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Your Inner Fish: The amazing discovery of our 375-million-year-old ancestor [Paperback]

Neil Shubin
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
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Book Description

29 Jan 2009

Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish is the unexpected story of how one creature's journey out of the water made the human body what it is today - and one man's voyage of discovery in search of our origins.

Have you ever wondered why our bodies look and work and fail the way they do?

One of the world's leading experts in evolutionary history, Neil Shubin reveals the secrets of our biology: why if we want to understand our limbs we should take a close look at Tiktaalik, the first fish capable of doing a push-up; why if we want to know why we hiccup, the answer is in the way fish breathe; and why it is that fish teeth are surprisingly similar to human breasts.

'This would be Darwin's book of the year'
  Sunday Telegraph

'An intelligent, exhilarating, and compelling scientific adventure story'
  Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

'Delightful ... his enthusiasm is infectious'
  Steven D. Levitt, author of Freakonomics

'Profoundly fascinating ... a magisterial work ... expressed so clearly and with such good humour'
  Financial Times

'Will make you think about your organs in ways you have never considered before'
  Sunday Times

Neil Shubin is a palaeontologist in the great tradition of his mentors, Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould. He has discovered fossils around the world that have changed the way we think about many of the key transitions in evolution and has pioneered a new synthesis of expeditionary palaeontology, developmental genetics and genomics. He trained at Columbia, Harvard and Berkeley and is currently Chairman of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Chicago.

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Your Inner Fish: The amazing discovery of our 375-million-year-old ancestor + Why Evolution is True
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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; 1st Penguin Edition edition (29 Jan 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141027584
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141027586
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 12.8 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 9,554 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'Profoundly fascinating !a magisterial work...if you want to understand the evolutionary history of man and other animals read this' Financial Times 'Stunning case histories!dazzling work ... Shubin's style is light and easygoing' Guardian 'Simple, passionate writing!a twenty-first-century anatomy lesson' Nature 'Fascinating!his conclusions take our history back to scarcely conceivable eras and forms' New Statesman 'A compelling evolutionary story... that unpacks the history of our bones' New Scientist 'An intelligent, exhilarating, and compelling scientific adventure story, one which will change forever how you understand what it means to be human' Oliver Sacks

From the Author

A Note from Author Neil Shubin

This book grew out of an extraordinary circumstance in my life. On account of faculty departures, I ended up directing the human anatomy course at the University of Chicago medical school. Anatomy is the course during which nervous first-year medical students dissect human cadavers while learning the names and organization of most of the organs, holes, nerves, and vessels in the body. This is their grand entrance to the world of medicine, a formative experience on their path to becoming physicians. At first glance, you couldn't have imagined a worse candidate for the job of training the next generation of doctors: I'm a fish paleontologist.

It turns out that being a paleontologist is a huge advantage in teaching human anatomy. Why? The best roadmaps to human bodies lie in the bodies of other animals. The simplest way to teach students the nerves in the human head is to show them the state of affairs in sharks. The easiest roadmap to their limbs lies in fish. Reptiles are a real help with the structure of the brain. The reason is that the bodies of these creatures are simpler versions of ours.

During the summer of my second year leading the course, working in the Arctic, my colleagues and I discovered fossil fish that gave us powerful new insights into the invasion of land by fish over 375 million years ago. That discovery and my foray into teaching human anatomy led me to a profound connection. That connection became this book. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
102 of 105 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a truly great book! 24 Jan 2008
(from my review)

This is the most enjoyable book I've read on evolution since Gould's fine Wonderful Life. Shubin not only combines great skills in paleontology and anatomy with an insatiable curiosity, but he also has a rare gift at writing as well. The book looks at aspects of human anatomy and senses--hands, smell, hearing, vision, etc--and traces them back--way back! Some of this, of course, has been done before, but Shubin writes with a flair, a clarity, and a precision that brings it all into a new focus. There is also an emphasis on DNA, in particular recent DNA experiments that combined with the paleontology and anatomy makes a very compelling case.

Shubin starts off with the search for a link between fish and land animals that took him to the Canadian Arctic and culminated in the discovery of Tiktaalik--a fish with a flattened head and flippers that made it look rather like a very primitive alligator in ways. The author then shows the evolution of necks and limbs. He does the same with some of the organs such as smell and vision, and shows their evolution as well.

The book is perhaps at its best in its discussion of the role of DNA in evolution. It is now known that it is possible to turn on a gene that is responsible for the development of an eye, for example. So you can create a fruitfly with an eye almost anywhere you want--such as on a leg--and many of these are functional, although in a primitive way. But it gets even more interesting. Suppose you take a gene from a mouse that controls the development of an eye, and implant it into a fruitfly, what happens? You get a fruitfly eye, not a mouse eye. This says a lot about the basic building blocks of life.

The book does have one major flaw. At 200 pages it's way too short! If the writing were dry or stiff, 200 pages would be sufficient, but with Shubin's thoroughly enjoyable writing and choice of subjects, I would have preferred 600 pages.
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56 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Witty and Informative 6 Mar 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I cant begin to describe how good this book is, ive actually cleaned out my local waterstones of all 4 copies to give friends and have 3 more on order- birthdays sorted for a while!
Rather than look at human body/evolution as two seperate issues, or for that matter get bogged down in too much genetics (hox genes give me a headache) it strips the body down into specific parts and then tries to show how that part has developed, what previous uses it had, and why we have it today. It never gets too scientific or jargony but its still based on proper science and evidence- i wouldnt say a 10 year old could read it but some of my friends are most definately not "readers" and they enjoyed it.
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44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hands, hyoids and . . . hiccups?? 28 Mar 2008
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
What a pity there is no Nobel for palaeontology. Some sort of award should be given to Neil Shubin for finding "Tiktaalik" in the Canadian Arctic. It wasn't a chance find - he relates the detailed planning steps leading to its discovery. An extra ribbon should grace the medal for explaining that fossil's significance in this book. There have been recent accounts on the evolutionary path of animals emerging from the sea to take up the role of landlubber. Carl Zimmer's "At The Water's Edge" and Jenny Clack's "Gaining Ground" are examples. Both preceded the "Tiktaalik" find, but more to the point here is that while both are excellent writers, Shubin demonstrates communicative skills bordering on the superb. This is truly a book for everybody. Especially if you want to know why you develop hiccups.

A great fuss was made over the "Tiktaalik" discovery. What is its significance? For starters, it was flat-headed ["So what? I know lots of people who are flat . . ."]. While we may consider flat heads in derogatory terms, for life emerging from the sea, it was a vital step. That the head could move independent of the rest of the body was even more significant. Fish cannot do this, and except for bottom dwellers, don't have flat heads. Further, "Tiktaalik's" eye structure gave it forward vision. In a creature 375 million years old, these characteristics are significant. They offer clues to how you and I are put together and why. Shubin offers a meaningful example of this when he showed "Tiktaalik" to his daughter's preschool class and they declared it to be both fish and reptile - which is the key to the value of his work here.

Land dwelling, Shubin reminds us, requires major changes in body plan.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
By Jason Mills VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Shubin's team spent several summers in the frozen north looking for fossils of creatures that were evolving to live on land. Ultimately they discovered an exciting fossil called Tiktaalik, whose skull is flat like a reptile's and whose limbs begin to resemble those of many lineages, including mammals and thus humans. After describing this expedition and the predictive methodology that told them where to look, Shubin uses Tiktaalik as the launch-pad for comparing elements of our own anatomy with their predecessors in ancestral species. We learn, for instance, how the jaw-bones of reptiles became the tiny bones of our inner ears, and how the hiccup derives from an ill-placed nerve we inherited from fish and a respiratory gulping action still seen in tadpoles.

It is, then, a book about homologies; yet it's telling that that word does not appear in the text. Though the author plainly knows his stuff, this book is perhaps pitched a little too low for its likely audience. I encountered plenty of details that were new to me, but few fresh ideas. Contrast this with, say, Nick Lane's "Life Ascending", which delves deep enough to continually surprise the reader with natural selection's 'blind ingenuity'. Where that book was a full meal, Shubin's feels more like a light lunch.

Nonetheless, it does a good job at its own level. It's very well illustrated, wide-ranging and thoroughly accessible, even chatty: I found the writing at its most engaging when Shubin was describing field-work. My paperback edition includes an afterword written a year after the hardback, updating a few items. There's also notes-cum-bibliography and index.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars One Star
Utter rubbish, thought a scientist could write such junk.
Published 23 days ago by WillemG
5.0 out of 5 stars Really fun insight into an academic's passion.
Neil Shubin is clearly very into his subject and has had a great deal of success in his field. This book enthusiastically retells some of his exploits along with a good deal of... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Peter Morgan/lorna morgan-glanfield
5.0 out of 5 stars Thanks Neil, a giant leap for mankind
Having read quite a number of other reviews here, I feel I have to give my take on this book. Yes it is "lightweight" in the sense that the reader is not overburdened with... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Justin Credible
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is a fascinating introduction to evolutionary biology
This was the first book I tried from this exceptional scientist. His communication of his discipline is, without doubt, the best I have ever read.
Published 10 months ago by A.C. ROWLAND
5.0 out of 5 stars Easily one of the best books I've read on evolution
I think the thing that really makes Your Inner Fish stand out is the enthusiasm Shubin shows. He really, really cares about what he's writing about- he finds it excitin- and that... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Jess
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning
A real eye opener. Such seemingly trivial things about humans that suddenly become so much clearer with this book. Recommended to all !
Published 11 months ago by Alistair Griffiths
4.0 out of 5 stars The story of bones
How we share internal bits with all living things: a fun and interesting journey through the physical anthropology of living things. Read more
Published 12 months ago by bob
5.0 out of 5 stars Who do you think you are ?
A thought provoking & illuminating account of humanity's biological & evolutionary history , making connections from creatures of a very distant past to the bodies we walk around... Read more
Published 15 months ago by D. S. Sample
5.0 out of 5 stars A must for seekers of reality
This is a great explanation of how, and where, the finding of Tiktaalik (large, freshwater fish) added a huge amount to our knowledge of the origins of land-based vertibrates. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Paul Comerford
5.0 out of 5 stars Neil Shubin describes the link which joins all living creatures - a...
I found this one of the most intriguing books I have ever read. The idea that as humans we have an ancestry which stretches back to the beginning of life on earth as demonstrated... Read more
Published 16 months ago by Charles J Parker
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