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.
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.
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 This book came out in 1997, so some of the information may already be outdated, still it is a worthwhile read of the origins of the greatest wonder of all.
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.
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.