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Life: An Unauthorised Biography (Richard Fortey, 1998)

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ISBN 0-0063-8420-X

Further Reading

By the Same Author

Similar Writing

Many writers have tackled the irresistible challenge of the history of life on Earth, with greater or lesser success, according to their wit and knowledge. Fortey's account, though beginning to show some signs of age and somewhat contaminated by Stephen Jay Gould's hackneyed, and ultimately banal, "replayed tape" crusade (read more), is one of the best.

Fortey's writing is characterised by personal anecdote - this man is a real paleontologist; a man who bashes rocks with his own hammer and loves it - education, wit and a fine, often self-deprecating, humour. Very occasionally the author's erudition gets a little out of control, a failing shared (and far exceeded) by Conway Morris and Gould, to be sure, but mostly the balance is good and we are carried along by his obvious love for his subject and delight in finding things out. (Nowhere is this better expressed than in Fortey's excellent Hidden Landscape. I cannot speak too highly of that book; I never tire of dipping back into it.)

In the present work, Fortey begins with one of his hallmark first-hand, formative experiences [but, no, Dr. Fortey, you could not "just as easily" have received a different exam result: there was a reason you passed whereas your friend did not, a very Darwinian reason, to do with fitness] then charges straight in to the origin of life and everything after. He unerringly pays just the right amount of attention to each topic along the way, presenting a rounded and comprehensive overview of the most dramatic pageant of biological events anyone can imagine.

Having written so favourably, it now seems churlish to look for fault. However, as I'm sure Dr. Fortey would agree, bunk needs to be debunked, and there is a bit of it to be dealt with in this book. To pick on just one point which stands out to me, Fortey runs with the birds are dinosaurs hypothesis - no problem with that - but unfortunately presents the hypothesis as "the way it is." It really annoys me when professionals do this sort of thing. Ernst Mayr (What Evolution Is - another very good book) presents an equally compelling case for the negative, so what is the public to believe? [Actually, I'm with Mayr on this one, being persuaded no so much by Mayr's book, as Alan Feduccia's excellent The Origin and Evolution of Birds.] It is the duty of professional scientists, if they choose to write for the public, to preserve the same objective distance from their material that they would employ in the writing of a professional piece. Fortey dropped the ball here, and in a couple of other places, but enough said. It's a good work, overall.

Recommendation: Showing its age but still highly worthwhile reading.

Look and Feel: The edition I read was the original hardback release, which included reasonable though unspectacular B&W photographs and a useful index.

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