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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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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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VINE VOICEon 14 September 2012
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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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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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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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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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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VINE VOICEon 9 July 2011
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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on 22 January 2011
It's hard to find a good balance between everyday language and scientific terminology, between explaining too much and not enough, between making it fun (in case your audience is scared of science?) and wasting too many words round the edges.

I think this was a fairly good attempt. Perhaps Shubin could have tried just a little less hard to please. His topic is fascinating, the facts stunning and well presented. If he had left them to speak for themselves, the impact would have been stronger.

That said, and although I sometimes wished he would get on with it, the anecdotes were well chosen and provided a good view of the excitement involved in field paleontology and scientific discovery in general. Overall, a good read.
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on 14 October 2011
If you've never read a book about evolution and/or palaeontology in the popular science genre, this would be a good place to start.

If you've already read several such books, you'll probably still find interesting things that you didn't already know.

If you know anyone who doesn't believe in evolution or who says "well, maybe, but where's the missing link?", this would make an excellent gift because the evidence presented here about fish, humans, and various intermediate creatures speaks for itself. For this purpose, it might even be better than books by Dawkins because Shubin isn't pugnacious and only explicitly mentions the concept of descent with modification near the end of the book. By then, intelligent readers not already familiar with this concept should have started to get the idea for themselves.

I do have two quibbles about this book. Firstly, it keeps jumping between descriptions of scientific discoveries and tales of the involvement of the author and his colleagues in those discoveries. Of course, it's important to know how scientists make their discoveries as well as what they have discovered, in order to be able to judge the credibility of the findings. But I would prefer the method to be explained in a more impersonal way, for consistency of tone.

Secondly, more detail is needed in some places. Clearly, the author wants to keep it simple in order to appeal to newbies, and this is a laudable aim. But I think that there are a few places where the addition of just a little bit more background information might actually make it easier for newbies to follow the discussion (for example, in the section on mitochondria). Nonetheless, I think that most people will get the gist and much of the detail.
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