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Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth Hardcover – 1 Mar 1998

4.2 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Hardcover, 1 Mar 1998
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (Mar. 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375401199
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375401190
  • Product Dimensions: 16.6 x 3.2 x 24.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,002,935 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description

From the Inside Flap

A "New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
"Extraordinary. . . . Anyone with the slightest interest in biology should read this book."--"The New York Times Book Review
"A marvelous museum of the past four billion years on earth--capacious, jammed with treasures, full of learning and wide-eyed wonder."--"The Boston Globe
From its origins on the still-forming planet to the recent emergence of Homo sapiens--one of the world's leading paleontologists offers an absorbing account of how and why life on earth developed as it did. Interlacing the tale of his own adventures in the field with vivid descriptions of creatures who emerged and disappeared in the long march of geologic time, Richard Fortey sheds light upon a fascinating array of evolutionary wonders, mysteries, and debates. Brimming with wit, literary style, and the joy of discovery, this is an indispensable book that will delight the general reader and the scientist alike.
"A drama bolder and more sweeping than Gone with the Wind . . . a pleasure to read."--"Science
"A beautifully written and structured work . . . packed with lucid expositions of science."--"Natural History --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Richard Fortey is a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London. His many books include "Earth: An Intimate History", "The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past", and "Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution". --This text refers to the Paperback edition.


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Top Customer Reviews

By Mr. Joe HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 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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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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Format: 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.
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By A Customer on 23 Aug. 1998
Format: 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.
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