I had numerous positive comments about Trilobite, The Eyes Have It by Richard Fortey so I decided to read and review another of his books. This time we'll look at Life, A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth published by Alfred A. Knopf. This 1999 work of some 346 pages retails for $30.00. Life, was originally published in 1997 by Harper Collins in Great Britain as Life, An Unauthorized Biography. You can check out the author's bio in my review of Trilobite (April, 2001).
Fortey begins Life with his personal story of graduate research amongst the icebergs north of the Arctic Circle. Woven into the story are the hardships of the field work and the contingencies of events that led to Fortey's own life's work. These are themes that Fortey returns to throughout the narrative of life's story. To use a cliche - the more things change, the more they stay the same. Life's organization follows the time line of life's organization (sorry, I couldn't resist that) beginning with origins. Fortey moves through geologic time as his narrative continues, explaining an evolutionary milestone here and a mass extinction there. Continents drift and climates change. Oceans disappear and oceans form. Fortey travels across the globe and back in time carrying the reader along on his journey. Almost without your knowing it, the principles of paleontology and geology, evolution and extinction, even chemistry and physics will work their way into your mind. You will learn a great deal quite painlessly.
For Upper Ordovician fans in our area, you will be happy that the Ordovician receives extensive coverage in Life. And why not? The Ordovician saw major radiation in many life forms much greater than in any other period. It also ended with the second or third ranked mass extinction of the "big five". Fortey discusses the glacial derivation of the end Ordovician extinction at some length.
So as not to leave you with an impression that Fortey's Life is a bland simplistic walk through time, I will hasten to add here that the book is full of factual information and explanatory evidence. Some of those most interesting moments occur as Fortey tells of the relatedness of some distant fossil to a modern animal, the likes of which you've never imagined. He leaves the reader hungry for more knowledge (a sign of an excellent teacher).
The story told here melds the biological story of life concurrently with the geological story of the earth. Fortey blends these quite well, painting a picture of the interrelatedness of geological cycles with the biological cycles and their further interrelatedness with climate and the chemistry of the environment. There are important lessons to be learned from the ancient history of the earth and they are well presented in Life.
Life is nicely illustrated with black and white photographs and drawings as was Trilobite. Also like Trilobite, the illustrations are not keyed or associated closely with the text. On rare occasion, Fortey does refer directly to an illustration by plate number but then you are faced with finding it. The illustrations are grouped in four packets spaced through the book and, coupled with those darn deckled edge pages, finding a specific photograph is an inconvenience at best.
Fortey frustrates a bit by tantalizing with a description of some fossil or modern animal making the reader want to see a picture. Alas, with the arrangement of the illustrations and general lack of text references, the reader does not know whether a picture exists in the hard to find packets. This difficulty concerning the illustrations is a minor flaw so don't let that discourage you from reading Life.
If you enjoyed Fortey's writing style in Trilobite, you will also appreciate Life. The book unfolds as a narrative - a telling of the story of life's history on earth enveloped in the story of Fortey's studies. I have reviewed other books on this subject matter that were also very good books. You may prefer Fortey's rendition though based upon his writing style, especially if you normally read fiction. This is not to imply that Life is in any way fictional but rather that the writing style is more typical of that used in fictional works. In other words, if you like a good story, you'll like Life.