has no particular thesis to present: what sounds like an exciting celebration of life's diversity turns out to be a tiring parade of details.

There's nothing actually wrong with this book, nothing to take issue with. It's just a bit dull. Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale" is a much more interesting read covering similar terrain.
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on 30 November 2015
He writes so well and at a level I can understand, which is good cause I'm interested but not of a scientific bent.
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on 23 December 2015
Brilliantly and entertainingly written. Great anecdotes of his studies and time in the field. Easily accessible book giving you all most will ever need to know about how life have evolved on earth.
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on 28 July 2013
Clearly described, so well written it's hard to put down, this book is brilliant. Given the massive scope of material, Fortey handles it with aplomb, carefully selecting those elements that add to the narrative.
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