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Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body
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302 of 316 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover
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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122 of 127 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Shubin does an excellent job of explaining the link between his two jobs: teaching human anatomy and studying fossil fish. He explains what evolutionary science, i.e. paleontology, comparative anatomy, genetics, embryology and developmental biology have to tell us about the human body, and how it came to be the way it is. Examples include the evolutionary history of limb bones in fossil tetrapods, developmental control genes found in almost all animals today, the evolutionary history of mammalian teeth, the origin of basic "body-plans," genetic comparisons of genes important for our senses of smell and vision, and the history of the mammalian inner ear. He presents some of the evidence each field has to contribute, explains how the findings of the various fields support each other, and relates it all to his own personal research experience. Shubin does this in a way that should be accessible and interesting to most readers. The book is very readable, especially the earlier chapters. Shubin's message is positively pro-evolution rather than attacking Creationism in a negative way.
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162 of 171 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I didn't want to be able to pass a college course on paleontology, just pick up some interesting information, and this was a great book for me. I started browsing it because I liked the title, but the writing style really drew me in. Shubin is engaging, funny, and informative. He gives enough science background so you can understand the discussions, AND NO MORE. This book left me with a deep appreciation for the wonder of the modern human body. Great information for the casual reader!
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242 of 263 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
"What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so."

- Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, Scene II

In "Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body" author Neil Shubin, a biologist and paleontologist at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum, deftly answers Hamlet's '...what is this quintessence of dust?' query - the short answer is a highly modified fish!

How human 'form and moving,' along with 'noble in reason,' can be inferred from our deep-time ancestors is exciting science, eloquently explored in Shubin's lucid, engaging and accessible prose. Throughout his career Shubin's trendsetting approach split research between anatomical, biological, embryological and paleontological pursuits - all in an effort to understand the evolutionary and developmental mechanisms that transformed proto-limbs into fins, legs, wings, and in 'the paragon of animals,' hands (excuse the anthrochauvinism).

Shubin's innovative approach (integrative biology) was revolutionary in the late 1990s and fundamentally guided the development of evo-devo (evolutionary development), by bucking the trend toward increasing specialization encountered in many scientific disciplines. The insights generated by Shubin's multi-disciplinary approach helped identify which genes changed as lobe-finned fish transitioned into amphibians.

Today Shubin works in a crowded field, but continues to make spectacular discoveries. Peer-reviewed papers routinely depend on hypothesis synthesized from data provided by fossils, genes and embryos. Recently an experiment utilizing embryonic mice switched the mouse Prx1 gene regulatory element with the Prx1 region from a bat - although these species are separated by millions of years of evolution the resulting transgenic mice displayed abnormally long forelimbs.

In 2006 Shubin and his colleagues caught the world's attention with Tiktaalik roseae. This 370 million year old (mid Devonian) 'fishibian' exhibited many tetrapod limb features in its robust fins, including some wrist bones. While Tiktaalik roseae was being exhumed from the frozen artic - at a location predicted by geological, paleontological, and evolutionary theory - fellow researchers back in Chicago uncovered vital clues about the transition from ocean to terra firma by studying the genes that shape the fins of sharks and paddlefish.

"Your Inner Fish" weaves these and other discoveries into a brilliant anatomy lecture. Shubin deconstructs our eyes, ears, noses and hands to demonstrate the common ancestry shared by all extant (or extinct) animals. He also explains how networks of genes that initially express simple traits can expand through mechanisms such as gene duplication and genetic drift, creating networks that can build complex and novel structures such as jaws and heads (in vertebrates) evolved from primordial gill arches.

Quirky evolutionary relics - ranging from hiccups to hernias - are also explored. Thank your 'fish and tadpole past' for hiccups. Men painfully recapitulate the torturous path taken by the testacles during embryonic development whenever they develop a hernia later in life.

Throughout "Your Inner Fish" Shubin articulates how science works. Although creationism and Intelligent Design are refreshingly omitted, this book guts the pretensions and conceits prattled by latter-day lungfish pushing religious agendas in lieu of research and superstition instead of science.

This is a wonderful and insightful book. Highly recommended - excellent companion volumes include Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA (reviewed seperately) by Daniel J. Fairbanks, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald R. Prothero, At the Water's Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea by Carl Zimmer, and The Age of Everything: How Science Explores the Past by Matthew Hedman. For a more detailed technical discussion of early tetrapod evolution try Gaining Ground: The Origin and Early Evolution of Tetrapods by Jennifer A. Clack
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62 of 64 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 28, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Shubin joins the ranks of the best science popularizers with "Your Inner Fish." A cross-disciplinary romp, from arctic fossil beds to genetic laboratories, Shubin shows how the human body carries within evidence of its simpler beginnings. Along the way you'll discover that dolphins have the genes to make odor receptors--but that the genes are "broken" because smell conveys little survival advantage to an air-breathing animal in the sea. That drinking makes us dizzy when alcohol invades the gel in our inner ear, creating a vertiginous lava-lamp-like concoction. And that "lotsa blobs" can be a useful scientific term. A lot of fun, the book still requires a little work, but the patience is well-rewarded with rich insights and provocative ideas. No one can walk away from this book believing that evolution is anything like a "theory in crisis." There was a fundamentalist book several years ago subtitled, "From Goo to You by Way of the Zoo." Shubin deftly and entertainingly demonstrates that this attempted insult not only contains elements of truth, but disgracefully misrepresents how awe-inspiring an understanding of the evolutionary process can be. Highly recommended. Would make a great companion volume to Carl Zimmer's "At the Water's Edge," which shares a similar reverently giddy tone.
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is an absolutely fascinating, mind-blowing, thought-provoking story of science that will leave many hard beliefs in total shatters!

It reads like a detective story that pieces together the evolution of the human body. You will learn what sharks have to do with human hernias, and you will learn what the jaw of ancient reptiles have to do with two bones in your middle ear: the malleus and the incus. Walking away from this book, I will never look at any living organism in the same light ever again. I now totally believe that all living organisms are our brothers and sisters: they have many insights to tell us about ourselves.

Your Inner Fish swims through the fossil record, the lives of single-cell organisms, the lives of multi-cell organsims, the depths of the human body, and ties it all together to show how many of the problems we have with our bodies can be directly explained by our 3.5 billion year evolutionary history.

You will learn "... that we were not designed rationally, but are products of a convoluted history." An underlining current throughout this story of Your Inner Fish: our bodies evolved from and have been made for action. To deny this in our modern world though effortless sitting and lack of movement, is to condemn a body to an early death.

This is one of the best books that I have ever read; it will stay with me for the rest of my life. In each bacteria, in each insect, in each polar bear, I see a part of me. In destroying them, I destroy myself.
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36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Shubin barely mentions evolution -- not at all until page 160, I think -- and he spends no time on whether changes are random or somehow "guided". He simply delineates the HISTORY of life and anatomy, as revealed by fossils, DNA, and embryology. All this is the meat and bones of evolution, of course, but I've never seen the connections so clearly made, with so little recourse to "just so" stories. Truly, truly, a beautiful work.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
"Your Inner Fish" truly merits ample praise for being one of the best-written books on science I've read in years. It also ranks easily as an early, leading candidate as one of the finest books published this year. In clear, concise, and quite vivid, prose, this marvelous terse tome recounts in spectacular fashion, the incredible saga of the evolutionary history of our human body. Vertebrate paleobiologist and anatomy professor Neil Shubin is our enthusiastic, expert guide through this amazing journey into our body's primordial past, weaving with utmost brevity, a most compelling, and intricate, tale from fossils, genes and developmental biology. A fascinating trek through these aspects of evolutionary biology that represents too an intriguing personal scientific odyssey from a novice graduate student to a seasoned scientific veteran of major field expeditions in search of rare, often unique, vertebrate fossils across the globe and of substantial laboratory work in evolutionary developmental biology. In short, in terse, exquisite, well-written, prose, Shubin demonstrates the deep evolutionary connections that unite humanity not only with other mammals, but with other vertebrates too, and indeed, as well, with a veritable tree of life.

Most of Shubin's succinct chapters are devoted to the evolutionary history of both the human body plan and its major organs, such as the eyes and teeth. The opening chapters briefly explain man's kinship with other vertebrates, and recount the unexpected discovery by Shubin and his team of Tiktaalik, the earliest known transitional fossil between fish and tetrapods (land-dwelling vertebrates, including us). These are followed by an extremely short, quite lucid, introduction to the relevance of genetics in evolutionary developmental biology research (Chapter Three), in which Shubin clearly traces the evolution of limbs from fins to bird wings, and finally, human hands. Succeeding chapters include those devoted to the evolutionary history of teeth (Chapter Four), eyes (Chapter Nine) and ears (Chapter Ten). However, the two most intriguing chapters are those devoted to the development of the vertebrate body plan (Chapter Six) - drawing upon both classical embryology and modern molecular biology and genetics, emphasizing the importance of Hox genes - and the evolutionary developmental history of multicellular animals (Chapter 7), culminating in a terse discussion of the Precambrian Ediacaran fauna. Shubin concludes this fascinating little volume with an intriguing discussion (Chapter 11) of human ailments ranging from hiccups to hernias and obesity, demonstrating how these have their origins in our distant evolutionary past, as far back as four hundred million years ago. Without a doubt, "Your Inner Fish" will delight not only students - and others - interested in evolutionary biology, but also those seeking a deeper understanding of both human anatomy and medicine from the perspective of evolutionary biology.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 16, 2009
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I don't want to re-state the high encomiums this slim volume has received, but I would like to offer an alternative perspective.

I have integrated this book into my "critical readings", ie, non-text material illustrating real-world science, in my high school advanced biology class. Students read an average of 10 pages each night - in addition to any other homework - and start each and every class with a 5 question quiz on the last night's reading, just to make sure everyone is keeping up. Every ten days to two weeks we have a "reading cafe" and discuss the major themes of the books we read.

My high school students are both challenged by, and interested in, this book. Shubin discusses the grand evolutionary themes of biology in an approachable way. More importantly, he humanizes science, by discussing his initial naivite, and failures while emphasizing the importance from learning from those failures. He also discusses science as a cooperative effort.

Some students are enthralled by his story (one wrote that it was one of the greatest science books she had read) Some find it too slow and scientific. Most find it challenging in a healthy pedagogic sense. PErsonally, I find it exciting to have the opportunity to teach, and discuss, the role of the Hox gene without having to resort to a high level text. The kids "get it". And most are intriqued enough by Shubin to want to learn more about it.

I strongly urge the use of the PBS Evolution DVD set in conjunction with this enlightening book. Evolution Boxed Set. If you can choose only one DVD from this set, go with the episode Great Transformations Evolution (parts 2 & 3): Great Transformations/Extinction! which features Shubin discussing his work with great excitement. As a whole this particular disc is a treasure.

In short - this is a great read for teachers, and students of biology. This is an exciting time in our field. And this book helps convey that excitement to the next generation of science students.
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84 of 110 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I should confess up front that my not loving this book is partly my own fault. Given Shubin's academic pedigree -- and it is impressive -- I expected the work to be more substantive. That he decided to write for a more general audience is not so much a problem as a simple disappointment.

But that's only part of my issue with the book. Simply put, it's poorly written. While literary style is not the forte of the majority of scientists, you'd expect them to have at least relied on a competent editor. Most offensive of all was his labored redundancy; important sentences were deemed so important that they were sometimes used -- essentially verbatim -- multiple times; if a point could be made in a short paragraph, Shubin used three.

Still, he has some interesting stories to tell, and while their connections to broader concepts are sometimes forced in rather painful transitions, the episode and ideas should hold the attention of most general readers.
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