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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!
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on 24 June 2017
Fascinating and great read to accompany the series. Good old Attenborough.
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on 6 January 2011
The text is written in language that is accessible to all, ideally suited to the general reader but perhaps lacking in detail for those that already have an interest in palaeontology or geology.

Chapters include a full page illustration opposite a page penned by David Attenborough himself. These pages are a delight to read but one's reading of the main body of text is interrupted so the reader has to be reminded of what was being read when one eventually returns to it.

Some of the fossil illustrations aren't very clear; perhaps the fossil could have been outlined in white in each picture? A timeline included at the end of the book would have been an insightful addition. Annotated line drawings of early life-forms could also have been incorporated into the text where appropriate.

Overall, the book is a good and fairly well illustrated precis of BBC's "First Life" but the book is not an exceptional read.
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on 6 March 2011
I am quite frankly amazed at the other reviews of this book. I found it unremittingly poor. The only partially redeeming features were the small parts written by David Attenborough himself and some of the photographs.

So what's the problem? To start with I found the actual writing very bad, almost childlike in places. That is perhaps deliberate; the target audience is presumably children. The reason I say this is because there are frequent and very lengthy explanations of very simple concepts; for example: basic evolutionary ideas that would be part of the knowledge base of any educated child over the age of about fourteen. These concepts are repeated again and again, at length. Unfortunately, in an attempt to `dumb down' the subject matter to match the intended audience, which is quite acceptable although somewhat irritating to an adult, errors creep in. For example, it is asserted that `true flight' requires lift, and that lift defines 'true flight', whatever that is. This simplification is just incorrect, although repeated several times. A flying squirrel is used as an example of an animal that doesn't exhibit 'true flight'. However, a flying squirrel most certainly does develop lift in its glide.

But where things get really bad is the errors that don't arise due to an attempt to make things understandable to a child. They are just plain factual errors. And they should have been picked up either by the author, or by the copy-editor. They aren't isolated -- they are on almost every page. The book has the feel of something that has been knocked out at high speed and then either not copy-edited at all, or copy-edited badly. There are also numerous contradictions in the text.

In addition, in a scientific book aimed at children it is quite disgraceful to say that certain things are `proved' when this is clearly not the case.

A few examples will make the point; and I stress that these are just examples:

1. On page 109, we are told events at Mistaken Point took place between 575 and 560 Ma. On page 114: the rocks span 10Ma.

2. Page 135: the caption to the picture of Dickinsonia says the organism displays left-right bilateral symmetry. On the same page, David Attenborough's narrative is quite clear it doesn't display this.

3. Page 125: "Animals are formed from the union of genetic material from two separate parents". This is not correct. Yes, usually, but not always. The use of the words 'usually', 'often' etc are important in order not to mislead.

4. Page 137. In referring to the fossils of Mistaken Point: "Although they became extinct because they couldn't perform the more sophisticated functions of mammals...". This statement is just preposterous! My jaw dropped open that anyone could write this, let alone someone who apparently has a scientific background. At this point in the book I started to wonder whether Kaplan had actually subcontracted the writing of a lot of the text. The absolute tripe of that statement (and there is no polite way to otherwise put it) just beggars belief. (The mammals didn't appear for hundreds of millions of years after the Mistaken Point animals became extinct).

5. Page 140: "the Ediacaran, dating from 630 million to 542 million years ago". The accepted dates per the ICS (The International Committee on Stratigraphy) are 635 to 542Ma. Interestingly, Wikipedia has this error too at the head of the Ediacaran page -- I won't suggest this is where Kaplan got his dates. This point is important as I refer to dates later. Note particularly that the start of the Cambrian (the end of the Ediacaran) is 542Ma.

6. Page 147: "The fossilised tracks ... prove that something could slither". Page 129: "There is no way to prove without doubt that the traces are not geological in their origin". The use of the word `prove', on page 147, is indefensible, particularly when Kaplan contradicts himself so clearly. And this is not an isolated case -- he seems fond of the word 'prove'. This lends weight to my thought that Kaplan didn't write large sections of the text. A scientist would use a word like 'suggest'.

7. Page 167: There seems to be complete confusion over dates and what animals lived when. Markuelia is referred to in respect of Precambrian life and grouped with Spriggina and Kimberella. Elsewhere in the book, in detail, Markuelia is described as living after the start of the Cambrian.

8. Page 167: We now have the Cambrian period beginning at 543Ma (ICS 542Ma and see 5. above)

9. Page 176: Eldridge and Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium is put forward in some detail as an accepted explanation in relation to evolutionary events. What is not explained is that this theory is widely disputed and most evolutionists believe it is not correct.

10. Page 251: "About 251 million years ago, during a time period known as the Permian...". 251 Ma ago was at the boundary between the Permian and the Triassic.

11. Geological and palaeontological `blinks of the eye' are clichés and often stunningly inaccurate and misleading. Page 176: 10Ma is mentioned as a palaeontological `blink of the eye', one of many 'blinks of the eye' in the book. Really? To give an example (my own): North and South America joined around 3-4Ma ago, and mammals spread south displacing and causing the extinction of marsupials. This is evidenced in the fossil record. 10Ma is most certainly a significant palaentological time period and no 'blink of the eye'.

12. Some statements in the book are really quite extraordinary, Page 192: "Trilobites were probably the most advanced forms of life on the planet for the 250Ma from the beginning of the Cambrian." That takes us up to the end of the Carboniferous... ie after fish, land tetrapods etc. It is just a quite staggeringly inaccurate statement. A land based tetrapod is, without doubt, more advanced than a trilobite.

13. Page 224: "Carolinites genacinaca was alive between 488 and 433 million years.... a period known as the Ordovician". No, that was a period that spans the Ordovician and Silurian. The Ordovician spanned 488 to 444Ma and the Silurian 444 to 416Ma.

14. Page 240. The caption to the picture is "Peripatus: ......". No, the picture is of Aysheaia.

The above are just a sample. For a book that retails at £25 we really deserve better. As a geoscientist with a particular interest in evolution the errors were glaring. As a scientist, the misuse of words like `prove' were disturbing. An interested lay reader would reasonably expect the text to be accurate. It isn't.

I am quite sure David Attenborough never read this book before printing and distribution. He would never have allowed it to go out under his name.

I suggest giving this book a miss.
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on 22 January 2011
Very disappointing. The main text is by Mark Kaplan with "inserts" by Attenborough, which frankly serve only to interrupt the flow of the narrative. Although some of the plates are good the illustrations overall are repetitive and dark rendering them quite useless. There is a very serious error when dealing with Pikaia when Kaplan confuses the notochord, an axial stiffening rod to which swimming muscles are attached and the beginnings of the vertebral column, with the dorsal nerve cord the origin of the vertebrate spinal cord. Descriptions of the role and fate of the notochord in Urochordates and Cephalochordates are therefore compromised. And I would suggest that "heavy brass microscopes" are the choice of the 19th century field biologist rather than those of today. The subject has been covered better by others such as Jay Gould.
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on 21 January 2012
Although entitled "David Attenboroughs First Life" the excellent text is written by Maatt Kaplan. It would appear the only contribution Attenborough makes is the introduction.I think Attenborough has developed the cult of the great "I am"not only in taking maximum credit for the book but also the far to excessive number of times che appears in tthe pictures.
The story is basically a history of evolution from first life to the present day.It is very well written by Kaplan who should be congratulated on an excellent effort.
The photographs are abysmally poor being under exposed or out of focus and should never have been prined while the best pictures are distorted by being over 2 pages

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on 21 November 2010
First class! Informative, well written, exciting, beautifully illustrated, gripping and educational. I own several of David Attenborough's books but this is the best.
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on 7 January 2011
Great book. A great mix of facts and superb photography punctuated by personal experiences of Attenborough. I missed the TV series but this book has made me want to watch.
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on 28 October 2011
I bought this as a gift for my father who had seen the TV programme, aired a little while ago on the BBC. He loves it.
He says it is amazing to read all about it in true, classic Attenborough style!
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on 17 February 2011
It was great to see the Burgess Shale fossils and others coming to life in the television series but if you've seen the programmes and you'd now like an in depth and accessible discussion of the discoveries and the thinking that went into those impressive reconstructions it's definitely worth reading this book. It works well as a 21st century prequel to 'Life on Earth' as there have been so many discoveries since that landmark series - but I think that they've slightly over-emphasised the connection with David Attenborough who provides some thoughtful linking sections. However Matt Kaplan's text is worth reading in it's own right and the reconstructions and evocative photographs of remote fossil sites are suitably sumptuous. Having learned more of the background to the story, I'm ready to watch the television series again.
Richard Fortey appears in the book, as he did in the film, in the section on Moroccan trilobites - there's an astonishing variety of trilobite fossils in Morocco - and if you enjoy this book you might also like Fortey's 'Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution'.
Andrew Parker's 'In the Blink of an Eye' covers the same 'big bang' of evolution but with a different emphasis.
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