Backlist Love is an informal series on “older” books that I hope you’ll find interesting. These aren’t so much reviews as quickie recommendations, so check out Goodreads or your favorite book review sources if you want more info.
Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin (Pantheon, 2008)
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins (Bantam Press, 2009)
Why do we look the way we do? What does the human hand have in common with the wing of a fly? Are breasts, sweat glands, and scales connected in some way? To better understand the inner workings of our bodies and to trace the origins of many of today’s most common diseases, we have to turn to unexpected sources: worms, flies, and even fish.
Neil Shubin, a leading paleontologist and professor of anatomy who discovered Tiktaalik — the “missing link” that made headlines around the world in April 2006 — tells the story of evolution by tracing the organs of the human body back millions of years, long before the first creatures walked the earth. By examining fossils and DNA, Shubin shows us that our hands actually resemble fish fins, our head is organized like that of a long-extinct jawless fish, and major parts of our genome look and function like those of worms and bacteria.
Charles Darwin’s masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, shook society to its core on publication in 1859. Darwin was only too aware of the storm his theory of evolution would provoke but he would surely have raised an incredulous eyebrow at the controversy still raging a century and a half later. Evolution is accepted as scientific fact by all reputable scientists and indeed theologians, yet millions of people continue to question its veracity.
In The Greatest Show on Earth Richard Dawkins takes on creationists, including followers of ‘Intelligent Design’ and all those who question the fact of evolution through natural selection. Like a detective arriving on the scene of a crime, he sifts through fascinating layers of scientific facts and disciplines to build a cast-iron case: from the living examples of natural selection in birds and insects; the ‘time clocks’ of trees and radioactive dating that calibrate a timescale for evolution; the fossil record and the traces of our earliest ancestors; to confirmation from molecular biology and genetics. All of this, and much more, bears witness to the truth of evolution.
Why I liked them
First, Your Inner Fish was required reading for a class I took on evolutionary biology, and frankly it’s the best nonfiction book I’ve ever been “forced” to read for school. It’s engaging from page one and easy to follow even if you know next to nothing about evolution or paleontology. Shubin manages to cover a lot of scientific ground within a narrative of his own experiences out in the field.
The Greatest Show on Earth was just something I picked up because, honestly, I thought the cover was pretty (yeah, shame on me, whatever). I feel pretty ambivalent about Dawkins in general, but in this book in particular I think he does a pretty good job summarizing the evidence for the evolution + natural selection and debunking some of the more common “Young Earth” creationist and “Intelligent Design” arguments in a very accessible, sometimes rather funny way.
Who I’d recommend them to
It might seem odd to start this section with a negative, but I absolutely do not recommend the Richard Dawkins book for creationists, at least not for creationists who are just making their first foray into the study of evolutionary biology. Dawkins gets very snarky and is not shy about his atheism, and I fear that this can detract from his actual arguments. Putting science newbies on the defensive right out of the gate is not a good way to help them understand this complicated issue. Rather, I recommend this book only as a “refresher” for those of you who are already at least somewhat familiar with / accepting of the theory of evolution.
Neil Shubin, by contrast, is not out to ruffle any feathers. Your Inner Fish is more focused on describing the physical evidence for evolution than fighting anti-science philosophy. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s even a little bit curious about how a giant fish with legs (and its ancestors, and its cousins) somehow morphed into the huge variety of terrestrial animals, include humans, extant on our planet today.
Your Inner Fish
- Three-episode show based on the book from PBS
- Q&A with Neil Shubin and National Geographic
- Tiktallik roseae information from the University of Chicago
The Greatest Show on Earth