Origin of the pisces

<strong>Your Inner Fish</strong>

Neil Shubin <em>Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, 240pp, £20</em>

In 2004 the palaeontologist Neil Shubin found the fossil of a fish that exhibited features of both sea- and land-dwelling animals. Think fins with arm bones, a fish with a neck. According to Shubin, the tiktaalik, as it came to be named, is a vital step in the transition of life from sea to land, as important in piecing together our evolutionary development as hominids and primates.

Your Inner Fish is a diary as well as a book of science and history. It follows Shubin’s expeditions to Greenland, Arizona and Nova Scotia, and describes the painfully slow process of finding important fossils and analysing them. On the scientific side, Shubin, who teaches anatomy at Chicago University, shows how our limbs are similar to fish fins and our DNA is linked to inhabitants of the sea. If thinking of your ancestors as hairy bipeds is mind-boggling, his conclusions take our history back to scarcely conceivable eras and forms.

Your Inner Fish is not quite as reader-friendly as the recent wave of popular science books, but it is a detailed and interesting read. The sections tracing hiccups and hernias back to our shared history with early creatures are fascinating, and the author’s enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge are evident throughout.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer