Life: The First Four Billion Years

I first saw Life: The First Four Billion Years in my Amazon recommendations while browsing for other books a few years ago, and finding the cover somewhat striking, I added it to my wishlist, where it proceeded to languish. I didn’t see many preview images anywhere at the time, and I hadn’t ever heard of it from any of the people I follow online, so it was a sort of out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing. Recently, however, I discovered it at one of my local libraries, and figured I should finally get around to checking it out.

I immediately noticed how much bigger it was than I had expected! At about 14×12 inches, it’s a size common to “life-size books” such as Lifesize Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Actual Size (the latter coincidentally written by another Jenkins, no relation to the author of this book, Martin Jenkins). As the title suggests, it follows the development and evolution of life on Earth, from the planet’s formation to the evolution of humans.

There’s an admirable focus on Paleozoic & even Precambrian fauna which all too often gets overlooked in books on prehistory. The size of the book naturally means the illustrations themselves can be quite large, which makes the smaller species really stand out, in all their primeval strangeness.

I’m particularly impressed that the book explicitly called out the popular perception of the so-called “Boring Billion” era of the Precambrian, in which relatively little geologic activity occurred. Directly contrasting with this perception, the book labels these pages “The Not-So-Boring Billion”, illustrating simple multicellular organisms that managed to get fossilized during this time, which the text points out indicates a lot of “under the hood” evolution going on, invisible to typical fossilization patterns. Most multicellular life belongs to the eukaryotic domain of life, indicating that the major changes that define this group occurred sometime earlier in this era as well.

Pair this page with the proportional timeline in A Brief History of Life on Earth to get a good idea of just how long this period was!

Grahame Baker-Smith’s illustrations are certainly striking, if not always super rigorous. They use three basic styles of illustration throughout the book: detailed black & white sketches, sketches with a watercolor background wash, and fully painted illustrations that approach a pseudo-vector-art style. I struggle a bit in attempting to find a way to properly describe them. My brain keeps leaning towards ascribing a vague William Stout type vibe to them, or at least to the sketches. While on second thought I don’t think that’s actually a very good way to describe them, perhaps paleonerds of a similar stripe to myself can see why I might keep coming back to that.


As occasionally seems to happen in more broadly focused books like this (see for example In The Past & The 50 State Fossils), while the artwork for Paleozoic fauna is pretty accurate to the real organisms, the illustrations get significantly less rigorous for the dinosaurs & other Mesozoic reptiles, what with their somewhat loosely-interpreted body shapes, and giant crocodilian scutes randomly placed across their skin. An illustration that clearly references Apatosaurus is also mislabeled as a Brachiosaurus, though that fault likely doesn’t lie with the illustrator.

I certainly strongly recommend checking out this book if you get the chance. I’m going back and forth about giving this my full Stomp of Approval though. While I don’t want to criticize artistic choices that merely represent stylistic differences, I don’t want to use it as an excuse to give illustrators a free pass to get complacent with design. With as good as some of the reconstructions are in this book, I feel like any inaccuracies lean more to the complacency side. Then again, the subjects presented and the information given on them make this a valuable resource in educating kids about the wider array of prehistoric life beyond the usual menagerie of dinosaurs. I think I may ultimately hold off on putting my little approval logo on this one, but give it a “verbal approval but with caveats” instead. Again, I definitely recommend checking it out, and if you feel like my hesitancy is unwarranted, feel free to voice your support for me being more lenient!

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