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4.7 out of 5 stars
Your Inner Fish: The amazing discovery of our 375-million-year-old ancestor
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108 of 111 people found the following review helpful
on 24 January 2008
(from my amazon.com 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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59 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on 6 March 2008
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.
A MUST BUY!!
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48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
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. Instead of fins propelling the body through the water, limbs capable of supporting that body must develop. Those limbs must have flexible contact points, leading to the formation of fingers from fin bones. Lifting the body reformed the bones' arrangement leading to our wrist and hand structures. Air breathing shifts the location of oxygen-capturing equipment and distribution. Predation techniques change, which might render some bones superfluous. The author's description of how the former jaw bones of fish relocated over time to become the delicate transmitters of sound in our inner ears. Making sound turns out to be derived from other fish. The ancestors of sharks left a string of arches as part of our bodybuilding mechanisms. One of those arches nestles in your throat as the hyoid bone, essential in making speech. Another of those arches evolved into the diaphragm separating our lungs from other internal organs. Hiccuping, Shubin says, "has its roots in fish and tadpoles" because the pattern set in our brain that controls breathing has been "jury-rigged" in the steps to becoming human. In fish, the distance from the brain to the gills is short, but in mammals, the convoluted path those nerves take allows for signal disruptions - hence, hiccups.

Shubin spends much time explaining the development of embryo studies. Watching the progress of a fertilised egg in becoming a finished organism gave researchers insight in how to look for signs of how today's life is assembled. In Freshman Biology, we are still told of "ontology recapitulates phylogeny" - the idea that a human embryo goes through fish, reptile and mammal stages during development. Karl von Baer had already discovered this was incorrect, but it took modern genetic analysis to overturn Ernst Haekel's enduring axiom. Embryos, von Baer observed, form in triple layers, and depending on the signals from the genome, enable one of the layers to begin dominating to produce the appropriate body plan. Shubin uses these studies to further explain the rise in understanding leading to the appropriate HOX genes triggering the chosen layer. As he notes, his work area is braced by two seemingly irrelevant facilities - a fossil preparation facility at one side, and a genetics laboratory at the other. This book brings the two disciplines together with seamless effectiveness. Graced with some photographs, but many fine line drawings to enhance the text, the book is a prize addition to everybody's library. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This was an interesting read; the author writes very clearly and informally, but in the earlier chapters it does read like he is giving a lecture to new (and American) students, as he uses little mannerisms taught as basic presentation skills. The editor should have caught those in the first draft. The author takes us through his early forays into the field in search of fossils, through to his co-discovery of an important fossil fish. We then work through the development of ‘genetic’ palaeontology, as embryology and later DNA science slowly unravelled our genetic history, leading us back to our ‘inner fish’. Although the author manages to clearly describe the discovery of our genetic heritage (through some unpleasant genetic experiments – though not carried out by him) and show the development of current creatures from their early ancestors, he doesn’t describe HOW we evolved – the process of natural selection and reproduction with variation (or words to that effect – see professor Dawkins for the latest details). Darwin is mentioned only three times in the index. There might have been space constraints on the author, but although he gave an excellent picture of the stages of our evolution, unless you are familiar with Darwin’s ‘dangerous’ theory, you might not even notice the gap in the book.

Further reading:
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 2 June 2008
This book is easy to understand for every layperson and could be used even for teenager to understand the development of evolution and the effects on the human body.
Neil Shubin describes a nice mix of adventure story during excavation journeys into the Canadian artic, and how to search targeted fossils expected in geological strata of 375 million years finally yielded the Tiktaalik fossils. He shows how the work of geologist is the basis for paleontologist fossil hunters to allow structured search and digging.

The description and explanation of the fossils he found, especially the link of fish to land animals are shown using the evolution of limbs are easy to understand without deep knowledge of paleontology or anatomy.
Also the building plan of the human body as a result of the evolutionary history can be traced all the way back to the body plan of fish as Shubin shows.
So the bad design of the human body can be perfectly explained by evolution, just what you would expect if there is no Intelligent Design used for the human body.
Also another alleged `missing link' of the fossil record from fish to land animals is closed with Tiktaalik.

I hope some day `Your Inner Fish' will be published as paperback in Europe as well, to make it available to a wider audience which it deserves.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 17 May 2013
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. There is a constant madness in the world where religious nonsense is off limits to criticism, but such events as the logically planned finding of Tiktaalik in the right rocks of the right age adds yet more irrefutable proof of the mechanism of evolution through natural selection, creationism belongs in a fantasy world of the insane. Dig into the human body and you will find parts that were already under development in Tiktaalik over 300 million years ago. A first class book which will be read and re-read and form an integral part of my library.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 10 February 2014
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 detail, methodology, scientific rigour and analysis. But readability - and it is highly readable - doesn't diminish even slightly the monumental significance of the book's content.

This book is NOT a treatise on vertebrate paleontology, or on evolution, or on anything. Essentially it is edited highlights of Shubin's career, mostly looking for and studying fossil fish-like creatures, and the scientific context thereof. Shubin and his colleagues are fortunate to have contributed to great leaps forward in mankind's understanding of his biological inheritance. In that sense I would compare Shubin's book with George Smoot's Wrinkles In Time, an equally slim, readable account of an even bigger scientific quest (NOT however a treatise on cosmology).

As for the author's supposed leanings toward intelligent design as opposed to Darwinian evolution, I don't think Shubin makes any telling statement on the subject. For his purposes he probably doesn't need to. In any case, God doesn't make it into the index.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Wonderfully, quirkily written, Neil Shubin's complete passion for the subject is a delight to wrap yourself up in throughout this book. You can't help but be rapt with the beauty of the patterns of life he describes, as his wonderment is truly infectious. This is in great part down to the everyday style he adopts to explain complicated ideas - the hallmark of a great Science writer. It left me wanting to find out more - much more - by the last page (which came far too soon). I can only hope that my further reading is as enjoyable as this one was.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 13 September 2013
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 comes across. I found myself smiling as I read some of his descriptions; he's that evocative a writer. His descriptions are very, very clear, starting off as simply as possible and slowly building in complexity, but ensuring the reader is never left behind. In particular, the frequent use of analogies and diagrams really helps to get some more difficult points across. Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to anybody interested in evolution, palaeontology, genetics, or biology in general.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 12 November 2010
Have you ever wondered why you have five fingers and not ten? What developed earlier, teeth or toes? Cutting edge research never creeps into school books until it is about 50 years old, peer approved all round and actually an old hat for the people who made the discoveries. This book on evolutionary biology is therefore like the super-interesting anatomy lesson you could never have had at school - yet.
The palaeontologist Neil Shubin, lucky discoverer of "Tiktaalik", a fossil fish capable of press-ups, takes you right into the arctic, enticing you into his world of laboratory, desert and deep time in such a lucid and intelligent fashion that you wish you would be right out there, digging rocks.
The recent collaboration between geneticists and palaeontologists has shed new light on a whole range of phenomena from the structure of your inner ear to the transition of animals from water to land. Here you can discover how fossils and genetics are connected, gaining an astonishing insight into the way we are related to all living things.
Taking into account polar bear attacks as a real possibility a palaeontologist has to contend with, you might actually really enjoy reading all this in your armchair.
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