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Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  375 ratings  ·  41 reviews

Australopithecines, dinosaurs, trilobites--such fossils conjure up images of lost worlds filled with vanished organisms. But in the full history of life, ancient animals, even the trilobites, form only the half-billion-year tip of a nearly four-billion-year iceberg. Andrew Knoll explores the deep history of life from its origins on a young planet to the incredible Cambrian
Paperback, 288 pages
Published September 19th 2004 by Princeton University Press (first published 2003)
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Peter Tillman
Feb 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is an appealing combination of a natural history of the first three billion years of life on Earth, which is (roughly) the authors professional specialty, along with a scientific memoir of his pertinent field work. Knoll is a good writer, and despite the books publication 15 years ago (2003), you wont go seriously astray. I read this book in parallel with Nick Lane's Mitochondria book (which I found a much harder read). They both cover some of the ...more
Nov 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
A fascinating grounding in what we know about the earliest life on Earth and how we know what we know. The book doesn't shy away from explaining controversies in detail, and gives a solid idea of where the boundaries of this field lie, both in terms of what was known when it was published, and what is likely to be forever unknown.
Claudia Putnam
Oct 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
I loved almost every moment of this book. Considering it's mostly about slime--AKA bugs (prehistoric germs), algae, fungi, and these other weird things called archaea, you'd think it wouldn't have been so hard to put down. But Knoll has a poetic sensibility (and a tendency to start out each section with a literary epigraph that warmed my heart). And this, my friends, is the stuff of life. The origin of life. What turned our planet from a hostile place without any oxygen, gradually, into a place ...more
Mar 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: galileos-gift
Andrew H. Knoll is a paleontologist who is particularly conversant with the integrative approaches of modern day evolutionary science. Rooted in the rocks, he writes with skill about the geological and geophysical processes at work in early earth formation, and their implications for the evolution of life. He explains the complex geochemistry that became, in time, a biochemistry. He describes the so-called evo-devo (I.e., evolutionary developmental biology) revolution with verve-both as an ...more
Life finds a way. Evidence indicates that it first arose out of simple organic precursors within a billion years of the planets formation, but it would be another three billion before the Cambrian era ushered in the astonishing diversity of multicellular forms whose descendants populate the earth today. Before photosynthesis, at a time when the atmosphere contained only trace amounts of oxygen, early bacteria were using chemosynthesis to obtain the nutrients they needed from methane and sulfur ...more
May 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, non-fiction
The study of the history of life on this planet has come a long way. Knoll pulls it all together nicely in this well-written volume. Though not simplified, the clear and logical writing make it accessible to the educated and curious layman. The numerous charts, photographs, and diagrams are a huge plus.
First Knoll sets the framework for what the book aims to achieve. Then each chapter centers on a different aspect of the journey of life. As the book builds, we learn how biological, physical,
Corinna Bechko
Nicely written and well argued, especially in later chapters when the concept of "snowball Earth" reared its head.
Jan 18, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
On one hand, this book is remarkably accessible. This book could be going straight for the deep end, requiring a background in paleontology, molecular biology, and geology. For somebody with none of these things, beyond fuzzy memories of grade school science and some popular science reading, you will understand most everything that is happening here and find quite a bit of it compelling.

On the other hand, this book is really scattered. Almost every chapter starts with some "We're here in this
Stephen Palmer
Mar 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
I very rarely give 5/5 reviews, and then only to classics, but this is too good to receive four stars. It's an exceptional guide to the current state of thinking about the three billion years of the evolution of life leading up to the Cambrian Explosion. Written by an expert in the field, with a whole professional life behind him, it's superbly, clearly and engagingly written - I haven't read a natural history book as good as this for a while. All phases of life are covered, from the very ...more
William Bies
Jan 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Cambrian explosion some 543 million years ago, which marks a radical expansion of multicellular life-forms and the beginnings of the higher taxa known to us today, represents in fact a rather late episode in the history of evolution on our planet. There is always a charm to investigating origins, and the paleontologist and geologist Andrew Knoll does not disappoint in his survey of the early prehistory of the earth, from the Hadean epoch four billion years ago, when the planet had just ...more
Nov 11, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommended to Madeleine by: calhouths
Thing to keep in mind: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth sounds fascinating, but nothing much bigger than a microbacteria actually *evolved*. This book ends just as stuff starts growing legs and arms and wings and crawling out of the ocean and generally becoming *interesting*.

This book should be named: "rocks--with microscopic fossils, in places with funny scandanavian names." But that's probably what you should expect when you get book recommendations from geologists.

Nov 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
Very well researched and presented. Covers a time period with which most are not familiar. The author presents the research as a good scientist, with a healthy dose of skepticism, while basing conclusions on well established research. He points out areas where more research is needed. He has his own theories, and is careful to present them as such. A good read, especially if you've heard of snowball earth and want some more background.
Dec 22, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, non-fiction
A little slow going at first, but a fascinating look at the study of ancient microfossils. The majority of the time life was on planet Earth (~3 billion years), it existed predominantly as single-celled organisms. We owe our habitable planet (and its established biogeochemical cycles) to the metabolism of tiny living beings from long, long ago.
Fred Dameron
Nov 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book gives me more hope for earths future. I don't mean as far as humankind currently committing our own extinction is concerned; I mean that after we kill ourselves off in a purple algae world the recovery time will be, "A mere tick of the geological clock."

Let me explain.

It took around 3,000,000,000 years for the first chemicals to start joining together and forming microscopic life. That life was living in a sulfide/sulfate world. We can't live in a sulfide/sulfate world but purple
Harry Symvoulidis
Aug 05, 2019 rated it liked it
This is a detailed, careful examination of how life evolved on planet Earth from procaryotic bacteria and archaea to the Cambrian animals, from an author who doesn't lack charisma or humor (I'm fascinated with his "Pax cyanobacteriana" parallel), and narrates some personal explorations as a framework for the necessary details and the relevant debates.

However, the book often distances itself from what we usually describe as "general audience". And, although the overall argument is more or less
May 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is all about discovering what life was like on the early earth - the first three billion years of evolution on earth (i.e. mostly precambrian). That means the vast majority of this book is about rocks, microbes and fossil microbes - with a bit of chemistry, earth science and comparative evolutionary biology to flesh things out. Knoll has a knack for writing understandable science and clearly explaining why scientists think what they think about early life and what evidence there is ...more
Nov 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
It was definitely visible that the author has a vast knowledge in his field, and it was very interesting to read how he dissected different lines of arguments to draw conclusions. You need to have some geology vocabulary to have an easy-read, but that also helps to dive deeper into the topics and show a more nuanced discussion. Nevertheless, at some points it felt like I was reading something alond the lines of ''Dear Diary,....'' in the parts where he introduced his field work, which felt a bit ...more
Marc Oliver
May 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating book about the first three billion years of life on Planet Earth. Its a story well told and beautifully written, with lots of information, and some really entertaining anecdotes. Knoll knows how to present the relatively uneventful evolution of unicellular life interesting and with style. ...more
Jonathan Robinson
Mar 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Pretty good stuff. The author has obviously been a successful presence within a growing academic field over many decades, so he's got a lot to say. It wasn't the most gripping read I've ever had, but then it is ultimately heavily based around geology and fossils and that's never been the area of science which has gripped me the most.
Nick Winlund
May 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
An exceptional overview of the paleontological, biochemical and geochemical processes and mechanisms that made up our early Earth. The book goes into sediments, metamorphic rocks, fossils, ocean chemistry and atmospheric processes. Concise and well written!
Sep 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating book that starts when earth cools from its molten state and stops at the Cambrian Explosion . Life was here long before that . Needs a little basic understanding of middle school science to get through
Nov 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-i-own
Read for Geology 143 class.
Harald Groven
May 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, e-books
Overview of research on the origins of life on Earth from bacteria in Precambrian to multi cellular life the Cambrian.
Chris Farrell
Jul 17, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a totally fascinating, if often impenetrable, review of the recent science of the early life and ecology of Earth. Chemistry was my science of choice in college, but I hadn't really kept up in the interim, I found the more recent advances in our understanding of how early single-celled life developed and evolved and created the conditions for more complex life by modifying the atmosphere engrossing. Other interesting topics include how periodic extinction events may have cleared the ...more
Aug 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favourites
An absolute joy to read. It explains what early life was like and how it evolved. Clearly explaining the theories and practices of the interdisciplinary sciences involved, this book is one of the best books on evolution I've read. What I like about it is that its not so abstract and heavy on the theory like other books on similar subjects seem to be, it focuses mostly on the facts and presents a few theories very clearly when facts are not present. You will learn a lot from this book, which is ...more
Martin Oetiker
Dec 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-i-own
This is a beautifully written, well argued account of the history of life on Earth from earliest signs of biochemical evolution 3.8 Bya to the Cambrian explosion of multicellular organisms 550Mya, by one of the leading experts in this field. It includes first hand details of the fieldwork and laboratory analyses carried out by himself and many others, and the evidence painstakingly gleaned, that underpin the latest theories in evolutionary sciences. It covers all the major innovations of life ...more
Dec 31, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great breakdown of early life on Earth

This gives a fascinating perspective on early life, integrating geology, paleontology, and microbiology to fill in the knowledge gap of Earth's early history. Recommended read but it can get a bit bogged down in the geology for my taste. I had no trouble rushing through some details of rocks to get to the heart of our current knowledge on the evolution of early unicellular organisms and eukaryogenesis. Citations are replaced with recommended reading at back-
Dave Malone
Dec 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I found this book listed as a top volume to read about the history of the beginning of the earth / life on our planet. I was very pleased. It's a great read, fascinating, and very well written. He has a great writing style and a quick sense of humor to get across his points about paleontology. As other reviewers have noted, be aware this is about life on the planet when it was just bacteria--there isn't much talk of animals, but that was fine with me--I wanted to know about the earliest of ...more
Mar 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating book. The author takes the reader on a journey through the development of life on early earth and shows the multiple lines of evidence used to reach the conclusions he presents. My only criticism, and the reason I gave the book four stars, is that the writing is a heavy slog. I understand the subject matter does not lend itself to easy reading, but in some cases the reader must reread sections or paragraphs in order to follow the idea being put forth. The author's ...more
Elio Nakouzi
Jun 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
There is a dearth of public-oriented books that cover this subject. And one of the best American micro-paleontologists has tried to fill it with this very interesting book. It is a bit on the technical side, written in a rather laborious fashion with often long sentences, and includes a lot of nomenclature that make it uneasy to read.

However, there is a lot to learn from this top academic. I am not an expert in this field, but it seemed very comprehensive and well worth the read.
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Professor of Natural History and a Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University.

More info about Knoll's work on the Knoll Lab website.

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“One clear theme of evolutionary history is the cumulative nature of biological diversity. Individual species (of nucleated organisms at least) may come and go in geological succession, their extinctions emphasizing the fragility of populations in a world of competition and environmental change. But the history of guilds—of fundamentally distinct morphological and physiological ways of making a biological living—is one of accrual. The long view of evolution is unmistakably one of accumulation through time, governed by rules of ecosystem function. The replacement series implied by the Generations of Abraham approach fails to capture this basic attribute of biological history.” 0 likes
“Most new species arise not from the insensibly gradual transformation of large populations but rather by the rapid differentiation of small, isolated populations at the periphery of the main group.” 0 likes
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