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Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth Paperback – September 7, 1999


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The diversity of Earth's evolutionary history are preserved in its stones. Fortney enlivens this broad paleontological survey with anecdotes from his own fossil-hunting expeditions.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (September 7, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037570261X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375702617
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #84,410 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

58 of 58 people found the following review helpful By karl b. on November 22, 1999
Format: Hardcover
A book which attempts to cover four billion years in less than four hundred pages is going to have to be a survey aimed at the general reader. If you like serious scientific tomes which discourage humour and a bit of artistic license in written presentations-- this is not for you. Fortney's book is an engaging and enjoyable read that gives insight into the development of life on earth and the scientific field of paleontology. His gifts for constructing an accessible and often charming narrative, quoting poets and bards, noting geniuses and quacks, is a great tribute to English educational system-- which here has developed a devoted scientific mind, obviously entranced by his subject matter, who can express himself with elegance, comprehension, wit and some self deprecation, a refreshing attribute for a scientist.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 6, 1999
Format: Hardcover
It is refreshing to read a book like this: a scientific book for the layman, but one that does not take for granted that its readers are ignorant or stupid. This is not a book for scientists or specialists, but for ordinary people, scientifically literate but only to some degree, who are curious about about the origin and evolution of Life, who ever wondered how was Earth like in the first years of its history, and in later periods, when our planet was still an alien place. This book does just that, taking us to sweltering Carboniferous forests, to oceans teeming with life and deserted land, to landscapes inhabited by strange animals, the like of which exist no more. It explains us how, step by tiny step, life changed the face of the Earth. I was not bothered by the personal references or apparent digressions; all these served as examples to illustrate different points. I was indeed bothered however by the lack of charts. For example, an chart illustrating the different geological eras would have been useful: not all of us know by heart the exact order of the geological periods, and sometimes it is easy to get lost. I ended up copying such a chart from an encyclopedia and keeping the slip of paper inside the book, for reference. It would also have been interesting to have charts (like the cladistic charts of which there are some examples), illustrating how different species are related.
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84 of 96 people found the following review helpful By Alan R. Holyoak on July 24, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The title of this book, "Life: A natural history of four billion years of life on Earth," was a great selling point for me. As an invertebrate zoologist I have an ongoing interest in learning more about where life came from, how it is interrelated, and how and when the diversity of life around us came into being. Of course, no one has definitive explanations for those kinds of topics, but I was looking forward to reading Fortey's views on the natural history of life.
As I began reading I soon became disillusioned with Fortey's approach. If he wanted to write his autobiography, wedged in here and there among his main topic, why in the world didn't he tip off the reader by having a better subtitle? I did press on and complete the book, and found it to have meaningful content and thought-provoking ideas, but after all was said and done I was left wanting.
Fortey deserves commendation for undertaking such a massive topic, in 322pp no less! As I read through his account in search of information that would provide me with a clue to the framework he uses to understand the natural history of life on earth, I felt like I hit speed bump after speed bump in the form of occasionally interesting, but often meaningless, diversions. I'm sorry, but I could really care less, for example, what a hotel traditionally frequented by paleontologists serves for breakfast, or Fortey's personal reflections on Australian ponds where "the jolly swagman rested his tuckerbag"!
Don't get me wrong, those are wonderful literary side steps in this largely scientific work, but for me they were only distractions rather than useful contributions to the work.
Fortey does do a great job in some areas...
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Duwayne Anderson on February 22, 2000
Format: Paperback
It's hard to imagine a more ambitious project than writing a natural history of the first four billion years of life on earth. It's even harder to imagine writing it for the interested layperson without making too many oversimplifications or leaving out too much important detail in a book with just over 300 pages. Richard Fortey has risen to the occasion though, and in the process has created a book that's engaging and highly worth reading.
You might expect a book like this to be mechanistic, starting at the beginning and cranking by rote through the sequence of events that constitute the earth's history. Fortey doesn't do this. In a cordial and poetic style he first introduces us to the real world of paleontology. A world of dirt, grime and fierce winds on forsaken beaches bordering forgotten islands of the far north. This is where Fortey began his carrier, and where he made a first mark in the study of extinct organisms from earth's ancient past. This first chapter is important because it reminds us that our knowledge of earth's history has come in fitful starts in which chance and luck have played a central roll. Only a fraction of all creatures leave fossilized remains, only a fraction of those are ever found, and even then they must be interpreted through the preconceptions of scientists. The miracle is that we know anything at all - but we do, and what a story it is.
Having introduced the working of paleontology, Fortey devotes the second chapter to the origin of the first life forms. This chapter is of necessity the most barren of all. We still don't understand the origin of life, though there have been remarkable strides in recent years.
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