University of Chicago paleontologist / anatomist, Neil Shubin, charts the progression of life that ultimately leads to the human body. Professor Shubin’s discovery of one of the earliest fish (the Tiktaalik) to survive at the fringes of land makes him well placed to delve into this topic. The book does tell the paleontological detective story involved in tracking down the Tiktaalik. Shubin also uses his experiences in cadaver dissection to elucidate some of his points. However, the book goes beyond these stories to unshroud the development of the arms, hands, heads, and sense organs that lead to our own structure.
Along the way, the author does an excellent job of clearly presenting the overwhelming evidence in support of Darwinian evolution. A fine example of this can be seen in the quote, “If digging in 600 year-old rocks, we found the earliest jellyfish lying next to the skeleton of a woodchuck, then we would have to rewrite our texts.” Needless to say, no such discovery has been made, and the layers of rock remain an orderly record of the progress of life from simple to increasingly complex. Shubin spends more of his time talking about the evidence in terms of specific anatomical detail. For example, “All creatures with limbs, whether those limbs are wings, flippers, or hands, have a common design. One bone,… two bones,… a series of small blobs…”
The book is arranged in eleven chapters. The first chapter provides an overview and tells the story of the search for and discovery of the Tiktaalik. Then the book goes on to explain the development of limbs, genes, teeth, heads, anatomical plans, and the various sense organs. A final chapter looks at what our evolutionary history means for our present-day lives (particularly what systematic problems the process has left us, from hernias to heart disease.) The book covers many of the structures that define us as human, but notably excludes the ultimate defining factor: our relatively gigantic brains. That’s alright; the evolution of the brain is surely a book or more unto itself. There are line drawings throughout to help clarify the subject, many of these show analogous structures between various creatures.
I found this book to be readable and informative. It’s both concise and clear. It’s approachable to readers without scientific backgrounds. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in learning how the human body got to its present shape.