Life: an Unauthorized Biography, Paperback Book
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


A magisterial exploration of the natural history of the first four thousand million years of life on and in the earth, by one of Britain's most dazzling science writers. What do any of us know about the history of our planet before the arrival of man?

Most of us have a dim impression of a swirling mass of dust solidifying to form a volcanic globe, briefly populated by dinosaurs, then by woolly mammoths and finally by our own hairy ancestors.

This book, aimed at the curious and intelligent but perhaps mildly uninformed reader, brilliantly dispels such lingering notions forever.

At the end of the book we understand the complexity of the history of life on earth, and the complexity of how it has come to be understood, as, perhaps, from no other single volume.

The result is enthralling.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 416 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Science: general issues
  • ISBN: 9780006384205



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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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