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on 11 October 2000
I have often been frustrated about the difficulty of getting hold of reliable information about the history of life on earth and the inter-relationships of living things. Now, my frustration is at an end. Colin Tudge has done the impossible, and synthesised the mountain of rapidly changing data about evolutionary history into a single, clearly written volume. The book is beautifully illustrated, and lucidly laid out, so that the reader can use it as a ready reference guide if he so wishes. But it can also be read at length, and the mine of information is rich indeed. The field of systematics is changing rapidly, but Tudge's book is unlikely to go out of date very quickly, as he is clear to indicate the areas where our current knowledge is most precarious. A must for all those interested in evolution.
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on 23 February 2003
Soon after I bought this book, I studied systematics at college and was disappointed that in 5 or 6 weeks the teachers presented a highly flawed, inaccurate and uninteresting view of the field - even believing it to be a boring area of biology. Tudge makes it absolutely fascinating and if the reader perseveres with the first few chapters where he slowly and steadily build a fair technical understanding so that you will get past words like 'polyphyletic' without blinking. For me that is one mark of popular science - it is more than interesting - you learn something and afterwards could approach more technical books such as a few in the well ordered bibliography, with little fear. In short Tudge does something amazing; gives a portrait of every living thing on the planet. Viruses are excluded but in terms of cell based lifeforms it is a comprehensive overview. Even extinct creatures are included so that you will have a complete understanding of the separate dinosaur groups that gave rise to birds and which to mammals. The book is a tremendous achievement as accessible science and as an overview of all life.
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An imposing book by a major science writer, Tudge rightly subtitles this work "a celebration." Although at first glance the book seems overwhelming, Tudge has broken down his feast of life into easily consumed portions. After an excellent overview of the history of classifying life, he allows the reader to choose among the many types of animals and plants. One can jump to insects, birds, fish or reptiles for more detailed evolutionary accounts and modern examples. Unable to resist, i skimmed over a few more esoteric examples to settle down to Primates and Hominids. This section provides a superb overview of current knowledge, distinguishing clearly what is known and what is supposed. This was familiar territory but delving in the other sections proved equally rewarding. However, this also suggests a warning that the book is not a "cover-to-cover" exercise.
Tudge opens with the problem facing many new students of biological sciences - how to deal with the immensity of information confronting them. There are, he notes, over two million species described already. No-one disputes the number is far below the actual total life contains - but what is the realistic total? Estimates range as high as 100 million - an almost inconceivable figure. He accepts the more likely total as around thirty million, recognizing that such numbers remain out of human ken. From this, he builds his case that classification systems are necessary. What's required is a classification method that anyone can grasp. He finds the solution in the idea proposed by German entomologist Willi Hennig - cladistics. This system arranges life by characteristics, avoiding confusing generalities and the arcane mysteries of genetics. As Tudge argues, cladistics has become fourth phase of classification systems, and the one likely to endure.
The "technical" sections of the book, covering the multitude of life forms each open with a descriptive essay followed by a "tree" of relationship among various species. This structure makes the book an excellent reference work and will keep it valuable for many years. The illustrations are designed to impart general information, not scientific detail. Neither are they simplistic as the supporting comment provides pointers to consider when viewing them. Tudge groups the text and graphics nicely, allowing visual and text comparison without constant page flipping.
As with any author confronting the immense cargo of information available in biology, Tudge was forced into a selective process in creating a bibliography. It's not an enviable task. The list appears sparse, a heavily pruned tree arranged by chapters. He indicates his preferred references, but only by using his sources will you discover whether more bountiful reading is listed in them. This lack in no way impairs the worth of this effort, however. There are countless book lists available. Anyone with an interest in life will treasure this volume.
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on 20 September 2011
I had to buy this for University and it was very enjoyable. I imagine it is still accessible for those who aren't studying Biology, a bit like a Dawkins book would be. It's richly illustrated so acts great as a reference book if needed.

Very small details have since been debunked with emerging molecular evidence, but that's just being pedantic really - it doesn't take away from any of the points. It's a good book that will remain largely relevant for many years to come.
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on 15 May 2012
I love this book to death.

One of my hobbies is phylogenetics, studying the relationships between living things. Ok, I should get out more. I return to this book again and again, even though it represents the state of knowledge from, say, 1995. The amount of information in this book is simply enormous. Tudge lays out and describes all the divisions of life, with many examples, and he does so with great clarity, at each step showing how our current classification system works; and why organisms are classifed as they are. Perhaps a quarter of the book is a clear exposition of biological principles, describing, for example, what triploblasts are, and why triploblasty is an important evolutionary and classificatory division.

I'm not a biologist, and I found the book very accessible. I would recommend it to anyone interested in biology. I suggest you read it in conjunction with The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life.
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on 24 September 2013
I originally bought this as a reference book but have now read it cover to cover. Colin Tudge's excellent writing style makes it a very easy read. The first part is a very useful section setting out the historical and current methods of classification. Then, in considering each group he sets out the phylogeny and is quick to point out where it is still unclear. It is wise to take this on board since ongoing genetic studies are changing things so quickly at the moment, and one difficulty is that many details are going out of date very rapidly.
The simple line drawing are just enough to complement the text and create a visual guide.
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on 24 November 2012
The big, formal biology textbooks are essential reading for biological studies, yet are a bit "heavy going" as reading material. This book is easy to read- it helps the reader understand the principles of biology & the relationships all living things have with each other. It won't stand by itself as a biology textbook, but provides a more comprehensive insight to the subject & makes understanding the other textbooks so much easier.
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on 10 March 2010
A big comforting paperback that manages to encompass all of life within its pages, 'The Variety of Life' is a useful taxonomy reference book and intrinsically interesting in its own right. Worth every penny and entirely flickable for looking up a specific variety of life.
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on 7 January 2011
A fantastic read, Enlightening, and should be a required read for any biologist, zoologist, ecologist, actually any scientist and maby possibly certain school.
tho it is set up in a format that can be read say in bed, it is a fantastic book detailed and intuitive.
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on 19 October 2015
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