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Your Inner Fish
Cover of Your Inner Fish
Your Inner Fish
A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body
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Neil Shubin, the paleontologist and professor of anatomy who co-discovered Tiktaalik, the "fish with hands," tells the story of our bodies as you've never heard it before. The basis for the PSB series.
By examining fossils and DNA, he shows us that our hands actually resemble fish fins, our heads are organized like long-extinct jawless fish, and major parts of our genomes look and function like those of worms and bacteria. Your Inner Fish makes us look at ourselves and our world in an illuminating new light. This is science writing at its finest—enlightening, accessible and told with irresistible enthusiasm.

Neil Shubin, the paleontologist and professor of anatomy who co-discovered Tiktaalik, the "fish with hands," tells the story of our bodies as you've never heard it before. The basis for the PSB series.
By examining fossils and DNA, he shows us that our hands actually resemble fish fins, our heads are organized like long-extinct jawless fish, and major parts of our genomes look and function like those of worms and bacteria. Your Inner Fish makes us look at ourselves and our world in an illuminating new light. This is science writing at its finest—enlightening, accessible and told with irresistible enthusiasm.

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  • From the book

    FINDING YOUR INNER FISHTypical summers of my adult life are spent in snow and sleet, cracking rocks on cliffs well north of the Arctic Circle. Most of the time I freeze, get blisters, and find absolutely nothing. But if I have any luck, I find ancient fish bones. That may not sound like buried treasure to most people, but to me it is more valuable than gold.

    Ancient fish bones can be a path to knowledge about who we are and how we got that way. We learn about our own bodies in seemingly bizarre places, ranging from the fossils of worms and fish recovered from rocks from around the world to the DNA in virtually every animal alive on earth today. But that does not explain my confidence about why skeletal remains from the past--and the remains of fish, no less--offer clues about the fundamental structure of our bodies.

    How can we visualize events that happened millions and, in many cases, billions of years ago? Unfortunately, there were no eyewitnesses; none of us was around. In fact, nothing that talks or has a mouth or even a head was around for most of this time. Even worse, the animals that existed back then have been dead and buried for so long their bodies are only rarely preserved. If you consider that over 99 percent of all species that ever lived are now extinct, that only a very small fraction are preserved as fossils, and that an even smaller fraction still are ever found, then any attempt to see our past seems doomed from the start.

    DIGGING FOSSILS--SEEING OURSELVES

    I first saw one of our inner fish on a snowy July afternoon while studying 375-million-year-old rocks on Ellesmere Island, at a latitude about 80 degrees north. My colleagues and I had traveled up to this desolate part of the world to try to discover one of the key stages in the shift from fish to land-living animals. Sticking out of the rocks was the snout of a fish. And not just any fish: a fish with a flat head. Once we saw the flat head we knew we were onto something. If more of this skeleton were found inside the cliff, it would reveal the early stages in the history of our skull, our neck, even our limbs.

    What did a flat head tell me about the shift from sea to land? More relevant to my personal safety and comfort, why was I in the Arctic and not in Hawaii? The answers to these questions lie in the story of how we find fossils and how we use them to decipher our own past.

    Fossils are one of the major lines of evidence that we use to understand ourselves. (Genes and embryos are others, which I will discuss later.) Most people do not know that finding fossils is something we can often do with surprising precision and predictability. We work at home to maximize our chances of success in the field. Then we let luck take over.

    The paradoxical relationship between planning and chance is best described by Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous remark about warfare: "In preparing for battle, I have found that planning is essential, but plans are useless." This captures field paleontology in a nutshell. We make all kinds of plans to get us to promising fossil sites. Once we're there, the entire field plan may be thrown out the window. Facts on the ground can change our best-laid plans.

    Yet we can design expeditions to answer specific scientific questions. Using a few simple ideas, which I'll talk about below, we can predict where important fossils might be found. Of course, we are not successful 100 percent of the time, but we strike it rich often enough to make things interesting. I have made a career out of doing just that: finding early mammals to answer questions of mammal origins, the earliest frogs to answer questions of frog origins, and...

About the Author-
  • Neil Shubin is the author of the best-selling Your Inner Fish, which was chosen by the National Academy of Sciences as the best book of the year in 2009. Trained at Columbia, Harvard, and the University of California at Berkeley, Shubin is associate dean of biological sciences at the University of Chicago. In 2011 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

    www.neilshubin.com

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    October 29, 2007
    Fish paleontologist Shubin illuminates the subject of evolution with humor and clarity in this compelling look at how the human body evolved into its present state. Parsing the millennia-old genetic history of the human form is a natural project for Shubin, who chairs the department of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago and was co-discoverer of Tiktaalik
    , a 375-million-year-old fossil fish whose flat skull and limbs, and finger, toe, ankle and wrist bones, provide a link between fish and the earliest land-dwelling creatures. Shubin moves smoothly through the anatomical spectrum, finding ancient precursors to human teeth in a 200-million-year-old fossil of the mouse-size “part animal, part reptile” tritheledont; he also notes cellular similarities between humans and sponges. Other fossils reveal the origins of our senses, from the eye to that “wonderful Rube Goldberg contraption” the ear. Shubin excels at explaining the science, making each discovery an adventure, whether it’s a Pennsylvania roadcut or a stony outcrop beset by polar bears and howling Arctic winds. “I can imagine few things more beautiful or intellectually profound than finding the basis for our humanity... nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that ever lived,” he writes, and curious readers are likely to agree. Illus.

  • Ian Tattersall, curator, American Museum of Natural History

    "A compelling scientific adventure story that will change forever how you understand what it means to be human." --Oliver Sacks"Magisterial. . . . If you want to understand the evolutionary history of man and other animals, and read no other account this year, read this splendid monograph." --Financial Times"Wonderful. . . . A remarkably readable trip through the deep history of our own bodies." --The Boston Globe "[Shubin's] simple, passionate writing may turn more than a few high-school students into aspiring biologists." --Nature"Lively. . . . Join him and learn to love your body for what it really is: a jury-rigged fish." --Discover "Remarkably enthusiastic. . . . Shubin presents his arguments creatively and concisely, tackling sometimes profound questions about origins and evolution directly, even humorously." --San Diego Union-Tribune"Shubin's hand, transformed from what was once a fishy fin, provides a powerful example of what evolution is capable of. . . . A deft synthesis." --New Scientist"A delightful introduction to our skeletal structure, viscera and other vital parts. . . . [Shubin] is a warm and disarming guide." --Los Angeles Times"With infectious enthusiasm, unfailing clarity, and laugh-out-loud humor, Neil Shubin has created a book on paleontology, genetics, genomics, and anatomy that is almost impossible to put down. In telling the story of why we are who we are, Shubin does more than show us our inner fish; he awakens and excites the inner scientist in us all." --Pauline Chen, author of Final Exam"The antievolution crowd is always asking where the missing links in the descent of man are. Well, paleontologist Shubin actually discovered one. . . . A crackerjack comparative anatomist, he uses his find to launch a voyage of discovery about the evolutionary evidence we can readily see at hand. . . . Shubin relays all this exciting evidence and reasoning so clearly that no general-interest library should be without this book." --Booklist (starred review)"A skillful writer, paleontologist Shubin conveys infectious enthusiasm. . . . Even readers with only a layperson's knowledge of evolution will learn marvelous things about the unity of all organisms since the beginning of life." --Kirkus Reviews (starred review)"Fish paleontologist Shubin illuminates the subject of evolution with humor and clarity in this compelling look at how the human body evolved into its present state. . . . Shubin moves smoothly through the anatomical spectrum. . . . [He] excels at explaining the science, making each discovery an adventure." --Publishers Weekly"I was hooked from the first chapter of Your Inner Fish. Creationists will want this book banned because it presents irrefutable evidence for a transitional creature that set the stage for the journey from sea to land. This engaging book combines the excitement of discovery with the rigors of great scholarship to provide a convincing case of evolution from fish to man." --Don Johanson, director, Institute of Human Origins; discoverer of "Lucy""In this extraordinary book, Neil Shubin takes us on an epic expedition to arctic wastelands, where his team discovered amazing new fossil evidence of creatures that bridge the gap between fish and land-living animals. . . .With clarity and wit, Shubin shows us how exciting it is to be in the new age of discovery in evolutionary biology." --Mike Novacek, author of Terra: Our 100 Million Year Ecosystem and the Threats That Now Put It at Risk"Cleverly weaving together adventures in paleontology with very accessible science, Neil Shubin reveals the many surprisingly deep connections between our anatomy and...

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Your Inner Fish
A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body
Neil Shubin
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