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.
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.
While Shubin shared the excitement of paleontologists unwrapping
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.
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.
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.
From reading this book, I've gained a new understanding of not only how our various body parts and organs evolved and
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.
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.
But it's not just a paleontology story, it's about what we