The best books about fossils and the history of life

Who am I?

An acclaimed scientist, teacher, and writer, Andrew Knoll has travelled the world for decades, investigating ancient rocks to understand the intertwined histories of our planet and the life it supports. His boyhood thrill at discovering fossils has never deserted him. It continues to motivate him to explore topics that range from the earliest records of life and the emergence of an oxygen-rich atmosphere; the diversification of both plants and animals, and the intricacies of mass extinctions, past and present. He has also participated in NASA’s exploration of Mars.

I wrote...

A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters

By Andrew H. Knoll,

Book cover of A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters

What is my book about?

We live our lives tethered to the Earth, but how well do you know our planetary home?

Drawing on his decades of field research and up-to-the-minute understanding of the latest science, Andrew H. Knoll delivers a rigorous yet accessible biography of Earth, charting our home planet’s epic 4.6-billion-year story. Placing twenty-first-century climate change in deep context, A Brief History of Earth is an indispensable look at where we’ve been and where we’re going.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

Why did I love this book?

There are lots of good books about fossils, but this is my favorite. Shubin interweaves his discovery of Tiktaalik, a remarkable fossil that documents the transition from fish to amphibians, with a deftly drawn portrait of how our own bodies reflect evolutionary history. Original, deeply informed, and beautifully written, Your Inner Fish helps us all to understand how fossils illuminate the biological diversity we see around us.

By Neil Shubin,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Your Inner Fish as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The paleontologist and professor of anatomy who co-discovered Tiktaalik, the “fish with hands,” tells a “compelling scientific adventure story that will change forever how you understand what it means to be human” (Oliver Sacks).

By examining fossils and DNA, he shows us that our hands actually resemble fish fins, our heads are organized like long-extinct jawless fish, and major parts of our genomes look and function like those of worms and bacteria. Your Inner Fish makes us look at ourselves and our world in an illuminating new light. This is science writing at its finest—enlightening, accessible and told with irresistible…

Book cover of Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution

Why did I love this book?

Richard Fortey, a renowned paleontologist and acclaimed science writer, uses trilobites – those marvelous multi-limbed denizens of Paleozoic seas – to explain how fossils illuminate the past.  Fortey has studied trilobites for decades, and his expertise shines through on every page.  At the same time, his skills as a storyteller bring these ancient arthropods and the worlds they inhabited to vivid life. An enjoyable way to learn how paleontologists think. 

By Richard Fortey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Trilobite as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With Trilobite, Richard Fortey, paleontologist and author of the acclaimed Life, offers a marvelously written, smart and compelling, accessible and witty scientific narrative of the most ubiquitous of fossil creatures.

Trilobites were shelled animals that lived in the oceans over five hundred million years ago. As bewilderingly diverse then as the beetle is today, they survived in the arctic or the tropics, were spiky or smooth, were large as lobsters or small as fleas. And because they flourished for three hundred million years, they can be used to glimpse a less evolved world of ancient continents and vanished oceans. Erudite…

Book cover of The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology

Why did I love this book?

It’s one thing to appreciate that fossils record the history of life, but something else altogether to understand how we came to know that. Rudwick’s classic book recounts the discoveries, large and small, that over centuries revealed fossils to be remnants of lost worlds. An exceptional exercise in the history of science. The Meaning of Fossils is required reading for students of paleontology.

By Martin J.S. Rudwick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Meaning of Fossils as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"It is not often that a work can literally rewrite a person's view of a subject. And this is exactly what Rudwick's book should do for many paleontologists' view of the history of their own field."-Stephen J. Gould, Paleobotany and Palynology

"Rudwick has not merely written the first book-length history of palaeontology in the English language; he has written a very intelligent one. . . . His accounts of sources are rounded and organic: he treats the structure of arguments as Cuvier handled fossil bones."-Roy S. Porter, History of Science

Book cover of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of Their Lost World

Why did I love this book?

There’s no shortage of books about dinosaurs, but this is one of the best.  Brusatte’s engaging account blends an enthusiasm for dinosaur fossils that any eight-year-old will recognize with a masterly understanding of the thunder lizards and their times.  Enlightening and fun to read, The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs will delight all who love those greatest of all land creatures. 

By Steve Brusatte,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Times Science Book of the Year.
A Sunday Times Bestseller.

66 million years ago the dinosaurs were wiped from the face of the earth. Today, Dr. Steve Brusatte, one of the leading scientists of a new generation of dinosaur hunters, armed with cutting edge technology, is piecing together the complete story of how the dinosaurs ruled the earth for 150 million years.

The world of the dinosaurs has fascinated on book and screen for decades - from early science fiction classics like The Lost World, to Godzilla terrorizing the streets of Tokyo, and the monsters of Jurassic Park. But…

Book cover of The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease

Why did I love this book?

Of the many good books about human evolution, Dan Lieberman’s is my favorite. A biologist and paleoanthropologist, Lieberman describes in clear, accessible prose the fossils that document our own origins, stressing function as inferred from fossils. Having recounted the story of our evolutionary origins, he goes on to explain its consequences – some good, some bad – for human health in the 21st century.

By Daniel E. Lieberman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Story of the Human Body as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Story of the Human Body, Daniel Lieberman, Professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, shows how we need to change our world to fit our hunter-gatherer bodies

This ground-breaking book of popular science explores how the way we use our bodies is all wrong. From an evolutionary perspective, if normal is defined as what most people have done for millions of years, then it's normal to walk and run 9 -15 kilometres a day to hunt and gather fresh food which is high in fibre, low in sugar, and barely processed. It's also normal to spend much of…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in fossils, paleontology, and the human body?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about fossils, paleontology, and the human body.

Fossils Explore 33 books about fossils
Paleontology Explore 29 books about paleontology
The Human Body Explore 44 books about the human body