Richard Fortey
Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth

"For the meek survive, even if they don't inherit the Earth." -- p. 317
Life is a very enjoyable, easy-to-read, popular work filled with golden nuggets on life's history. The first chapter is a brief autobiographical piece which sets the stage for how Fortey entered his profession. It also serves as a metaphor for main themes in the rest of the book.

In general, the work is well done, but the book is not without its problems--some forgivable, some not. Although illustrated timelines are readily available elsewhere, including one would have been a valuable addition to the book--especially for the non-scientist audience the book is primarily aimed at. The prose is, for the most part, excellent, but occasionally the word choice is misleading, overly dogmatic, or strange. For instance on page 25 he states "that the genetic bond that unites all mammals runs to more than the sequences of chemical bases in the DNA molecule." What the "more" is, he does not say. I'm not sure what could still be 'genetic' and not be based on DNA. Two pages later he states that if the formation of the solar system "had happened one jot differently, there would have been no living cells". Should this really be stated as fact? For all we know, life can exist (or could have existed) in a variety of environments ranging from comets and meteorites (as he speculates in the next chapter) to Venus-like planets or celestial bodies that could house hyperthermophiles (extreme heat loving bacteria he also describes in the next chapter) to a Europa-like freezing planet or moon.

I didn't figure out until reading the caption under Figure 26 that the author sometimes uses italics in cases when other authors use "quotation marks". For example, on page 103, when Fortey states that "all this variety arose apparently instantly" I think he is intending it to mean "instantly" (in the geological sense) rather than "added emphasis" to mean that it really was an instant arrival of numerous species.

References and footnotes are completely omitted. I suppose this is done to try and make the text more readable. To me, it just makes it more frustrating as topics I want to pursue further are not as easy to follow up on.

Early in the book, terms are used to possibly keep the Creationist interested. On page 30, for example, Earth is "placed in the firmament", the solar system is "fine tuned to make life a possibility", and an intelligent designer is implied. The development of the cosmos and beginnings of life were "as described in the Bible" (p. 31, 39-40). Not until page 168 is this pandering to religious folks expounded upon.

"It is almost impossible to describe the sequence of changes that happened to early plants without using the language of 'improvement.' This is not the same as positing a designer--the guiding hand of Mother Nature, or some other metaphysical abstraction--for the principles on which the design works are almost a logical consequence of striving for light, coupled with the evolution of leaves equipped with stomata. If it seems soulless to attribute the glories of arboreal form to natural design alone this underestimates an appropriate sense of wonder at the extraordinary and creative inventiveness which life has repeatedly shown."
The last problem is one Fortey could hardly have avoided. Since the book is a summary of the entire history of our planet's life forms far too many details are omitted. On average, each page covers over 13 million years of life! Fortey does an admiral job of condensing so much information and still managing to make it interesting by focusing on key highlights and intriguing anecdotes. I'm sure many readers (like myself) would like to have seen the same topic covered in a book several times Life's length.

Hopefully, the above comments won't keep people from reading Fortey's work. The book really is quite good despite the few complaints I've listed. Reading about such a long period of history in just a few hundred pages provides the reader with a compact and digestible perspective of life that many people have yet to grasp. Those who already have a handle on life's history will still find the author's tangents, personal stories, and ability to breathe more life into life to be of value. Take it with you the next time you go camping, to the beach, or for a picnic in a secluded wood. You'll be glad you did.

"Science is only interested in winners, although the losers sometimes provide more entertainment." -- p. 49
"Scholarship at its best is about adding to knowledge, and the scholar remains for ever a student, even as he or she acquires more knowledge of their field than anyone else alive. Such people nearly always remain humble in the face of what they still do not know..." -- p. 182
from the publisher:
Dramatic, tragic, suspenseful, humorous—these are not words one would ordinarily use to describe a book about science. Then again, Life: An Unauthorized Biography (this was the title when it was original published in the UK) is no ordinary science book. It is a thrilling, action-packed adventure, replete with "tangled plots, odd subplots, and characters who disappear never to return," as Richard Fortey puts it. And it is written in some of the most beguiling prose to grace the pages of a natural history since Darwin set pen to paper. In recounting what happened in the four thousand million years between the birth of Earth and the appearance of Homo sapiens, Fortey reconstructs nothing less than how—and why—we became who we are.

The adventure begins with the violent formation of the young Earth as it was bombarded by meteorites—"a kind of mad sculpture, plastered on in chunks." With Fortey as our guide, we witness the birth of the first cells: primitive, heat-loving entities living in torrid, sulfurous hot springs and volcanic vents ("truly, life began in something approximating the medieval idea of Hell"). From there, through the development of complex cells, plants, and animals, Fortey's story turns on innovations such as the inception of photosynthesis, which "modified the primitive atmosphere in a way suitable for `higher' life," and the colonization of land and eventually, the skies.

While it is the details he chooses that give the story its power, much of the appeal of Life lies in Fortey's gifts as a writer. He can be funny, offering asides about why "slime" is an insult or describing his problems with a runny nose in Thailand. And he can fill you with awe, as when he explains the tree as a marvel of engineering. More than a learned specialist, he is at home in literature, philosophy, and art. In his hands, trilobites and other fossils become living, breathing organisms. And by recreating what it would be like, say, to wallow in the Ordovician oceans or to stand upon a Cambrian shore in the evening, he gives the reader a constant and poetical sense of the vast reaches of time.

There's another story here, too, equally fascinating. Fortey is a senior paleontologist at London's Natural History Museum, and from the book's opening scene—an account of his first youthful expedition to the Arctic to hunt for ancient fossils—he interweaves his grand history with deft and revealing vignettes of what it's like to work in the field.

Fortey has a passion for his subject, and a gift for communicating that passion in elegant prose. Like taking a class with a great teacher, reading Life is a transforming experience. It is a book that inspires as well as informs, that succeeds as literature as well as science.

Fortey, senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, writes about time and the origins and evolution of life with a sure sense of narrative structure and felicitous metaphoric finesse. . . . The higher Fortey climbs up the spiraling ladder of life, the more obvious the interconnectedness of all life-forms becomes and the more spellbound his readers grow, sharing his awe in the earth's beauty and complexity. -- Booklist

Perhaps the greatest pleasure of reading Fortey's book is provided by the prose itself. His style is conversational, literate, and relaxed—Darwin as told to Calvin Trillin. A page that begins with the biology of sponges might proceed to a rumination on the use of animal names as insults . . . and end with an attempt to rehabilitate the epithet "slime." Patience is rewarded—as often as not Fortey's digressions fold back on the main narrative to reveal it from a new perspective. -- Nature

The text wormholes continually between the scientific and the personal. This method mingles geological time with Forteyan time: The history of life itself, with a career spent unraveling and understanding it . . . The tale of life needs constant retelling. Thank some happy accident of history that we have Fortey to tell it anew. -- New Scientist

His prose, like Darwin's, is spare, confident and unadorned. As his impressive synthesis of evolution unfolds, a distant world is brought to life. -- The Economist