A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
"Extraordinary. . . . Anyone with the slightest interest in biology should read this book."--The New York Times Book Review
"A marvelous museum of the past four billion years on earth--capacious, jammed with treasures, full of learning and wide-eyed wonder."--The Boston Globe
From its origins on the still-forming planet to the recent emergence of Homo sapiens--one of the world's leading paleontologists offers an absorbing account of how and why life on earth developed as it did. Interlacing the tale of his own adventures in the field with vivid descriptions of creatures who emerged and disappeared in the long march of geologic time, Richard Fortey sheds light upon a fascinating array of evolutionary wonders, mysteries, and debates. Brimming with wit, literary style, and the joy of discovery, this is an indispensable book that will delight the general reader and the scientist alike.
"A drama bolder and more sweeping than Gone with the Wind . . . a pleasure to read."--Science
"A beautifully written and structured work . . . packed with lucid expositions of science."
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September 07, 1999
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Excerpt from Life by Richard Fortey
Salterelladodged between the icebergs. While the small boat bucked and tossed, I hung over its side, peering down into the clear Arctic waters. I had not known that there could be such density of life. This frigid sea was a speckled mass of organisms. Tiny copepod crustaceans, looking like so many animated peas, beat their way in their thousands through the surface waters, feeding on plankton that I knew must be there, but which could not be seen without a microscope. There were jellyfish of every size: white, gently pulsing discs as delicate as spun glass; small pink barrage balloons decked with beating cilia, which appeared to be solid--but became gelatinous and impalpable if grasped from the water; an occasional orange monster with tentacles that promised evil stings for fish or mammal. They drifted in their millions, swirling and beating against the dumb tides, concealing purpose in contractions as instinctive as breathing, like protoplasmic lungs dilating and constricting in primitive obedience to the prompting of the currents. Behind the nearest iceberg arctic terns beat and hung in the air, peering down as I was, but with so much more precision, then darting to retrieve some living morsel from the sea. The ice floes were stained pink with their droppings. Salterellawas tackling a stretch of sea, Hinlopenstretet, between the islands of Spitsbergen and Nordauslandet far beyond the Arctic Circle at 80 degrees north. Ice floes had melted in the summer thaw, sculpted by the vagaries of weather into plates or crags, or simulacra of giants. On the waterline they were notched deeply by the sea, lapped by insistent waves, and just occasionally one would teeter into instability, cracking and keeling over with a great resigned splash which sent waves to make our small boat buck and grind against the smaller fragments of ice. It was true: the greater part of an ice floe was always beneath the sea, and you approached too close at your peril. If you looked down, you could see the bluish mass curving down into the deeps, while jellyfish skimmed hidden protuberances with impunity. LittleSalterellasought the spaces between the floes. Her wooden construction was designed to cope with ice. Winds herded floes into clots that could become almost impenetrable. Then, suddenly, patches of clear water would allow rapid progress, and the bleat of the motor sent little auks and black guillemots fluttering low across the sea to plunder the rich waters elsewhere. In the distance a mysterious coastline lay low on the horizon. Glaciers ran straight down to the sea. Ice cliffs groaned or barked to signal the inexorable creep of sheets of ancient ice. The boat seemed like an interloper. I was twenty-one and on my first expedition. Cambridge University had a tradition of sending young geologists to Spitsbergen. For a young naturalist it was very heaven. Here there were birds on every side that had only existed as pictures in bird books. The sea, the profligate sea, was a shimmering textbook of zoology. There seemed nothing to interfere with the joy of observation, no end to knowledge, no possibility that any discovery should be less than astounding. The boat comprised two crew and several scientists, including myself and Geoff. We had already suffered in the old whaling vessel which had carried us from Norway, a switchback ride across the Barents Sea all the way to Spitsbergen. Few on board could face the whale-meat stew. Our expedition leader was the worst sailor of all, having disappeared below decks just after leaving the Norwegian port of Boda, and only reappearing a week later when we reached the base at Longyearbyen. Geoff and I were to live together for weeks in a small tent, watching our beards grow from speckled patches to whiskers worthy of a Victorian paterfamilias. Together, we were in search