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96 of 99 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book, but not an introductory book
Andrew Knoll's Life on a Young Planet is a fascinating attempt to describe the current state of our knowledge of how life evolved during the Earth's first three billion years. Most of the book deals with the period more than 543 million years ago. This period of Earth's history is not well understood, yet it saw the development of multicellular life and the start of the...
Published on October 8, 2003 by Stephen Holland

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great for undergraduate students or others new to Earth Sciences/History
I personally prefer writers who can weave together a narrative utilizing evidence from a range of disciplines. This book is pretty slow and the details of the methods used in the experiments that have contributed to sciences evolving understanding of the earth's history is often murky and generalized. However, if you are new to Earth Science/History this may be a good...
Published 15 months ago by Carrie


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96 of 99 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book, but not an introductory book, October 8, 2003
By 
Stephen Holland (Greenbelt, Maryland United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Andrew Knoll's Life on a Young Planet is a fascinating attempt to describe the current state of our knowledge of how life evolved during the Earth's first three billion years. Most of the book deals with the period more than 543 million years ago. This period of Earth's history is not well understood, yet it saw the development of multicellular life and the start of the animal kingdom. Knoll's book is a balance account of the latest thinking on the division of life into domains, the rise of eukaryotic cells, the development of multicellular life, and the rise of plants and animals.
The book is balanced and avoids taking the route of sensationalism. A reader who is interested in biology and evolution can learn a lot from it. The book, however, does have two problems. First, it assumes that the reader is familiar with biology and genetics at the introductory University level. Readers with no previous knowledge will probably find themselves getting lost in the dense text. The second problem is that the book's ending is somewhat unsatisfactory. The author stops his discussion of the evolution of life at the Cambrian Explosion and ends the book with a chapter about what lessons that the early history of Earthly life teach about the prospects of life elsewhere in the Universe. This jump is jarring and leaves the reader feeling that the book is lacking a conclusion.
All in all I highly recommend this book to anyone who already knows the difference between eukaryotic and prokaryotic life. If, however, you need to do a Google search to understand that last sentence then this book may be a bit too advanced for you.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wide ranging., September 2, 2004
By 
algo41 "algo41" (philadelphia, pa United States) - See all my reviews
Who knew? To be a paleontologist these days you need to know more than a little about biology, molecular biology, physics, chemistry, geology, plate tectonics, climatology, fossils of course - and be something of an adventurer. Knoll is also a fine writer - clear, interesting, capable of good descriptive prose. Truthfully, I am not all that interested in fossils, and I didn't get much from the color pictures, although others may. The quality of the writing got me through many of these sections. My reward was the many state of the art discussions, such as: the role of combined organisms in evolution: the genesis of the explosion of life forms which has occurred several times in earth's history; the origin of earth's current atmosphere (yes, that is important to reading the fossil clues). Knoll is great at identifying issues, explaining why some theories are no longer tenable, giving the arguments for the rest, and explaining his hunches. We all know that current levels of oxygen are due to photosynthesis, but it is not so simple, because if that were all there were to it, the earth would have had a high oxygen atmosphere hundreds of millions of years before it did. If you are interested in global warming, get this book, and just read the relevant chapters. Knoll cannot give background in all the subject areas, so he does not try for any. I would have been happier if I knew more about some of the bacteria he discusses, and an introductory chapter on what constitutes a fossil would have saved me some time (the material is there). However, if you know something about RNA/DNA, and have read at least one good article on plate tectonics, I think you will be OK.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine balance, January 3, 2004
Knoll provides what may be the finest description of the sciences of early life available. Bringing together such fields as geology, biochemistry, genetics and, of course, his own science of paleontology, he presents a vivid image of how life formed long ago. The subtitle is deceptively simple. "First three billion years" rolls off the tongue easily. Knoll demonstrates the quest to understand how life originated has been elusive and arduous. The search, he reminds us constantly, is far from over. We may not even gain meaningful grasp of the subject if we restrict the inquiry to this planet.
Knoll asserts the benchmark for comprehending how life may have started was the Urey-Miller experiments of the 1950s. By assuming a particular composition of Earth's early atmosphere and bombarding that recipe with electricity to duplicate lightning, Urey and Miller produced amino acids. Knoll credits these experiments not with showing how life began, but by their stimulation of much further research. Since then, geologists have revealed increasingly older rocks. Instead of buried deep beneath the surface as might be expected, they are often found well exposed. Knoll's expeditions to chilly Siberian sites are offset by the roaring desert of outback Australia. Both locations have provided researchers with new information on composition, chemical and environmental processes, and, most significantly, Precambrian fossils.
The many research fields now involved in developing a picture of life's beginnings indicate how complex a task unveiling "simple" can be. Early life, of course, was microscopic. Sometimes it isn't fossils that are found, but spoor remains - tracks once left in mud, images of forms, and, most intriguing for many, chemical signatures. The chemical, is usually carbon, that fundamental element of life. But other elements, iron, sulfur and oxygen also carry messages about living processes.
Knoll manages a delicate arabesque as he presents us with the evidence obtained and the interpretations derived from it. He carefully delineates the fossil information given by the rocks, mixing it with geological and geochemical processes. Various researchers are given voice through his narrative. Where issues are contentious, and most ideas of early life fit that description, he explains the reasons behind the stance, then offers his own choice. While the conflict is rarely solved, none of his solutions are arbitrary or based on personality. You are still left to satisfy your own mind through his references. Knoll's prose presents this information and discussion with clarity and balance. At the end, with these lucid explanations as background, he considers that answers to many of our questions may be found on our nearest planetary neighbour - Mars.
Beyond the informative text provided, Knoll enhances the book with site photographs to convey the scale of the locations excavated. Ancient landscapes are today stark, and the photos do little to convey the nippy Kotuikan cliffs or the roasting Precambrian site of North Pole, Western Australia. A collection of plates offers stunning colour images of ancient fossils and some modern equivalents. He further diagrams phylogenetic trees showing the relationship of organisms and why they are considered related. Not all life, he reminds us, has followed the path to complexity. With a good, but not exhaustive, reading list to examine, the reader may continue the pursuit. The younger reader may even wish to further the knowledge we have. Knoll exhorts the next generation of early life researchers to examine the questions and go afield to provide more answers. There are few worthier causes. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Was there primitive life on Earth? How do we know?, October 31, 2006
In 1996, NASA created a brief stir by claiming that a meteorite that originated on Mars and had landed in Antarctica showed evidence of primitive life. That claim faded, but Harvard paleontologist Andrew Knoll says the real difficulty is proving the existence of primitive life on Earth.

We know it was there, because we're here, but just how and where did life get its start?

Recently, thanks to a new cooperation between paleontology and molecular biology, the possible answers have at least been narrowed down. "We are not close to solving the riddle of life's origins," Knoll writes in "Life on a Young Planet."

But it began a long time ago. Evidence for life 3.8 billion years ago is shaky. At 3.5 billion years in the past, the evidence is rather better. A few hundred million years later, it's solid.

The atom-by-atom sequences that can now be done for genes provide a kind of clock. Paleontologists like Knoll are more skeptical of this clock than laboratory scientists, because rates of change are not stable.

But the results are suggestive, and molecular sequencing also provides a much closer analysis of relationships among the divergent forms of life.

It is now a commonplace that animals and fungi had a common ancestor more recently than animals and plants did. That was a surprise. There have been others.

Sequencing and other research has since revealed that one-celled organisms are far more diverse than previously known. If the same standards that are used to declare a group of multicellular species a "kingdom" were applied to one-celled species, the number of "kingdoms" would soar to more than 30. Just a decade or so ago, the commonly accepted total was about five, with a few radicals suggesting there could be seven.

Of all the kingdoms, cyanobacteria or blue-green algae are "arguably the most important organisms ever to appear on Earth."

Knoll traces the evidence for early life, and the growing recognition of how environment (the processes of non-life) and ecology (the processes of life) combined to create revolutions in Earth history. Until recently, says Knoll, the role of environment was not given its due weight.

Now, however, scientists believe they understand how the oceans changed in revolutionary fashion thanks to cyanobacteria, how tremendous ice ages (longer and more extensive than the one in whose brief warm phase we live) redirected evolution.

The big deal, it appears, was the combination of a big ice age and an oxygen-rich atmosphere for the first time. Earlier big ice ages hadn't ruffled the slow course of evolution noticeably.

It now looks as if the first big one after free oxygen took over may have triggered the explosion of animal species that signaled the Cambrian Era, about 600 million years ago.

A previous generation of paleontologists had argued whether the sudden appearance of many animals in fossil beds was a real change or merely an artifact of the way fossils are preserved.

The answer seems to be, it was real. "Ice heralded the age of animals," writes Knoll.

New discoveries come almost weekly. "Only in 2001," writes Knoll, "was it discovered that tiny Archaeans (living descendants of some of the earliest species to evolve) may be the most abundant organisms in many parts of the ocean; biologists have no idea how these microbes make their living."

"Life on a Young Planet" is a stimulating tour through the history of evolution as we understand it today.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rolling voyage through time., May 9, 2004
This book is a rolling voyage over the waves of eras and eons, fossils and nucleotides, chemistry and physics. The story sways with a rhythm that is both soothing and stimulating. On the voyage we are taught how life may have begun, how it evolved, how it changed it's environment -- indeed how it changed the entire planet. We see how slowly life moved at first, and how it suddenly accellerated to its current frenzy. The author, our ready guide throughout this voyage, culminates the trip with perhaps the most profound and moving epilog I have ever read in a book of this kind. Well done. Accessible. Fun. Instructive. Powerful.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent But Sometimes Challenging Read, January 14, 2006
This review is from: Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth (Princeton Science Library) (Paperback)
This is an excellent introduction to the evolution of life on the planet. The author presents many complex ideas in a mostly easy to read book, all with beautiful photographs and schematics. The book is approximately 250 pages long plus has a number of references.

The book is relatively new and up to date. The author covers all the basics;
- beginning of life,
- tree of life,
- emergence of life,
- oxygen,
- Cyanobacteria,
- Eukaryotes,
- dynamics of earth, and
- some comments on astrobiology.

Chapter Five contains one of the clearest descriptions that I have ever read on the start of life on the planet. His story covers the following points:

- early formation of amino acids and proteins from
inorganic reactions (Miller 1953),
- first enzyme was RNA (Crick 1968, Nobel 1969),
- RNA for ribosomes self edited, and it catalyzed reactions in proteins (Cech, Altman; 1989 Nobel prize),
- RNA chain formation (Oro, 1961),
- formation of ribozymes (Szostak and Joyce),
- nucleotides join to form peptides (Stanley Miller, Nobel 1989)
- protobiological merger (Dyson)
- protein and RNA, spontaneous formation of lipid reconstruction in a cell like sphere with RNA on the inside demonstrating metabolism and first cell formation, survivors had protein tails (David Deamer),
- natural selection produced, or yielded, sulfate bacteria, and
- evolution through gene sharing.

I bought this book a few years ago when it first came out. It took me a couple of readings to digest the materials and I had to read a few other things on the web. After two reads I still do not understand it all, but I know a lot more; I have a Ph.D. in from MIT. This is an excellent book.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant discussion on the ALH-84001 scientific debate, July 6, 2006
By 
Irene Schneider, nome de plume 'Ihrenes' "Ihr... (The Pennsylvania State university, State Colllege, PA, USA.) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth (Princeton Science Library) (Paperback)
Apart from offering his great scientific expertise, Andrew Knoll provides a very through view of the evolutionary tracks that life has followed on our planet. However, what in my view what this book deserves praise for is the brief yet highly valuable discussion he provides on the debate of the meteorite ALH-84001. Not taking any of the debates sides he offers the reader an open minded and brilliant exposure of the subject cleaning up the many misconceptions put forth. In addition I truly liked his brief but to the point treatment of the very painful subject of Intelligent Design versus Science. These two chapters of the book are definitely worth reading.

-Ihrenes 2006.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Three Billion Year Old Cold, February 19, 2006
This review is from: Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth (Princeton Science Library) (Paperback)
Let me confess early on that I am by no means a student of paleontology. Other than my encounters with dinosaurs-in-print during my youth and some required college courses, my knowledge is limited to the occasional book or pointed lecture by a friend. Life On A Young Planet is this year's occasional book, and it has proved to be a very interesting and informative one as well.

Andrew Knoll is a professor of Natural History at Harvard and has all the necessary awards, fieldwork, and publications to make him an easily recognized fixture on the protobiological horizon. That he also manages to write very well with the kind of humility that seems rare among the sciences these days is an accomplishment. That he can make tiny, ancient bacteria into an interesting and even compelling narrative is special.

This is a history of the beginnings and adventures of life, as it first appears, weakens, and then reappears over a tremendous span of time. Knoll combines hard science, personal narrative and an occasional bit of speculation into a cogent synthesis. We get to tour some of the oldest stone beds on the planet and discover surprises, confirmations, and more than a few puzzles. Expect to befriend countless bacteria on their way to future greatness. Knoll does his best to be even handed, and makes an effort to present the many sides of the issues of his field.

The author builds steadily to his core points. We gradually come to see how life and the environment go hand in hand as species flourish and then disappear. This is quite a pageant, and Knoll wants us to understand that, at any time, life is fragile, and we as humans have become an environmental force to be reckoned with. If we do not learn to behave, more than the existence of our own species is at stake. "I don't know whether God decreed the carrier pigeon," Knoll states in conclusion, "but if he did, it was not for us to exterminate."
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Popular science that is not dumbed down, April 28, 2006
By 
A would-be polymath (Silver Spring, MD United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth (Princeton Science Library) (Paperback)
This book is beautifully written and tells a fascinating story, not only about the evidence of life in the Precambian period on to the Cambrian Explosion but also about the history of such studies and the pros and cons of different theories. It is not a page-turner; the reader must be ready to think. But a thinking reader, even one with no science background, will learn a lot.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From the Oldest Fossils to the Rise of Animals - Glimpses into Our Dark Past, April 17, 2006
This review is from: Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth (Princeton Science Library) (Paperback)
This is the story of life in the Proterozoic Eon, which is characterized by an extreme scarcity of fossils. Sites from the early Proterozoic are rare and much changed from their original condition, so it's hard to know anything about what life and geology were like. The picture slowly clears as the story moves forward. For example, when eukaryotes arrived, they were larger and more varied than earlier organisms and so their fossils are easier to distinguish from mineral deposits. By the end of the story, animals are on the verge of the Cambrian "explosion". There are still more questions than answers, particularly about what the ancestors of the Cambrian animals were like, and why the "explosion" happened when it did. It is the questions, and the discussion of possible answers, that give this book its appeal.

One major question was how much oxygen the oceans held. Photosynthesis - the main source of free oxygen on Earth - began long before the evolution of multicellular life. What caused the delay? Was some process scrubbing oxygen from the ocean? The evidence needed to discuss these questions includes the presence of certain minerals and the ratios of certain isotopes. Knoll discusses the evidence and indicates what we can know so far. There are other questions than the amount of oxygen, and Knoll treats them similarly.

The lead-in to the "explosion" gets special attention. Important considerations include the nature of late pre-Cambrian animals, oxygen levels, mass extinction, and the proliferation of developmental genes. There is much debate these issues and Knoll describes the debate, giving his evaluation of various positions. This, for me, was the most exciting part of the book. If you too find it exciting, I recommend the book Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean Carroll for insight into how the evolution of developmental genes led to increasingly rapid diversification of animals.

As you can tell from the above, Young Planet is somewhat technical. I had to pause frequently to think about what I was reading and I had to go back from time to time to review some point. That's what I usually want in a science book; it's more about thinking than about description. And it's not hard to read; it's just about right for a non-scientist who wants to learn about the subject. (It may help you to have an idea of my background. Click on my name, above, and you might want to red my other reviews.)
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Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth (Princeton Science Library)
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