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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-10-07 06:59
Life: An Unauthorised Biography: A Natural History of the First Four Thousand Million Years of Life on Earth - Richard Fortey

TITLE:  Life:  An Unauthorised Biography

             [A Natural History of the First

             4 000 000 000 Years of Life on Earth]


AUTHOR:  Richard Fortey




FORMAT:  Paperback


ISBN-13:  978-0-00-638420-5



Professor Fortey takes the reader on a chronological tour of the the biological history of Earth.  However, his story is not a boring slog through the strata, but an eclectic stroll among fascinating organisms.  Fortey includes many asides in his narrative, including important aspects of geology, portraits of eccentric paleontologists and personal anecdotes about fossil hunting is unusual locations.  This book manages to summarise paleontological controversies in a fair manner without bogging down the story.  I found the author's descriptive writing style to be rich and lyrical.  This book is well written and interesting, with numerous black and white photographs. 


Fortey believes that "a review of the history of life should provoke awe, above all else."  I believe in this case, he has achieved his goal.


More specific comments on this book can be found on progress updates:

Chapter 1-4

Chapter 5-8

Chapter 9-13









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text SPOILER ALERT! 2017-10-06 07:45
Progress Update: LIFE by Richard Fortey
Life: An Unauthorised Biography: A Natural History of the First Four Thousand Million Years of Life on Earth - Richard Fortey






Chapter 9 covers the Age of the Dinosaurs, Flying Reptiles and Marine Reptiles.  The author very nicely summarizes the history of dinosaur discovery, interpretation, revisions, revolutions, reconstruction, mechanics, their hot or cold-bloodedness and supposed life habits.  The evolution of feathers and the relationship between dinosaurs and birds is also covered, as well as the origin of chalk and the co-evolution of insects and flowering plants.  An interesting aspect of the marine reptiles is that they descended form terrestrial ancestors, breathed air and at least the ichthyosaurs gave birth to live young.


"The dinosaurs did not survive beyond the Cretaceous - save those that were transmuted into birds.  Their end was apparently sudden.  Nor did they die alone."  In Chapter 10, Fortey investigates the mystery of the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs approximately 65 million years ago.  The author does a decent job outlining the most prominent hypotheses, as well as their corresponding evidence or lack thereof.


Chapter 11 is titled "Suckling Success" and covers the rise and evolution of mammals.  The author takes us on a brief, but interesting, tour of all the strange mammals (carnivorous kangaroos and walking whales!) that evolved on the various continents.  The evolution of mammals continues onto the evolution of humans and other hominid species in Chapter 12.  Since the book was published in 1998, the chapter on human evolution is somewhat outdated, especially in light of recent fossil and genetic discoveries.


Chapter 13 concludes the book with an examination of chance and the effects of genetic mutations on life's creatures.  Fortey compares life to Maurice Ravel's Bolero, "which starts slowly, uneventfully, a long series of slight variations upon a recurrent theme, gradually gathering pace, shifting from one instrument to another, while an underlying pulse goes on and on.  From time to time there are shifts in key, then more instruments join in, and the pace and excitement build, until, at the end, it is a scurrying, swirling mass of interwoven instrumental activity."




- When Life Nearly Died:  The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time by Michael J. Benton


- Feathers:  The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson


- T. Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez


- Spirals in time:  The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales


- Domesticated:  Evolution in a Man-Made World by Richard C. Francis


- Restless Creatures:  The Story of Life in Ten Movements by Matt Wilkinson


- Lost Civilisations Of The Stone Age by Richard Rudgley

-  The Cycle of Cosmic Catastrophes: How a Stone-Age Comet Changed the Course of World Culture by Richard Firestone

-  Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth by Chris Stringer

-  The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion by Wendy William


- Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins by John Reader



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text SPOILER ALERT! 2017-10-05 10:35
Progress Update: LIFE by Richard Fortey
Life: An Unauthorised Biography: A Natural History of the First Four Thousand Million Years of Life on Earth - Richard Fortey






In Chapter 5, Fortey discusses the new ecological roles and niches that occurred after the Cambrian explosion (photosynthesizing producers, grazers, hunters, predators, prey, parasites, viruses etc); the development and nature of marine reefs; the appearance of the first sea urchins, starfish, crustaceans, fish and predators such as nautiloids and sea scorpions; the graptolite chronometers of the Ordovician and Silurian periods; and the mystery of the conodont identify is finally solved.  This chapter had a particularly amusing diversion when the author describes his pursuit of trilobite fossils all over the world, usually to the least likely tourist destinations, and his trip to Thailand.


Chapter 6, in which the greening of the world is discussed; from algal mats, to the first plants with waxy cuticles (liverworts) and stomata, the perculiar reproduction of ferns, to reproduction via spores.  Fortey has an interesting perspective on plants, describing them as "a photosynthetic factory with problems of distribution and supply like any manufacturer".  the author also discusses the first freshwater fish, the first land insects and the first land vertebrates.  There is an interesting section on tetrapods, the number of toes of ancient tetrapods and whether they evolved from lobe-fined fish or lungfish


Chapter 7 focuses on the Carboniferous coal forests of 330 million years ago.  The development of leaves, the engineering marvel of trunks, and the development of seeds all play a role in the proliferation of trees.  This chapter also deals with the all important question of which came first - the chicken or the egg.  Fortey discusses the different types of eggs (amphibian and reptile) and how large, amniotic eggs protected from desiccation by a tough membrane allowed animals to depend less on on the presence of water for reproduction.  It was also in these Carboniferous forests that flying insects evolved.


Chapter 7 does not neglect the Carboniferous oceans which were the heyday of brachiopods and consisted of forest of sea lilies and coral reefs.  "The seas thronged with life".  Another interesting section in this chapter discusses the continuity of sharks from the Carboniferous period to modern times.


Chapter 8 covers the concept of continental drift, along with the formation and breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea, and the development of something which could be called a food chain.  Fortey takes us on a tour around Permian age Pangaea:  the glaciers, the desserts, rainforests in the tropics and the shallow seas around the continent.  An interesting consequence of the evaporation of the shallow seas is the mineral deposits, which were useful to the Industrial Revolution millions of years after the event. The mass extinctions related to Pangaea are also mentioned.  The end Permian mass extinction would result in the loss of approximately 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species, including all the calcite coral reefs and trilobites.  "There was never again a time when the world was so available to the wondering tetrapod - at least until the invention of the boat".


Richard Fortey has a knack with words and descriptions that make the reader feel they were there witnessing events.





-Planet of the Bugs;  Evolution and the Rise of Insects by Scott Richard Shaw

-The Emerald Planet:  How Plants Changed Earth's History by David Beerling

-Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

-The Worst of Times:  How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Million Years of Extinctions by Paul B. Wignall

-When Life Nearly Died:  The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time by Michael J. Benton




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text SPOILER ALERT! 2017-10-03 11:46
Progress Update: LIFE by Richard Fortey
Life: An Unauthorised Biography: A Natural History of the First Four Thousand Million Years of Life on Earth - Richard Fortey






Reading this book is like listening to a conversation by your favourite eccentric professor or grandfather - some random, rambly digressions stuffed between loads of beautifully and richly written natural science.  The author's enthusiasm for his subject shines through, making the digressions charming rather than annoying.


Chapter 1 rambles a bit about the author's undergraduate field trip to the Arctic (this guy has far too much fun while freezing his toes off in the middle of nowhere!), but he does explain the vastness of geological time, how geological time is measured/determined, how much information is missing from the fossil record due to the nature of the fossilization process - delicate, squishy, or land-dwelling organisms are less likely to be fossilized than heavier-boned or marine creatures, and a great deal of the fossil record is either buried too deep to be accessible or has been destroyed by subduction or volcanism.


Chapter 2 briefly describes the creation of the Earth, then moves on to discuss early life on the planet, starting with organic chemistry, continuing on to single celled bacteria and  then cooperative bacterial mats such as stromatolites, to chemolithoautotrophic hyperthermophiles, archaea, photosynthesis and the Great Oxygenation Event. 


I especially enjoyed his information on stromatolites and the visual picture he paints in describing the oxygenation of the Earth with each bacterial "cell exhaling the merest puff of oxygen, such as would fill a balloon smaller than a pin head.  Then imagine a world thick with such cells, billions of them, dividing and dividing again, and each time the divide another minute puff of oxygen is given to the air.  Then this process continues through generations that can only be reckoned as numerous as the stars in the Universe,  And for every generation a thousand billion tiny balloons of oxygen released..."


Chapter 3 briefly covers the development of cells, tissues and bodies.  Fortey makes is abundantly clear that the division between plant and animal isn't always clear cut and that their are several great divisions of life.  He uses fungi (which are closer to animals than plants) and slime-mould as examples of this.  This chapter also focuses on the earliest know complex multicellular organisms found in the Precambian seas,  the Ediacaran fauna (e.g. jellyfish, frond-shaped Charnia, amoeba, stromatolites), the organelle capture hypotheses which allowed for complex cells to be created, and the invention of sex which allows for an exchange of genetic material.



Chapter 4 discusses the Cambrian explosion (its fossils and life forms) and the secretion of skeletons and shells.  In this era, animals with skeletons appeared for the first time; such creatures as the first diminutive molluscs, earliest brachiopods, trilobites and other arthropods.  These were not primitive organism as they had fully developed nervous systems, a brain, eyes (trilobites had crystal eyes!), limbs, gills and antennae.  Fortey spends some time showing us that the importance of the Cambrian fossils is "not as a potpourri of zoological strangeness but rather as a key to understanding the state of the animal world close it its birth". The Cambrian evolutionary explosion is the threshold where leisureliness disappeared from the story of life.  The animals that evolved in the Cambrian would have crawled, mated, evaded predators, hunted, scavenged, grazed and vied with one other:  "competition was introduced into ecology."



So far, I have found this book an enjoyable and informative reading experience with lovely, rich language one can savour.













The Planet in a Pebble - Jan Zalasiewicz

The Goldilocks Planet - Jan Zalasiewicz

Oxygen - Nick Lane

Power, Sex, Suicide - Nick Lane

Trilobite - Richard Fortey

Tales from the Underground - David W. Wolfe

Life's Engines - Paul G. Falkowski

I Contain Multitudes - Ed Yong

Amoeba in the Room - Nicholas P Money





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review 2017-09-11 05:57
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary Roach

TITLE:  Gulp:  Adventures of the Alimentary Canal


AUTHOR:  Mary Roach


FORMAT:  e-book


ISBN-13:  978-0-393-24030-6




NOTE:  The Flat Book Society Book Club selected Gulp by Mary Roach as the book to read for September and October 2017.




When a book is titled “Gulp: Adventures of the Alimentary Canal” and marketed as popular science, the potential reader assumes they will be reading a book that discusses how the digestive system works and other interesting facts about the alimentary canal.  Well… that is NOT this book.  This book is something of an unfocused hodge-podge of breezy, superficial facts; throw-away statements (we want to know more!); and odd historical stories about the scientists and their less than savoury experiments on the digestive tract.


The book is divided into 17 chapters which loosely  follow the physiological structure of the alimentary canal, beginning with taste and smell, and covering such topics as organ meats, cultural food preferences, chewing, gastric acid, saliva, swallowing, being eaten alive, eating too much, intestinal gasses and flammability, extra-curricular storage functions, colonic direction, constipation, and gut-microflora transplants.  After a while I found that the chapters started to blur together due to the collection of random facts, pointless fillers, multiple side tangents, and not-so-witty footnotes. 


I’m not really sure what the aim of this book was supposed to be, but it is more entertaining (if you find potty humour and fashion commentary entertaining) than educational.  In any case, Roach seems to take delight in showcasing the more sensational trivia and taboos about the digestive system, while at the same time providing excessive fashion commentary of the people she interviews.  There is very little actual science in this book and a limited coverage of the functioning of the alimentary canal.  This book emphasized the strange and bizarre occurrences related to the digestive system, but never fully explained the system itself.   


I found the writing to be a little sloppy with odd sentence structures, interesting single sentence comments that went no-where and lack of clarity between fact and personal opinion.  In addition, the author has an irreverent, rambling style with excessive asides, puns, dodgy humour and innuendoes, and a preoccupation with toilet humour that might appeal more to a 12 year old boy trying to revolt his baby sister than someone actually looking for information about the topic.  The excessive, crude toilet humour also didn’t appeal to me.


The subject matter has the potential to be extremely interesting; however, this book is not.  One reviewer described this book as the “Trivial Pursuit version of the “adventures on the alimentary canal,” not the informative, organized tour designed to give insight in an entertaining way”.  I can’t really argue with that.


I would not recommend this book to anyone, except possibly the aforementioned 12 year old boy in the hopes of enticing him away from the computer/ TV for a while.  There is too much filler and pointless trivia; and very little actual science in this book.



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