Book review: Richard Fortey's "Life"

As far as the telling of history goes, there can be little more ambitious than the entire history of life from the dawn of the Precambrian to the present day. That is just what paleontologist Richard Fortey attempts in his book Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth published by Vintage.

Life is a tour of the development of our planet, and puts our current state of the world in its humble place. The land biodiversity that we are so accustomed to as well as the existence of anything remotely resembling ourselves, is a relatively recent occurrence, and Fortey shows us the huge changes that the earth went through to get to the present day.

Many readers will be excited to read the chapters on dinosaurs and their extinction. The author did a great job here of portraying the controversies and ideas surrounding the exact nature of this cataclysm. Personally, I really enjoyed the earlier chapters on the little creatures that inhabited the ancient oceans. They were small, often delicate things that give the impression of a gentler time with gentle creatures. What I wouldn't give to view the planet at that time, though through much of it the atmosphere would not even be suitable for human breathing!

From plants to reptiles to birds to mammals, this book touches upon all aspects of life and its evolution. The narratives are imbued with the personal journey of the author to discover many of the facts in this book. Although at times I found his tangents into literature and human history a distracting, I found his choice of style and witty language to give the perfect grandeur to such an epic story. In fact, the story is so epic that I suggest to readers of this book that they create their own timeline of geologic history based on this chart, and have it handy when reading the book.

Although the story in Life was partially presented in minute and dim fragments to me in school, until now I had never be exposed to such cohesiveness, and I believe this knowledge should be known by everyone. Highly recommended!

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