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Your Inner Fish

by
Edition:
1st
ISBN13:

9780307277459

ISBN10:
0307277453
Format:
Trade Paper
Pub. Date:
1/6/2009
Publisher(s):
Vintage
List Price: $16.00

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Summary

Details on a Major New Discovery included in a New Afterword: Why do we look the way we do? 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. 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.

Author Biography

NEIL SHUBIN is provost of The Field Museum as well as a professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago, where he also serves as an associate dean. Educated at Columbia, Harvard, and the University of California at Berkeley, he lives in Chicago.


From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Finding Your Inner Fishp. 3
Getting a Gripp. 28
Handy Genesp. 44
Teeth Everywherep. 60
Getting Aheadp. 81
The Best-Laid (Body) Plansp. 97
Adventures in Bodybuildingp. 116
Making Scentsp. 139
Visionp. 148
Earsp. 158
The Meaning of It Allp. 173
Epiloguep. 199
Afterword to the Vintage Books Editionp. 203
Notes, References, and Further Readingp. 211
Acknowledgmentsp. 223
Indexp. 227
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

Excerpts

FINDING YOUR INNER FISH

Typical 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 some of the earliest limbed animals to understand the origins of land-living animals.

In many ways, field paleontologists have a significantly easier time finding new sites today than we ever

Excerpted from Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3. 5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


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