Back in the day when I used to update my old website, I had a semi-regular feature called Books in Bed. One of the many reasons I don’t date is because I share my bed with books – and, of course, the cat. It’s a rare day indeed when there’s not at least one book sharing the pillows with us.
And since pollyticks are descending into a yawn-worthy cycle of Cons-are-stupid, ZOMG-Obama-isn’t-perfect, I shall branch out a bit and regale you with tales of my between-the-sheets adventures with my latest flings.
This week, I slept with Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish. Neil, you may remember, discovered Tiktaalik. Along with finding spectacular transitional fossils, he’s taught human anatomy at the University of Chicago. Both of these things give him particular insight into the deep connections between us and other critters. Even, yes, fish.
I think most of us know that the human embryo has gills. What a lot of us probably don’t know is what happens to those gills as we develop. I’d imagined them just sort of vanishing. Not so! Our gills become structures in our ears and throat. It’s terribly odd to realize that the stapes bone in our inner ear is derived from one of the jawbones of our fish ancestors.
And that’s just the beginning. Just wait ’til you find out why the testicles have such a long journey through the body. I had no damned idea that fish carry their nads in their chests. This book will teach you just where to plant the kick should you ever need to kick a shark in the balls.
Neil does a wonderful job showing how our anatomy’s jerry-rigged from much different bodies. If you ever had trouble understanding the incremental steps evolution took from microbe to mankind, this delightful little book will give you the crash course. You’ll start seeing just how similar we are to even wildly dissimilar organisms. And it’s set out in such a way that even someone who has as much trouble with visualization as I do can see it clearly.
In fact, I recommend this as a companion volume to Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, which I finished just seconds before going in search of my inner fish. The two mesh extremely well, informing each other – things will start clicking. And then you’ll laugh all the harder at creationists. In fact, Neil takes a few shots of his own at the IDiot crowd, without ever mentioning them by name. Dawkins tends to face them head-on; Neil’s sneaky. Observe this shot across the bows:
In a perfectly designed world – one with no history – we would not have to suffer everything from hemorroids to cancer.
No doubt who he’s aiming at, now, is there?
This book is the perfect answer to those who try to claim that evolution’s a nice theory, but has no practical application. Now, we all know that’s bullshit – we have antibiotic-resistant bacteria to prove that knowing how evolution works is important in medicine – but Neil goes many steps further, showing how evolution explains everything from hiccups to hemorroids to hernias, and many other defects not beginning with the letter H. He demonstrates what we’ve learned from playing around with fly and mouse genes. If you remember the old adage “knowing is half the battle,” you can easily see how understanding evolution helps us now and will pay exponential dividends in the future.
That really came home to me when he was talking about Hox genes, and how you can snip little bits from one embryo, splice them to another embryo, and grow a whole extra body part – even in another species. And we’re not talking a fly leg on a mouse, either. One of Neil’s examples is taking the Organizer region from a chicken egg and grafting it to a salamander embryo. The Organizer directs the embryo to create a body. But this is the awesome part: a chicken Organizer plunked down on a salamander embryo won’t create a salachicken – you get a twinned salamander. Somehow, those chicken genes are able to tell the salamander genes to go forth and create another salamander.
I can see that having useful medical applications later on, can’t you?
Getting in touch with my inner fish has given me a deeper appreciation for evolution. And it seems to have made my cat cozy up to me a bit more than usual. Whether that’s because of our shared evolutionary history or because she’s considering a seafood dinner is yet to be determined.