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4.6 out of 5 stars
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4.6 out of 5 stars
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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 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 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 17 July 2013
This book is a little different from other accounts of the evolutionary history of life. Richard Fortey is an undoubted expert on the subject, having had an illustrious career at the Natural History Museum, and in particular being a leading expert on trilobites. In writing this book, he seems to have made a conscious decision to follow a very strong literary style, and it has definitely earned him some excellent reviews. But personally it left me a little disappointed since this approach seems to have sacrificed the science content somewhat. Many of the concepts are explained through metaphor rather than scientific detail. The review on the front cover says 'This is not a book for people who like science books', and it is very apt. If you're looking for a good read on the subject and are not too concerned about asking why things are the way they are and how they have been discovered, then this may be the book for you (and five stars would be appropriate). But if like me you prefer a more in depth understanding of the science of evolution, then it may be better to look elsewhere.
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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 29 January 2011
Richard Fortey is a very good science writer and has the knack of making concepts understandable. He writes very well and his coverage of the millions of years of the evolution of life is masterly. Since retirement I have become interested in Geology and Richard Fortey certainly opens the doors and arouses interest in the interlocked subjects of palaeontology and its essential links to rocks and the undoubted age of the Earth. His book will certainly remain on my shelf to be read again.
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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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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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on 19 July 2015
Good explanation of evolution, using latest DNA findings, which back up the logic of evolution, showing its mechanism as a second separate proof. I did however miss the diagrams & illustrations, but found this kindle version great value for money.
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