The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction, Paperback

The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction Paperback

Part of the Very Short Introductions series

4 out of 5 (1 rating)


There are few stories more remarkable than the evolution of life on earth.

This Very Short Introduction presents a succinct guide to the key episodes in that story - from the very origins of life four million years ago to the extraordinary diversity of species around the globe today.

Beginning with an explanation of the controversies surrounding the birth of life itself, each following chapter tells of a major breakthrough that made new forms of life possible: including sex and multicellularity, hard skeletons, and the move to land.

Along the way, we witness the greatest mass extinction, the first forests, the rise of modern ecosystems, and, most recently, conscious humans.

Introducing ideas from a range of scientific disciplines, from evolutionary biology and earth history, to geochemistry, palaeontology, and systematics, Michael Benton explains how modern science pieces the evidence in this vast evolutionary puzzle together, to build up an accessible and up-to-date picture of the key developments in the history of life on earth.

ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly.

Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 184 pages, 20 halftones
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Popular science
  • ISBN: 9780199226320



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I have read a few of these Very Short Introduction books from Oxford University Press and I recommend them, for they strive not to simply lay out the facts, but convey the ideas - often contested ideas - behind the major areas of human thought and science.This title continues the tradition. Rather than give a bland chronology of the last 4 billion years of life on earth, author Professor Michael J. Benton focuses on what he considers the most important trends. For example, we are told of the 'big five' mass extinction events, but only two (the end Permian and the Cretaceous Tertiary) are explained in detail, as they best exemplify not only how such events influence future ecosystems but just how difficult it is for scientists to fully explain how these catastrophic events come about.My only criticisms of this particular work are the lack of a glossary and a 'further reading' list and / or bibliography, the latter essential is such a brief an introductory work as this.Nonetheless, a stimulating read that goes beyond the facts and asks the reader to consider some bigger questions, for example:"When I was a student, we were taught that the major groups of plants and animals had arisen, in succession, as improvements on what went before. The new group - here the dinosaurs - would prevail over the existing groups - here the rhynchosaurs and dicynodonts - by power of adaptation. After all, evolution is 'survival of the fittest', so it made sense that the succession of major life forms through time involved progression and improvement."I remember questioning this assumption. It seems such an obvious idea at one level, but how can we be sue that the succeeding plants and animals are always 'better' than their precursors? Evolution is a process whereby individual organisms, and species, may improve their fit to the environment, but then environments keep evolving. So the target for adaptation is not static. Therefore, can we be sure that dinosaurs prevailed because they were wholly better than what went before"? (pp.132-33)