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Some Assembly Required

Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA

By Neil Shubin
12-minute read
Audio available
Some Assembly Required by Neil Shubin

Some Assembly Required (2020) is an approachable account of the great transformations in the history of life. Paleontologist Neil Shubin started his career looking to fossils for the answers to life’s greatest questions – but with recent scientific advancements, he argues that studying DNA reveals more about the journey we took to become human.

  • People interested in the history of evolution
  • Science enthusiasts
  • Anyone who loves an amazing factoid

Neil Shubin is a paleontologist who trained at Columbia, Harvard, and the University of California, Berkeley. He is now a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago and the author of two other books: Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within.

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Some Assembly Required

Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA

By Neil Shubin
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Some Assembly Required by Neil Shubin
Synopsis

Some Assembly Required (2020) is an approachable account of the great transformations in the history of life. Paleontologist Neil Shubin started his career looking to fossils for the answers to life’s greatest questions – but with recent scientific advancements, he argues that studying DNA reveals more about the journey we took to become human.

Key idea 1 of 7

Plants and animals don’t change by developing new traits – rather, they repurpose old ones.

The question of how a fish could have grown legs and begun walking on land is one that has obsessed paleontologists for generations.

Charles Darwin’s contemporaries questioned his theory that evolution is a journey of intermediate stages, which is something the author – a paleontologist – wondered about as well. Why, for example, did the appendages that would eventually become wings appear on the ancestor of a bird that couldn’t fly? 

Why would useless wings grow, rather than disappear? The answer is not that tiny wings grew into big wings. It’s that what we know as wings actually started out as something else. The author’s new mantra, inspired by Darwin’s response to his critics, is that nothing begins where you think it does. 

The key message is: Plants and animals don’t change by developing new traits – rather, they repurpose old ones. 

Darwin’s argument – that new features arise as a result of old ones changing functions – forever altered the way we see the history of life. To understand how, let’s take a look at the lowly fish. 

In 1798, a certain fish, observed by a French scientist in Egypt, became famous. Why this particular fish? Well, it had unusual air sacs in its body. Now, most fish possess air sacs; they’re known as swim bladders, and they help fish remain submerged at a specific depth of water. But the famous fish’s air sacs were different. They were connected to the fish’s esophagus. They were proto-lungs. 

Frenzied scientists began combing lakes and rivers all over the world for more data. Lo and behold, this Egyptian fish wasn’t actually that special. There were lots of fish with the same proto-lungs. Air-breathing fish weren’t the exception – they were more like the rule. 

Recent research shows that proto-lungs and swim bladders are different versions of the same organ. And the genes that build swim bladders are the same as those that build lungs – in fish and, as we’ll soon see, in people, too. 

Lungs aren’t a new invention that came about to help fish adapt to dry land. Rather, fish were breathing air long before they stepped out of the water. Evolution just repurposed the fishes’ air sacs.

See? Nothing begins where you think it does.

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