YOUR INNER FISH: A JOURNEY INTO THE 3.5-BILLION-YEAR HISTORY OF THE HUMAN BODY
By Neil Shubin
Pantheon, 229 pages, $24
When the renowned paleontologist Neil Shubin announced in 2006 that he’d discovered an ancient fossil with an uncanny resemblance to a “missing link” between fish and land-dwellers, creationists responded with all the fury of pissed off-apes. Jumping, hooting and thumping their chests, they denounced the discovery as secular “propaganda” and trashed Dr. Shubin’s creature, named Tiktaalik, as nothing more than a desperate, pro-evolution publicity stunt.
“With the continued invalidation of the corrupt theory of neo-Darwinism in the eyes of many, and school boards nationwide taking a favorable look at intelligent design, it is not surprising that evolutionists are scrambling to enact damage control,” wrote Frank Sherwin, a “creation scientist,” in a news post for the Institute for Creation Research shortly after the story of Tiktaalik landed on the front page of The New York Times. “Enter an alleged ‘missing link’ that some are saying reveals one of the greatest changes in the field of zoology.”
Now, nearly two years later, Dr. Shubin has come out with his riposte, a book titled Your Inner Fish that is bound to send his anti-evolutionist foes into fits of pre-primate rage. This isn’t because Your Inner Fish is a particularly strident or polemical work. Written in a clear, patient voice, it keeps its God-delusion comments to a minimum while somehow managing to go 200 pages without ever mentioning the E-word. (Instead of “evolution,” Dr. Shubin uses Darwin’s more delicate term, “descent with modification.”)
But for those readers still raging over the idea that humans might be descended from “lower order animals” (like, say, monkeys), Dr. Shubin’s book suggests an even more terrifying possibility: It offers a rigorously empirical exploration of how humans evolved from microbes into men and women, with some vital contributions from jellyfish, sharks, flies and, of course, Tiktaalik-like hybrids along the way.
Indeed, if there’s one message of Your Inner Fish, it’s the “exceptional similarities” between creatures as distant and disparate-seeming as Homo sapiens and, say, Paracoccus denitrificans, a humble bacteria bearing a remarkable resemblance to the mitochondria buried in all human cells.
As Dr. Shubin writes, “All animals are the same but different. … We may not look much like sea anemones and jellyfish, but the recipe that builds us is a more intricate version of the one that builds them.”
Or, in practical terms: Don’t expect to see Mike Huckabee curling up with this book.
FORTUNATELY FOR DR. Shubin, there are still enough adherents of reason and science to appreciate Your Inner Fish’s surprisingly titillating evolutionary anatomy lesson. Part research memoir, part biology course, the book begins with the author’s quest to find one of the long-sought prizes of paleontology, a fossil that bridges “one of the great transitions in the history of life: the invasion of land by fish.” For nearly a decade he dedicated himself to this search, spending his winters doing research and his summers digging in the Canadian Arctic while fending off polar bears and praying the food supply wouldn’t run out. Who knew paleontology could be such a manly sport?
Then, in 2004, while excavating a mound of 375 million-year-old rocks on Ellesmere Island, Dr. Shubin and his team stumbled on their fossil El Dorado: a strange hybrid animal that seemed to straddle several species. With the scales on its back and its clear fin webbing, the creature had the definite traits of a fish; but with its flat head and neck, as well as its incipient wrist and arm bones, it looked uncannily like an early land-living tetrapod.