For the next couple of weeks I’ll be “blogging through” this fine book by Neil Shubin, a paleontologist, anatomy professor, and associate dean at the University of Chicago. Shubin is known for, among many other research accomplishments in evolutionary biology, being co-unearther of one of the most important fossil skeletons in recent years: Tiktaalik, a creature that represents a predicted and much-sought transitional animal in the evolutionary march from swimming fish to walking critter.
Building on some well deserved notoriety that came from such an auspicious paleontological discovery, Shubin has written a book that, among other things, makes a case for why anyone should care about this long-dead (and I mean loooooooong dead) chubby crocodile looking thing. I’ll say at the outset: Neil Shubin made me care! Many reviews cite his engaging writing style, the clarity of his descriptions, the interesting portrayals of scientists as real people on difficult but rewarding quests. All of this is true and contributes to my affection for the book, and are reasons why I recommend it.
But mostly I care because Shubin succeeds in his attempt at conveying what I find so gripping about evolution: The Big Story.
It’s easy to talk about evolutionary biology from the perspective of the science: the strength and force of the evidence for evolution, as well as the theory’s explanatory power, are impressive and intellectually fascinating.
But lots of scientific knowledge I read about meets these criteria without getting me as excited, or making me feel as invigorated, as transcendently inspired, as evolution theory. Why am I so captivated by evolution theory?
For me, evolution holds a special aesthetic appeal. As I’ve grasped the elegant simplicity of the theory, and then directed my thinking to the genuinely epic complexity of its implications, I’ve found the scale of its deep-time narrative to be truly breathtaking.
I’m sure part of this is due to personal temperament, as I was essentially raised in the woods and taught by my father to appreciate and enjoy the natural world. Beyond that inclination, all I have is my testimony on how I’m transported and enlivened by returning again and again to the poetic force and surprising beauty of the story evolution tells.
I literally shiver when I manage to put together another insight about this mind-bendingly deep and complex story. Insights, for example, about how my former housecat Mooch came be built with a point of bone that stuck out from her chest in a way that made the line of her body both artistically pleasing and functionally powerful. Or the puzzling mystery of turning over a log and seeing there a millipede colored pure snowy white and therefore completely different from any other millipede I’ve ever seen or read about. Or reflecting on what it might mean that I can speak a language, but no other known species on Earth can.
Knowledge of evolution fills me with a wonder I find nowhere else other than the National Gallery of Art, my annual family reunion, and church. It generates a sense of connectedness to other living beings that both thrills and even frightens me a little bit. Evolution knocks my socks off, and it’s not the details (fascinating as they are) that produce this experience, but rather the totality of the Grand Tale. Your Inner Fish has served to help me apprehend important sweeps of this tale. The primary reason I enjoyed this book was its deliberate construction shaped for addressing the largest, most basic questions (like: ‘Why do things have heads?’) and its carefully laid out story of Life’s progress from single celled energy factories to complicated walking/running/skipping/dancing animals.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll mostly take a chapter by chapter approach to sharing here what I am thinking and doing in response to what I read. I’m not interested in (or qualified for) writing a formal review or anything like that. I simply want a place to share the interest and excitement for what I found in the book’s pages. I hope readers of this blog who haven’t read the book will consider it!