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Your Inner FishReview - Your Inner Fish
A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body
by Neil Shubin
Vintage , 2008
Review by Louis Rothschild, Ph.D.
Sep 15th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 38)

Hayao Miyazaki's latest film depicts a boy, Sosuke, who encounters a goldfish named Ponyo that wishes to become human (Miyazaki, 2009).  Ponyo wants to grow limbs.  She isn't satisfied to live in the water, and as she is a magician in a movie adaptation of The Little Mermaid she does this in a few minutes not the few million years it seems to have taken the rest of us.

It turns out that the magical realist fiction of Miyazaki's anime fits quite nicely with Neil Shubin's paleontology in a manner suggesting that art and science can exist in conversation.  Shubin, a paleontologist who teaches anatomy and conducts field research at the University of Chicago focuses on a discovery of fossil fish some 375 million years ago during the Devonian period.  His ability to discern evidence of the movement from water to land in the fossil record of this period  could allow Shubin to tell Ponyo that all limbs are built on the same scaffold:  one bone, followed by two bones, then little blobs [our wrists], then fingers or toes (p.31).  As she is a fish, Shubin is saying Ponyo is in possession of the scaffold to make the jump to land.

As Shubin is a scientist, his telling of the transition from water to land in his book, Your Inner Fish is much different than Miyazaki's.  However, it is no less colorful and captivating.  During such a journey back in time he asks the reader to imagine that Pennsylvania looks like the Amazon River delta for example.  There is something similar in what for Miyazaki reads as a meditation on global warming.  The sea rises, roads and towns are covered in water with prehistoric fish swimming where cars once traveled.  Shubin asks the reader to imagine such fish swimming not over the roads of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (the location of a dig during his first job), but in the same geographical area in a time long before anyone built roads or could imagine them for that matter.

In the land of evolutionary theory, we learn that fish do not have necks while early land living animals do.  Such a fact affords an important clue when looking to illuminate the transition from water to land.  Why would an organism want to make such a transition in the first place?  Shubin argues that as a fish there are a few strategies for survival  --  "get big, get armor, or get out of the water." (p.41)  Shubin suggests that evidence points toward avoiding the fight.  Such a move may have allowed our ancestors to avoid a particular fight, but it most certainly did not lead to a conflict free existence.   An evolutionary perspective is utilized to argue that one metaphor for human species development is that of making a hot-rod out of a Volkswagen Beetle.   Shubin says it this way:  If you dress up a fish to be a mammal, and then tweak that mammal until it can walk on two legs, and can talk, there are going to be some problems.  He notes that the disconnect between our past and our present lead to certain predictions about how we fall apart.   One difficulty Shubin notes is that we were not built to be sedentary. 

As this reviewer is a psychologist it is the tweaking that led to full blown consciousness that I am most interested in.  In the art of Ponyo, fish have full blown consciousness.  In the science of Your Inner Fish, they do not.  This is a good thing in both cases.  Make no mistake; Your Inner Fish is not to be confused with a new age book on your inner child.  This is science, and that is the books strength.  To that end, that there is no entry for consciousness in the index of this book is quite fine.  It most certainly demonstrates the conceptual difference found between branches of the sciences, and the need for us to be able to appreciate each other's point of view so that we can continue to refine our questions and seek new answers.

Certainly evolutionary theory is multifaceted.  Some argue that the chasm between human and chimp is greater than we might think -- especially in regard to genes that effect brain development (Taylor, 2009).  Such an argument  favors a categorical break -- that we are different in kind.  The opposing argument states that difference is a matter of degree.  Shubin's science follows two data pathways:  the fossil record and genetic, that is DNA samples.  Here he focuses on the gene that makes one end of a body segment look different from another, and finding that the same stuff used to build fins is used to build hands sees little in the way of gaps and chasms.  The subtitle of one chapter sums this up quite nicely:  The zoo in you.  Different in kind or different in degree becomes a matter of perspective.  Shubin comes down on the side that diversity is variation on a theme.

The DNA described above is one of Shubin's inner fish.  He also finds links in teeth, cranial nerves, and eyes among other aspects of ourselves.  Although the particular science that comprises the book is fascinating and presented in a captivating fashion, in this reviewer's opinion, the strength of the book is found in the illustrations of how science gets done.  One example depicts the use of a basic geography textbook as a thinking aid by a paleontologist.  Another, in regard to time:  Four expeditions over 6 years to the same area before good data is found. Yet another affords an illustration of culturally sensitive science:  The fossil providing a link from water to land was found in Inuit territory.  So, the Inuit were given the right to name the fossil Tiktaalik -- or large fresh water fish.  Two examples remind us of the importance of hands-on education.  The first involves a visit to the author's son's preschool. During a show and tell with Tiktaalik, the class begins a debate on necessary features for category membership -- scales, fins, lizard like head -- and begins to correctly think -- maybe it is both.  Secondly, Shubin describes his own education and the time required to recognize objects in the field. These anecdotes are important if not vital in a book written for a general readership as a manner of counteracting the surprising finding that in twenty-first century America, science remains on the margins of US culture and politics (Mooney and Kirshenbaum, 2009).

Lastly, Shubin tells of a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago with his son, where like one of his own fossil discoveries he happens upon the Command Module from Apollo 8.  He notes the manner in which the jury rigged construction leads him to think it less than it is and impedes his ability to recognize the module from the first trip to the moon and back.  From my read, this is Shubin's big point about humans and science.  What works elegantly is often a messy hodgepodge.  Out of such difficulty, every so often comes good science and understanding if not working animals like ourselves.  This is important. To further illustrate this point is yet another succulent fact found in the pages of Shubin's book:  150 years passed between the discovery of a fossilized tooth and figuring out what it was.

The film Ponyo is an artistic artifact that asks that we take evolution and our role in it seriously.  Seeing that film while concurrently working on this review reminds me not only of the idea that there was a period when scientists and poets were in better conversation (Holmes, 2009), that such conversation is vital to not only our education , but it is vital to the human endeavor (cf, Snow, 1959/1963). 

 

References:

Holmes, R.  (2009). The age of wonder:  How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science.  New York, NY:  Pantheon.

Miyazaki, H. (Writer/Director) (2009). Ponyo on the cliff by the sea. 

Mooney, C.  and Kirshenbaum, S. (2009).  Unscientific America:  How scientific illiteracy threatens our future.  New York, NY:  Basic Books.

Snow, C.P. (1959/1963).  The two cultures and a second look.  New York, NY:  Mentor Books.

Taylor, J. (2009).  Not a chimp:  The hunt to find the genes that make us human.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

© 2009 Louis Rothschild

 

Louis Rothschild, is a clinical psychologist in Providence, RI where he is in independent practice.  Louis enjoys working with a varied client base ranging from adult to adolescent.  His general orientation is psychoanalytic with a focus on helping clients reorient to greater functionality in the present.  Louis has published on topics ranging from essentialism and prejudice to chronic depression and personality.  Occasionally he does blog, and that can be found at:   http://lrothschildphd.blogspot.com/


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