Your Inner Fish

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Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body is a book you should read. With one small caveat I’ll give you below, it can be used as a behind-the-desk supplement for teachers of anatomy or any kind of organismic biology in High School or Intro College. It can be assigned in some classes. Or, it is just plain excellent bedtime reading.

It is interesting to look at how and why the book came about to begin with. In the author’s words:

This book grew out of an extraordinary circumstance in my life. On account of faculty departures, I ended up directing the human anatomy course at the University of Chicago medical school. Anatomy is the course during which nervous first-year medical students dissect human cadavers while learning the names and organization of most of the organs, holes, nerves, and vessels in the body. This is their grand entrance to the world of medicine, a formative experience on their path to becoming physicians. At first glance, you couldn’t have imagined a worse candidate for the job of training the next generation of doctors: I’m a fish paleontologist.

It turns out that being a paleontologist is a huge advantage in teaching human anatomy. Why? The best roadmaps to human bodies lie in the bodies of other animals. The simplest way to teach students the nerves in the human head is to show them the state of affairs in sharks. The easiest roadmap to their limbs lies in fish. Reptiles are a real help with the structure of the brain. The reason is that the bodies of these creatures are simpler versions of ours.

During the summer of my second year leading the course, working in the Arctic, my colleagues and I discovered fossil fish that gave us powerful new insights into the invasion of land by fish over 375 million years ago. That discovery and my foray into teaching human anatomy led me to a profound connection. That connection became this book.

This is big-time big picture thinking.

Just the other day I taught two days of High School anatomy, during which I ran two labs, provided lecture, and ran discussions tying together teeth, rodent dental anatomy, human evolutionary anatomy, and some other stuff. And at the end, the single most common negative comment on the reviews (which were by and large good I quickly add) that was not about creationism was “what does this have to do with human anatomy.”

Which kinda blew me away because the whole point was … oh never mind. I’ll just be more explicit next time.

The point is, you have an inner fish. And this book is about it. Go read it.

My small caveat: The first chapter, “finding your inner fish” is an overview of the book should not be read first. Let’s put it this way. If you judged the quality of the writing, story telling, imagery, explanatory discourse of the book as a whole from this first chapter you would seriously underestimate the rest of the book. I get the feeling it was a tack-on required by the publisher. Just skip it. Yes, it is kind of a road map for the book, but I strongly recommend that you start with chapter 2, and then at the end, read the road map to kinda tie it all in together. Or, at least, read chapter 1 with the recommendation you skip it in mind.

Enough about that. Your inner fish is speaking to you. Your Inner Fish is very much worth the read.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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10 thoughts on “Your Inner Fish

  1. You owe it to yourself to find some time for this one NLaible–it’s a terrific read. And, yes, I’d agree with Greg’s approach.

  2. Read it when it came out in paperback, and loved it. That was a few years ago now, and, short of cash last year (grad student times…), I sold it on amazon. Might have been a mistake! Wonderful little book.

  3. One of my favourite books. It changed the way I think about biology and development. There’s a lot of food for thought for such a slim volume.

  4. Premeds, back in the dark ages, took Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy as a required course. This has slipped away in recent times. Part of the reason is that students found the course too demanding. I’d be very interested to know which programs still require CVA as part of the premed curriculum. Hopefully there are still some out there.

  5. I’ve read it too and I think it’s a great book. I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Shubin talk about Tiktaalik at Harvard. He’s as good a speaker as he is a writer.

  6. My son sent it to me as a present. (He done grow’d up right!) Perhaps if I were an anatomist I would have found the intro section superfluous but to me it was useful. I loved the section where he learned to see fossils. Notice the book isn’t discussed much by ID advocates. ‘Cause it sorta incinerates their position.

    Now reading Life Ascending by Nick Lane.

  7. Every year, the University of Montana-Missoula assigns a book to the incoming freshman class to read before they come to campus, the theory being that at least they will all have a common topic of conversation in the early days of getting acclimated to college. My daughter’s freshman read (last year) was “Your Inner Fish”. Being a geologist, I decided to read it, too. Liked it so much, I made my book club read it. Even the non-scientists in the group enjoyed it and could follow his explanations readily. (FYI, I also made them read Darwin – they liked this one better – LOL!).

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