November 18th, 2012

_Your Inner Fish_, Neil Shubin

Subtitled: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

I read a hardcover copy from the library, so I suspect there's an afterword or whatever in later editions that I have not seen (yet). I had been meaning to read this since I saw Shubin on Colbert (I don't know whether I saw him the first time he was on Colbert, the second, or both). I liked it well enough to pre-order his next book (due out in January) for the kindle. It is this month's book club selection in Mayberry (<-- not its real name), a town in New Hampshire where I used to live.

What an amazing book! Shubin is the first person to explain how fossil hunters pick sites that actually penetrated my fossil-like skull. And the whole book is like that. Shubin telling little stories that seem like they are there to be memoir-y and about him, but are secretly an important part of the overall story he is telling, which is how things happen and why. This goes all the way down to his story of taking his kid(s) to museums, zoos and aquaria at the end of the book and stumbling across the Apollo 8 rocket. That story is there to point out to you, once again, how utterly invisible things are, even when they are right in front of you, and you are looking for them, and you care about them and you are searching very hard.

This is probably the best book about How Science Happens that I have ever read. It's easy when writing this kind of stuff to either leave out details crucial to understanding the actual work (usually involving highly technical equipment) -- or include so many that the reader about dies of the kind of slogging tedium that characterizes most science. Shubin includes enough to give us a sense (how expeditions are set up, the cost constraints, what it's like to collect fossils, forgetting about the tides because the locals roped you into staying up late to judge a beauty contest, etc.), but mercifully draws a curtain in front of what preparators actually do -- while still making sure they get all the credit they really and truly deserve.

R. and I periodically talk about when evolution will get its shot at the harsh glare of political action, the way equal pay for women, access to abortion, fair treatment for same-sex couples and so forth have recently experienced. He thinks that, if anything, more people have moved away from evolution than twenty or thirty years ago. I cannot believe that to be true. In particular, I strongly suspect there are a lot of young people who dutifully filled in what they were told to in school, while at home and church dutifully said something quite different. Those young people have not necessarily been exposed to something like Shubin's presentation of the relationship between the evidence of the fossil record and our (the biosphere's collective) genomic record. While the primary tool he is using (comparative anatomy) has been used for this purpose before, science has progressed in recent years in a way that directly addresses many of the arguments beloved by Creationists and ID'ers.

We should be having this debate. We should not be afraid of it. It will be good for us.

But even if we don't have this debate, it's a great book, written by a lovely man. I'm glad we have teachers like this out there in the world, doing important work. Altho I have to say I sort of wish when he was describing Tiktaalik, he had mentioned what kids do in very shallow pools. It would have been an excellent analogy, immediately and viscerally available to anyone who has or has had young children (or been a young child themselves and is lucky enough to remember it).