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Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth (Princeton Science Library)

4.5 out of 5 stars 37 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691009780
ISBN-10: 0691009783
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Knoll, a paleontologist at Harvard, has spent most of his life examining and making sense of microscopic Precambrian fossils from around the world. In a book so well written that nonspecialists and specialists alike will find much to savor, he captures both the excitement of scientific discovery and the intricacies of scientific interpretation. He addresses two of the biggest questions of biology and paleontology-how did life begin and why was there an explosion of life forms at the start of the Cambrian Era. His evenhanded explanations draw heavily from the work he, his graduate students and his collaborators from around the world have performed. Unlike other recent offerings (e.g., Snowball Earth by Gabrielle Walker and In the Blink of an Eye by Andrew Parker), Knoll is not uncomfortable with taking a middle ground, claiming that conclusive answers are not yet within our grasp. He constructs a case for the importance of "permissive ecology," a situation in which "life and environment evolved together, each influencing the other in building the biosphere we inhabit today." Recognizing that his view is neither as flashy nor as controversial as others, he says, "The absence of a definitive punch line may disappoint some readers, but as a paleontologist, it is why I get up in the morning. For scientists, unanswered questions are like Everest unclimbed, an irresistible lure for restless minds." Readers interested in substance will certainly not be disappointed. 33 color illus., 25 b&w photos, 47 line illus. FYI: Knoll has been chosen by CNN and Time magazine as "America's Best" paleontologist.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


Winner of the 2003 Book Award in Science, Phi Beta Kappa

"In a book so well written that nonspecialists and specialists alike will find much to savor, [Knoll] captures both the excitement of scientific discovery and the intricacies of scientific interpretation. . . . Readers interested in substance will certainly not be disappointed."--Publishers Weekly

"Knoll is well placed to tell this amazing story, and he does so with verve."--Douglas Palmer, New Scientist

"Andrew Knoll is an ideal guide through this early phase of life's history on the Earth. . . . [O]ne of the strengths of Knoll's book is that it presents science as the open-ended endeavor that it is.... Life on a Young Planet . .. expresses better than most the bumptious vitality and sheer fun of open-minded research."--Stefan Bengtson, Nature

"A fascinating book. . . . The catastrophic surface narrative of this impressive and intriguing book would surely have pleased Stephen Jay Gould; but I think its deterministic subtext would have pleased Charles Darwin still more."--Matt Cartmill, Times Literary Supplement

"Life on a Young Planet stands apart from it predecessors in two fundamental respects. First, Knoll is perhaps the most qualified person to write such an epic: a renaissance man whose text is filled with insightful quotes from authors ranging from Darwin to Dickins to Dyson. . . . Second . . . this book describes the coevolution of life on Earth as an integrated biochemical system that has profoundly and irrevocably changed over time."--Guy M. Narbonne, Science

"A balanced, excellent account of current theories and discussions of the origin and early evolution of life. . . . Knoll is able to convey difficult scientific issues with a minimum of jargon, using a brisk and witty prose. . . He is a gifted storyteller with a knack for choosing the right anecdote. . . . A browse through Knoll's book will enlighten both the cognoscenti and those unfamiliar with the complexities of reading a fossil record. . . . Knoll manages to present a multidisciplinary field in an interdisciplinary volume."--Antonio Lazcano, American Scientist

"The author weaves a beautifully written, fascinating story of life's origin and development based on his extensive field studies and research in the most remote corners of the globe. . . . This volume . . . is a most valuable asset that should be read by scientists active in the field, by teachers and students who are interested in the most recent thoughts on the subject, and, in fact, by anyone who is interested in how life might have originated and evolved on this planet or on other similar planets in our Universe."--Nathan Dubowsky, Science Books & Films

"This is not a textbook but rather a story, giving one person's view of how the jigsaw pieces fit together. It is written in flowing prose with many asides, personal anecdotes and explanations of what evidence there is and how it is used. . . . [F]or ecologists the book has much to offer in putting the early evolution of life into perspective."--Bulletin of the British Ecological Society

"[Knoll's] words have a poetic flavor and his deep interest in the study of life on earth flows out of them, carrying readers along whole maintaining a rigorous discourse. Knoll's book will appeal to anyone interested in the evolution of life on Earth."--Choice

"In this wonderful book . . . Knoll's extensive field experience and eagerness to share data and ideas with colleagues enable him to reconstruct responsibly the broad evolutionary scenario yet to remain close to the evidence."--Lynn Margulis, Times Higher Education Supplement

"A detective story to match the best crime fiction. It is told with
verve."--Paul Nettleton, The Guardian


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Product Details

  • Series: Princeton Science Library
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (April 6, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691009783
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691009780
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,037,046 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen Holland on October 8, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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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By algo41 on September 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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