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Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Bodyby Neil Shubin
Neil Shubin makes tracing our evolutionary origins positively fascinating. Through his work in expeditionary paleontology, Shubin explains the genetic correlations between humans and the animals that inhabited our planet billions of years ago. In a wonderfully conversational tone, he uses the discovery and study of ancient fish bones to make a convincing case for the idea that we have evolved, in part, from fish.
Synopses & Reviews
Why do we look the way we do? What does the human hand have in common with the wing of a fly? Are breasts, sweat glands, and scales connected in some way? To better understand the inner workings of our bodies and to trace the origins of many of today's most common diseases, we have to turn to unexpected sources: worms, flies, and even fish.
Neil Shubin, a leading paleontologist and professor of anatomy who discovered Tiktaalik — the "missing link" that made headlines around the world in April 2006 — tells the story of evolution by tracing the organs of the human body back millions of years, long before the first creatures walked the earth. By examining fossils and DNA, Shubin shows us that our hands actually resemble fish fins, our head is organized like that of a long-extinct jawless fish, and major parts of our genome look and function like those of worms and bacteria.
Shubin makes us see ourselves and our world in a completely new light. Your Inner Fish is science writing at its finest — enlightening, accessible, and told with irresistible enthusiasm.
"Fish paleontologist Shubin illuminates the subject of evolution with humor and clarity in this compelling look at how the human body evolved into its present state. Parsing the millennia-old genetic history of the human form is a natural project for Shubin, who chairs the department of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago and was co-discoverer of Tiktaalik, a 375-million-year-old fossil fish whose flat skull and limbs, and finger, toe, ankle and wrist bones, provide a link between fish and the earliest land-dwelling creatures. Shubin moves smoothly through the anatomical spectrum, finding ancient precursors to human teeth in a 200-million-year-old fossil of the mouse-size 'part animal, part reptile' tritheledont; he also notes cellular similarities between humans and sponges. Other fossils reveal the origins of our senses, from the eye to that 'wonderful Rube Goldberg contraption' the ear. Shubin excels at explaining the science, making each discovery an adventure, whether it's a Pennsylvania roadcut or a stony outcrop beset by polar bears and howling Arctic winds. 'I can imagine few things more beautiful or intellectually profound than finding the basis for our humanity... nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that ever lived,' he writes, and curious readers are likely to agree. Illus." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"For the first time, Americans have the chance to meet an ancient ancestor. Lucy, the famous 3.2-million-year-old, human-like fossil from Ethiopia, is here on tour. For the next six years, you can visit her at museums across the country and stare into the mirror of your own past. But in 'Your Inner Fish,' Neil Shubin describes a fossil named Tiktaalik that makes Lucy's time on Earth... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) seem like just yesterday. At 375 million years old, Tiktaalik (which means 'large freshwater fish' in Inuit) sports a curious mix of features that mark it as an evolutionary milestone, a 'beautiful intermediate between fish and land-living animals.' In its fossilized bones, we see a flat head and body, a functional neck and other features that presage what's to come, all mixed in with fish features like fins and scales. Most surprising of all, Tiktaalik has a wrist joint. 'Bend your wrist back and forth,' Shubin instructs his readers. 'Open and close your hand. When you do this, you are using joints that first appeared in the fins of fish like Tiktaalik.' Shubin, a paleontologist and professor of anatomy, made the astounding discovery of Tiktaalik, the first find of its kind, with colleagues in the Canadian Arctic in 2004. He has clearly fallen in love with this ancient fish, and conveys its significance with both precision and exuberance. 'Seeing Lucy,' writes Shubin, 'we can understand our history as highly advanced primates. Seeing Tiktaalik is seeing our history as fish.' In fact, Shubin wants us to see our history not only as primates and fish, but also as insects and worms. Exploring the 3.5-billion-year history of life on Earth, Shubin says, will yield a deeper grasp of how our bodies came to be what they are. 'Inside our bodies are connections to a menagerie of other creatures. Some parts resemble parts of jellyfish, others parts of worms, still others parts of fish. These aren't haphazard similarities. ... It is deeply beautiful to see that there is an order in all these features.' Shubin, then, turns Tiktaalik the ancient fish into a poster fossil for the elegant connections across all life-forms on our planet. This evolutionary continuity, so basic to biology, paleontology and anthropology, is the real message of the book. Shubin reveals its practical applications: The better we understand the long history of our joints and organs, the better we will be able to treat trauma and disease in our bodies. Genes are the co-stars, with bones, of 'Your Inner Fish.' As Shubin puts it, 'DNA is an extraordinarily powerful window into life's history and the formation of bodies and organs.' When scientists make a fly that lacks a certain gene, the fly's midsection is missing or altered. Frankenstein-like research of this nature helps scientists to understand more about how genes influence developmental processes. Yet how relevant is such research for understanding human development, which unfolds according to rich interaction between our genes and our environment? It's hard not to wince when thinking about the subjects of this DNA-altering lab work. Nevertheless, Shubin's melding of fossil and genetic data is deft, and it prepares us for his central conclusion. Our lives reflect the evolutionary principle of descent with modification: 'Looking back through billions of years of change, everything innovative or apparently unique in the history of life is really just old stuff that has been recycled, repurposed, or otherwise modified for new uses.' How our senses work, why we get sick and even why we get the hiccups can be explained by this principle. For instance, hiccups are inherited from fish and tadpoles. We hiccup when a nerve spasm causes muscles in the diaphragm, neck and throat to contract. We gasp and take in some air, and the glottis in the back of our throat snaps shut. This tortuous path that nerves take in our body and the brain stem's response when they spasm are marvelous adaptations for gill-breathers, Shubin explains, but not entirely ideal for us. Shubin's message convinces. Read 'Your Inner Fish,' and you'll never again be able to look a fish in the eye (or eat seafood) without thinking about shared evolution. In two ways, though, Shubin takes a good thing too far. His passion for science enlivens every page, but some of his sentences ('True, big fish tend to eat littler fish') are overly simplified. He could have trusted his readers more. Even more worrisome is Shubin's tendency to oversell the relatedness of fish and humans. Our common ancestry with apes is far more recent than with fish, and as a result, our inner ape dominates our inner fish. This fact is most evident when we consider behavior as well as anatomy. Do fish empathize with sick companions, grieve for dead ones or express empathy? Certainly not to the extent that apes do. Or consider the wrist joint which, as we have seen, Shubin uses to link Tiktaalik with humans. Enhanced mobility of the ape wrist joint allows chimpanzees and gorillas to gesture in ways more varied and expressive even than monkeys, a capacity that in turn enriches social communication among them. We humans are first and foremost primates. Nevertheless, Shubin is dead right: The elegance and full emotional power of our connection with the natural world compel us to reach further back in time and deeper into the Earth's fossil layers. Visit Lucy, think Tiktaalik, and feel the connection. Barbara J. King, a professor of biological anthropology at the College of William and Mary, is the author of 'Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion.'" Reviewed by Barbara J. King, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Cleverly weaving together adventures in paleontology with very accessible science, Neil Shubin reveals the many surprisingly deep connections between our anatomy and that of fish, reptiles, and other creatures. You will never look at your body in the same way again — examine, embrace, and exalt Your Inner Fish!" Sean Carroll, author of The Making of Fittest and Endless Forms Most Beautiful
"If you thought paleontology was all about Jurassic Park, take a look at this eye-opening book. Shubin takes us back 375 million years, to a time when a strange fish-like creature swam (or crawled) in shallow streams. Come along on this thrilling paleontological journey and learn how living things — including you — got to be what they are." Richard Ellis, author of Encyclopedia of the Sea
"The human story didn't start with the first bipeds; it began literally billions of years ago. In this easy-reading volume, Shubin shows us how to discover that long and fascinating history in the structure of our own bodies while weaving in a charming account of his own scientific journey. This is the ideal book for anyone who wants to explore beyond the usual anthropocentric account of human origins." Ian Tattersall, curator, American Museum of Natural History
"I was hooked from the first chapter of Your Inner Fish. Creationists will want this book banned because it presents irrefutable evidence for a transitional creature that set the stage for the journey from sea to land. This engaging book combines the excitement of discovery with the rigors of great scholarship to provide a convincing case of evolution from fish to man." Don Johanson, director, Institute of Human Origins; discoverer of "Lucy"
"In this extraordinary book, Neil Shubin takes us on an epic expedition to arctic wastelands, where his team discovered amazing new fossil evidence of creatures that bridge the gap between fish and land-living animals....With clarity and wit, Shubin shows us how exciting it is to be in the new age of discovery in evolutionary biology." Mike Novacek, author of Terra: Our 100 Million Year Ecosystem and the Threats That Now Put It at Risk
"[A] wonder-filled introduction to our evolutionary heritage for lower-level undergraduates and the general public." Library Journal
From the scientist who made the groundbreaking discovery of the fish with hands, here is a lively, thoroughly engrossing chronicle of evolutionary history that unearths the often startling secrets behind why we look and behave the way we do. Illustrations.
About the Author
Neil Shubin is provost of The Field Museum as well as a professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago, where he also serves as an associate dean. Educated at Columbia, Harvard, and the University of California at Berkeley, he lives in Chicago.
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