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Amazing breadth of topics for a modestly sized book,
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This review is from: Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Hardcover)
This is such a great science book that works at so many levels and perspectives; it's amazing how many different areas of evolution Shubin is able to cover in a smaller footprint book of only 201 pgs. The book is written at a level that a relatively smart higher schooler can understand, yet reports on discoveries even the most ardent follower of science will find fascinating; a rare accomplishment in terms of being able to target such a wide audience while satisfying both extremes.
The book serves as a personal memoir of Neil Shubin, project lead for the team that discovered the transitional fossil Tiktaalik Rosae. Readers gain insight to the inner-day workings of an authentic scientist. I was very impressed at the breadth of Shubin's capabilities beyond his fieldwork, which was already commonly known to casual followers of science like myself. Shubin's reportage on his personal experiences greatly enhanced my respect for the energy, determination, talent, and patience required to make a meaningful discovery such as Tiktaalik as well as the hours spent in the lab not just validating their discovery, but also developing new methods to validate fossil discoveries in the relatively new field of evo devo and providing insight on new features to look for in the field or even in the drawers of natural history museums (like Matt Friedman, who just discovered the transitional fossil between symmetrical fish and flatfish based on previous fossil finds long stored away, [...]).
The book also serves as an adventure story given the Tiktaalik discovery in the remote wilderness of Northern Canada after years of expeditions. From this perspective, I highly recommend that teachers at or above high school biology offer this book to their more promising science students as an extra credit project. Society has largely mischaracterized scientists in general and greatly underreport their contributions. Shubin does an excellent job of portraying the personal satisfaction and enjoyment of practicing science, given America's recent degradation in producing an adequate amount of young scientists from our domestic inventory of students. We need to promote more role models like Shubin to young people, similar to how we promoted astronauts in the 1960's. Other countries get it, more examples like Shubin will help us eventually get it back as well.
Shubin also reports on other related findings to help illuminate his discoveries and provide a general update on what we know regarding evolution in general and human evolution as it relates all the way back to single-cell organisms. His reporting on unicellular algae evolving into multicellular organisms within 200 generations (eight years) in the lab was one of several vignettes that helped provide perspective to the degree we've progressed in our understanding of biology. Other examples are the evolution of human eyes and Shubin's direct contributions on the evolution of our middle ear bone back through Tiktaalik to fish gill arches - both from fossil discoveries and through successful experiments performed in the lab given our recent understanding of genetics and bioengineering.
In fact, the chapter on human ear evolution is probably the most fascinating chapter given its rich history going back to the 19th century and how subsequent discoveries allowed us to continuously build upon those original findings to the point we can now physically create gill arches in primates or middle ears in fish given our discovering the gene common to both and our recent understanding of how different proteins impact fetal development. Besides a great story, this chapter provided the additional perspective of illuminating how science builds upon previous discoveries.
If you loved Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom, another great science book which is how much of the public was introduced to the new field of evo devo, you'll love this book since Shubin is a primary player in the field in terms of explaining the evolution of gill arches to anthropods' upper jaws, to primate middle ears. I was impressed at the breadth of Shubin's discoveries reported in this book; from fossil discoveries in the field to providing explanation for his field discoveries at a cellular level, not to mention successful predictions of where to find such fossils, and physical validation in the lab of the evolution of the human ear middle bone evolution through his experiments.
Shubin in worthy of celebrity given his contributions. I for one am grateful for his writing this book and teaching me so much with so little investment of my time - a truly great return on investment!