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

4.04  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,031 Ratings  ·  70 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
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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Feb 09, 2008 Chris rated it liked it
Shelves: science
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
Jul 06, 2010 Kristen rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, non-fiction, own
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
May 24, 2016 Max rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Fortey, an exceptionally engaging science writer, takes us on a tour through four billion years of natural history. His review is neither focused nor comprehensive but more of a wide ranging travelogue touching on each period in evolutionary history and the author’s explorations. The high points are his evocative descriptions of landforms, flora and fauna both present and past. We traverse the terrain with him on his fossil collecting expeditions to remote corners of the world where he describes ...more
Sep 25, 2014 Nikki rated it liked it
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
Aug 11, 2012 Jade rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
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
Nov 28, 2008 Tony rated it it was ok
Shelves: science
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
Aug 07, 2015 Wanda rated it it was amazing
I love the combination of autobiography and science in this book. I love Richard Fortey's writing style and I appreciate his sense of humour. Because of this book, I still have a strong desire to see Spitzbergen! I have always loved paleontology and use this book as a basis for the teaching that I have done on the subject.

I have found it a very useful starting point for further research on the fossils which catch my attention. It is starting to show its age, as science moves on and a lot has bee
Jan 05, 2015 Carlos rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 21, 2016 Eric rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
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.
Jordan Venn
Dec 29, 2011 Jordan Venn rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 03, 2008 Susan Hanberry rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 10, 2013 Deborah Cordes rated it it was amazing
Beautifully written, informative, and evocative. I've never read Fortey before, and I will add his newer works to my "to do" list.
Jan 14, 2016 Sohail rated it liked it
Many years ago, when I was back in the university, there were certain professors who were the undisputed masters of storytelling. They'd tell you about the meal they had the night before. They'd talk - non-stop- about their awesomeness, and they'd always find an excuse to tell you about their personal lives. The interesting thing is that they were 'supposed' to lecture on certain subjects, and if you were patient enough, you'd find out that this they did, occasionally, when they were not talking ...more
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
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
Dec 25, 2014 Lowed rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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! :)
Peter Ellwood
Apr 22, 2016 Peter Ellwood rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What a lovely book. My goodness, the history of life on our planet is well served, what with Richard Dawkins Ancestor’s Tale, and this one. Both are beautifully – beautifully! - well written, and each complements the other perfectly. Dawkins is a little light on the most ancient inhabitants of the planet, the first stirrings of life – and Richard Fortey absolutely excels in describing them; tending if anything to run slightly out of steam in describing more developments such as the emergence of ...more
Leigha Crothall
Fortey packs this book with plenty of unnecessary and irrelevant references to art and literature which, instead of enhancing the reading, serve only to create a rather patronising/pretentious tone. The book contains plenty of snapshot scenes of Fortey's life experiences which, frankly, could have been omitted to create space for the scientific details the author insists he has no time/room for; Fortey addresses the reader directly and states his intention to glide over details - if those detail ...more
Jul 22, 2015 Martha rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, science, 2015
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.
Nancy Cousintine
What can I say? it's a wonderful trip through Earth history. We really do live on a planet with a most amazing past, and present. So sad to not have that Time machine to see with fresh eyes just how things have been. The story of Earth, and the ever changing parade of life on it is breath taking. What we do not know greatly outweighs what we do know...but the snapshots that we do have (so far) have made the dim past a little more clear. This really is a panoramic sort of book. There are illustra ...more
Andrew Brady
Feb 14, 2014 Andrew Brady rated it really liked it
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
Sarah Gustafson
May 06, 2016 Sarah Gustafson rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
This book gets better as history unfolds. At first the storyline meanders in the murky Precambrian seas, and all the author's devotion to trilobites and conodonts can't quite animate the story. But the tale gets legs when the tetrapods poke their heads out of the seas.

(Fortey wryly acknowledges that this is so; we can identify more with land animals than with mats of sea algae, no matter how crucial the role those played in world development.)

The chapter on dinosaurs - full of passages to savor
Jason Mills
Sep 13, 2010 Jason Mills rated it liked it  ·  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
Feb 18, 2012 Scott rated it liked it
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
Jan 15, 2012 John rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
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
May 22, 2011 Daveski rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
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
Aug 16, 2015 Steve rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Low 4. 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, ...more
Oct 17, 2011 Emma rated it liked it
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,
Oct 27, 2014 Keith rated it liked it
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
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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
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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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