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An accessible exposition, not quite chewy enough for me.
on 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.