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A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth

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Charles Darwin's theories, first published more than 150 years ago, still set the paradigm of how we understand the evolution of life-but scientific advances of recent decades have radically altered that understanding. In fact the currently accepted history of life on Earth is flawed and out of date. Now two pioneering scientists, one already an award-winning popular autho Charles Darwin's theories, first published more than 150 years ago, still set the paradigm of how we understand the evolution of life-but scientific advances of recent decades have radically altered that understanding. In fact the currently accepted history of life on Earth is flawed and out of date. Now two pioneering scientists, one already an award-winning popular author, deliver an eye-opening narrative that synthesizes a generation's worth of insights from new research. Writing with zest, humor, and clarity, Ward and Kirschvink show that many of our long-held beliefs about the history of life are wrong. Three central themes emerge from the narrative. First, the development of life was not a stately, gradual process: Catastrophe, argue Ward and Kirschvink, shaped life's history more than all other forces combined-from notorious events like the sudden extinction of dinosaurs to recently discovered ones like "Snowball Earth" and the "Great Oxygenation Event." One startling possibility: that life arrived on Earth from Mars. Second, life consists of carbon, but three other molecules have determined how it evolved: oxygen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide are carbon's silent partners. Third, ever since Darwin we have thought of evolution in terms of species. Yet it is the evolution of ecosystems-from deep-ocean vents to rainforests-that has formed the living world as we know it. Drawing on their years of experience in paleontology, biology, chemistry, and astrobiology, Ward and Kirschvink tell a story of life on Earth that is at once too fabulous to imagine and too familiar to dismiss. And in a provocative coda, they assemble discoveries from the latest cutting-edge research to imagine how the history of life might unfold deep into the future.


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Charles Darwin's theories, first published more than 150 years ago, still set the paradigm of how we understand the evolution of life-but scientific advances of recent decades have radically altered that understanding. In fact the currently accepted history of life on Earth is flawed and out of date. Now two pioneering scientists, one already an award-winning popular autho Charles Darwin's theories, first published more than 150 years ago, still set the paradigm of how we understand the evolution of life-but scientific advances of recent decades have radically altered that understanding. In fact the currently accepted history of life on Earth is flawed and out of date. Now two pioneering scientists, one already an award-winning popular author, deliver an eye-opening narrative that synthesizes a generation's worth of insights from new research. Writing with zest, humor, and clarity, Ward and Kirschvink show that many of our long-held beliefs about the history of life are wrong. Three central themes emerge from the narrative. First, the development of life was not a stately, gradual process: Catastrophe, argue Ward and Kirschvink, shaped life's history more than all other forces combined-from notorious events like the sudden extinction of dinosaurs to recently discovered ones like "Snowball Earth" and the "Great Oxygenation Event." One startling possibility: that life arrived on Earth from Mars. Second, life consists of carbon, but three other molecules have determined how it evolved: oxygen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide are carbon's silent partners. Third, ever since Darwin we have thought of evolution in terms of species. Yet it is the evolution of ecosystems-from deep-ocean vents to rainforests-that has formed the living world as we know it. Drawing on their years of experience in paleontology, biology, chemistry, and astrobiology, Ward and Kirschvink tell a story of life on Earth that is at once too fabulous to imagine and too familiar to dismiss. And in a provocative coda, they assemble discoveries from the latest cutting-edge research to imagine how the history of life might unfold deep into the future.

30 review for A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth

  1. 5 out of 5

    Charlene

    This is yet another book whose authors have joined the quest to understand our origins and what might happen to our species as green house gases rise. Ward and Kirschvink attempt to include the most up to date information of extinction available. Just as epigenetics is currently challenging our understanding of evolution, so too are relatively recent findings in fields related to extinction patterns. The role of Cuvier's catastrophism has seen a resurgence since the discovery of the meteoroid's This is yet another book whose authors have joined the quest to understand our origins and what might happen to our species as green house gases rise. Ward and Kirschvink attempt to include the most up to date information of extinction available. Just as epigenetics is currently challenging our understanding of evolution, so too are relatively recent findings in fields related to extinction patterns. The role of Cuvier's catastrophism has seen a resurgence since the discovery of the meteoroid's impact on Earth's organisms. Further findings on how body morphology and function change in response to co2 and o2 are further supporting catastrophism. These authors challenge the notion that there were five extinctions and posit there were actually ten that deserve much greater attention and study, if we are to fully understand how greenhouse gases will affect our future. In addition to the rise in mapping when and how extinctions happen (including the newest book by Lisa Randall on Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs) researchers are also increasingly interested in mapping out the networks of ecosystems- how might the extinction of species affect the survival of other species. For example, how does fire affect ecosystems? How do oxygen and carbon gas levels shape the bodies of organisms like clams? How does their shape affect burrowing behavior, and how does that burrowing behavior affect Earth's surface? How does Earth's surface then affect the development of future species? One of the best lecture series that also addresses the network/complexity/emergence of ecosystems is The Modern Scholar: Ecological Planet: An Introduction to Earth's Major Ecosystems by John Kricher. I am a great lover of detailed books on cell respiration or photosynthesis (ie., Nick Lane's entire collection of books and Paul Falkowski's Life's Engines). This book included quite a bit of the nitty gritty science that I find so exciting and satisfying when trying to really understand what is going on around us, at the tiniest levels that translate to macro organisms and their elaborate ecosystems. The writing was at times too much like an article. I love authors who hold your hand and assume you have no idea what point they are trying to make. Even when it is very clear to me what their argument is, I really like to be guided along so that I am free to just enjoy what is being discussed instead of trying to understand what point they are making. It's difficult to achieve this type of writing, certainly they do a better job than Nick Lane who seems to alienate much of his potential audience. Yet, they could have done a better job of handholding. On the flip side they painted some wonderful images with their words. I won't soon forget the image that is burned in my mind of the dinosaur who possessed fingers, a working thumb, feathers, and was running fast over the earth. Nor will I soon forget the image of clams burrowing the bottom of the sea floor changing the crusts very structure and function. I loved the imagery evoked when discussing the sea floor, plate tectonics, coccolithophores, and subduction zones (This was a focus in at least 3 separate chapters and was magnificent each time. Even if I was starting to get a bit bored, when they included talk of chalk, my interest was piqued!). I would have liked more of that type of writing. For further reading: Lisa Randall's Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs John Kricher's The Modern Scholar: Ecological Planet: An Introduction to Earth's Major Ecosystems Nick Lane (all of his books) Geoffrey West's Scaling in Biology Sean Carroll's Endless Forms Most beautiful Paul Falkowski's Life's Engines Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants

  2. 4 out of 5

    Nicky

    “New” is a bit of an overstatement. It develops themes already covered in books like Nick Lane’s Oxygen (not exactly recent) and David Beerling’s The Emerald Planet; the main contribution to my understanding is a bit more depth on how oxygen and carbon dioxide have limited and unlimited life over the course of its development. The back emphasises the authors’ belief in panspermia, specifically in the form that states life on Earth was seeded from Mars, but there’s very little space devoted to th “New” is a bit of an overstatement. It develops themes already covered in books like Nick Lane’s Oxygen (not exactly recent) and David Beerling’s The Emerald Planet; the main contribution to my understanding is a bit more depth on how oxygen and carbon dioxide have limited and unlimited life over the course of its development. The back emphasises the authors’ belief in panspermia, specifically in the form that states life on Earth was seeded from Mars, but there’s very little space devoted to that — and exactly zero actual evidence. It’s mostly a reasonable read, if not at all “new”, but they badly needed some more time with an editor. They have odd repetitions, or places where they don’t define a word until long after its first use (not a problem for me, but possibly difficult for other pop science readers), and at times the grammar is just terrible. Sentences don’t have subjects, or the verb doesn’t agree, or… It’s not so bad that I’d call it a mess, but I was very conscious that they needed a proofreader or three to make their book feel more professional. There were some interesting things in here, though: for example, a discussion of different types of lungs and breathing systems. I hadn’t seen that discussed before, and it was fascinating. And for dinosaur aficionados, yep, they definitely touch on dinosaurs and why they once ruled the Earth (and why, perhaps, that rule ended as it did). Reviewed for The Bibliophibian. If you like my science reviews, you might also want to check out my science blog, NEAT science.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ben McFarland

    A New History of Life is a natural history that stands out because of its large timescale (4.567 billion years, to be precise) and broad intended audience. Overall, it delivers on the promise of its title adjective, describing new findings and hypotheses connecting paleontology and geology, and offering genuine but grounded scientific speculation for future work. For the general reader, it provides a wealth of new information, but because its overall scientific narrative lacks momentum and inter A New History of Life is a natural history that stands out because of its large timescale (4.567 billion years, to be precise) and broad intended audience. Overall, it delivers on the promise of its title adjective, describing new findings and hypotheses connecting paleontology and geology, and offering genuine but grounded scientific speculation for future work. For the general reader, it provides a wealth of new information, but because its overall scientific narrative lacks momentum and internal connection, it may be most appropriate for a scientifically literate audience. It is impressive to watch the authors address the central challenge of this genre, which I have faced myself in my writing for a general audience: How do you filter oceans of information and translate it into general terms? Authors Ward and Kirschvink set up their filter by emphasizing physical evidence, and rocks and bones in particular. Their geological and paleontological emphasis gives this story a different tone and tempo than other natural histories that start with the Big Bang (physics) or the characteristics of life (biology). My own discipline, chemistry, is not as deeply integrated as a result – here, chemistry plays a role in dating the rocks and bones, and in transforming the environment, but the authors focus most attention on the change and flow of continents (and other aspects of geology) and body plans (developmental biology). The flip side of the authors’ emphasis is their deemphasis. Ward and Kirschvink deemphasize evidence from genetic clocks and other results from molecular biology, which leads them a chain of reasoning that is mostly geological in nature. For example, they favor a very late evolution of water photosynthesis. Personally, I trust the genetic clocks that show how many forms of photosynthesis, including water photosynthesis, evolved much earlier than Ward and Kirschvink allow. But this is a moot point -- a few hundred million years one way or the other doesn’t change the story much for the general reader. A New History of Life reads at the level of an undergraduate science course. Ward and Kirschvink recount the back-and-forth narrative of scientific discovery and rebuttal as hypotheses are set forward and discarded. If the reader already understands how science works, these sections depict the drama of science in enjoyable detail. Sometimes the details seem more superfluous, as when some sections list other scientists in the field but without enough detail to make them distinct characters. A surprising number of the images in the book depict scientists working in the field but would not convey much information to the non-specialist. The scientific detail is both an advantage and disadvantage. For example, the first chapter is all about geological nomenclature, which is too dry for a general reader. Throughout the book, the authors provide precise biological and geological terms for organisms and places, but more description of these would make the story more relevant. A photo of a fossil skull is not clearly connected to the chapter around it, and lists of details on dinosaur names and the shapes of lagoon habitats provide detailed “dots” of data, but they do not seem connected. At such points, the book becomes more like a required course assignment than the flowing story it could be. On page 80 the authors write “We apologize for the complex chemistry necessary in the preceding section. But to get this story right requires complexity.” If this was placed before the section it described, the general reader would read that section differently – as it is, it amounts to locking the barn door after the horse is gone. These narrative nits having been picked, this book is indeed new and interesting, both substantial and helpful for the prepared reader. In the chapters on the origin of life, the authors focus on the “RNA world” hypothesis, and include new findings that support this hypothesis, such as the nucleotide synthesis discovered half a decade ago by Sutherland and colleagues, but fail to cover recent experiments that point to “metabolism-first” explanations. The “new” hypothesis in this section is that life started on Mars, which is interesting and possible, but given the difficulties and distances, more speculative than other new proposals in the book. Another “new” hypothesis the authors develop in several places is that major events like the Cambrian explosion and particular extinctions were started by “true polar wander” events. One true polar wander event coincided with the Cambrian explosion, but my enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that there have been thirty or so of these events throughout history, which is number large enough that the timing may be more coincidence than cause. A graph of the thirty events would have addressed my own skepticism but was not included. The hypothesis I’m most attracted to appears throughout the book, but may have been deemphasized by the authors because it is not all that “new.” Ward and Kirschvink frequently allude to the power of oxygen, both at and after the Cambrian explosion. They connect oxygen to animal diversification and extinction more intimately than any other general text, and oxygen’s influence is found in nearly every chapter. This is an exciting and intriguing thread to follow throughout the narrative, but could have been emphasized more. Curiously, in a section on dinosaur morphology, they downplay the power of oxygen. On page 266, they begin a paragraph with the statement, “No evolutionary history can even be pinned on one factor.” The paragraph ends, “Nevertheless, oxygen levels must have played a part.” This apparent underselling of the organizing chemical power of oxygen brought to my mind the stories of how Einstein resisted the Big Bang because of its implication that the universe had a beginning. But, as is common for popular science, philosophical and theological implications are kept implicit. Another major theme of this book that is powerful (but not really new) is the generative power of past extinction events. As Ward and Kirschvink put it, “Over and over, however, it really looks like a dominant theme in the history of life is that times of crisis promote new innovation.” Many scientists from many fields, including myself, have converged on this finding, and it deserves to be repeated many times. What does that tell us about what kind of universe we call home? The authors close the book by extrapolating the billion-year trends of change in carbon dioxide and oxygen levels into the distant future. This is an obituary for the future earth in which CO2 runs slowly out of the atmosphere, like air running out of a balloon. In a book that tends to avoid large metaphors, this section stands out: “The fate of the nautilus is a metaphor for all animal life. Sooner or later evolution, competition, and the natural changing of our Earth and sun as they age will make any body plan obsolete.” The authors describe a bleak future that gives the sense of the universe running down and flickering out, which is accurate as far as science goes, but philosophically and theologically truncated. In summary, this book is an excellent example of recent evidence in the history of life, with special emphases on geology and paleontology. Anyone with an interest in those two sciences will find new ideas and directions in these pages. The most powerful conclusions -- the emerging consensus on the driving role of oxygen and the creative power of even the most devastating extinctions -- give a sense of the vitality of life and the orderliness of creation that is somewhat at odds with the deflating final chapter. Here, new evidence is presented well, and its ultimate implications are left for the reader to ponder.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Tiz. T.

    At first, this book didn't catch me. It started with what amount to a rant about current classification systems on, basically, fossils, and I have learnt to be dubious of divulgative books on science who criticize the current orthodoxy, mainly because the audience likely doesn't have the skill to evaluate the claims. Still, in this particular instance I had to take it back. The book is a very, very, very good read, showing how life may have evolved in relation both to great extintion events and t At first, this book didn't catch me. It started with what amount to a rant about current classification systems on, basically, fossils, and I have learnt to be dubious of divulgative books on science who criticize the current orthodoxy, mainly because the audience likely doesn't have the skill to evaluate the claims. Still, in this particular instance I had to take it back. The book is a very, very, very good read, showing how life may have evolved in relation both to great extintion events and to the importance of ecosystemic evolution. All in all a great book, wonderfl both for people who are new to the scientific divulgation genre and for aficionados.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Tim Robinson

    In the 20th century, it was accepted that dinosaurs were somewhere between crocodiles and birds, but it was always assumed that they were closer to crocodiles. However, everything we have learned in this century has made dinosaurs seem more and more bird-like: they had bird-like bones, were warm-blooded, had feathers and now we are fairly sure that they had bird-like lungs. It is no longer a surprise that dinosaurs ruled before mammals. The real surprise is that we mammals ever ruled at all. Bird In the 20th century, it was accepted that dinosaurs were somewhere between crocodiles and birds, but it was always assumed that they were closer to crocodiles. However, everything we have learned in this century has made dinosaurs seem more and more bird-like: they had bird-like bones, were warm-blooded, had feathers and now we are fairly sure that they had bird-like lungs. It is no longer a surprise that dinosaurs ruled before mammals. The real surprise is that we mammals ever ruled at all. Birds (and dinosaurs) have superior lungs in that they have a three-stroke breathing cycle. Mammals have only two: (1) inhale air from outside the body into the lungs and (2) exhale it out again. An awful lot of air we inhale next is precisely the spent air we exhaled on our previous breath. Birds (1) inhale air from the outside the body into a rear air sac, (2) transhale that air forward through the lungs into a forward air sac and (3) exhale from the forward sac back to the outside. Air crosses the lungs only once, and in only one direction, so the blood can flow in the opposite direction, releasing carbon dioxide into spent air at the front before picking oxygen from fresher air at the back. A good proportion of those air sacs are cleverly concealed inside their hollow bones, so their breathing apparatus takes up not much more abdominal space than our own. (Dinosaurs unquestionably have hollow bones too.) This gives birds a 33% advantage at sea level and a much greater advantage at higher altitudes. Birds migrate across the Himalayas. No bat can go anything like that high. The only advantages mammals had over dinosaurs were better teeth and marginally better child-bearing and -rearing. And the earliest mammals laid eggs and had pretty poor milk. Even today, many mammals (eg wolves) feed their young by regurgitation, just as birds do and dinosaurs no doubt did. Dinosaurs came to power in the early Jurassic, when oxygen levels were half what they are now. They could out-breathe any vertebrate on the planet . So there is no mystery at all.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Alma

    This formidable book synthesizes the latest research on the origins of life and evolution available at the time of writing (2014). It must be very difficult to keep a coherent narrative with so many conflicting hypotheses, new discoveries, massive timelines, and the amount of information that needs to be covered. Ward and Kirschvink succeed, thanks to a leitmotif running throughout the narrative: that low atmospheric oxygen fosters disparity (various body plans and anatomies), while high oxygen This formidable book synthesizes the latest research on the origins of life and evolution available at the time of writing (2014). It must be very difficult to keep a coherent narrative with so many conflicting hypotheses, new discoveries, massive timelines, and the amount of information that needs to be covered. Ward and Kirschvink succeed, thanks to a leitmotif running throughout the narrative: that low atmospheric oxygen fosters disparity (various body plans and anatomies), while high oxygen leads to taxonomic diversity and explosions of life. Another recurring theme is the role of the geological carbon cycle in climate change and, consequently, mass extinctions (descriptions of which are almost cinematographically vivid). Since this book is for the general reader, I feel it could have been improved by adding short chapter summaries. A glossary would have been great. Otherwise, to give you one example, they have to explain what stomata are three times, including twice in the same short chapter. The book could have been edited better. Some examples: "the presence of life that is at least 3.4 million [billion] years old" (p.46) "Segmented animals are the most diverse of all animals on the planet" and later in the same paragraph exactly the same sentence: "Segmented animals are the most diverse of all animals on the planet" (pp. 126-127) "topics" instead of tropics twice in the same paragraph (p. 227) "Yet it was it was found" (p. 321)

  7. 5 out of 5

    Wilson

    Interesting book and a good overview of the history of life on Earth - the authors’ perspectives as geologist added a holistic angle that viewed major events in the history of life that I was already familiar with (the Cambrian explosion, etc.) as tangled up with the shifting geology of our world. My main complaints with the book are that it can get rambly and disjointed at times, with frequent back-and-forth chronological shifts in discussion even between paragraphs, and that out of the many au Interesting book and a good overview of the history of life on Earth - the authors’ perspectives as geologist added a holistic angle that viewed major events in the history of life that I was already familiar with (the Cambrian explosion, etc.) as tangled up with the shifting geology of our world. My main complaints with the book are that it can get rambly and disjointed at times, with frequent back-and-forth chronological shifts in discussion even between paragraphs, and that out of the many authors of important studies referenced, perhaps three are female and four are not white, and fewer are not from Top 10 institutions such as MIT or Cambridge or Harvard. Whether this is due to the unconscious biases of the elderly white male Top 10 institution authors or more a symptom of the scientific system itself is up for debate, but it was very noticeable. Reading this book one could easily be convinced that women and POC have made literally no contributions to paleontology.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Chuk

    This is a good overview of recent discoveries in prehistoric evolution. Lots of detail about possible extinction mechanisms and quite up to date, the two authors have been researching in the field for decades. It is not quite at the dry textbook level but it is not quite like a pop science book either. There are occasional personal asides and commentary or anecdotes, but mostly it reports recent findings, usually with plenty of background detail. Lots of footnotes for references to hundreds of j This is a good overview of recent discoveries in prehistoric evolution. Lots of detail about possible extinction mechanisms and quite up to date, the two authors have been researching in the field for decades. It is not quite at the dry textbook level but it is not quite like a pop science book either. There are occasional personal asides and commentary or anecdotes, but mostly it reports recent findings, usually with plenty of background detail. Lots of footnotes for references to hundreds of journal articles and books, this could be a good starting point if you wanted to do more in-depth research on any of the topics. (E.g. Tiktaalik, which was just recently repatriated.)

  9. 4 out of 5

    Esmeralda Rupp-Spangle

    When politics and the world around you begin crushing your will to live with their petty squabbles, read a book about the last billion years and realize how absurd their problems are in the scale of it all. Reflecting on the tiny creatures of the Cambrian is my meditation, reciting the past ages is my mantra, reading about the death of our sun is my nightcap.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Hrusko

    Great insights on the way in which the environment and life affect each other. This book helped me understand, in a more profound way, the evolution between the different periods in Earth's history.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Batsheva

    Readable overview of last 4.5 billion years of life on Earth. Dry enough to be good bedtime reading, easy to pick up/put down, and often found myself reaching for phone to read more about various new facts I learned. (Lizards can't breathe when they run! The Permian Extinction included poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas killing most organisms on the planet! There are names for the geological time periods on the Moon and Mars!)

  12. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Sydlik

    An excellent overview of the prehistory of life, from origins to the beginnings of modern humans. I had been looking for a book that would broadly cover our knowledge of past life from every time period equally, rather than focusing on a particular group or time period. Based on reviews, this seemed the best choice. Each chapter does try to touch on a variety of microbial, plant, and animal life from each geological time period. However, from my layman's knowledge, it did seem to gloss over some An excellent overview of the prehistory of life, from origins to the beginnings of modern humans. I had been looking for a book that would broadly cover our knowledge of past life from every time period equally, rather than focusing on a particular group or time period. Based on reviews, this seemed the best choice. Each chapter does try to touch on a variety of microbial, plant, and animal life from each geological time period. However, from my layman's knowledge, it did seem to gloss over some major groups, such as pelycosaurs, pterosaurs, and with dinosaurs, you will not get anything like a breakdown of the major groups and their major representative species. So if you're looking for a book that will give you details on popular and well-known fossils, you can find that elsewhere, though likely you will have to look for separate books covering particular eras or groups. What this tome does accomplish is providing a general overview of the patterns and trends in the evolution of life - as indicated by the title. It's more of an ecological-oriented work, and there seems to be as much discussion of chemistry and geology as biology and paleontology, which was a bit boring for me since I know so little of those fields, and some of the more detailed explanations of chemical processes went over my head. The authors really love talking about oxygen, and at times, their repeated appeal to oxygen levels (whether increase or decrease) felt a bit redundant, and again, boring to me. However, I am glad to get a different perspective than the familiar stories of super-volcanoes and asteroids causing extinction. The authors also try to convey that extinction and genetic diversity and disparity likely arise from a variety of factors, some of which we likely still barely understand, rather than a single cause. I appreciated the text's orientation toward the less explored aspects of evolutionary paleontology - they really are trying to provide a "new" history of life. It does not retread the facts likely already familiar to anyone with a casual interest in paleontology, which you tend to see again and again in many books on this subject. Some discussion is a bit dense and technical, but even if you struggle with those parts, I think it's worth it for the breadth it covers.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Deb

    The premise of the book is to discuss the currently accepted history of life on Earth and explain why some of it is so flawed and out of date ... the authors wrote because it was past time we need a 'New History of Life.' THIS IS AN EXTRAORDINARY BOOK. Readable to non-scientists, clear, and immensely interesting. A page-turner!!! What an awesome writer to make this information so accessible. I especially appreciated the detailed discussions of earths mass extinctions, the reason and result of eac The premise of the book is to discuss the currently accepted history of life on Earth and explain why some of it is so flawed and out of date ... the authors wrote because it was past time we need a 'New History of Life.' THIS IS AN EXTRAORDINARY BOOK. Readable to non-scientists, clear, and immensely interesting. A page-turner!!! What an awesome writer to make this information so accessible. I especially appreciated the detailed discussions of earths mass extinctions, the reason and result of each. Key life evolution concepts that were new to me but a recurring discussion in the book: important and driving role of oxygen (that low atmospheric oxygen fosters variety in body plans and anatomies, while high oxygen leads to taxonomic diversity and explosions of life) ; the constructive power of even the most devastating extinctions; the role of carbon change in climate change, i.e., extinctions; the critical role of CO2 in the evolution of life. I learned a ton from this book. Lots of "wow" moments. It was an evolutionary primer. And I found out that reptiles can't run and breathe at the same time! Crazy.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Bryan

    An interesting and somewhat controversial "new" history of life. The authors focus most of their attention on the roles of oxygen and CO2 in the evolution of life, sometimes to the neglect of other potential factors. The origin of life itself is little more than just re-hashed and defunct ideas that have long been shown to not work, but given that origin of life research has seen no useful breakthroughs, this is not surprising. As for the evolution of life once it arose, their is story similar t An interesting and somewhat controversial "new" history of life. The authors focus most of their attention on the roles of oxygen and CO2 in the evolution of life, sometimes to the neglect of other potential factors. The origin of life itself is little more than just re-hashed and defunct ideas that have long been shown to not work, but given that origin of life research has seen no useful breakthroughs, this is not surprising. As for the evolution of life once it arose, their is story similar to that of other accounts, with the exception that it was more focused on oxygen and CO2, as already noted. I think some of their unique insights may stand the test of time, while others will pass as better explanations come along. One other thing that annoyed me somewhat was their attempt to make the topic more accessible to the general reader, which lead to sloppy use of some simpler seeming terminology, while still using a lot of inaccessible terminology in a lot of cases.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    The book has many interesting facts, but like most popular science writing it delves into too much speculation almost always ending with something approaching "but with more research...". Every chapter has the same four contents: 1. Oxygen levels are important to life. 2. Events that happened millions of years ago are hard to figure out. 3. Evolution doesn't happen at a constant rate because the environment can change rapidly. 4. The authors add a thinly veiled reference or a direct reference to The book has many interesting facts, but like most popular science writing it delves into too much speculation almost always ending with something approaching "but with more research...". Every chapter has the same four contents: 1. Oxygen levels are important to life. 2. Events that happened millions of years ago are hard to figure out. 3. Evolution doesn't happen at a constant rate because the environment can change rapidly. 4. The authors add a thinly veiled reference or a direct reference to climate change today. There is a book called "Oxygen: a four billion year history" and it has the same ideas, but written better.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Wing Grabowski

    Good 2.0 on the development of planetary (and a bit if extra-planetary) life. Desperately needed an editor though-a lot of repetition as if both authors wrote on the same topic and there was a failure to synthesize their individual pieces. Overall readable and enjoyable, full of adventurous ideas (new or unconventional theories are identified as such) and sprinkled with wry humor.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Neil Aplin

    An extraordinary book, both in the subject matter and the scientific authenticity of the material. An in-depth study of the history of the planet, and the many diverse and varied phases of it's lifespan. I keep referencing the book in conversations - it has had a profound impact on my view of life today and the damage we are currently inflicting on the planet and ourselves. Thanks Dad!

  18. 5 out of 5

    José Angel Hernandez

    This is big history at its finest, one going back 4.5 billion years ago, with each chapter being divided into millions of years. To boot, the final chapter is about the future of humanity, and those things which scientists can predict still. Highly recommended

  19. 4 out of 5

    Rob Caswell

    The daily routine and obligations of life don’t always allow us to keep our educations up to date. Before you know it you last classroom experience is decades behind you. That when it can be nice for the curious-minded to have an “updated refresher” on a subject. If you’re looking for one that covers the latest info on paleontology and the origins of life, this book’s a pretty good choice. Published in 2015, the info’s pretty up to date. But these are fields where things are advancing quickly! In The daily routine and obligations of life don’t always allow us to keep our educations up to date. Before you know it you last classroom experience is decades behind you. That when it can be nice for the curious-minded to have an “updated refresher” on a subject. If you’re looking for one that covers the latest info on paleontology and the origins of life, this book’s a pretty good choice. Published in 2015, the info’s pretty up to date. But these are fields where things are advancing quickly! In just three years a number of the facts presented in this book have been reconsidered and new info thrown into the mix. Still, if your education in this area is a decade or four out of date, you can’t go wrong by diving in, here. The book advances chronologically. That allows the story of life on Earth to flow in a way that’s both engaging and builds connections between periods that make logical sense. And the story doesn’t end with the Anthropocene. The authors continue the story into the future and follow where current science point to for the end of our planetary home. I really wish the writing style were a bit better crafted. The text reads like someone constantly (and often unsuccessfully) fighting their “academic” writing style in order to deliver a more “popular” treatment of the subject. And at several points the authors let the profession’s power struggles take up more story space than is warranted. But even with those caveats, I found the book’s content to be immensely engaging, hitting several instances occurring of “WOW! I didn’t know that? How did I not know that??”. Overall it’s a very good subject refresher/updater and it’d be nice to see them do updates to it in, say, five year intervals.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ogi Ogas

    My ratings of books on Goodreads are solely a crude ranking of their utility to me, and not an evaluation of literary merit, entertainment value, social importance, humor, insightfulness, scientific accuracy, creative vigor, suspensefulness of plot, depth of characters, vitality of theme, excitement of climax, satisfaction of ending, or any other combination of dimensions of value which we are expected to boil down through some fabulous alchemy into a single digit.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Bedard

    An interesting evolutionary account of life. I found the account of the event that caused the extinction of dinosaurs particularly interesting. The book is built around accounts of a number of mass extinctions throughout the history of our planet. The book even includes speculation of the future of the planet and of human evolution.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Matt Benic

    Much of this is a rehash of what I’ve read before, but the focus on oxygen, temperature and how they drove diversity and were in turn affected by that diversity was something new. There were some interesting new tidbits (for me) every now and then, which justified the extra star for me.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    Much interesting and new information synthesized here. Seems a little scattered in places. A good, solid read.

  24. 4 out of 5

    James

    Interesting material makes up for lack of a thorough editing.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Gavin Long

    Reasonable read

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Sebesta

    A fantastic survey of life before us.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sushil

    It's one thing to be told that the life on Earth is a few billions year old. It's an entirely different thing to be taken through that journey one jaw-dropping twist at a time, always being made to wonder as you read the gripping account what's more amazing - the sheer variety of life that has come and gone over billions of years or the human ingenuity to even piece together what all has transpired on this planet over eons. I've read bits and pieces of this history of life in articles, books and It's one thing to be told that the life on Earth is a few billions year old. It's an entirely different thing to be taken through that journey one jaw-dropping twist at a time, always being made to wonder as you read the gripping account what's more amazing - the sheer variety of life that has come and gone over billions of years or the human ingenuity to even piece together what all has transpired on this planet over eons. I've read bits and pieces of this history of life in articles, books and newspapers but I was still not prepared for the scale of the findings presented in this book in such an all-encompassing manner.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Helena Zhu

    This book is highly informative and well organized. It could be helpful to have a timeline of geological periods on hand to better grasp the chronology of the myriads of fascinating discoveries and stories about the history of life on our planet.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Buddy Don

    This is a wonderful book if you like science. If not, you might find the lack of complete certainty, especially in light of a topic that is undergoing such rapid change due to a constant barrage of discoveries, a little disconcerting. I like this kind of writing. It's what all science should be, a report on what we know about this topic at the current moment, with a good discussion of the previous hypotheses that held sway before we had reached our current understanding, the implication being th This is a wonderful book if you like science. If not, you might find the lack of complete certainty, especially in light of a topic that is undergoing such rapid change due to a constant barrage of discoveries, a little disconcerting. I like this kind of writing. It's what all science should be, a report on what we know about this topic at the current moment, with a good discussion of the previous hypotheses that held sway before we had reached our current understanding, the implication being that the current account is only the best so far. Should we continue to pursue and understanding of the geological record and its implications with regards to life and evolution, we will continue to evolve our explanations to be more precise and in keeping with all the evidence we can find. Since I'm by no means an expert in the geology or evolution, so I can't judge this book against others of its kind. I found it well written and clear, easy to follow and quite thought provoking.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Nilesh

    Here is a good macroscopic history of life for a change. Natural evolution can be discussed in two different, even if highly overlapping ways: one is the Darwinian method of links established through fossil records and "human language" logic while the other is modern with its roots in genetics. In most modern books, the second method dominates. In these books, discussions detail our cell structures and information from the DNA to delineate the eras of prokaryotes and eukaryotes, speculations over Here is a good macroscopic history of life for a change. Natural evolution can be discussed in two different, even if highly overlapping ways: one is the Darwinian method of links established through fossil records and "human language" logic while the other is modern with its roots in genetics. In most modern books, the second method dominates. In these books, discussions detail our cell structures and information from the DNA to delineate the eras of prokaryotes and eukaryotes, speculations over mitochondrial endosymbiotic hypothesis and developments of other organelles through to the possible paths that led to the of larger species. These books most definitely intermingle the findings from the fossil records and conclusions of various mass extinction studies but the focus is more microscopic or molecular in nature, both in the tales as well as the evidence they rely on for conclusions. Not this book and this alone provides a refreshing change. The macroscopic focus makes the book much more understandable to begin with. Tales of various origins and survival/extinction phases are vivid and imaginable for ordinary readers. The authors are able to paint our globe in various eras (ranging from the molten stages to the snowball times at two extremes and also much in between) and at the most unfathomable crannies (in deep oceans and well under the earth's crust to the uppermost layers of the atmosphere) to paint how life may have prospered from one stage to the next. The reader is made to experience the oxygen/carbon-dioxide cycles, many extinction events and wander over oceans and land of various times while living as different species. The macroscopic method allows the author to focus on issues confronting us in current times including the greenhouse effect and specie extinction. Of course, the negatives of this approach are obvious: most of the conclusions appear to have been from evidences far from clear and based on extremely human/language based logic. The short book also suffers from moving too fast many a times. Yet, for anyone reading multiple books on the subject, this book could prove quite original in many ways.

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