Did you know that you are practically a fish? Or better yet, a fruit fly? No, seriously, Neil Shubin is not only a great paleontologist, but also an intelligent and entertaining narrator. I don’t really remember how I learned about this book’s existence, but I know that the title and the cover immediately captured my attention the moment I saw it. Then I opened the first page and got so engrossed in the science and history, it took me only two evenings to finish the book. I’ve read some nonfiction authors that were clearly brilliant in their field, but impossibly boring in writing. Shubin is not one of those scientists, and that’s how he does it:
- He doesn’t get overly technical, which might get too discouraging for general public (nobody likes to feel put down by a book);
- He offers enough material to make the reader feel like they are actually learning something without trying to feed his entire PhD to them overnight;
- He reinforces comprehension of important details by subtly reintroducing them again with a different example (no annoying repetitions);
- He makes his narrative easy to follow (Hallelujah, I understand evolutionary biology)!
But back to the book, you might say, what is it all about? Well, Shubin is taking upon an amazing task of tracing an evolutionary line through billions of years and every single species in history to prove that no matter what shape and size, all lifeforms on Earth have something in common. The reason being, of course, the fact that at some point we all evolved from the same simple organisms that inhabited the planet at the dawn of times. The book is divided into chapters on major body parts or functions – like teeth, eyes, nose, – and analyzes similarities in structures between humans and other animals. Shubin illustrates quite brilliantly how, nevermind the appearances, we have a lot in common with such seemingly simple organisms as an earth worm.
The book opens as Shubin co-discovers a fossil that would be one of the most fascinating finds in history of paleontology – Tiktaalik, – the missing link between fish and landbound animals. The creature still had fins, but developed wrists that lifted its body slightly above the ground and allowed walking. Having grown up on dinosaurs, it was interesting to learn more about animals that are usually overlooked by juvenile science books, like prehistoric fish or amphibians. Taking Tiktaalik’s history as a starting point and a human being on the other end, the author manages to connect multiple dots in-between and offer an intriguing view into our own past.
To be noted that while reading, since I am not an evolutionary biologist of any sort to know any better, I did become fixated on one question eating at me from the inside. I would love to come up to Mr. Shubin and ask him about the criteria by which certain species are put into categories that separate them from closest relatives. Let me elaborate. We know that evolution is a gradual mutation of one life form into another thanks to its adaptation to changes in the environment and other species interconnected with their habitat/food chain. So let us assume our friend Marlin, the fish is swimming in his ancient ocean, minding his own business. Suddenly he sees a beautiful female of his own species, and unexpected romance blooms. Soon afterwords he has a son they name Nemo, who for some reason is born with shoulder bones that make his fins more flexible. Kids in school make fun of him, of course, until he meets a girl-fish with the same kind of problem. They fall in love and boom – a little Junior is swimming along with fully-developed elbows on top of his already genetically-inherited shoulders. We forward a few generations, and see that Marlin ends up with a descendant Tiktaalik who creeps out of the water now and then in search of new, delicious food sources.
Of course the chances of finding Marlin’s and Junior’s fossils together millions of years later is impossible. There are more chances to stumble maybe on Marlin and then on Tiktaalik. Immediately, they seem to be of two different species, though perhaps little Tik was helping grandpa Marlin find his dentures while visiting for a summer. I guess to form a final question, I wanted to know, at what point does it end being an accidental mutation and become a full-fledged evolution? Should we consider Nemo a new species in his own standing, or is he just a little fish born with abnormal fins? The only way to find out, I guess, is to read on. I will have to find more books on evolutionary biology to replace my shameful ignorance with golden knowledge. Meanwhile, I’ve heard that Shubin has released a new book this year that explores human biological connection to the entire universe!