Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth” as Want to Read:
A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  387 ratings  ·  67 reviews
Charles Darwin's theories, first published more than 150 years ago, still set the paradigm of how we understand the evolution of life-but scientific advances of recent decades have radically altered that understanding. In fact the currently accepted history of life on Earth is flawed and out of date. Now two pioneering scientists, one already an award-winning popular autho ...more
Hardcover, 391 pages
Published March 10th 2015 by Bloomsbury Press
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.07  · 
Rating details
 ·  387 ratings  ·  67 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth
This is yet another book whose authors have joined the quest to understand our origins and what might happen to our species as green house gases rise. Ward and Kirschvink attempt to include the most up to date information of extinction available. Just as epigenetics is currently challenging our understanding of evolution, so too are relatively recent findings in fields related to extinction patterns. The role of Cuvier's catastrophism has seen a resurgence since the discovery of the meteoroid's ...more
May 22, 2017 rated it liked it
“New” is a bit of an overstatement. It develops themes already covered in books like Nick Lane’s Oxygen (not exactly recent) and David Beerling’s The Emerald Planet; the main contribution to my understanding is a bit more depth on how oxygen and carbon dioxide have limited and unlimited life over the course of its development. The back emphasises the authors’ belief in panspermia, specifically in the form that states life on Earth was seeded from Mars, but there’s very little space devoted to th ...more
Ben McFarland
Aug 25, 2015 rated it liked it
A New History of Life is a natural history that stands out because of its large timescale (4.567 billion years, to be precise) and broad intended audience. Overall, it delivers on the promise of its title adjective, describing new findings and hypotheses connecting paleontology and geology, and offering genuine but grounded scientific speculation for future work. For the general reader, it provides a wealth of new information, but because its overall scientific narrative lacks momentum and inter ...more
Tiz. T.
At first, this book didn't catch me. It started with what amount to a rant about current classification systems on, basically, fossils, and I have learnt to be dubious of divulgative books on science who criticize the current orthodoxy, mainly because the audience likely doesn't have the skill to evaluate the claims.

Still, in this particular instance I had to take it back.

The book is a very, very, very good read, showing how life may have evolved in relation both to great extintion events and t
Tim Robinson
Jan 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
In the 20th century, it was accepted that dinosaurs were somewhere between crocodiles and birds, but it was always assumed that they were closer to crocodiles. However, everything we have learned in this century has made dinosaurs seem more and more bird-like: they had bird-like bones, were warm-blooded, had feathers and now we are fairly sure that they had bird-like lungs. It is no longer a surprise that dinosaurs ruled before mammals. The real surprise is that we mammals ever ruled at all.

Jan 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: natural-history
This formidable book synthesizes the latest research on the origins of life and evolution available at the time of writing (2014). It must be very difficult to keep a coherent narrative with so many conflicting hypotheses, new discoveries, massive timelines, and the amount of information that needs to be covered. Ward and Kirschvink succeed, thanks to a leitmotif running throughout the narrative: that low atmospheric oxygen fosters disparity (various body plans and anatomies), while high oxygen ...more
May 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Interesting book and a good overview of the history of life on Earth - the authors’ perspectives as geologist added a holistic angle that viewed major events in the history of life that I was already familiar with (the Cambrian explosion, etc.) as tangled up with the shifting geology of our world.

My main complaints with the book are that it can get rambly and disjointed at times, with frequent back-and-forth chronological shifts in discussion even between paragraphs, and that out of the many au
Jun 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a good overview of recent discoveries in prehistoric evolution. Lots of detail about possible extinction mechanisms and quite up to date, the two authors have been researching in the field for decades. It is not quite at the dry textbook level but it is not quite like a pop science book either. There are occasional personal asides and commentary or anecdotes, but mostly it reports recent findings, usually with plenty of background detail. Lots of footnotes for references to hundreds of j ...more
Oct 16, 2017 rated it it was ok
The book has many interesting facts, but like most popular science writing it delves into too much speculation almost always ending with something approaching "but with more research...".

Every chapter has the same four contents: 1. Oxygen levels are important to life. 2. Events that happened millions of years ago are hard to figure out. 3. Evolution doesn't happen at a constant rate because the environment can change rapidly. 4. The authors add a thinly veiled reference or a direct reference to
Esmeralda Rupp-Spangle
When politics and the world around you begin crushing your will to live with their petty squabbles, read a book about the last billion years and realize how absurd their problems are in the scale of it all. Reflecting on the tiny creatures of the Cambrian is my meditation, reciting the past ages is my mantra, reading about the death of our sun is my nightcap.
Jeff Hrusko
Sep 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Great insights on the way in which the environment and life affect each other. This book helped me understand, in a more profound way, the evolution between the different periods in Earth's history. ...more
Dec 26, 2020 rated it liked it
I started reading this after having a conversation with my dad about how our moon became our moon, and he told me to read about how life came to our earth. Most of our conversations go off on tangents, this one was unusually reigned in.

I read the first 25 pages and then put it down for two months. Two months spent staring at it out of the corner of my eye. Curious but not curious enough. It took another lockdown and Christmas anxiety for me to want to escape into the safe confines of learning. S
Readable overview of last 4.5 billion years of life on Earth. Dry enough to be good bedtime reading, easy to pick up/put down, and often found myself reaching for phone to read more about various new facts I learned. (Lizards can't breathe when they run! The Permian Extinction included poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas killing most organisms on the planet! There are names for the geological time periods on the Moon and Mars!) ...more
Andrew Sydlik
Sep 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
An excellent overview of the prehistory of life, from origins to the beginnings of modern humans. I had been looking for a book that would broadly cover our knowledge of past life from every time period equally, rather than focusing on a particular group or time period. Based on reviews, this seemed the best choice. Each chapter does try to touch on a variety of microbial, plant, and animal life from each geological time period. However, from my layman's knowledge, it did seem to gloss over some ...more
Felice Picano
Oct 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most important books I've read all year. The authors are archaeologists and research scientists. I've read several of Peter Ward's book and liked them all. But this book does something brand new, it lays out the entire idea of evolution as we know it, expands it back to the beginning of the earth itself, and offers several startling, well documented facts that should both scare us and or exalt us. Ward's previous books offered his Medea theory: i.e. that Gaia (the Earth itself ...more
Nov 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The premise of the book is to discuss the currently accepted history of life on Earth and explain why some of it is so flawed and out of date ... the authors wrote because it was past time we need a 'New History of Life.' THIS IS AN EXTRAORDINARY BOOK. Readable to non-scientists, clear, and immensely interesting. A page-turner!!! What an awesome writer to make this information so accessible.

I especially appreciated the detailed discussions of earths mass extinctions, the reason and result of eac
Jul 20, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting and somewhat controversial "new" history of life. The authors focus most of their attention on the roles of oxygen and CO2 in the evolution of life, sometimes to the neglect of other potential factors. The origin of life itself is little more than just re-hashed and defunct ideas that have long been shown to not work, but given that origin of life research has seen no useful breakthroughs, this is not surprising. As for the evolution of life once it arose, their is story similar t ...more
Wing Grabowski
Jan 30, 2017 rated it liked it
Good 2.0 on the development of planetary (and a bit if extra-planetary) life. Desperately needed an editor though-a lot of repetition as if both authors wrote on the same topic and there was a failure to synthesize their individual pieces. Overall readable and enjoyable, full of adventurous ideas (new or unconventional theories are identified as such) and sprinkled with wry humor.
Neil Aplin
Oct 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An extraordinary book, both in the subject matter and the scientific authenticity of the material. An in-depth study of the history of the planet, and the many diverse and varied phases of it's lifespan. I keep referencing the book in conversations - it has had a profound impact on my view of life today and the damage we are currently inflicting on the planet and ourselves.

Thanks Dad!
José Angel Hernández
Mar 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: completed
This is big history at its finest, one going back 4.5 billion years ago, with each chapter being divided into millions of years. To boot, the final chapter is about the future of humanity, and those things which scientists can predict still. Highly recommended
Rob Caswell
Aug 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
The daily routine and obligations of life don’t always allow us to keep our educations up to date. Before you know it you last classroom experience is decades behind you. That when it can be nice for the curious-minded to have an “updated refresher” on a subject. If you’re looking for one that covers the latest info on paleontology and the origins of life, this book’s a pretty good choice.

Published in 2015, the info’s pretty up to date. But these are fields where things are advancing quickly! In
Jan 23, 2021 rated it liked it
This is a very hard book to rate. For the wealth of new information and interesting (albeit controversial) theories, I give it five stars. For the writing, I give it two stars. The writing is bad on every level, including numerous typos, grammatical errors, awkward sentences, sentences that didn't make any sense, poor organization, and unnecessary repetition. This book needed a good editor so badly.

So much for the form. The content is fascinating. Be prepared for quite a bit of chemistry. These
Ogi Ogas
Oct 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
My ratings of books on Goodreads are solely a crude ranking of their utility to me, and not an evaluation of literary merit, entertainment value, social importance, humor, insightfulness, scientific accuracy, creative vigor, suspensefulness of plot, depth of characters, vitality of theme, excitement of climax, satisfaction of ending, or any other combination of dimensions of value which we are expected to boil down through some fabulous alchemy into a single digit.
Sep 17, 2020 rated it liked it
I found this book interesting but frustrating. The exploration of the main themes of the book (that catastrophes and atmospheric composition have been some of the most important factors in the course of evolution) was really well done. Unfortunately, the framing of this discussion is rooted in the simultaneously over-optimistic and over-pessimistic "Medea Hypothesis," as well a simplistic interpretation of natural selection. ...more
Stephen Bedard
Aug 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
An interesting evolutionary account of life. I found the account of the event that caused the extinction of dinosaurs particularly interesting. The book is built around accounts of a number of mass extinctions throughout the history of our planet. The book even includes speculation of the future of the planet and of human evolution.
Matt Benic
Jan 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Much of this is a rehash of what I’ve read before, but the focus on oxygen, temperature and how they drove diversity and were in turn affected by that diversity was something new. There were some interesting new tidbits (for me) every now and then, which justified the extra star for me.
Jan 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Much interesting and new information synthesized here. Seems a little scattered in places. A good, solid read.
Jun 11, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, non-fiction
Interesting material makes up for lack of a thorough editing.
Gavin Long
Oct 03, 2019 rated it liked it
Reasonable read
Bryan Sebesta
Nov 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
A fantastic survey of life before us.
« previous 1 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature
  • The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet
  • The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease
  • The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
  • Caribbean
  • Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine
  • Sacajawea
  • The Variety of Life: A Survey and a Celebration of All the Creatures that Have Ever Lived
  • Seize the Night (Moonlight Bay, #2)
  • In Search of the Castaways; or the Children of Captain Grant (Extraordinary Voyages, #5)
  • The Cosmic Web: Mysterious Architecture of the Universe
  • The Long Road Home
  • New Seeds of Contemplation
  • Speak
  • The Discovery of Heaven
  • Tales of the South Pacific
  • Stray Birds
  • From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present
See similar books…
Peter Douglas Ward (born 1949) is an American paleontologist and professor of Biology and of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle. He has written popular numerous science works for a general audience and is also an adviser to the Microbes Mind Forum.

His parents, Joseph and Ruth Ward, moved to Seattle following World War II. Ward grew up in the Seward Park neighborhood

News & Interviews

Why not focus on some serious family drama? Not yours, of course, but a fictional family whose story you can follow through the generations of...
164 likes · 61 comments
“Nobel laureate Christian de Duve stated that once the ingredients were in place with the right amount of energy present in the early Earth stove, life would have emerged from nonlife very quickly. Perhaps in minutes.” 0 likes
“to come as lodestones for the history we have” 0 likes
More quotes…