As Shubin explains the significance of discoveries like the fossil Tiktaalik or the fly genome project, he also celebrates the journeys that humans take to make these discoveries. Shubin intersperses his writing with episodes of his expeditions to the Arctic or other fossil fields and describes the work that goes into finding just one fossil. This makes the journey to finding the fossil as important and exciting as the discovery itself. Shubin also gives short backstories about the historical scientists that made important strides for the scientific community as a whole. These men and women made important contributions to the work of modern scientists, even if their scientific work seemed useless at the time. For example, Randy Dahn’s work manipulating the genetic information of shark embryos might not be that useful in and of itself, but Dahn’s discovery that shark embryos use the same process to develop their fins that humans use to develop their hands points to the possibility that human hands developed from an ancestral shark-like fin over thousands of centuries. Furthermore, Dahn’s experiments on shark and skate embryos helped other scientists figure out how to better address genetic defects in humans who did not develop functional hands.
This theme thus emphasizes the idea that all scientific work is collaborative in some sense, as the scientists of today build on the discoveries of earlier scientists. Layers of past knowledge and discovery pave the way for future scientists to make even greater discoveries, some of which could benefit the entire human race. Shubin’s book honors and recognizes all human discovery and points out how valuable this type of work is for all humanity, even if the applications of a specific discovery are not immediately obvious.
Scientific Discovery ThemeTracker
Scientific Discovery Quotes in Your Inner Fish
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.