LIFE by Richard Fortey


A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth
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The story of the creatures great and small who have graced the planet then and now, and of the scientists who have studied them, marvelously told by a senior paleontologist at London’s Natural History Museum. No armchair analyst, Fortey punctuates his narrative with vivid personal accounts of his own experiences, beginning as a Cambridge undergraduate when he collected fossil trilobites along a fierce and windswept shore in Spitzbergen. What follows are richly detailed chapters that chronicle the emergence of algae and other one-cell plants that populated the oceans, creating a groundswell of nutrients and sediments vital to life at all successive stages. He is quick to acknowledge the role of chance, the possibility that later life forms might have been completely different had one or another earlier organism held sway. He also neatly dispatches common errors, such as Hoyle’s panspermia theory. He deals with human origins with equal finesse, giving credit to important research, putting past controversies about evolution into cultural context, and reminding us that new discoveries may rewrite ideas about human evolution yet again. Fortey’s narrative offers a number of wonderful set-pieces, including his description of the explosion of new life forms during the Cambrian era. And he nicely mingles small, telling details with a clear overview, as in his description of the fossil record in the British county of Devon, whose lake and mountain basin deposits offer “a kind of temporal schizophrenia” (which defines the “Devonian” period when life moved landward). “There is sight and insight,” Fortey comments admiringly about a colleague at one point. The same can be said about Fortey himself. His wonderful description of the emergence and proliferation of life on earth combines the vision of a scientist with an intimate knowledge of the fossil record with the insight of a scholar for masterful interpretation. (24 pages photos, not seen) (Book-of-the-Month Club main selection)

Pub Date: April 7th, 1998
ISBN: 0-375-40119-9
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1998


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