Top positive review
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Fitting title for a rewarding read
on 26 March 2004
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.