Life : a natural history of the first four billion years of life on earth

by Richard A. Fortey

Hardcover, 1998





New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.


Richard Fortey guides us from the barren globe spinning in space, through the very earliest signs of life in the sulphurous hot springs and volcanic vents of the young planet, the appearance of cells, the slow creation of an atmosphere and the evolution of myriad forms of plants and animals that could then be sustained, including the magnificent era of the dinosaurs, and on to the last moment before the debut of Homo sapiens. Fortey weaves this history out of the most delicate traceries left in rock, stone and earth. He also explains how, on each aspect of nature and life, scientists have reached the understanding we have today, who made the key discoveries, who their opponents were and why certain ideas won.

User reviews

LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Encyclopedic overview of a truly overwhelming topic. The author is clearly passionate about his topic, and communicates it wonderfully.
LibraryThing member snash
Who could possibly whip up your interest and enthusiasm for slime mold or Spriggina, a several cell animal present millions of years ago? Richard Fortey in Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth is who. He writes with awe, knowledge, and enthusiasm about the development of life with some lively descriptions of the people and expeditions who have uncovered it. It presents the history of life in its presently understood version; that our understanding can and will change with new evidence is consistently brought up. It's a wonderfully engaging and informative book… (more)
LibraryThing member psiloiordinary
A wonderful journey through the history of life on this planet. The author takes the time to dally over interesting diversions and injects autobiographical life lessons and amusement to help keep our feet firmly in the present day.

So we get to know more about our current understanding of the huge vistas of time the stretch behind us and what our relatives were up to and we get an inkling of the kinds of people who are doing the research.

Fortey's obvious delight in his subject shines through and this book is great for both the layman and scientist alike.

If you are at all curious about why and how we we got here then this book is great start in exploring such a vast topic.
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LibraryThing member deebee1
This is a big book, the story of four billion years of evolution, a history of our planet before man appears. Fortey takes the reader to a fascinating journey in time that begins in the shores of Spitsbergen. His recollection of his first expedition, in that bare, gray rocky outcrop, draws us into the world of rocks and the stories that tell of the beginnings of our planet, spun from dust and rock. He guides us through the processes which gave rise to conditions that proved favourable to the formation of the most primitive forms of life, which are evidenced in fossil records, some organisms of which are very much still with us. Then on to the development of more complex organisms, the places they inhabited. He pictures for us the rich marine broth, the periodic crisis the planet goes through with the climatic cycles, that eventually released creatures from this marine soup to slouch landwards. He depicts the silent greening of the world in the Devonian period, and the wondrous engineering of a tree. In these carboniferous forests, we behold the instance when the last physical, threshold was crossed: from the ground to the air. He talks of continental drift, and of dinosaurs great and small, including a fascinating chapter on theories of the end and controversies surrounding them. Then there is the appearance of mammals, and the special case of Australian mammals. The last chapter, as befits its place in the evolution of life in our planet, is about us, humans, our origins and the earliest journeys of our ancestors.

While many things from this book are quite familiar to most people, Fortey's narrative is so wonderfully written, his curiousity and wonder infusing every page, that what is already fascinating becomes wondrous. This book came out in 1997, so some of the information may already be outdated, still it is a worthwhile read of the origins of the greatest wonder of all.
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LibraryThing member kencf0618
Excellent science read. It has the sweep of an Olaf Stapledon.
LibraryThing member oldman
A complex and difficult book to read relates the history of life in the first 4 billion years of its existence on earth. four stars
LibraryThing member greeniezona
My impatience with this book was rarely the book's fault, but more often just friction coming from the fact that this is an evolution story for the lay reader, and I've already heard all the basic outlines so many times before. I'd bought this so many years ago, when the information would have been fresher, and I might have liked it better then. But, that's what it is.

There were some magical descriptive moments, and I appreciated some of the discussions on how scientific controversies were/are resolved. But a lot of familiar information plus some odd asides made large chunks of the book a slog.

Not sure exactly who I would recommend this to. In general, I think most readers would be better off reading a more recently written book.
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LibraryThing member shanaqui
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 have covered a lot of this ground before.

Actually, my favourite history-of-evolution type book is Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale. (When Dawkins sticks to science, he's great. When he decides to comment on twitter, rarely so.) That's just a quirk of the way he organises it, though, while Fortey's method is a little less organised, lingering on things of special interest to him. Which is fine, but didn't work so well for me in this case. That, and he doesn't deal with DNA as much as I'd like, because that's my special interest and not his.

Nonetheless, Fortey knows his stuff and how to make it enjoyable, though I think I can understand people who complain about his writing style not being easy -- I tend to take it slow and savour it, myself.
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