Top positive review
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on 20 January 2011
Just as Tiktaalik Rosae fills a vital gap in the fossil record evidencing the evolution of land dwelling animals from aquatic creatures,so this fine book fills a similar gap in the literary record describing the evolution of life on our planet.
Much of the literature relating to the evolution of life, including much of Attenborough's own writing e.g.'Life On Earth' only flittingly discuss the emergence of multi cellular life from single celled organisms.The strength of this work is that it brings to a broader audience the amazing and relatively recent discoveries of fossils from the Precambrian period and what they contribute to our understanding of evolution of complex life forms.Kaplan's role as a regular contributor to scientific journals such as 'New Scientist' and 'Nature' means he is at the forefront of palaeontological discoveries.This enables him to write convincingly about some of the bizarre and most recently discovered animals of the Precambrian eg the five eyed Opabinia and the surreal Hallucigenia.
'First Life' is a highly effective summary of the principles underpinning evolution by the process of natural selection.Kaplan postulates with great clarity how an evolutionary arms race between predators and prey precipitated the 'Cambrian explosion'and describes how predation causes diversity in life forms and the role of extinctions in creating new species and favouring the subsequent dominance of certain species.
Attenborough's contributions in the form of inserts serve to bring a much needed human context and he writes passsionately about his wonder at the 500 000 000 year old fossil on his book shelf at home and about the role of the amateur fossil hunter in contributing to the enhancement of palaeontological knowledge.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is the insight it offers the interested layperson into the forensic skills of the palaeontologist and how different kinds of fossils eg 'trace'(created by movement)are interpreted and related to modern descendents in order to make deductions about the possible lives of these ancient creatures.The difficulties in interpreting the fossil record is also brilliantly described notably in the story of Anomalocaris which was initially thought to be three different unrelated species.This is a must for for all fans of detective writing and CSI!