Author: Neil Shubin
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Summary: This book included all sorts of great stories and new science that I’ve not seen in other popular biology books!
Even though I really enjoyed Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, I was dubious about this follow-up focused the mechanisms of major turning points in the evolution of life. At this point, I’ve read a lot of nonfiction on natural history and evolution. In the process, I’ve gotten bored with stories and concepts that are rehashed in many of these books. Someone save me from having to read about Darwin’s finches yet again! In Shubin’s previous book, my main complaint was that the only science concept he taught was evolution (I was also bothered by some sad animal experiments). I’m surprised to say that this book not only avoids those problems, but one of its main strengths is that it included recent research, fresh stories, and new-to-me big ideas.
This book won me over with all three of its areas of novelty. Let’s take them one by one, starting with the research. This book described research done within the past few years. That included some of the latest work from the author, but also extended to recent discoveries by others, like the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system. A lot of the older stories were new-to-me too though. The author tackled the subject of evolution from an unusual lens. He focused heavily on how major transitions happen, such as the evolution from fish to land-dwelling animals. This lens led him to new aspects of old stories and to stories that were a little off the well trodden path I see so many authors follow.
The stories of scientists doing the work in this book were also delightful. The book immediately started with talking about Darwin and I was ready for the same old anecdotes. Instead, the author jumped in with a description of one of Darwin’s main critics, someone who also managed to be excommunicated by the Catholic church! That’s two very different sets of people to be at odds with. I also learned about a scientist who published his results in verse and another scientist who wrote piano concertos based on protein sequences. This unique stories really enlivened this book
Last but not least, this book was full of paradigm-shifting, new-to-me ideas about how evolution works. The book is mainly concerned by ways that major changes can happen quickly. For example, it seems complicated for fish to have concurrently evolved lungs and legs, which both seem useful only when evolved together. Fascinating mechanisms to explain changes like this include:
- the re-purposing of existing body parts (swim bladders becoming lungs, for example)
- loss of body parts (easier then gaining them!)
- changes in embryonic development that leads to many changes happening together
There were more, but I won’t spoil all the fun for you! I am happy to report, however, that this is one of the most up-to-date science books I’ve read in this field. It was engaging and clearly explained, with great people stories and helpful diagrams every time I wished for one. I think this would be accessible to anyone, as it does included introductory explanations, but I’d most highly recommend it to other readers looking for something fresh compared to other nonfiction on natural history and evolution.