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Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body Paperback – January 6, 2009
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Details on a Major New Discovery included in a New AfterwordWhy do we look the way we do? Neil Shubin, the paleontologist and professor of anatomy who co-discovered Tiktaalik, the âfish with hands,â tells the story of our bodies as you've never heard it before. 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 finestâenlightening, accessible and told with irresistible enthusiasm.
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The book is split by 11 chapters. The first four explore the theme of how we can trace the same organ in different creatures. I'll briefly summarize:
- Chapter 1-4:
The author starts by describing his legendary trip to Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada. He describes the struggles and the significance of his finding: The Tiktaalik; a creature from the late Devonian period (375 million years ago) that currently holds as the most well-established evolutionary transition from fish to amphibian. I've read about the Tiktaalik before in one of Dawkin's books, but I was surprised to find out that the author of this book actually discovered it. His expedition is a fascinating read in itself because the author is a great storyteller, and seems to be a really humble, laid-back, and fun guy. He all of the latter not only when sharing his personal experiences, but when speaking on behalf of his chosen subjects as well. He describes how he ended up near the arctic - and on the Pennsylvania highways - when looking for his fossils of choice. He gives a general introduction of where and how - using paleontology and evolution - you would find fossils. He elucidates the difference between fish and amphibian (through bone structure and limbs) and mammal and reptile. There's a chapter dedicated to teeth. Teeth are important and extremely helpful when identifying or distinguishing differences among animals (i.e. reptiles and mammals). There's a chapter dedicated limb structure, specifically the hand and arm. The developmental difference between our arms and a fish's fins are very similar early on in development but become vastly different through the process (inside the egg). The author explains why and shows experiments involving the relevant genes for such functions (those involving the ZPA tissue and Sonic Hedgehog gene manipulation, there's a chapter to this called "Handy Genes").
- Chapter 5-11:
In each one of these chapters, certain body parts of ours are to our distant ancestors. In other words, we get to explore, interpret, analyze, compare and contrast the our body functions with our distant ancestors. We figure out the inception of many body parts (and functions) and why they evolved to work the way they do for us. Specifically, there's a chapter on: the head, entire body, scent, vision, and ears.
Some interesting stuff by chapter: In the field of Embryology, - the study of Embryos, or fetuses - we see that all animals are alike at their very initial gestation stage, with four little swellings called arches that develop around what comes to be the throat area. This is explained in more detail in the book but the fascinating thing is that these arches, depending on the species, all come to have a different but similar function in the body as the conception process gets underway. In the book, the example of comparison are humans and our very distant ancestor shark. Cranial nerve structure is also discussed and compared. Also discussed are headless animals - primitive ones - and the origins of our notochord. There's a whole section on the similarity of active (and inactive) genes among completely different specifies. What happens if you remove tissue, or add certain DNA strands in fruitful area? The evolution of scent is interesting because fish evolving to leave the water and thus become an amphibian, it requires major changes because there are 2 kinds of smelling genes: one for water and one for air. The chapter on scent is epic and so is the proceeding one on vision and then Hearing. We can trace major events in our eyes by analyzing certain eye genes that we share with other creatures. Mammals have the same ear bones as fish, the difference being that wish don't have ears. We come to see that there's major contrast between the functions of these bones for different groups of animals, like mammals and amphibians. These differences are part of why we label an animal to be a "mammal" or "amphibian" in the first place. Our middle ear bones are the malleus, incus and stapes. We come to see that the malleus and incus evolved from jawbones.
Of the million years of life, Homo Sapiens have survived extinction and for the time being remain extant. But this doesn't mean that we don't have our problems. There's no preternatural creator ghost behind the complexity or susceptibility of our bodies, but even better: an evolutionary explanation of everything in our body from our genetic workings to our genotypes. Because of such primitive origins, our bodies aren't fully accustomed to certain things and thus thanks to our fish ancestors we develop things like hernias or hangovers. So why is this better then? For one, because it makes perfect sense! And two, by having a natural understanding of our anatomy, we can spearhead our way into the understanding of imperative issues - like disease or congenital defects - that shackle and sometimes terminate the life of many good individuals. This is very important, and so is this book. I'm grateful I read it.
Along the way, the author does an excellent job of clearly presenting the overwhelming evidence in support of Darwinian evolution. A fine example of this can be seen in the quote, “If digging in 600 year-old rocks, we found the earliest jellyfish lying next to the skeleton of a woodchuck, then we would have to rewrite our texts.” Needless to say, no such discovery has been made, and the layers of rock remain an orderly record of the progress of life from simple to increasingly complex. Shubin spends more of his time talking about the evidence in terms of specific anatomical detail. For example, “All creatures with limbs, whether those limbs are wings, flippers, or hands, have a common design. One bone,… two bones,… a series of small blobs…”
The book is arranged in eleven chapters. The first chapter provides an overview and tells the story of the search for and discovery of the Tiktaalik. Then the book goes on to explain the development of limbs, genes, teeth, heads, anatomical plans, and the various sense organs. A final chapter looks at what our evolutionary history means for our present-day lives (particularly what systematic problems the process has left us, from hernias to heart disease.) The book covers many of the structures that define us as human, but notably excludes the ultimate defining factor: our relatively gigantic brains. That’s alright; the evolution of the brain is surely a book or more unto itself. There are line drawings throughout to help clarify the subject, many of these show analogous structures between various creatures.
I found this book to be readable and informative. It’s both concise and clear. It’s approachable to readers without scientific backgrounds. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in learning how the human body got to its present shape.