Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin
Filed under: General Reading,Reader of the Stack Goes Scientific — Ibis at 10:37 pm on Sunday, June 13, 2010

From the back cover:
“Why do we look the way we do?
Neil Shubin, the paleontologist and professor of anatomy who co-discovered Tiktaalik, the ‘fish with hands,’ tells the story of our bodies as you’ve never heard it before. 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 genome 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 enthusiasm.”

My thoughts:
I really enjoyed this book when I read it last year as a library copy. So much so that I decided to send it toStephen Harper for the What Is Stephen Harper Reading: BookCrossing Edition Release Challenge.

Rather than try to recover my initial thoughts, I went back to some posts I made on the BookCrossing Book Talk forum and will quote them here.

I […] am now reading Your Inner Fish which seems okay so far, but the author seems like he’s aiming at someone far younger or with far less general knowledge than me. It’s like he’s talking to a 15 year old. It’s also annoying, especially in a book about science, to have measurements in US imperial instead of metric measures.

Finished Your Inner Fish, which was pretty good on the information side, though I was less than impressed by the style (just a bit too condescending, like he was talking to a child). Anyway, the book was well worth reading. I was aching for some science and got it. Very fascinating discussion of various anatomical features humans have (e.g. limbs, eyes, ears, bodies) and from what ancestors we got them (fish, microbes, worms). Interesting stuff like how the bones in mammalian ears evolved from jawbones of fish, and how our genes show evidence of messy evolution over time rather than any kind of rational design.

There are similarities even with fish and chicken embryos. It’s all very fascinating.

From the book:
Watching the process of development brought about a huge intellectual transformation in me. From such simple embryonic beginnings–small blobs of cells–came wonderfully complex birds, frogs, and trout comprising trillions of cells arranged in just the right way. But there was more. The fish, amphibian, and chicken embryos were like nothing I had ever seen before in biology. They all looked generally alike. All of them had a head with gill arches. All of them had a little brain that began its development from three swellings. All of them had little limb buds. In fact, the limbs were to become my thesis, the focus of my next three years’ work. Here, in comparing how the skeleton develops in birds, salamanders, frogs, and turtles, I was finding that limbs as different as bird wings and frog legs looked very similar during their development. In seeing these embryos, I was seeing a common architecture. The species ended up looking different, but they started from a generally similar place. Looking at embryos, it almost seems that the differences among mammals, birds, amphibians, and fish simply pale in comparison with their fundamental similarities.

Flies have genes that are associated with development of sections of their bodies and those same genes in us are associated with the same regions of our bodies. Shark heads and human heads have the same gill arches and nerve structures. Very cool.

It’s also amazing to think of how life went from being a bunch of single celled organisms into all the myriads of species we see today, all from miniscule changes over time.

He also has some very interesting facts about weaknesses we have due to our evolutionary history. For example, hiccups are a holdover from our amphibian days when as tadpoles we needed to close our airway.

QueenBoadicea wrote:
> Thanks for the critique. The condescending
> tone you mention is off-putting but
> perhaps the author was simply trying to
> make the book accessible to the average
> reader and didn’t want to discourage them
> by making it too esoteric.

Yeah, it kind of sounds like he’s used to talking to students who may not be the brightest on the block. But then, I’m sure many people would like the style because he sounds like a ‘regular guy’ explainin’ stuff & not some ivory tower academic or esoteric scientist who’s forgotten how to speak English.

LOL. I guess my problem was that it was *too* readable. But that was only a mild annoyance. Overall, I thought it was good and thought-provoking.

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