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Your Inner Fish

A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

By Neil Shubin
19-minute read
Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin

Drawing on findings from paleontology, genetics and developmental biology, Your Inner Fish describes the evolutionary history of the human body, tracing it back to the fish. The author shows how studying fossils, genes and embryonic development can help us understand our complex evolutionary past.

●  Anyone who wants to know more about our evolutionary past
●  Anyone interested in genetics, developmental biology and paleontology
●  Anyone who wants to know how we can detect the inner fish in our bodies

Neil Shubin is a paleontologist who teaches anatomy and biology at the University of Chicago. He and his work group discovered Tiktaalik, a fossil that helped clarify an evolutionary step from fish to human. Shubin also wrote The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets and People.

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Your Inner Fish

A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

By Neil Shubin
  • Read in 19 minutes
  • Contains 12 key ideas
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Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin
Synopsis

Drawing on findings from paleontology, genetics and developmental biology, Your Inner Fish describes the evolutionary history of the human body, tracing it back to the fish. The author shows how studying fossils, genes and embryonic development can help us understand our complex evolutionary past.

Key idea 1 of 12

Layer by layer: fossils teach us about the landscape, climate and species of former times.

Fossil fuels are very important for meeting the high energy demand in our modern society. But fossils have another significance: they help us understand our planet’s past and the creatures that lived a long time ago.

After all, sea shells have been found on Mount Everest – evidence that an ocean once existed there – and fossils from warm-adapted animals have been found in the icy Arctic, proof that the region once had a tropical climate. Moreover, many well-preserved fossils have been found in hot, arid, sparsely populated deserts like the Sahara, indicating that they were once full of water and life.

And so, layers of rocks and the fossils they contain can expose the evolutionary development of different species and animal groups because the order of the layers always reflects their age.

Let’s take the tetrapods, an animal group comprising amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, all of which are characterized by having four limbs, a backbone and lungs.

Scientists found fossils of the first land-living tetrapods in rocks dating back no more than 365 million years, meaning that this group of animals appeared 365 million years ago. But they had no evidence of how the tetrapods developed, since there was a gap in the fossil record: fish fossils had been found in rocks that were older than 380 million years, but nothing else had been found in between these two animal groups.

That is, not until the author’s workgroup discovered the Tiktaalik fossil in a 375-million-year-old rock. Tiktaalik had body features similar to a fish, such as scales, fins and webbing, but also a flat head with two eyes on top and a neck – the characteristics of a land-living tetrapod. In other words, it had traits from both groups of animals, thus representing a link between life in water and life on land.

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