Is it possible that all terrestrial life be descended from a particular type of fish that lived 375 million years ago in the late Denovian Period? This question is the heart of Niel Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, in which Shubin argues that a fish that seems to be a halfway point between fish and Tetrapod, Tiktaalik, is indeed the “missing link” -so to speak- between fish and terrestrial animals. Welcome to the wonderful world of Paleontology.
Your Inner Fish is divided into eleven chapters, with each functioning as a self-contained guide to the evolutionary path of a specific part of the human body, save for the first and last chapters. In the first chapter of Your Inner Fish Shubin establishes the rules of the book by introducing the reader to several things: himself and his world, the core argument of this novel, to Tiktaalik, and to the approach this novel will take to conveying Shubin’s argument. Conversely, the final chapter acts as a capstone to the novel by presenting the idea that all living things are connected in one way or another by Evolution. The remaining nine chapters each focus on their respective elements of human anatomy, which are as follows: hands/wrists/arms, genes, teeth, the head, body plans, bodies, our sense of smell, vision, and ears.
The presentation of the central argument is not what I was expecting when I checked the novel out from the library; although, I was pleasantly surprised by how Shubin interweaves various facts that support his argument within the anecdotes that comprise each chapter. Had the discovery of Tiktaalik and the idea that it is one of our earliest ancestors been presented in a different way, such as how many of the papers and articles that comprise science’s primary literature are presented, the chapter could easily have become boring and quickly would have lost the reader’s attention. Through the presentation and language choice that Shubin utilizes in this novel, he makes the information readily available and easily accessible to people with even a high school biology class level understanding of Evolution.
Now that I’ve waxed poetic about the presentation of Your Inner Fish‘s central argument, let’s talk about how that argument is presented. Shubin deftly intersperses his life experiences, such as his excursions to the Arctic and the discovery of Tiktaalik with the facts that he uses to support his claim. Shubin wisely avoids the overuse of technical jargon that would alienate potential readers, instead opting to adopt a more conversational presentation, as though Shubin is speaking directly to the reader and thanks to the addition of a small dash of humor it never becomes dry or uninteresting. Additionally, throughout Your Inner Fish, Shubin includes a number of graphics that complement the text by providing easily understandable visual representations of many of the concepts that are discussed within the book.
Overall, I really enjoyed the experience of reading Your Inner Fish, Shubin does a great job making the subject matter easily accessible to his audience, and keeps it from being boring by presenting his argument and supporting information in a way that feels conversational. I feel like I learned a lot about the evolutionary path of the human body and why it functions and is laid out the way that it is. I would strongly recommend this book to people who want to learn more about the evolutionary history of humans but would like to have the information presented in an engaging manner or don’t want to slog through the primary literature. I do wish that Shubin had delved further into the human relationship with fish other than Tiktaalik, as well as any other animals that we share a lineage with. However, I can also understand why Shubin elected to not include these subjects, as they may have made the book feel bogged down or overly long, as it’s relative shortness and swift pacing are two of its best features.
Justin’s Review: 5/5.