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on 7 September 2015
A marvellous, witty cornucopia on life and how it arose on this obscure little planet, interspersed with interesting observations on science and scientists as they puzzle over the clues in the rocks to try to figure out how we all got here. Plus a number of odd digressions in other directions, which I know bothered some other reviewers, but which I found rather entertaining. There's a lot we know and a lot we don't know and probably a lot that we'll never really know, but it doesn't stop us asking, because that is our nature. Dr. Fortey's zest for the subject, as well as his good humour and eagerness to communicate the facts of life (so to speak) to us, are fully on show. Anyone who wants to know how we got here could do a lot worse than consult this great little book.
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on 15 April 2010
I like this book, in spite of the author's propensity for analogy and digression. My first impression was that he was just padding it out: perhaps, I thought, this veritable scholar had little to say that could interest the lay-public. Then I realised that these excursions can be rather fun, and lend another dimension to what could otherwise be a long litany of Latin names and gigantic dates. Describing the evolving flora, fauna and their environments from micro and macro perspectives. Explaining changing scientific theories and some notable mistakes. In places it lost me in a host of geographical and temporal thinking, and comparisons designed to touch upon the delights, disappointments, and other emotions that beset a scientist in his search for some kind of truth. Apparently realising this, it then comes back to restate the main points again: driving them in like the tap, tap of a geologist's hammer.
There are many other books that have plentiful photographs, diagrams and reconstructions that help to explain current theories. But I suggest this book as a reader: a text stream that serves to link many of the disparate facts one can find in other, more visually exciting works. More than that, it gave me some appreciation and a sense of awe at what has happened, and is still happening on this little planet of ours.
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on 4 December 2007
Ok, bit of a foible of mine but i normally get wound up when authors start telling their life story in a history book but here its well judged, funny and adds to the sense of joy about his subject. Without delving too much into the minutiae of 4 billion years of life it gives you a wide ranging overview of the subject in a fantastically readable way- no long disscussions over Bivalve morphology that gave me nightmares at university!
Its not a textbook, its a beautifully crafted novella with Mr Fortey as the narrator and a cast of heroes and villains (and missunderstood villains like the oviraptor) - my second favourite book of the year (and theres been a lot this year)
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on 19 December 2017
Beautiful book. Really lovely to hold, look at and read. Enhanced tremendously by the pictures in this edition, which really help visualize the text.
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on 28 January 2016
5* - Excellent book
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on 24 February 2015
Superbly written account of life's development, in a really beautiful edition.
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on 31 July 2016
Good book
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on 16 December 2015
Far too deep for the layman.
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on 14 March 2015
Fascinating
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on 23 August 1998
I have to admit that I bought this book at least in part out of a sense of duty. After all, one should have some idea about the history of life on Earth. But now I am getting to work late because I wanted to read just one more chapter in the morning after I got up. "Life" is extremely well written, and rather than just being a list of geological periods with fact sheets, it actually tells a story with many aspects, from the way geology influenced biology, to the constancy of eco-systems, even as the players were being replaced, to finally the way the geological past still influences us today in the form of fossil fuels and feuds among fossilists, among other things. I think it is the later aspect that makes the book so unique. Fortey is very skillful in making the past relevant for us today. He vividly describes the things we would see at a beach of the Silurian, but he also talks about the places where we can find today the traces and fossils left by those plants and animals from hundreds of million years ago. Aside from all that, he also shows the scientists involved in finding out about these things, and all their petty fights and mistakes, as well as their enthusiasm, their sense of wonder, and their insights.
If there is one drawback, it's the weakness of the book when it comes to biochemistry and molecular biology. For example, Fortey doesn't cover the new results about the developmental biology of insect wings that also throw light at their evolution, and his description of the evolution of photosynthesis jumps straight from zero to Chlorobium, without much inbetween. Same with the Archea - there is a lot more weirdness going on there than Fortey lets on. But this obviously this is nit-picking in the extreme - most people wouldn't notice that the author is cutting some corners, and these minor details certainly aren't necessary if you want to squeeze some 4 billion years into 400 pages.
All in all it is a wonderful book that captivates the reader's attention, and it certainly makes you understand why Fortey stuck to the field even after being trapped on a 2 month trip to Spitzbergen in a tent with a disgruntled graduate student. I would rate it among the top 3 science books I read this year.
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