Your Inner Fish

Neil Shubin Character Analysis

The author and narrator of the book. Shubin is a paleontologist who studies fossils looking for information about evolutionary development. In the book, he primarily focuses on the Devonian period from 420 million years ago to 358 million years ago, looking for fossils that show the link between fish and land animals. He is credited with the 2006 discovery of the fossil Tiktaalik roseae, which marks a transitional stage between fish and amphibians, as it is a fish with primitive limbs. Shubin has written numerous scientific papers on the development of limbs in salamanders and the genes that control limb development.

Neil Shubin Quotes in Your Inner Fish

The Your Inner Fish quotes below are all either spoken by Neil Shubin or refer to Neil Shubin. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Similarities Between All Animals Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage Books edition of Your Inner Fish published in 2009.
Chapter 1 Quotes

How can a walk through the zoo help us predict where we should look in the rocks to find important fossils? A zoo offers a great variety of creatures that are all distinct in many ways. But let's not focus on what makes them distinct; to pull off our prediction, we need to focus on what different creatures share. We can then use the features common to all species to identify groups of creatures with similar traits.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

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It took us six years to find it, but this fossil confirmed a prediction of paleontology: not only was the new fish an intermediate between two different kinds of animal, but we had found it also in the right time period in earth's history and in the right ancient environment. The answer came from 375-million-year-old rocks, formed in ancient streams.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Related Symbols: Tiktaalik Roseae
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

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I can do a similar analysis for the wrists, ribs, ears, and other parts of our skeleton—all these features can be traced back to a fish like this. This fossil is just as much a part of our history as the African hominids, such as Australopithecus afarensis, the famous "Lucy." Seeing Lucy, we can understand our history as highly advanced primates. Seeing Tiktaalik is seeing our history as fish.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Related Symbols: Tiktaalik Roseae
Page Number: 26-27
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 2 Quotes

Some fish, then, had structures like those in a limb. Owen's archetype was not a divine and eternal part of all life. It had a history, and that history was to be found in Devonian age rocks…

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker), Sir Richard Owen
Page Number: 33
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Do the facts of our ancient history mean that humans are not special or unique among living creatures? Of course not. In fact, knowing something about the deep origins of humanity only adds to the remarkable fact of our existence: all of our extraordinary capabilities arose from basic components that evolved in ancient fish and other creatures. From common parts came a very unique construction. We are not separate from the rest of the living world; we are part of it down to our bones and, as we will see shortly, even our genes.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 43
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Chapter 3 Quotes

His experiments may seem to be a bizarre way to spend the better part of a year, let alone for a young scientist to launch a promising scientific career. Why sharks? Why a form of vitamin A?
To make sense of these experiments, we need to step back and look at what we hope they might explain. What we are really getting at in this chapter is the recipe, written in our DNA, that builds our bodies from a single egg.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker), Randy Dahn
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

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Experiment after experiment on creatures as different as mice, sharks, and flies shows us that the lessons of Sonic hedgehog are very general. All appendages, whether they are fins or limbs, are built by similar kinds of genes. What does this mean for … the transition of fish fins into limbs? It means that this great evolutionary transformation did not involve the origin of new DNA: much of the shift likely involved using ancient genes, such as those involved in shark fin development, in new ways to make limbs with fingers and toes.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 4 Quotes

The power of those moments was something I'll never forget. Here, cracking rocks in the dirt, I was discovering objects that could change the way people think. That juxtaposition between the most child-like, even humbling, activities and one of the great human intellectual aspirations has never been lost on me.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 67
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…in teeth, mammary glands, and feathers, we find a similar theme. The biological processes that make these different organs are versions of the same thing. When you see these deep similarities among different organs and bodies, you begin to recognize that the diverse inhabitants of our world are just variations on a theme.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 80
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Chapter 5 Quotes

If you want to understand the wiring and plumbing in my building, you have to understand its history, how it was renovated for each new generation of scientists. My head has a long history also, and that history explains complicated nerves like the trigeminal and the facial.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 86
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What I've just given you is one of the big tricks for understanding the most complicated cranial nerves and large portions of the head. When you think trigeminal nerve, think first arch. Facial nerve, second arch.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 87
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Chapter 6 Quotes

As they looked at embryos, they found something fundamental: all organs in the chicken can be traced to one of three layers of tissue in the developing embryo. These three layers became known as the germ layers. They achieved almost legendary status, which they retain even to this day.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker), Karl Ernst von Baer
Page Number: 99
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Mangold had discovered a small patch of tissue that was able to direct other cells to form an entire body plan. The tiny, incredibly important patch of tissue containing all this information was to be known as the Organizer… Today, many scientists consider Mangold's work to be the single most important experiment in the history of embryology.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker), Hans Spemann, Hilde Mangold
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 7 Quotes

Take the entire 4.5-billion-year history of the earth and scale it down to a single year, with January 1st being the origin of the earth and midnight on December 31st being the present. Until June, the only organisms were single-celled microbes, such as algae, bacteria, and amoebae. The first animal with a head did not appear until October. The first human appears on December 31st. We, like all the animals and plants that have ever lived, are recent crashers at the party of life on earth.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 119-120
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Chapter 8 Quotes

Fossils and the geological record remain a very powerful source of evidence about the past; nothing else reveals the actual environments and transitional structures that existed during the history of life. As we've seen, DNA is an extraordinarily powerful window into life's history and the formation of bodies and organs. Its role is particularly important where the fossil record is silent.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

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If you compare the odor genes of a mammal with the handful of odor genes in a jawless fish, the "extra" genes in mammals are all variations on a theme… This means that our large number of odor genes arose by many rounds of duplication of the small number of genes present in primitive species.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 145-146
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Chapter 9 Quotes

Our eyes have a history as organs, but so do eyes' constituent parts, the cells and tissues, and so do the genes that make those parts. Once we identify these multiple layers of history in our organs, we understand that we are simply a mosaic of bits and pieces found in virtually everything else on the planet.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 149
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Gehring's lab found they could use the mouse gene to trigger the formation of an extra fly eye anywhere: on the back, on a wing, near the mouth. What Gehring had found was a master switch for eye development that was virtually the same in a mouse and a fly. This gene, Pax 6, initiated a complex chain reaction of gene activity that ultimately led to a new fly eye.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker), Walter Gehring
Page Number: 156
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Chapter 10 Quotes

As he describes the ear-jaw comparison, his prose departs from the normally staid description of nineteenth-century anatomy to express shock, even wonderment, at this discovery. The conclusion was inescapable: the same gill arch that formed part of the jaw of a reptile formed ear bones in mammals. Reichert proposed a notion that even he could barely believe - that parts of the ears of mammals are the same thing as parts of the jaws of reptiles.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker), Karl Reichert
Page Number: 160
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Jellyfish do not have either Pax 6 or Pax 2: they arose before those genes hit the scene. But in the box jellyfish's genes we see something remarkable. The gene that forms the eyes is not Pax 6, as we'd expect, but a sort of mosaic that has the structure of both Pax 6 and Pax 2. In other words, this gene looks like a primitive version of other animals' Pax 6 and Pax 2.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 172
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Chapter 11 Quotes

This law is so profound that most of us take it completely for granted. Yet it is the starting point for almost everything we do in paleontology, developmental biology, and genetics.
This biological "law of everything" is that every living thing on the planet had parents.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 174
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Replace this family circus with real features - genetic mutations and the body changes that they encode - and you have a lineage that can be identified by biological features. If descent with modification works this way, then our family trees have a signature in their basic structure... Obviously, the real world is more complex than our simple hypothetical example. Reconstructing family trees can be difficult if traits arise many different times in a family… or if traits do not have a genetic basis and arise as the result of changes in diet or other environmental conditions.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 177
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Our humanity comes at a cost. For the exceptional combination of things we do - talk, think, grasp, and walk on two legs - we pay a price. This is an inevitable result of the tree of life inside us.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 185
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These are not esoteric discoveries made on obscure and unimportant creatures. These discoveries on yeast, flies, worms, and, yes, fish tell us about how our own bodies work, the causes of many of the diseases we suffer, and ways we can develop tools to make our lives longer and healthier.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 198
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Apollo 8 was a product of the essential optimism that fuels the best science. It exemplifies how the unknown should not be a source of suspicion, fear, or retreat to superstition, but motivation to continue asking questions and seeking answers.
Just as the space program changed the way we look at the moon, paleontology and genetics are changing the way we view ourselves.

Related Characters: Neil Shubin (speaker)
Page Number: 200
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Neil Shubin Character Timeline in Your Inner Fish

The timeline below shows where the character Neil Shubin appears in Your Inner Fish. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: Finding Your Inner Fish
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Preface. Neil Shubin describes how he taught a human anatomy course at the University of Chicago, though his... (full context)
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Shubin has now spent many summers in the Arctic looking for fossil fish. Fossils are the... (full context)
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Digging Fossils – Seeing Ourselves. On Ellesmere Island, with a latitude of 80 degrees north, Shubin finds a fossil fish with a flat head. He is in the Arctic because the... (full context)
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...the surface. To look for fossils from the transition between water animals to land animals, Shubin has to find rocks that are older than 365 million years old. Luckily, the arrangement... (full context)
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...subset adds another feature. The more unique a subset is, the younger it is. Thus Shubin expects to find fossils with a head and two eyes in rock layers below fossils... (full context)
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...rocks already show diverse life forms that look like modern day amphibians (frogs and salamanders). Shubin decided to focus on 375-million-years-old rocks to maximize his chances of finding fossils of the... (full context)
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Shubin starts his fossil-finding expedition researching the origin of limbs in his hometown of Philadelphia. The... (full context)
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With one new fossil found, Shubin and Daeschler are ready for more. Looking at a geology textbook, they notice that rocks... (full context)
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...the limited ability to carry supplies when the team is airlifted to dig sites. Furthermore, Shubin and his team can only go to the Arctic during the summer. Shubin brings in... (full context)
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Shubin spends the first few weeks at the dig site worrying about polar bears. The Arctic... (full context)
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In 2000, Shubin and his team move their dig site east to Ellesmere Island. There, a college undergraduate... (full context)
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In 2004, Shubin and his team make one last expensive trip to the Arctic. Finally, Shubin finds a... (full context)
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...that there is a transitional stage between fish and amphibians at the 375-million-year time period. Shubin, Daeschler, and Jenkins decide to thank the Inuit people for allowing them to work in... (full context)
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Tiktaalik’s discovery is a huge news story in 2006, but Shubin is most affected by a moment in his son’s preschool class. Shubin takes the Tiktaalik... (full context)
Chapter 2: Getting A Grip
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When Shubin did his first human medical dissection, he was unbothered by the creepiness of working on... (full context)
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Finding Fish Fingers and Wrists. In 1995, Daeschler and Shubin find an isolated fin fossil in a Pennsylvania highway construction zone. The fin has the... (full context)
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Shubin and his team bring back three chunks of Devonian rock from their 2004 expedition to... (full context)
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Now that they have uncovered Tiktaalik’s wrist, Shubin and his team analyze the most likely function of this limb. Due to the structure... (full context)
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...and would later become refined through amphibians and reptile species from 250 million years ago. Shubin sees this especially in the ability to rotate the thumb relative to the elbow. Humans... (full context)
Chapter 3: Handy Genes
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While Shubin and his team dig up fish fossil bones, Randy Dahn at the research lab at... (full context)
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...genetic differences between the code for a fin and the code for a hand gives Shubin likely places to look for a switch that allowed an animal like Tiktaalik to start... (full context)
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...have three dimensions: top to bottom, pinky side to thumb side, and base to tip. Shubin looks for the genes that make a pinky look different from a thumb as a... (full context)
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...appendages, whether fins or limbs, develop the same way from the same basic DNA recipe. Shubin argues that this means the transition from fins to limbs did not involve any new... (full context)
Chapter 4: Teeth Everywhere
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Shubin began studying these early mammals at Harvard, under Farish A. Jenkins, Jr., who specializes in... (full context)
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Once Shubin is able to see the bone in the midst of desert rocks, he realizes there... (full context)
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...bones no more than an inch or two long. Their teeth were even smaller, but Shubin was fascinated by the signs of occlusion in tiny mammals 190 million years old. It... (full context)
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Back in school after working with Jenkins all summer, Shubin decides to lead his own expedition. With limited funds, Shubin needs somewhere fairly accessible, yet... (full context)
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Back in Boston, Amaral works as the fossil preparator for the rocks that Shubin’s team found in Nova Scotia. He uncovers a tiny reptile jaw from an animal called... (full context)
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Shubin returns to Nova Scotia in the summer of 1985, hoping to find more trithledont fossils,... (full context)
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Shubin and Amaral dig out the volcanic rock site, finding that there are patches of sandstone... (full context)
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...of the teeth. This mineral distinguishes human hardness from the hard exoskeletons of other animals. Shubin then turns to investigating where hydroxyapatite came from. (full context)
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...of all body structures that form within skin, such as scales, fur, hair, or feathers. Shubin compares the process to a new assembly line process; once teeth were developed, animals reused... (full context)
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Shubin recaps what the book has argued so far, tracing how the same organ can be... (full context)
Chapter 5: Getting Ahead
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As a graduate student, Shubin had to study the nerves of the human body for an anatomy final. Two of... (full context)
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...these two nerves serve the same function, even crisscrossing over each other at times. Yet Shubin illustrates the sense of these nerves by describing the plumbing of an old building. In... (full context)
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Shubin also relates the head to the body, following the insight of the German writer Johannes... (full context)
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Tracing Heads: From Headless Wonders to our Headed Ancestors. Shubin extends the comparison of human heads to shark and frog heads, then further to worm... (full context)
Chapter 6: The Best-laid (Body) Plans
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The Common Plan: Comparing Embryos. Shubin started to become really interested in studying fish and amphibians when he looked at embryos.... (full context)
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Shubin explains what happens to the “embryo” after conception. For the first few days, the embryo... (full context)
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...von Baer’s approach (comparing embryos to other embryos) is ultimately more useful because it allows Shubin to investigate the mechanisms that might drive evolution in the first place. To do that,... (full context)
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...Inner Sea Anemone. Moving away from the relatively easy comparison between humans, frogs, and fish, Shubin turns to jellyfish. Animals like jellyfish do not have a front/back axis, using one hole... (full context)
Chapter 7: Adventures in Bodybuilding
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In graduate school, Shubin studied how the cells of a salamander or frog come together to make bones, by... (full context)
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...the movement of bacterial mats. Now that Sprigg’s rocks show when the first bodies developed, Shubin turns to how and why bodies would happen. (full context)
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Shubin now dives into how bone tissue is connected, as bones are essential to keeping the... (full context)
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...a chain reaction of molecules in the cell until the message reaches the cell’s nucleus. Shubin hopes to find the first bodies where these mechanisms of cell attachment and communication were... (full context)
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Placazoans and sponges are as simple as bodies can get. To find out anything more, Shubin must turn to single-celled microbes. For years, scientists assumed that the genetic information of microbes... (full context)
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Shubin now has the “when”: 600 million years ago, the “how”: adhering together through molecular rivets... (full context)
Chapter 8: Making Scents
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...some molecular biologists suggested that their research would replace “dead end” disciplines like paleontology. Yet Shubin explains that the fossil record is still a valuable source of evidence, working with DNA... (full context)
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Shubin explains how to extract DNA from a plant, blending together the tissues, adding salt, dish... (full context)
Chapter 9: Vision
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Shubin describes the only time he has ever found a fossilized eye. In a small mineral... (full context)
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...important look into the history of the parts that make up the complex human eye. Shubin compares the eye to a car, where the development of the car as a whole... (full context)
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...from light-detecting patches, to compound eyes in insects, or simple versions of the camera eye. Shubin compares all these different kinds of eyes by studying the molecules that gather light, the... (full context)
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Genes. In order to understand how eyes that look different can be related, Shubin turns to the genes that create eyes. In the early 1900s Mildred Hoge studied flies... (full context)
Chapter 10: Ears
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Starting with the ear bones, Shubin recalls from Chapter 5 that two of the ear bones (the malleus and the incus)... (full context)
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If the malleus and the incus evolved from the reptilian jaw, Shubin now turns to the development of the stapes. This tiny bone in the middle ear... (full context)
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...and send a signal to the brain that is interpreted as sound, position, or acceleration. Shubin imagines the inner ear like a snow globe with a flexible case that also moves... (full context)
Chapter 11: The Meaning of It All
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The Zoo in You. In college, Shubin volunteered at the American Museum of Natural History, where he would listen in on weekly... (full context)
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...means that organisms are modified versions of the DNA of their parents. Using this knowledge, Shubin suggests that it is possible to build a family tree of how closely related a... (full context)
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Shubin illustrates this idea of descent with modification using the analogy of a family of clowns.... (full context)
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Now replace the “clown features” with actual human traits, and Shubin has a simple model of human genetic descent with modification. The only problem is that... (full context)
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Shubin begins to walk through the family tree of the human species, noting the modifications that... (full context)
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Why History Makes Us Sick. Shubin says that he once hurt his knee badly, finding out that he had torn his... (full context)
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Epilogue. Shubin says that he often takes his children to zoos, museums, and aquariums, a far different... (full context)
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For Shubin, Apollo 8 represents the power of science to explain our universe and the essential human... (full context)