Whenever I see a drawing of Tiktaalik like the one above, I always think “Man, that walking fish sure looks snooty.” But Tiktaalik roseae, discovered in 2004 by University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin and his team in the Canadian Arctic, is worthy of its haughty air. For one thing, the “fishapod” had a neck, a feature you don’t typically find on a fish, and the explanation for its stuck-up posture. Tiktaalik’s limbs were even more unusual and exciting, as Shubin found bones that were more like fingers than the tiny bones typically seen in fish fins. These structures meant Tiktaalik held a very important place in the tree of life, one of the elusive transitional species (in this case between fish and amphibians) that evolutionary biologists dream of discovering.
Shubin’s book about Tiktaalik and how it demonstrates the process of evolution, Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, was released almost two years ago. Perhaps it takes scientists a while to squeeze in some non-journal reading time, because the book (now in paperback, cough plug cough) was today named as the 2009 book of the year by the National Academy of Sciences. Here’s what they said:
Neil Shubin for his delightful, intellectually challenging view of evolution from primitive fish to humans by a scientist who finds fossils in the most uncomfortable places and chronicles it all in Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Pantheon Books).
Your Inner Fish was also on the shortlist for this year’s Royal Society Prize for Science Books, in the esteemed company of science writers such as Carl Zimmer, Leonard Mlodinow and Ben Goldacre.
UPDATE: You can read an online excerpt from Your Inner Fish, thanks to University of Chicago Magazine!
Shubin is as good a public speaker as he is a writer. As probably the only fish paleontologist who teaches anatomy to medical students (here at the Pritzker School of Medicine), Shubin uses evolutionary theory to explain the stranger features of the human body. I caught an excellent lecture from him at the AAAS Meeting this past February (my favorite quote: “When I look at a human being, what I see is a giant, morphed-up fish.”), and he came off like a seasoned television pro on the Colbert Report. If you’d like to see Shubin live and in person, he is one of several speakers at the star-studded Darwin Conference taking place October 29-31 at the University of Chicago to celebrate the 150th anniversary of The Origin of the Species.
For a little teaser, here’s some video taken by Jeremy Manier earlier this year of Shubin talking about how cartoons and toys mischaracterize the process of evolution.