Neil Shubin is provost of The Field Museum, and a professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago. He also happens to be the paleontologist that discovered Tiktaalik, a long-sought “missing link” between our fully-fish ancestors and the first Tetrapods. In short, he found the fossilized remains of one of the first “fish” to walk on land — a fish that had evolved a neck, shoulders and a flattened head with eyes on the top. In other words, he found an early version of “us” (or, more correctly, an ancient cousin of ours).
This book begins as a fascinating yarn of discovery by a paleontologist who has been pressed into service as an instructor in the gross anatomy lab of his university’s medical school. As in many great stories, it turns out that the author’s unique mix of training and past experience makes him the ideal person to uncover one of the most dramatic fossil finds in recent history. And it is also the author’s mix of experience and training that makes this a much more important book than it appears, at first, to be.
“Your Inner Fish” begins as a fascinating story about a breakthrough fossil discovery that becomes an increasingly profound treatise on the amazing natural history of the bodies that you and I take for granted (and struggle with) everyday. Following the development of the “body plan” we share will all other mammals (as well as many reptiles and, yes, fish), we are finally brought face to face with both the wonders and the physical limitations that eons of continual tinkering with our “inner fish” have brought us. Using the Volkswagon Beetle as a metaphor, Shubin writes:
“In many ways, we humans are the fish equivalent of a hot-rod Beetle. Take the body plan of a fish, dress it up to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers — and you have a recipe for problems. We can dress up a fish only so much without paying the price. In a perfectly designed world — one with no history — we would not have to suffer everything from hemorrhoids to cancer.”
This book has the best treatment I have yet run across of the insights the last 150 years of science have brought us regarding the evolution of our walking, talking human bodies. Later chapters discuss our eyes, our gut, our knees, our ears, our ability to talk and even obesity, (the above-mentioned) hemorrhoids and heart disease. I came away from this book with a much deeper awareness of my own inner fish. This book packs more useful information about our shared natural history than any other book I have found, making the vital connections that exist between us and the most ancient of organisms.
Nature, it turns out, is not in the business of creating something out of nothing. It is, however, endlessly managing to create ever more complex things out of less complex things by re-tasking genes, bones and cells to do so. Fortunately for the scientist, Nature leaves evidence of its work: a trail that leads us all back to “our inner fish”.
I heartily recommend it.
And, as we say at the church of bob (or will if this ever catches on): “Nasplashte’” (“The fish in me greets the fish in you!”).