- Audible Audio Edition
- Listening Length: 13 hours and 54 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: University Press Audiobooks
- Audible.com Release Date: July 8, 2015
- Language: English
- ASIN: B0117VY7W2
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
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Islands in the Cosmos: The Evolution of Life on Land (Life of the Past) Audiobook – Unabridged
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This book describes how life and its planetary environment has changed with time, based only on tangible evidence given in the book: fossil finds, and geological evidence of past climates, continents & environments.
Readers looking for a "storybook" style, personal asides, and flowery descriptions, should look elsewhere! Each vast geological time period is compressed into a short chapter, and each dense and fact-filled sentence functions only to impart information and insight. This is not a novel, after all! Yes, the prose is a little terse and dry, but it is the numerous bizarre facts and insights about vanished worlds that entertain the reader, and the grand narrative of life's history; a narrative that no novelist could have made up.
Russell writes in the unemotional manner of the scientist, as he calmly describes volcanic catastrophes, ice ages, asteroid impacts, and the early struggle of life to come into being. It's all about insight, ideas, knowledge. Most of his statements are backed up by references to the scientific literature, so you can dig deeper if you want to know "why it is so".
Here we have something very different from a popular-level science book; this monograph is a review and summary of the entire scientific literature about Earth history. The achievement of this book is that its paleontologist author has summarized everything he has read and everything he knows....in only 450 pages, without sacrificing detail or breadth of coverage. The alternative to reading this book is to read the many thousands of scientific papers on which it is based.
In summary, think of this volume as being like a direct connection to a paleontologist's brain! If you like science books that 'get to the point', and you have a serious curiosity about what happened in the last 4.5 billion years, Russell can give you all of the facts, minus the distractions of personal asides, lengthy "human interest stories", and endless waffly prose.
1.) This book is basically a very, very, very long rebuttal of Gould's theory of the randomness of evolution.
2.) Russell does everything short of openly advocating intelligent design.
3.) Far too little space is devoted to what this book does best--heck, what I bought it for--which is to describe what past terrestrial environments were like, and how they've changed through geologic history.
If you're interested in #3, I strongly recommend passing this book up for Russell's "An Odyssey in Time", which is a far superior work.
Russell himself describes the text of Islands in the Cosmos thus, "... the subjunctive and the conditional could widely replace the declarative mood in many places in the text that follows. The text attempts to be concise and avoid the use of specialized vocabulary--thus, one hopes, making it simpler and easier to assimilate. Those who have written thoughtfully and in more detail on various aspects of the history of life will find it too abbreviated or simple." Something went awry in the writing of this book.
Imagine page after page for 361 repetitions of impersonal, mechanical translations from a text of basic foreign grammar where subject, verb, and predicate repeat with numbing invariance, where the passive voice permeates every page with no actor in sight, where declarative sentences contain so little acknowledgment of well substantiated alternative interpretations that they sound like commands from scripture, and where I or we make no appearance until the end of the last chapter.
Imagine a language devoid of transitions where many sentences have so little connection with what goes before or comes after that they could migrate within a paragraph, even from one paragraph to another, with little loss of comprehension. Imagine having what little flow remains interrupted every two or three sentences by a parenthetical citation. Imagine a text that replaces well-established "specialized vocabulary" with simplicities that are obscurely and oh, so conveniently redefined.
Surely the good editors at Indiana University Press noticed something amiss with this text! Even without addressing the subject matter of Islands in the Cosmos, I find the book almost unreadable because it is so mindbogglingly dull, and I've read but the first chapter plus the Epilogue and glanced at enough of the rest to find neither rest nor respite.
Islands in the Cosmos has a preface by Simon Conway Morris, and Russell repeatedly quotes or cites Conway Morris. This perhaps limits Russell's field of view more than he recognizes. Russell's hypothesis of life's progress (increasing complexity) through evolution sits somewhat uncomfortably among concepts of elan vital, theistic evolution, and idiotic design. Perhaps a more vital text might have argued as cogently as possible for a synthesis of these hypotheses, but Russell treats his "Reason" only in passing at the very beginning and end, leaving the reader with yet another image of a not very bright or conscientious sci-fi scientist fiddling around in his cosmic laboratory and sacrificing one imperfect animal after another in his less than divine quest to develop an Überorganismus.
Islands in the Cosmos contains a passable summary of the evolution of life on Earth with several interesting passages relating ecological information that older summaries tend to lack. I feel that this material is too brief and sketchy and too much distorted by Russell's peculiar hypothesis to justify the book. The hypothesis Russell attaches to his material is, for the most part, already part of evolutionary science, patently obvious, or irrelevant. Russell includes relatively little about dinosaurs, his area of expertise, and I can't imagine him now making the argument that dinosaurs might still exist save for an errant asteroid, as their continued existence would compromise what little is original about his hypothesis. He seems to have a contradictory take on "living fossils" and ecological refugia (viz. pages 32 and 163). As readers might expect, research since this book was committed to press has made some comments sound less than foresightful (e.g., a passing slander of the tuatara). Russell Hawley's illustrations of ancient environments are usually helpful, though his style is somewhat plain and lacking in depth. I found no credits for the numerous color photographs that illustrate contemporary settings, many intended to demonstrate the less progressive aspects of ancient environments.
I will probably return Islands in the Cosmos, which is a shame. Russell is an active researcher in my home state, and I wish him and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences much success in their work and in presenting science to the public. I do not think this book furthers those efforts.