Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Your Inner Fish (Book #55)

Back in 1994-96, I worked in the Biology Department Academic Office at Penn. One of our assistant professors was a rather dashing young paleontologist named Neil Shubin. I didn't know him very well, though I did talk to him briefly about evolution once. I'd come out of a strain of Christianity where I was told if I didn't believe everything in the Bible, including a literal interpretation of the creation story, I had no business calling myself a Christian at all. So during those years I was struggling between accepting the logical evidence for evolution and my desire to stay in the faith.

Anyway, during that conversation he brought up how the structure of our limbs is a modification of earlier forms, showing the common ancestry we share with other life on Earth. Since then, he's moved on. He's now on the faculty at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum, and he had a bit of a media splash a few years back for discovering Tiktaalik, a Devonian fish with proto-amphibian traits. His new book, Your Inner Fish (2008), is basically an extended version of our conversation about our limbs' kinship to fins. He takes features of the human body--our eyes, ears, hands, etc.--and shows their physiological and genetic connection to a variety of earlier, simpler life forms. Interesting stuff, though having long since reached a reasonable accommodation between my faith and evolution, I didn't find any of it especially surprising. OK, I was surprised that the reason men are prone to hernias is because evolving into warm-bloodedness required moving the male gonads, which messed with the structure of the abdominal cavity. Who'da thunk?

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