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Life: An Unauthorised Biography: A Natural History of the First Four Thousand Million Years of Life on Earth

4.04  ·  Rating Details ·  2,326 Ratings  ·  78 Reviews
A guide to the Earth from the very earliest signs of life on the rims of volcanoes, to the first appearance of man. The book ranges across many scientific disciplines, analyzing their arguments and findings, and showing readers whose the discoveries have been and whose the arguments.
Unknown Binding, 399 pages
Published April 6th 1998 by Not Avail (first published 1997)
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Jan 31, 2008 Chris rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 18, 2016 Max rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 21, 2010 Kristen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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  ·  review of another edition
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
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 13, 2012 Eric rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Deborah Cordes
Feb 10, 2013 Deborah Cordes rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Beautifully written, informative, and evocative. I've never read Fortey before, and I will add his newer works to my "to do" list.
Susan Hanberry
Mar 03, 2008 Susan Hanberry rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jordan Venn
Dec 27, 2011 Jordan Venn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
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
Jan 01, 2016 Sohail rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 25, 2013 Stewartwalker rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
A major disappointment. Some of the worst writing I have seen. A couple of examples:

"You do no have to be a fanatical reductionist to understand that the soul of life is carbonaceous and the soul of rock siliceous."

"You might say that our atmosphere, and the possibility of life itself, was the consequence of a vast, terrestrial flatulence risen from the bowels of the Earth."

In addition to the style, the author treats scientific research as speculation and uses "may believe" and "must assume" wit
Dec 14, 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! :)
Jul 22, 2015 Martha rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Feb 26, 2010 Steve rated it really liked it
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
Feb 07, 2017 nick rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
To me this was an experiment. I am not used to reading books on paleontology but as a child I had a sidenote interest in animals both living and extinct that I have nourished from time to time with the odd documentary and article. This however is the first book I have read on the subject and it left me with mixed feelings.

On the one hand it is well written and with a clear objective to get as many people as possible exited about trilobites (and all the other stuff in the book). I can't shake th
Arron Munro
Feb 11, 2017 Arron Munro rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Preface: If you’ve read many of my previous reviews – and perhaps also if your name’s Richard Fortey – you’ll know that I’ve already written a review of this book. However, I’ve recently changed the framework by which I review books and films, so I feel it only fair that I re-review this book under said revised structure.

Main review: This book has been lashed with ream after ream of praise. So, with that in mind, on top of the fact that the subject of life on Earth has always interested me, I p
Tapani Aulu
Jun 10, 2017 Tapani Aulu rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Hieno kronologia elämästä maapallolla. Fortey osaa kirjoittaa ja varsinkin pienet rönsyilyt tieteentekijöiden henkilöihin oli miellyttäviä ja kiinnostavia. Tässä on muuten hyvin paljon erikoissanastoa, joten e-kirjan sanastotoiminnolla oli paljon käyttöä
Peter Ellwood
Apr 12, 2016 Peter Ellwood rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 15, 2012 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
May 07, 2011 Daveski rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Leigha Crothall
Jul 27, 2016 Leigha Crothall rated it liked it
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
Sarah Gustafson
Apr 25, 2014 Sarah Gustafson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 23, 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
Sep 24, 2009 Scott rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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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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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