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Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth
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Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth

4.03 of 5 stars 4.03  ·  rating details  ·  1,585 ratings  ·  57 reviews
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

"Extraordinary. . . . Anyone with the slightest interest in biology should read this book."--The New York Times Book Review

"A marvelous museum of the past four billion years on earth--capacious, jammed with treasures, full of learning and wide-eyed wonder."--The Boston Globe

From its origins on the still-forming planet to the rece
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Paperback, 400 pages
Published September 7th 1999 by Vintage (first published 1997)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Chris
I've read this story before, many times. The interesting thing is how different each approach is to telling the story of the appearance and evolution of life on Earth. Carl Sagan approaches it with reverent awe, one of the Universe's great mysteries. Bill Bryson, on the other hand, took an outsider's view, since he is not really "in" on the whole paleontology thing. And Terry Pratchett and his buddies told the tale through the eyes of the Wizards of the Unseen University, which always makes thin ...more
Kristen
Great book but as much as I enjoyed it I'd recommend one of his more recent books instead. Fortey is one of those rare science writers that combines a gift for explanation with the rare feat of being a great writer and often invokes a Saganesque beauty of science. His description of tetrapods wandering across Pangaea as 'perfectly pandemic perambulation' and his constant inclusion of numberless quotes of fine literature and poetry sucks the reader in (in a way another British science author, who ...more
Nikki
This isn't my favourite of Fortey's books, possibly because I've read similar types of books by other writers before, so he isn't bringing me a new subject I don't expect to like in the same way as he was in his books about geology, or a key passion of his as in his book about trilobites (though trilobites have their place here, too, as you'd expect with Fortey). Still, I enjoy the way he writes and the way he draws together his themes, and this isn't a bad book -- it's just that he and others h ...more
Jade
With Life: An Unauthorized Biography, British palaeontologist Richard Fortey attempts to pen down four billion years of life and evolution on earth for his readers in only 400 pages total. An ambitious aim, to be sure, and one that Fortey manages to live up to, though perhaps not in ways everybody might’ve expected (and there’s no doubt that he’s had to sacrifice a large amount of detail in order to fit four billion years into 400 pages).

First and foremost, this is in no way a book that can be
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Tony
Fortey, Richard. LIFE: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth. (1998). **. My rating of this heavy book in no way should reflect on the quality of the material or the quality of the writing. It reflects solely on my ability to understand the subject matter. The author starts out his book with an account of his expedition, while still a student, to Spitzbergen in the late 1960s, and uses that trip as a metaphor for the themes that pervade the book. Through his science ...more
Eric
My brother realizes I am a paleontology geek, so I was hooked to "Life" the moment I picked it up! Like Fortey, I revel in the minutiae of life's march through the ages, from the Pre Cambian, Ediacarian fauna Spriggina, a possible precursor to trilobites, to the effects of bolides, which will really ruin your day.
Carlos
An absolutely fantastic book that I would recommend to everyone, everywhere, from late high school on. Fortey turns entire epochs into captivating stories that make me immediately want more. His exploration of the Ordovician and Carboniferous were particularly captivating. Being a 1998 book, there were a few things that seemed dated, but none of those small issues took away from the sweeping magnitude of the overall story. Should particularly be required to be read by anyone you hear espousing c ...more
Jordan Venn
It sprawls a little but it's a great history of life and had some really beautiful and thoughtful moments. One of my favourite all-time books.
Susan Hanberry
Very well-written. Very literate writer. I didn't learn much new about the topic, but the writing is so beautiful it was a lovely review.
Deborah Cordes
Beautifully written, informative, and evocative. I've never read Fortey before, and I will add his newer works to my "to do" list.
Andrew Brady
An absolutely fascinating and ambitious book, with snippets of Prof. Fortey's academic career and opinions. I detected something of a bitterness towards other areas of science - especially when he was writing about the history of the discovery of continental drift and - it may just be me - something of a reluctance to discuss the dinosaurs with sufficient imagination and vigor (Trilobite expert snobbery/jealousy, perhaps?)

The final chapters regarding our direct ancestors were surprisingly rousin
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Adam
After Fortey's Earth: An Intimate History nearly turned me into a geologist, I had pretty high expectations of 'Life.' In some respects, these were met. Fortey's prose is very nice, his metaphors creative, and his references erudite. Yet this book was fundamentally lacking most of the things I was looking for it - expectations I had no right to expect it to fulfill, really.

I was disappointed first of all that Fortey really doesn't cite sources. If he had, anything I felt he'd short-shrifted wou
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Jason Mills
Sep 13, 2010 Jason Mills rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Erm, anyone interested in the history of life.
Shelves: non-fiction, science
Fortey surveys the progress of life over 4 billion years, detailing the developments and kinds of organisms, as well as their effects on and reactions to an ever-changing environment. A paleonotologist himself, he illustrates the account with fossils and geology, with pleasant asides, anecdotes about other scientists and light allusions to poetry and literature. There are 4 sections of black-and-white photo plates, a glossary, reading list and index. (A diagram of the geological timeline would h ...more
Scott
Only into Chapter 2 but I can tell, as interesting as the topic is, its going to end up being one of those texts that I would have spent a wee bit more time editing down. I would wager that a good 50 pages could be excised without hurting the style or content a bit.

The author attempts to make the subject matter accessible to the layman by interject personal history, anecdotes and humor while covering 3,500 million years of life in 350 or so pages. The mesh is usually awkward, and the humor eithe
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James
An incredibly journey starting with a cosmological timeline and the formation of the planets, moving into a geological timeline covering the earliest days of planet Earth and several hundred million years of 'planetary evolution'. Starting when Earth begins to take shape from base materials in the solar system orbiting the sun, moving forward to the first single cell lifeforms appearing in the fossil records, how the early atmosphere was formed by cellular life, and how each successive generatio ...more
John
Richard Fortey has almost done the impossible, describing in vivid, elegant prose, the history of life on Earth in a mere 322 pages. Yet I fear he gives too cursory a treatment; one which have benefited immensely from including additional drawings, diagrams, and perhaps, photographs, offering readers more visual insights on Planet Earth's rich biological history. Among his finest achievements are his excellent descriptions of cladistics as an important methodological tool for classifying animal ...more
Daveski
Four billion years may seem like a lot of ground to cover for a single book, but Fortey handles it pretty well. He is helped by the fact that we simply don't know a whole lot about much of this time, and this book is as much about we don't know as what we do. Using the fossil record as a guide, he takes us through the evolution of life, starting from the primordial soup and ending with the start of recorded human history.

Fortey, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, is a grea
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James
Yet another of the myriad of "history of life" pop-science books, I think what makes this particular one stand out are the auto-biographical elements interspersed with the scientific topics. Without these elements, the book would have been fairly generic, despite Fortey's readable and engaging writing style.

Many other books cover the same ground scientifically, most significantly of the books I have read being Don Prothero's Evolution: What The Fossil's Say And Why It Matters, and Nick Lane's L
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Steve
Fortey has provided an accessible and highly informative account of evolution. The book follows a line of development which mirrors ‘stratigraphy’ – the study of sedimentary rocks and the fossil faunas they contain, thus dating the emergence of all life-forms - in following a linear trajectory through history of life on Earth. What such analysis reveals is that there have been clear moments in the history of the Earth in which a cataclysmic event, such as the impact of a great meteorite, or an i ...more
Emma
I started off really loving this book but by the end of it I wasn't so sure I was that taken with it.

I am a big fan of Fortey's writing style and the personal experiences he recounts but by the end of the book I felt as though these experiences were taking up space that could have been given to the story of Life. There is a few billion years to work with after all. I would have liked to have seen more in depth discussion throughout the book and more on subjects such as terrestrial invertebrates,
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Keith
Just a quick note that the author mentions a number of times that American Indians came to the Americans across the Bering Straight. This theory has been dis proven since the 70s. It's still in most high school textbooks but it's incorrect. As it stands the most prevalent theory now is coastal migration. And with the Monte Verde site in Chile being dated at 14800 BC at the latest (and possibly as early as 33000 BC), the dates the author was using are way off what we now know for humans arriving ...more
Lowed
Am I aspiring to become a scientist? Or a Biologist- for that matter? I think not! I have NOT always been a fan of the quantitative part of Science. But to say that I did not learn anything new from this book will be a big lie. It was not so much as what I have learned new but more of how this part of history is being approached by the author. It's refreshing, interesting and totally enlightening! And I even got the folio edition of this book which I consider a plus point! :)
Janet
This is a great read for a non-science person (like me!). It's clearly expressed with minimal technical language. And if you've ever wondered what a clade is, there's a great explanation!

My only complaint is that the personal anecdotes are not always very successful. The opening story, about an expedition to Spitsbergen, is very effective, but some of the others are a little dubious and don't really support the narrative.

I recommend reading it along with Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms, which
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Elisabeth
I like better the title of my own copy of this book, “Life: An Unauthorized Biography”, as this is indeed the biography of life, since its birth, shrouded in mystery, going through its long infancy of bacteria and stromatolites, its youth of excess after the Cambrian Explosion, its blooming and its crises, with species rising and vanishing or becoming other species, until the present and us; the growth of the Tree of Life that, as Darwin said, is indeed beautiful, the most beautiful thing that e ...more
Morwen
Ein groß angelegter Spaziergang durch die Evolutionsgeschichte. Der Autor pflegt einen erzählerischen Stil, flechtet häufig literarische Assoziationen ein, eigene biographische Details und solche über historische und aktuelle Forscher. Das macht das Buch einerseits abwechslungsreich, manchmal führt es aber auch zu unnötigen Längen, wenn der Autor etwas zu sehr in's Schwafeln kommt.

Der fachliche Teil ist sicher sauber recherchiert, vom Niveau auch für ein nicht studiertes Publikum verständlich (d
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Rob Damon
I read a version called Life:An Unauthorized Biography.

What an interesting and well documented story of the history of life on Earth. I was fascinated by the idea of nothing existing other than bacteria for the first 3.5 billion years, and then suddenly complexity emerges from what must have been a planet enveloped in slime!

This book has educational and entertainment value. A brilliantly written and compelling read of our ancestral history on Earth.

I still have this in my collection and dip bac
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Martha
Engaging, fascinating, beautifully written. So full of information that I'll need to read it again (or again and again) to better remember many of the stages and epochs of life's evolution. Would highly recommend.
Jonathan Bein
Great read. Fortey supplies just the right mix of science, scientific anecdote, and biography to keep the casual readers interest. The book is a history of life through the fossil record. It starts with the big bang and ends with the advent of modern man. It's value, other than the enjoyment one gets in the reading, is in the perspective that the knowledge brings. Much as studying astronomy leads to an appreciation of the vastness of space and how miniscule a part of the universe we are, paleont ...more
Matt
I always wanted to read a book that went through the entire chronological sequence of life on earth and I thought this book did a good job of doing that. I also enjoyed the autobiographical portions of the book (probably because I am a scientist and find the author's line of work very interesting). I do wish the author would have focused more on the ages of dinosaurs and mammals, but he is a trilobite guy, so he expectedly focused on the earlier periods of life. I also liked the fact that he did ...more
Josh  Giunta
I found the writing style to frustrate me a bit, no exactly sure why... I didn't finish it, but will give it another shot in the future.

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  • Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution
  • Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins
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  • What Evolution Is
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  • Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History
  • The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language
  • The Dinosaur Hunters
  • The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life
  • When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time
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Richard Fortey is a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was Collier Professor in the Public Understanding of Science and Technology at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bristol in 2002. His books have been widely acclaimed: Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (Knopf) was short ...more
More about Richard Fortey...
Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution Earth: An Intimate History Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life Of The Natural History Museum Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind Survivors: The Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind. Richard Fortey

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“In the beginning there was dust, and one day the great, improbable experiment of life will return to dust. We are not secure. Just as our ultimate genesis was entangled with the birth of suns, and the terrifying tumult of asteroids and meteorites, so we are still bound to the cosmos.” 0 likes
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