Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year-History of the Human Body

I wish I had chanced upon Neil Shubin?s captivating guided tour through “the 3.5-billion-year history of the human body” while recovering from my hernia-repair operation. The pain might have been momentarily mitigated by Shubin’s revelation that the tendency of the human male to herniate “results from taking a fish body and morphing it into a mammal.” In short, whereas the gonads of our ancestor the ur-shark were safely tucked away in its torso, evolution prompted those of humans to drop down, resulting in a congenital weakness in the abdominal wall. Shubin?s simple yet powerful method is to trace the intricate marvels of the human body as it currently exists through a survey of all those creatures whose DNA contributed to our own Darwinically-mandated creation. As a paleontologist and professor of anatomy, Shubin is the ideal person to bop back and forth from fossils to genes, from the Devonian swamps to the genome-deciphering laboratories of today. The mechanics of evolution, inheritance and bodily structures and organs are elegantly laid out, as Shubin draws on both milestone scientific research and his own considerable fieldwork. Aided by his facility for sprightly metaphors (cartilage is memorably described as a piece of Jell-O banded by collagen ropes), Shubin’s prose goes down as smoothly as that of Stephen Jay Gould, as he earnestly conveys his appreciation for the often phantasmagorical and ironic results of Darwin?s dead hand on our kludged-together organisms. But the crucial subtext is more profound: all artificial and troubling distinctions and divisions among humans disappear in light of our common heritage. Our intimacy with the rest of creation, he implies, should always be uppermost in our minds.