Thursday, January 17, 2008

Your Inner Fish

From the latest issue of Nature comes this review of Neil Shubin’s new book by Carl Zimmer.

T. DAESCHLER, ACADEMY OF NATURAL SCIENCES OF PHILADELPHIA/J. WEINSTEIN, FIELD MUSEUM. Author Neil Shubin (above) discovered the transitional fossil Tiktaalik roseae (below).
Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin. Allen Lane/Pantheon: 2008. 240 pp.

Six hundred years ago, anatomists were rock stars. Their lessons filled open-air amphitheatres, where the curious public rubbed shoulders with medical students. While a surgeon sliced open a cadaver, the anatomist, seated above on a lofty chair, deciphered the exposed mysteries of the bones, muscles and organs.

Modern anatomists have retreated from the stage to windowless medical-school labs. They have ceded their public role to geneticists unveiling secrets encrypted in our DNA. Yet anatomists may be poised for a comeback, judging from Your Inner Fish. Neil Shubin, a biologist and palaeontologist at the University of Chicago, Illinois, delves into human gristle, interpreting the scars of billions of years of evolution that we carry inside our bodies.

Your Inner Fish combines Shubin's and others' discoveries to present a twenty-first-century anatomy lesson. The simple, passionate writing may turn more than a few high-school students into aspiring biologists. And it covers a lot of ground. Shubin inspects our eyeballs, noses and hands to demonstrate how much we have in common with other animals. He notes how networks of genes for simple traits can expand and diversify until they build new complex structures such as heads. Also, that hangovers explain how our ears evolved from sensory cells on the surface of fish. He investigates the hiccup, the result of a tortuous nervous system.”