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Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth's Earliest Fossils - Hardcover

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9780691002309: Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth's Earliest Fossils
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One of the greatest mysteries in reconstructing the history of life on Earth has been the apparent absence of fossils dating back more than 550 million years. We have long known that fossils of sophisticated marine life-forms existed at the dawn of the Cambrian Period, but until recently scientists had found no traces of Precambrian fossils. The quest to find such traces began in earnest in the mid-1960s and culminated in one dramatic moment in 1993 when William Schopf identified fossilized microorganisms three and a half billion years old. This startling find opened up a vast period of time--some eighty-five percent of Earth's history--to new research and new ideas about life's beginnings. In this book, William Schopf, a pioneer of modern paleobiology, tells for the first time the exciting and fascinating story of the origins and earliest evolution of life and how that story has been unearthed.


Gracefully blending his personal story of discovery with the basics needed to understand the astonishing science he describes, Schopf has produced an introduction to paleobiology for the interested reader as well as a primer for beginning students in the field. He considers such questions as how did primitive bacteria, pond scum, evolve into the complex life-forms found at the beginning of the Cambrian Period? How do scientists identify ancient microbes and what do these tiny creatures tell us about the environment of the early Earth? (And, in a related chapter, Schopf discusses his role in the controversy that swirls around recent claims of fossils in the famed meteorite from Mars.) Like all great teachers, Schopf teaches the non-specialist enough about his subject along the way that we can easily follow his descriptions of the geology, biology, and chemistry behind these discoveries. Anyone interested in the intriguing questions of the origins of life on Earth and how those origins have been discovered will find this story the best place to start.

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What if U.S. history began in 1963, and everything that happened before that year was shrouded in mystery? There would be plenty of events to study, but we wouldn't have a complete picture of the country's past. This is the analogy that paleomicrobiologist J. William Schopf uses to describe the long-missing 85 percent of earth's early fossil record (the puzzle of the missing fossils was known as Darwin's Dilemma). Not until the 1960s did paleobiologists using pickaxes and microscopes find evidence that life began much earlier than previously theorized and that microorganisms were the planet's only inhabitants for most of its existence. And Schopf himself discovered the oldest Precambrian fossils known to science in 1993. Why did it take so long to find these critters?
Though the puzzle of the "missing" early fossil record lived on for more than a hundred years, its solution is now so obvious as to be mundane. The Precambrian world did indeed swarm with living creatures, but until near the close of this vast eon these were microbes and microalgal cells so tiny and fragile that they would never have been unearthed by conventional fossil hunting.
Cradle of Life is a great primer for those interested in the fossil record and its relation to evolutionary theory. Profusely illustrated, this chronicle of amazing discoveries and bizarre questions covers wide ground, including the basics of cell biology and microevolution as well as the careers of the big-name scientists who have set the fossil record straight. And the search continues for the origins of life on earth, as well as the hints of it elsewhere. In a terrifically enlightening epilogue, Schopf shows how even the best scientists have been fooled by geological artifacts that resemble true fossils (as happened with the infamous Martian meteorite "bacteria") and by their own desires to confirm their theories and beliefs about the origins of life. --Therese Littleton
From the Inside Flap:

"'I am born,' writes Dicken's David Copperfield, in simple statement of fact. Our knowledge of how the first cells and organisms were begotten is far less resolute. With focused vision, Cradle of Life probes one view of primordial Earth and the succor of its first cells and organisms, even as scientists explore and assemble evidence to advocate other possibilities. Schopf engages the reader with the magic of storytelling as he writes about such matters as the fables and foibles of scientists, the demands of discovery and documentation in attaining an understanding of how life evolved, the tempo of evolution, and, of course, the continuing saga of the Mars rocks."--Cindy Lee Van Dover, author of Deep-Ocean Journeys

"An entertaining and informative book. It provides an interesting perspective on how science is done. . . . Schopf's personal perspective provides a sense of the personalities involved and engages the reader. . . ."--Dawn Y. Sumner, University of California, Davis

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  • PublisherPrinceton University Press
  • Publication date1999
  • ISBN 10 0691002304
  • ISBN 13 9780691002309
  • BindingHardcover
  • Edition number1
  • Number of pages336
  • Rating
    3.9 avg rating
    ( 42 ratings by Goodreads )

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