Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Review: Your Inner Fish

I've always had trouble in recommending a good data source to creationists on the topic of evidence for evolution. It's not through lack of evidence, rather I haven't found a source that has eloquently and concisely made a strong case for the evidence. In The Blind Watchmaker for instance, Dawkins went to great lengths to talk about the design power of evolutionary theory and how it could account for the apparent design in nature, but that kind of book was light on evidence as compared to process. Neil Shubin's book Your Inner Fish does the opposite, it's light on theory but argues a very compelling case for common descent.

The triumph of this book is the way the information is explained. It's not making the case for evolution, there's simply no need to do that any more. Rather the book takes the idea of common descent and shows just how the evidence fits around it. The distinction is important as the focus then becomes on telling the story of the human body in the context of our current understanding. There's no need to make the case for evolution again, it would be like any book on rocket science having to make the case for gravity. The framework exists and all information fits into it.

Palaeontology is given a very important role throughout the book, as it should be. Where the discoveries fit into the timeline of earth are incredibly important in the context of the argument. What surprised me was how little this book focused on Tiktaalik, it only represented a single transitional point of many that litter our past. Instead through palaeontology and genetics, the story of our body and the origins of each part more often than not went back further in time, through insects, through to multicellular life and quite often through to bacteria. Each step of the way was not only shown to have evidence, but the story of how scientists came to the evidence was told. In this respect, Shubin carried on his humble demeanour to the pages of this fascinating tale.

The power of this book was the sheer power of understanding that our ancestry provides us. Because our past was at one stage aquatic, we carry the scars of our past. The final chapter giving the problems that have come from our ancestor was possibly the most useful section of information in the book. To explain why we have certain injuries, certain ailments and illnesses, and put it all in the context of our past is a stark reminder of the power of explanation of the scientific method. Why does it matter that individuals learn evolution? Because our past affects our lives now. It affects embryological development, it affects the way we live and breathe, it affects the means by which we can harm ourselves, and it affects the understanding of the limitations of the body. To have evolution as a context is to understand ourselves.

I'd recommend this book to anybody, young or old, who is curious about the nature of who we are. For anyone uncertain on the evidence of our ancestry, this is the perfect book to read. And for anyone who wants a fascinating read into the world of palaeontology and anatomy, again this book is wonderful. It's not very technical, but the straight-forward nature of the presented information makes it a must have for any pop-sci book collection.

Next book: Carl Sagan - The Demon-Haunted World

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