Your inner fish : a journey into the 3.5-billion-year history of the human body

by Neil Shubin

Hardcover, 2008




New York : Pantheon Books, c2008.


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.--From publisher description.

Media reviews

Shubin's engaging book reveals our fishy origins (for which we can thank hiccupping and hernias) and shows how life on Earth is profoundly interrelated. A book after Darwin's heart.
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Shubin connects with sections on his own work discovering fossils, and on the sometimes surprising roots of modern human complaints. But the paleontologist can't escape his own academic history — much of Your Inner Fish reads like a cross between fleshed-out lecture notes and a dummed-down textbook.
Your Inner Fish combines Shubin's and others' discoveries to present a twenty-first-century anatomy lesson. The simple, passionate writing may turn more than a few high-school students into aspiring biologists.

User reviews

LibraryThing member dchaikin
Neil Shubin is a mixture of a paleontologist and some kind of a DNA researcher, which gives him a unique take as a professor of human anatomy. He brings these all together in an enjoyable and very accessible form here.

As this subtitle tells us, this is a look at why we humans are constructed the way we are from an evolutionary perspective. So we learn that the nerves which control our facial expressions follow crazy whirling paths through our heads, and also connect to our ears — and Shubin tells us why. Or he gives us an evolutionary explanation of why we lose our balance when we get drunk. (Our inner ears developed form little organs fish use to detect water movement. And the fluid they developed happens to mix poorly with alcohol.) In general he points out that we are kind of like a souped-up Volkswagen Beetle — we are a more primitive life form that has been awkwardly modified for each new evolutionary challenge — and that is the source of practically all our health problems.

Shubin spends the book tracing many of these modifications back as far down the evolutionary tree as he can get, and quite a few go all the way to the single-cell animals. It's a good story.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of the book are his asides about his personal experience searching for fossils in the field. In one story he describes being a grad student and looking so carefully at an outcrop and failing to find a single fossil — while the rest of the group were filling bags with fossils. His problem was that he had to learn to tune his eyes to recognize the right kinds of patterns and textures. This was something I can relate to. I remember a day as grad student looking so carefully at a Kansas roadside outcrop, and seeing just a simple flat limestone bed of certain vague characteristics. After a while our professor walked up and starting pointing out various features right in front of us — fossil root trails, discolored surfaces, textural changes. I had looked right at them without seeing them. These are fossil soil features on a marine rock unit. Suddenly I was able to get new a sense of the ocean rising and falling; an entire dynamic environment began to come alive.
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LibraryThing member kaelirenee
There are many aspects to the body that make us human. Limbs, eyes, stature, genetics. None of it just happened. And this is evident by looking at all those that have come before us. By clearly showing how evolution is decent with modification, Neil Shubin shows how we can better understand the whys and wherefores of our own bodies by looking at the structure of simpler organisms, namely fish. An excelent example (to me) was the examination of the cranial nerves. I remember them from my anatomy class as seemingly tangled and I couldn't understand why they were so random. But by looking at embryology, fish, and many other aspects of comparative vertebrate anatomy, I now understand how beautifully arranged they really are.

Shubin examines many examples like this, showing how the fossil record show evolutionary history, and how many of these conclusions have been drawn in his field. Included are examples of how body plans form, limbs form, teeth end up in the mouth, and how the ear is formed.

The book is engaging, entertaining, and informative. The author strikes an excellent balance between not talking over the audiences head and not dumbing down the information. Recommended for anyone interested in evolution, paleontology, body plans, and examining many of the missing links that have been discovered.
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LibraryThing member Justantolin
As an aspiring man of science, I can truly appreciate this incredible depiction of one of humankind's earliest ancestors. Beyond simple biological jargon, Shubin establishes a pervasive insight into the questions of substance that govern the fossil record. From the tiny bones in our mammalian ears to the arrangement of individual bones in each of our limbs, he lays out a fascinating picture of the many ways in which our bodies are abounding with remnants of a more "fishy" body and lifestyle. His emphasis of the virtue of the scientific method and the necessity to endlessly experiment and create does the field of paleontology real justice.… (more)
LibraryThing member Atomicmutant
Just a quick comment for now....this is a fantastic science book, for everyone. Wonderfully written, with lots of amazing detail. If you're thinking about reading it, do it! You'll be glad you did. Best science book I've read in a while.....
LibraryThing member jpsnow
Shubin shows us the connection between all animals' cellular and anatomical structures. Drawing from his expertise in paleontology, he presents a convincing series of examples. The bone configuration in the arm limbs of humans, whales, and reptiles matches that found in the original walking fish of 300 million years ago. The cell grouping and molecules that cause growth of limbs and eyes is similar across species and can be transported between them. Structures in our inner ear match sensory structures found in sharks. His story isn't so much about the evolution of these structures as it is about recurrence. He also describes how the original bodies started not from a single cell splitting, but by separate microorganisms banding together for defense, a phenomena that has been repeated in the laboratory. For me this book was an update on everything I learned in high school biology. It's an educational lesson wrapped in a very enjoyable story.… (more)
LibraryThing member co_coyote
If, like me, you haven't picked up a biology textbook in the last 20 years, I'm afraid your biological knowledge is completely out of date. In an effort to learn more about the world around me, I've been making an effort to learn about the latest findings. Sean Carroll's books have been enormously helpful, but they are still a bit on the technical side. Neal Shubin's book, Your Inner Fish, covers much the same ground, but in a more accessible and understandable way for the general reader. The findings are absolutely remarkable. The same genes, the same body plans, the same proteins, jury-rigged over eons of time can produce remarkable diversity.

My only complaint is the title of this book. It put me off reading it for a long time. It's too cute and suggests a superficial approach to the topic. Happily, such is not the case. While much of the technical detail is smoothed over, the essence of the new understand provided by molecular and developmental biology is explained in clear and interesting prose that makes the general ideas extraordinarily compelling. It is interesting to me that we have come so far in biology that you can have a paleontologist and and a molecular biologist working side by side in the same lab and not think it is the least bit strange.
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LibraryThing member Devil_llama
A fun exploration of human evolution, tracing our relationship with the fish. This is a good way to find a new approach to human evolution, which all too often is obsessed with the other primates only, and neglects our fishy lineage.
LibraryThing member nancenwv
An engaging tour of human evolution. He answered a lot of things I have wondered about as a curious science layperson- like how and why did this move toward specialized multi-celled bodies begin and how could an eyeball ever evolve?

While Shubin shared the excitement of paleontologists unwrapping clues to missing links I really got a sense of the timespan of the fossil record. The story of each body slowly changing into the next step is truly amazing. Who knew that the three bones of our inner ear are re-fashioned pieces of reptile jaws?… (more)
LibraryThing member Ella_Jill
It’s a fascinating book that traces the origins of limbs, hands, teeth, eyes, ears, smell receptors, and bodies themselves, with data from paleontology, embryology and genetics.

From reading this book, I've gained a new understanding of not only how our various body parts and organs evolved and why, but how the evolution works in general. Time and again, some genes got duplicated by mistake, and then eventually one of the copies mutated into something useful, and the mutation survived because it gave an advantage to the descendants who had inherited it. In this way, for example, two kinds of color vision receptors that most mammals have increased to three in Old World monkeys, and the number of odor genes have multiplied from a handful in jawless fish to over a thousand in mammals. However, evolution is apparently a two-way street. Once something becomes less useful, mutations that prevent that gene from functioning properly don't harm the animal too much and get passed on to the next generation. Thus, once colorful fruit appeared in the jungles and monkeys developed a richer color vision "in response" and began relying more on sight and less on smell to identify the best fruit to eat, their sense of smell deteriorated. Shubin writes that "fully three hundred" of their (and our) odor genes "are rendered completely functionless by mutations that have altered their structure beyond repair."

It was also fascinating for me to learn how precursors of some of our organs and various structures existed in very early animals, biding their time till the situation changed and they could evolve into something useful.

I also found out many interesting facts about how our organisms from this book. For instance, I was surprised to learn that an odor receptor can interact with only one kind of molecule, and that's why we need so many of them, and consequently so many odor genes. But a particular smell may be composed of many molecules in various quantities, and so the author likens the signals our brain receives from various activated odor receptors to a chord. Another thing that surprised me was that a gene that switches on, say, hand- or eye-building genes in one animal would do the same in a totally different animal if inserted into its embryo, simulating its genes to build an eye or a hand wherever it's inserted. Thus, a mice gene can trigger a fly's eye-building genes to make an extra eye – a fly's type of eye, of course – wherever it's inserted.

A paleontologist, Neil Shubin also writes about their work: how they decide where to go to search for fossils, how they look for them in the field, and the work that gets done with the fossils after they get home. He says that it may take several expeditions to the same place to discover something significant, and since they usually search in most undisturbed places – deserts or high Arctic where it snows even in July – they have to put up with prolonged stays in tents in uncomfortable conditions. However, he manages to write with humor about the lifestyle necessitated by his profession. In general, I've found this a very well written book. No matter what he writes about, it never gets boring.
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LibraryThing member jasonlf
The title and cover warrant five stars. But the rest of the book was more like three and a half stars. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the scientific process and how paleontologists go about finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. I also liked the way the author brought together paleontology, genetics, and embryology into a coherent story. Some of the particular topics, like that anatomy of hands and teeth were fascinating.

But going through each aspect of our anatomy, bit by bit, with relatively little analytic content (or at least not much that was new to me) could drag at times. And there wasn't nearly as much to take away from the book as there was from, for example, Sean Carroll's Making of the Fittest.
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LibraryThing member Dorritt
I understand that this book has spawned a fairly popular BBC production, which I should probably check out. I picked the book up because I was looking for answers to lingering questions I’ve had about evolution, and was pleased to find not only the answers I was looking for, but answers to a lot of questions I probably should have been asking! A serviceable analogy is to imagine Shubin as a magician revealing his trade secrets. Before I read this, the idea of nature having separately created so many specialized adaptations seemed almost incomprehensible. Then Shubin reveals the “behind the curtain” manipulations of natural selection and change over time, and suddenly these outcomes seem not just explicable, but even just a little obvious. I expect this is how Watson felt every time Sherlock Holmes revealed the logical process that lay behind his seemingly “miraculous” deductions. Evolutionary science is by no means “elementary,” but in Shubin’s hands it is revealed to be both logical and credible.

Essentially, the book traces the ancient antecedents of our human anatomy back to their evolutionary beginnings. Some of our traits are relatively newly acquired – our sense of smell, for instance. But the basic genes that establish our body shape – that distinguish “head” from “tail”, and “left” from “right”, for instance – are ancient indeed, originating from genes that have been around since the first jellyfish populated primordial oceans.

The book tackles our basic body systems one at a time, using evidence from paleontology, embryology and genetics to painstakingly track the evolution of each body part from its origins to its modern day form/function. For instance, the author tracks how bones that used to form part of reptilian skulls in time came to be repurposed as mammalian earbones; how nerves that used to enable fish to use their throats to both breathe and eat gradually came to control the muscles that pump our heart (inefficiencies in this “jury rigged system” are to blame for hiccups, by the way); and how the genes that used to produce gills in fish have been repurposed by evolutionary pressures to create the features of our human faces.

Though the first few chapters were on the dry side, I eventually began warming to the topic and by the end was reading enthusiastically. This experience, however, inclines me to be cautious about recommending Inner Fish to others. In spite of the author’s herculean efforts to make the content entertaining and accessible, folks looking for a light scientific read or who have forgotten most of what they learned in 9th grade biology may find parts of this a tough slog. If, however, you find yourself (like me) wondering how the millions of specialized creatures inhabiting the earth today can possibly have evolved from clumps of primodial ooze, then I think you’ll find this book both fascinating and informative.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
A basic, approachable look at human evolution, including some very interesting sections on the possible and convoluted origins of certain health issues (hiccups, hernias). Shubin's got a reasonably funny sense of humor and keeps the book moving along at a good, brisk pace.
LibraryThing member deslni01
Your Inner Fish is a wonderful and enthusiastically written book on evolution and the connection between all species of creatures on Earth. What do humans have in common with fish? A lot, actually. Neil Shubin takes the reader on an adventure of paleontology and biology to examine different body parts and where they originated and how they developed. In Neil's own words,

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, recombined, repurposed, or otherwise modified for new uses. This is the story of every part of us, from our sense organs to our heads, indeed our entire body plan.

From the arms, forearms and wrists to the eyes, brain, nerves and ears, to embryonic development and various genetic similarities, Neil combines his excitement for his work with a remarkable prose to provide a basic and general overview of evidence for evolution and common ancestry, in a very simplified way. The many pictures and diagrams interspersed do an excellent job simplifying many ideas, and provide wonderful clarity for many of the ideas.
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LibraryThing member Rosaschuchert
"Your Inner Fish" is about the evolution of life on Earth into what it is today and the discovery of one of the first animals to walk on land. I found this book to be extremely interesting. Some of the concepts were hard to wrap my head around and I was often confused by the information, but overall I feel I learned a lot from this book. The language of the book is all objective, all facts about evolution; however, you could feel the author's excitement over his work and discoveries. The book brings you on a journey from the first organisms of life, to the first to walk the Earth, to the first human beings, and along the way making connections between organisms across the globe and throughout time.… (more)
LibraryThing member woodge
Neil Shubin is a paleontologist who delves briefly into the history of the human body by way of fossils and DNA evidence. Sure, I learned stuff... like how interconnected all the species really are; and that mammals have three bones in the inner ear while other species have fewer; and that there's a gene called Sonic hedgehog; and how to extract DNA using common household appliances and items you could easily buy in a store (a blender is involved and I'm easily reminded of the Bass-O-Matic). But, really this short book (just over 200 pages) was a bit of a slog to get through (although the explanations are clear enough). I've read other non-fiction that was much more compelling. But if you've an interest in fossils and DNA and where we came from, you might find this enlightening. But since this book deals with actual science, I definitely wouldn't recommend this book to Creationists. Though I suppose a Creationist wouldn't be picking up a title like this one in the first place. They're probably looking for something more along the lines of Your Inner Godliness: A Journey Into the Four Thousand Year History of the Human Body. But I digress.… (more)
LibraryThing member norabelle414
Oh hey, a book on science for the masses that uses tons of unnecessary metaphors that don't really apply! How original! The last chapter is good though. It talks about the evolutionary basis of health problems. It's mostly straightforward, and only uses one stupid metaphor comparing the human body to a souped-up VW Beetle.
LibraryThing member Sovranty
This book allows the reader to own the evolutionary path of the human species. Often, it seems books focusing on evolution use other species to example and follow. This book may lend convincing to those weary of human evolution. Entertaining and well illustrated.
LibraryThing member psiloiordinary
An entertaining read which reveals many fascinating facts about your very own body. This book will have you peering into the mirror or prodding about your own person with a fresh curiosity.

We are given a tour of human evolution from the fish stage. Yes read that again. Whilst most people accept evolutionary theory, this still comes as a bit of a shock to most.

We are given insight into the search for a famous "missing link", now named Tiktaalik, the bones in our arms and hands, our "fish genes", our teeth, ears, nose and eyes. Good clear illustrations help to convey several otherwise difficult to describe issues.

I enjoyed this book. It made me stop and think which is always a good sign. This author goes on to my "read" list.
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LibraryThing member Alina100
The book talks about our fishy origins and shows how life on Earth is interrelated. This book is intended for the kind of people who are interested in the evolution process, as well as science in general.
LibraryThing member WomblingStar
This was a really enjoyable book and very interesting. It was very easy to read and explained the technical science in basic language. It covers paeleontology and the finding of a creature that explains a step in evolution. It also covers how we have evolved from single cell organsisms and embryology. Very interesting and would recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Beej415
A fascinating and very approachable explanation of the evolution of humans from the first excursions out of the pond. Shubin steers clear, mostly, from any reference to the "debate" between creationists and scientists, but the book so superbly and plainly presents the connections between modern humans and our ancestors of every type, that it should be used as a teaching tool as part of every high school science curriculum in the country.… (more)
LibraryThing member meggyweg
A good biology/evolution book for the layman. I'm not all that interested in science, but this held my attention, and it demonstrates many concepts of evolution in easy to understand terms. I was amazed to learn just how much I had in common with fish, primitive worms, etc.
LibraryThing member satyridae
This book started out slow for me, but I grew to like it more and more as I went on. Shubin's boyish sense of humor asserted itself in the latter parts of the book, to my delight. The book is very easy to understand, so much so that I would unreservedly recommend it to any bright middle schooler who wants to understand evolution, and I think it belongs in every high school library. The drawings are brilliant, not to mention amusing. Shubin also uses practical and interesting examples to illustrate the concepts he's discussing. In addition to all that, he told me exactly why people who drink a lot think they are spinning when in fact they are not moving at all.

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LibraryThing member amaraduende
This wasn't written all that well (not badly by any means...) but it was pretty interesting...
LibraryThing member mensenkinderen
I've read quite a lot of books regarding evolution, but "Your inner fish" offers an original approach to evolution and the evolution of (our) anatomy in particular. Shubin illustrates his tale with stories about his interesting fieldwork in paleontology and anatomy.



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