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Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (1997)

by Richard A. Fortey

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This isn't my favourite of Fortey's books, possibly because I've read similar types of books by other writers before, so he isn't bringing me a new subject I don't expect to like in the same way as he was in his books about geology, or a key passion of his as in his book about trilobites (though trilobites have their place here, too, as you'd expect with Fortey). Still, I enjoy the way he writes and the way he draws together his themes, and this isn't a bad book -- it's just that he and others have covered a lot of this ground before.

Actually, my favourite history-of-evolution type book is Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale. (When Dawkins sticks to science, he's great. When he decides to comment on twitter, rarely so.) That's just a quirk of the way he organises it, though, while Fortey's method is a little less organised, lingering on things of special interest to him. Which is fine, but didn't work so well for me in this case. That, and he doesn't deal with DNA as much as I'd like, because that's my special interest and not his.

Nonetheless, Fortey knows his stuff and how to make it enjoyable, though I think I can understand people who complain about his writing style not being easy -- I tend to take it slow and savour it, myself. ( )
  shanaqui | Nov 23, 2014 |
Encyclopedic overview of a truly overwhelming topic. The author is clearly passionate about his topic, and communicates it wonderfully. ( )
1 vote HadriantheBlind | Mar 29, 2013 |
This is a big book, the story of four billion years of evolution, a history of our planet before man appears. Fortey takes the reader to a fascinating journey in time that begins in the shores of Spitsbergen. His recollection of his first expedition, in that bare, gray rocky outcrop, draws us into the world of rocks and the stories that tell of the beginnings of our planet, spun from dust and rock. He guides us through the processes which gave rise to conditions that proved favourable to the formation of the most primitive forms of life, which are evidenced in fossil records, some organisms of which are very much still with us. Then on to the development of more complex organisms, the places they inhabited. He pictures for us the rich marine broth, the periodic crisis the planet goes through with the climatic cycles, that eventually released creatures from this marine soup to slouch landwards. He depicts the silent greening of the world in the Devonian period, and the wondrous engineering of a tree. In these carboniferous forests, we behold the instance when the last physical, threshold was crossed: from the ground to the air. He talks of continental drift, and of dinosaurs great and small, including a fascinating chapter on theories of the end and controversies surrounding them. Then there is the appearance of mammals, and the special case of Australian mammals. The last chapter, as befits its place in the evolution of life in our planet, is about us, humans, our origins and the earliest journeys of our ancestors.

While many things from this book are quite familiar to most people, Fortey's narrative is so wonderfully written, his curiousity and wonder infusing every page, that what is already fascinating becomes wondrous. This book came out in 1997, so some of the information may already be outdated, still it is a worthwhile read of the origins of the greatest wonder of all. ( )
1 vote deebee1 | Feb 2, 2013 |
A complex and difficult book to read relates the history of life in the first 4 billion years of its existence on earth. four stars ( )
  oldman | Sep 22, 2012 |
Who could possibly whip up your interest and enthusiasm for slime mold or Spriggina, a several cell animal present millions of years ago? Richard Fortey in Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth is who. He writes with awe, knowledge, and enthusiasm about the development of life with some lively descriptions of the people and expeditions who have uncovered it. It presents the history of life in its presently understood version; that our understanding can and will change with new evidence is consistently brought up. It's a wonderfully engaging and informative book ( )
1 vote snash | Jul 3, 2010 |
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Salterella dodged between the icebergs
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Later subtitle: A natural history of the first four billion years of life on earth.
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The senior paleontologist at London's Natural History Museum presents an account of life on Earth from the Big Bang to the advent of humankind, based entirely on the evidence of fossils, stones, and other natural artifacts.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 037570261X, Paperback)

"The excitement of discovery cannot be bought, or faked, or learned from books," London Natural History Museum senior paleontologist Richard Fortey writes in Life. The first chapter, an engrossing account of an Arctic fossil-hunting expedition he undertook as a university student, will bring shivers to anyone who has ever ignored cold hands, hunger, and filthy socks to keep looking for something new, some piece of rock or bit of plant that may hold the key to the gleaming certainty of understanding. Fortey's descriptions of scruffy field assistants and eccentrically brilliant scientists are easily as interesting as the billions of years of evolution he so imaginatively describes. After all, the fossil record has not been accepted without controversy, and the arguments among fallible evolutionary biologists as they refined their theories make for great reading. But it is the little animals that make up our distant ancestry that are the focus here. The often mysterious fossils they left behind are like a history book in a language we don't know--the history of bugs and birds, humans and cauliflowers. One by one, Fortey reveals how the puzzles of paleontology have been subjected to the scientific method and to the politics and personal ambitions of academia, until a beautifully clear path is traced from the very first traces of life all the way across the eons to the advent of Homo sapiens. Fortey's elegantly written tour lets us share his passion for ancient seas and the animals that frolicked in them, and understand how time and chance contributed to the biography of us all. --Therese Littleton

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:51:25 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Richard Fortey guides us from the barren globe spinning in space, through the very earliest signs of life in the sulphurous hot springs and volcanic vents of the young planet, the appearance of cells, the slow creation of an atmosphere and the evolution of myriad forms of plants and animals that could then be sustained, including the magnificent era of the dinosaurs, and on to the last moment before the debut of Homo sapiens. Fortey weaves this history out of the most delicate traceries left in rock, stone and earth. He also explains how, on each aspect of nature and life, scientists have reached the understanding we have today, who made the key discoveries, who their opponents were and why certain ideas won.… (more)

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