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Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth's Earliest Fossils Paperback – April 9, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0691088648 ISBN-10: 0691088640 Edition: Illustrated edition

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Illustrated edition edition (April 9, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691088640
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691088648
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #408,382 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

What if U.S. history began in 1963, and everything that happened before that year was shrouded in mystery? There would be plenty of events to study, but we wouldn't have a complete picture of the country's past. This is the analogy that paleomicrobiologist J. William Schopf uses to describe the long-missing 85 percent of earth's early fossil record (the puzzle of the missing fossils was known as Darwin's Dilemma). Not until the 1960s did paleobiologists using pickaxes and microscopes find evidence that life began much earlier than previously theorized and that microorganisms were the planet's only inhabitants for most of its existence. And Schopf himself discovered the oldest Precambrian fossils known to science in 1993. Why did it take so long to find these critters?
Though the puzzle of the "missing" early fossil record lived on for more than a hundred years, its solution is now so obvious as to be mundane. The Precambrian world did indeed swarm with living creatures, but until near the close of this vast eon these were microbes and microalgal cells so tiny and fragile that they would never have been unearthed by conventional fossil hunting.
Cradle of Life is a great primer for those interested in the fossil record and its relation to evolutionary theory. Profusely illustrated, this chronicle of amazing discoveries and bizarre questions covers wide ground, including the basics of cell biology and microevolution as well as the careers of the big-name scientists who have set the fossil record straight. And the search continues for the origins of life on earth, as well as the hints of it elsewhere. In a terrifically enlightening epilogue, Schopf shows how even the best scientists have been fooled by geological artifacts that resemble true fossils (as happened with the infamous Martian meteorite "bacteria") and by their own desires to confirm their theories and beliefs about the origins of life. --Therese Littleton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Until the mid-1950s, biologists, geologists and paleontologists seeking early life's traces had to make do with fossils from the Phanerozoic periods, which represent only 15% of the time that life has existed on Earth. The first 85%Athe Precambrian EraAremained obscure. But since the discovery of "microfossils" in Canada's Gunflint rocks, "Precambrian studies have boomed": these fossil microbes constitute our direct evidence about primordial life. Schopf, a professor at UCLA's Institute of Geophysics, adopts an unusually informal first-person style for this rangy exploration of how Precambrian fossils came to light and what they've taught us. The author covers the history of evolutionary thought and the exploits of field paleontologists, as well as the trajectory of his own career. The casual prose brings both rewards and perils. Most readers will want to know, for example, that in 1924 Aleksandr Oparin explained how simple molecules with carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen might have "given rise to the first cells." Few, however, will care that Schopf once lunched with Oparin ("It was thrilling!") or that a limestone slab Schopf found in China "is now embedded in the entry way at our home." What reader needs to be told that, "in science, technical terms are simply shorthand notations for ideas"? Subtract the self-referential elements and Schopf's book is a very clear introduction to the first living things. Final chapters tie these early organisms to the photosynthetic cyanobacteria on today's earth, digress into the history of paleontological frauds and explain what Schopf thinks is right and wrong in NASA's search for fossilized life on Mars. 80 b&w illustrations.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Atheen on January 28, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Wow. I am surprised at how much has been learned about the early phases of life's development since I last formally studied paleontology. One of my favorite areas of study was invertebrate and early life forms. At the time only a modest amount was known about stromatalites and cyanobacteria. The trace fossils of the soft bodied, multicellular, Ediacaran fauna were known but were considered "late" in geologic and biologic terms. The Burgess Shale community, made famous by Gould's "Wonderful Life" in the late '80s, was known, but the organisms were confusing and many have since been restudied and reclassified. Having been a leading actor in the field of microfossils and early bacterial life forms, Schopf puts everything into perspective in his book, making it virtually a history of research into the topic of life's beginnings.
Cradle of Life begins, as such books so often do, with a brief synopsis of Darwin and his theory of evolution, including most critically, its early problems. Thereafter Schopf begins a veritable "who's who" of early paleontology, giving short professional biographies of those who worked in the field as early as the 19th century. He points out where promising leads were suppressed by virtue of the lesser standing of the individual proposing them, and misleading theories given credence because they were proposed by someone of powerful academic credentials. Some of the tales are impressive object lessons in how things can go wrong for human reasons and why science ultimately "gets it right in the end."
One of the more interesting topics the author confronts is how our recent advances in the field of paleontology might help determine whether life exists or has ever existed elsewhere.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Ed Reed on April 8, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed reading this book. It was non-technical enough for a non-palentoligist like myself to understand, and compelling enough to create an earnest desire to turn the next page.
I was a bit troubled by some errors. For example, Schopf mentioned that little children at play sometimes feel a stitch in their side, a condition he ascribed to a build up of lactic acid. Even first-year exercise physiology majors know this to be untrue. (One proof is that people who are incapable of producing lactic acid can still feel this pain). Another is when he says that 10 to the 47th power is rouglhy half of 10 to the 80th. These are both minor points I know, but when I read basic mistakes in a science book, I wonder about the validity statements of which I have no previous knowledge.
However, I enjoyed the concepts and the rendering of the topics, especially the section on radioactive dating techniques and the "Sagan-esk" chapter on life on Mars.
A worthwhile read.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you want to learn about the subject of paleobiology, the history of early life on earth and the hunt for life's origins, read this book. It's not a quick read, Tom Clancy type novel and will take a bit of effort, but it is effort well spent. Author J. William Schopf manages to intelligibly cover the first 3.5 billion years of the history of life on earth and how it has been discovered in only a couple of hundred pages. To make sure he doesn't loose his audience Schopf provides help with the basics by inserting charts and digressions in which he explains the necessary technical language and background facts needed by the lay reader to understand the big picture story. Although the book should be quite satisfying to someone with a scientific bent, non-technical readers with just a little perseverance will read and enjoy this book because the story Schopf tells is fascinating.
Imagine: life begins only a short time after the earth is formed out of the solar nebula, but changes little for hundreds of millions of years. Were those first forms of life plants or animals? Be prepared for the surprise answer.
Very early life consisted of one-cell organisms. What did the first forms of life visible to the unaided eye look like and where did they live? Once again, be prepared to be surprised.
How did scientists ever find fossils of these one celled organisms amidst the millions of square miles of rocks on the earth's surface? The answer has something to do with fishing.
These answers and much, much more await the reader.
The book is not perfect. There is an over-long chapter on the possibility of life on Mars and a little too much about the rivalries between scientists, a subject which deserves it's own separate treatment. But the fascination of the story and the clear, matter of fact style of presentation make this a must read for anyone interested in the early history of life.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on December 29, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Schopf escorts us into the realm of deep time, introducing us to our earliest microbe ancestors found locked away in ancient rocks. The path is often vague and indistinct, but Schopf is a sure and eloquent guide. Not only has he traversed the route before, but he's helped select and clear the track. This fine book reflects Schop's lighthearted "trailside" manner. He fully enjoys scrutinising the rocks for early lifeforms, and the enjoyment is infectious. It's a pleasure to accompany him on this journey.
Of all the ideas of the origins of life, none proved more exciting than the experiments of Harold Urey and Stanley Miller. Their zapping of elemental chemicals to produce amino acids seemed the final answer to how it all began. Years of criticism of their work and assumptions led to the acclaim fading, but Schopf here attempts to resurrect its primacy. His argument relies on his findings of evidence of wide-ranging shallow seas - Darwin's famous "warm, shallow pond" as the place of life's origins. Schopf argues these seas were present at the same time simple life-forms emerged. In Darwin's time, the techniques for analysing the early rocks were limited. Today, as Schopf demonstrates, looking in the right place with the proper tools brings rich paleontological rewards.
After tracing the histories of several researchers in Pre-Cambrian fossils, Schopf goes on to illustrate the most recent finds and their significance. Some of the finds are beyond the realm of the rocks alone. His description of the process of polymer formation illustrates the beginning of complex chemistry leading from non-life to life. The distinction, as he notes, has become vague as research from many disciplines has been applied to evolutionary studies.
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