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Life on Earth by David Attenborough

Life on Earth (1979)

by David Attenborough

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David Attenborough

Life on Earth
A Natural History

Collins/BBC, Paperback, 1992.

4to. 319 pp. Back cover blurb by David Attenborough, January 1992.

First published by Collins/BBC in hardback, 1979.
First paperback edition by Collins/BBC, 1992.



1. The Infinite Variety
2. Building Bodies
3. The First Forests
4. The Swarming Hordes
5. The Conquest of the Waters
6. The Invasion of the Land
7. A Watertight Skin
8. Lords of the Air
9. Eggs, Pouches and Placentas
10. Theme and Variations
11. The Hunters and Hunted
12. A Life in the Trees
13. The Compulsive Communicators



Quite simply, the best introduction to natural history ever written.

These words of Desmond Morris quoted on the back cover are, quite simply, the best review of David Attenborough's Life on Earth ever written. Still, let me try mine.

If you are of a religious turn of mind, you may well think the life and deeds of Jesus Christ to be the greatest story ever told. But if you happen to have scientific inclinations, you can hardly choose better for such story than life on Earth. It has an irresistible grandeur and majesty, not to mention astounding scope and virtually endless variety. My experience with literature on the subject is severely limited, yet I cannot possibly imagine a better introduction in one volume than Life on Earth by Sir David Attenborough.

To begin with the most obvious, the book is stupendously illustrated. About half of these 300 pages or so are occupied by magnificent photographs, all printed on full page (or two) and in simply gorgeous full colour. Some of them are indeed breathtaking, like the tree frog from Panama on the cover - photographed, incidentally, by Sir David himself - which has become one of the most emblematic images with regard to natural history. Pretty much all major groups of organisms discussed in some detail in the text are supplied with photographs which are so ingeniously organised that you needn't look further from the text in question than page or two. Being so gorgeous as they are, however, the photographs have the unpleasant side effect that most people simply do not pay any attention to the text.

What truly makes Life on Earth a great book is the fact that its text is infinitely superior to its photographs, amazing though they are. It is not hard to find lavishly illustrated albums with memorable wild life photos, but a narrative like David Attenborough's is a rarity indeed. His writing style is perfection itself, combining lucidity, succinctness, clarity and, occasionally, humour in a most readable and delightful manner. It is wonderfully suitable for the lay reader, provided that he is chiefly interested in the essence of the story, not in bombastic statistics or mundane details. There are neither Latin names here (except in the index), nor any of those tongue-twisted geological epochs: except in a wonderful ''tree of life'' in end of the book where one can convert those ''x million years'' into ''Cenozoic era'', '' Cambrian period'' and other charmingly obscure terms as well as some pretty popular ones like ''Paleozoic era'' or ''Jurassic period''. What is much more fascinating about this ''tree of life'', however, is that it gives an excellent overview how all major groups of organisms developed through that extraordinarily immense period of time; one can see not just when they appeared and when they became extinct, but when they flourished and when they decayed as well: pretty spectacular amount of information for mere two pages. As far as the main text of the book is concerned, just about the most scientifically specialised word is ''DNA'', and that too is explained.

But the reader must always keep in mind that this book is especially designed for the general public, for reasonably intelligent and educated people who just happen to be not so well acquainted with the stupendous variety of plants and animals on earth, and especially how that variety came to be. But to search for serious and detailed science between these pages is to miss the point completely. Which is not say that the book is flippant or shoddy. Far from it. It just is popular science rather than pure science. To take just two examples - not for any other reason but because they happen to interest me very much - though the book is concerned a lot with evolution, it offers only very brief discussion of the theory and the contribution of Charles Darwin to it, but there is almost nothing about its mechanisms and what role they, presumably, have played in the origin of species (no pun intended). Another difficult question, perhaps the most endearingly fascinating and outstandingly contentious of all, is the origin of life itself in those primordial seas, and here I must say that David Attenborough's treatment is almost embarrassingly superficial and naive. But that is to be expected. These questions are books in themselves. Their missing in Life on Earth should not be used to degrade the book. Sir David had an amazing story to tell, in just a few hundred pages for as wide a public as possible, and he had to draw the line somewhere in order to sustain the high quality of the narrative throughout the book as well as to remain in the dangerous field of popular science. So he takes evolution as indisputable fact and great force which worked on life as soon as the latter appeared, however that may have happened, and he goes on to tell the story.

What a story indeed! Life on Earth covers it all and it is a most unforgettable journey that stirs the imagination as few other things do. Nobody knows when the whole thing started, but that probably happened some three to four billion years ago in the seas of the still young (mere half or one billion years old) planet Earth. David Attenborough starts from here and leads his readers through the development of more and more complex multi-celled organisms, the colonisation of sea, land and air, and finally to the staggering diversity of the present day and the appearance of those who are so careless with its preservation. Yes, this must be the greatest story ever told! It seems impossible to tell it in a single volume of mere 300 pages, yet that's exactly what Sir David has done brilliantly. He never looses the main thread of his narrative, nor does he fail to fit perfectly every significant evolutionary event in the big puzzle, no matter how many millions of years may lay in between.

Of course it is a very dangerous story to tell. The absorbing introduction of the book shows that David Attenborough was only too well aware of the dangers and difficulties he is bound to encounter during his work. The main danger, in his opinion, was attaching some purpose to evolution, something for which, he is convinced, there is no objective evidence. I should have thought this is something obvious, but then I reflect that, human vanity being of cosmic proportions, it must be gratifying for many people to view themselves as a special product of three billion years of evolution. As far as difficulties go, Sir David's pithy exposition cannot possibly be bettered

The condensation of three million years of history into three hundred pages, the description of a group of animals containing tens of thousands of species within one chapter, compels vast omissions. My method has been to try to perceive the single most significant thread in the history of a group and then concentrate on tracing that, resolutely ignoring other issues, no matter how enticing they may seem.

What impresses me most in Life on Earth is David Attenborough's truly miraculous ability to compress enormously his subject without being perfunctory, careless or superficial. His chapters give me a sense of a most remarkable completeness without being in the least isolated from the main theme of the book. To my mind it is downright inconceivable how one can cover in a single chapter such major groups of animals like insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles or birds, but that's precisely what David Attenborough has done in chapters 4 to 7, and he has done it so well that in the end of every chapter I am convinced that he has said everything there is to be said. Sometimes he weaves several vastly different groups into one single chapter, showing perceptively their origins from one another; Building Bodies, for instance, is a most absorbing overview of molluscs, crinoids and crustaceans, together with several important extinct species like trilobites and ammonites.

Sir David's major premise throughout the narrative is the surprisingly high degree to which living organisms can be used to illustrate the evolutionary development of plants and animals. The presence of fossils is of course obligatory, but they are by no means a dominant part. Those who want to learn more about the different groups of organisms as they are today may be reminded that later in his life David Attenborough wrote a number of books especially dedicated to plants, birds, mammals, invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles, respectively:

The Private Life of Plants (1994)
The Life of Birds (1998)
The Life of Mammals (2002)
Life in the Undergrowth (2005)
Life in Cold Blood (2007)

Coming back to Life on Earth, the unique thing about the first paperback edition of 1992 is the blurb on the back cover, written by David Attenborough himself and dated ''January, 1992.'' It is a charming trifle in which the author describes briefly how the famous ''Life trilogy'' came to exist. Somewhere in the middle 1970s, after two decades of filming wild life in the tropics, Sir David's impressions had become such a dazzling, almost confusing, kaleidoscope that he decided to put the matter into some kind of order. It took him well more than a decade to finish the project but finally his now legendary trilogy of magnificent productions was finished. They explored three main - perhaps the three main - aspects of the living organisms: their diversity, their ecology and their behaviour:

Life on Earth (1979)
The Living Planet (1984)
The Trials of Life (1990)

As mentioned many times by David Attenborough, including in the book itself, Life on Earth was written in parallel with the shooting of the eponymous movie. So the two are closely related. First broadcast on BBC in the first half of 1979, Life on Earth consists of 13 episodes, about 55 minutes each, with very similar titles and contents as the 13 chapters of the book. Despite the great deal of overlapping, the two mediums complement each other astonishingly well: the book has the advantage of a great deal more detailed exposition and better structure, whereas the film is a visual tour de force. At first glance, the colours, the picture and the camera work may, respectively, look whitewashed, grainy and clumsy, but when I remember that the movie was made in the late 1970s - long before the vogue for digital special effects - I cannot but be convinced that the series actually put to shame many a modern documentary. There are numerous haunting and unforgettable shots in those 12 hours or so. Those memorable slow motion cameras that caught flying insects still look as state-of-the-art technique to me even today. The emerging of a mature dragonfly from its old skin and the hardening of its wings on the morning sun really look like a pure science fiction, kind of a next sequel to Alien. It is just impossible to mention all visually enthralling moments. There are hardly any others.

But the most priceless asset to the movie is the same one which makes the book great: David Attenborough himself. His unmistakable voice and eloquent speech are pure delight. Also, as a non-native English speaker for whom the most difficult part of the English classes has always been the so called ''listening'', I guarantee there is no better training for that than listening to David Attenborough. His diction and pronunciation are exemplary; not only are subtitles superfluous, but one may well take a dictation under his voice. Moreover, Sir David is a man of incredible charm. He is everywhere: hunting fossils in the Grand Canyon, Australia or Wales (where he used some ''violent methods'' for that), socialising with mountain gorillas in equatorial Africa (his own favourite experience during the making of the movie), swimming through the Great Barrier Reef, criss-crossing the Galapagos islands (his favourite location) or handling carefully a huge palm thief (aka coconut crab, a most amazing crustacean that is, most amazingly, entirely terrestrial; it can live, breath and eat on land, it needs to visit the ocean only for reproduction; needless to say, this is a species of great evolutionary significance).

Now, Sir David is not just everywhere, but he explains everything even when he is not actually there. His enthusiasm is endless, delightful and extremely contagious. Take fossils for example. Before David Attenborough I had thought them a rather dull stuff. Not so afterwards. After seeing his ecstasy when showing us a magnificently preserved ammonite, I often catch myself during a country walk with my greedy eyes glued to the rocks in search of fossils. And who can forget David Attenborough's opening lines in the movie:

There are some four million different kinds of animals and plants in the world. Four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive. This is the story of how a few of them came to be as they are.

Quite unlike the book, which is abominably out of print, the movie is very much available as an outstandingly cheap four DVDs set in the most gorgeously illustrated box you have ever seen, I guarantee. The series are complete - all 13 episodes - and there is even one excellent bonus: a half-an-hour documentary, Wildtrack, apparently broadcast on BBC during the premiere of the series. It contains a charming interview with Sir David with a lot of insights about those three years of work in 40 countries all around the world in the most ambitious project of its kind ever undertaken for television at the time (together with some hilarious outtakes like Sir David being smoked by a volcano on Iceland). There is also some utterly compelling, and greatly revealing, footage about the secrets behind many of the most astonishing moments, including shooting magnificently coloured sea slugs in the Great Barrier Reef, combining camera work with microscopy for some of the most amazing images of protozoans you've ever seen, and treating a huge bird eating spider from Australia as a movie star in studio. It breaks the spell a little to know that some of the greatest moments in Life on Earth were shot in carefully prepared studios, rather than in the wild, but that of course is inevitable - and irrelevant for the images are no less real or unforgettable for that. As for the series in general, watching those 13 episodes immediately before or after reading the corresponding chapters in the book is an experience not to be forgotten. Ever.

The only drawback of the movie is the music. It reminds me of a very shoddy and mediocre imitation of Richard Strauss, not to mention that the sound quality is quite terrible for the late 1970s. Needless to say, this is a point of no importance. The book, within its limitations, is downright perfect. I would also venture to claim that, despite being first published more than 30 years ago, Life on Earth is not dated at all, save for few minor and insignificant details nobody but pathological nit-pickers would care about. This is a book that deals almost exclusively with the basics, and these date little through the years.

Now, the fact that book like Life on Earth by David Attenborough has long since been out of print is one the most hideous crimes in the modern publishing history. But since second hand copies are easily available and embarrassingly cheap, I suggest you get hold of one as soon as possible and start reading. It is a most exciting and exhilarating ride through 3500 million years of life.


Note about differences between the hardback and the paperback edition.

Just for the record, it is interesting to note that there are few differences between the photographs in the original edition from 1979 and the paperback one from 1992. Sometimes the difference is insignificant, like in the case on pp.117-118 where a magnificent manta ray is shown in both editions (the newer picture is perhaps a bit better). Page 189, however, is a little baffling. Here both photographs are of different bird species, even though both obviously perform the same court ritual. The baffling thing is that the Great Crestal Crebes in the original edition were substituted with Gap Gannets in the paperback version, but the former is explicitly mentioned in the text whereas the latter is not. Similar difference in the species occurs on p. 241 - bonito for snapper - but it doesn't really matter here because the important thing to notice is the shoal, not the exact species. Perhaps the most extreme case of these changes in the photographs occurs on p. 241, where a Minke whale in the original hardback - one of the very few indifferent pictures - has been replaced with a magnificent two pages photograph of a hunchback whale. Anyway, these are very minor differences of no consequence at all. So far as I can judge from reading most of both editions, the text has been reprinted without any alterations.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the back of the dust jacket of the hardback edition has one compelling full page photograph not to be found anywhere in the paperback. It shows David Attenborough, camera in hand, standing on a rock beside the water and having a most absorbing conversation with a seal. By way of a little compensation, the back cover of the paperback has one small picture of Sir David laughing his head off with those cute mountain gorillas. If there ever was a man who could speak with the animals, it must be David Attenborough.

I have no first hand experience with American editions of the book, but it seems that the volume was simultaneously published on both sides of the Atlantic in 1979 by Collins. Several years later, in the early 1980s, it was also published in the New World by Little Brown, both in hard- and in paperback; this edition is, presumably, identical to the original one, even though the front cover is not occupied by the trademark tree frog. Anyway, I am pretty sure it makes no difference which edition in English you will choose. You are in for fantastic adventure anyway.

Note for Bulgarians.

If you have the misfortune to be a Bulgarian - like myself - I implore you never to read the Bulgarian translation of this book. Well, the translation itself is OK, but the illustrations have been mutilated to an almost unimaginable degree: pretty much 90% of them are actually missing. But the rest are printed on glossy paper in superb quality - quite unlike the text which is printed on the cheapest and most inferior paper. Never should you read this Bulgarian edition of Life on Earth. Always read the English original. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Oct 23, 2010 |
full of great photographs ( )
  DrJane | Aug 10, 2007 |
Science & Technology
-natural science
  jmdcbooks | Sep 29, 2006 |
Beautiful pictures!
  flexnib | Nov 23, 2005 |
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"Discovering life on earth" by David Attenborough is a shorter, juvenile version. "Life on Earth: Augmented and Enlarged Edition" should also not be combined with "Life on earth".
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Follows the sequence of events in the evolution of life on Earth, from the emergence of one-celled organisms to man.

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