Thursday, April 17, 2008

Neil Shubin Celebrates the Fish

During the past few years American scientists have been bemoaning the lack of accessible science literature, particularly in the field of biology. And they have a right to worry about this.

While biologists and paleontologists are going off and doing important things like researching, teaching, and studying, a group of other people are engaging skilled PR to convince the American public that evolution is somehow a "theory in crisis." Creationists (often camouflaged as "Intelligent Design Theorists") ARE churning out accessible literature about their theories, basically because their theories are so empty that they don't even BOTHER spending time to research them.

I suspect that this was the real motivation behind Neil Shubin's "Your Inner Fish" -- an attempt to quickly get an entertaining layperson's guide to evolution into the marketplace. By quietly revealing the mountain of evidence behind common descent, and by exposing the positively UNDESIGNED aspects of our bodies -- nobody would EVER deliberately build us this way, but it all makes sense if you go back and look at our fish ancestors -- Shubin fires a friendly salvo in a way that anybody can come along and appreciate.

And the book IS lots of fun. He draws on particularly bizarre aspects of our bodies to show why things sometimes go wrong -- hiccups, bed-spins, hemorrhoids -- interspersed with the "human element" of his personal thoughts while dissecting cadavers or searching for transitional fossils. His examples are clear-cut and the illustrations excellent. I've no doubt that this book will fulfill its intent as ammunition for countering the more prevalent creationist propaganda.

But Shubin isn't a fantastic writer, and the book has a hurried quality to it: occasional grammatical and word-usage errors ("jerry-rigged" keeps being used, and others have criticized the books usage of the loaded term "primitive" to describe anything pre-mammal) and often Shubin's prose sounds a bit TOO informal to my ears. Plus, no doubt due to the intended audience of total science newbies, he tends to over-explain the things the rest of us already know, and then gloss over the more technical details that we'd really enjoy reading about. The section on the Bozo family was particularly gaggy.

So basically, "Your Inner Fish" is not intended to be read by anybody who is already -- say -- avidly reading Panda's Thumb and its offshoot blogs, though it does have some interesting new twists and turns, and it CERTAINLY gives a clear (though sort of flippant) description of its subjects. If you'd like a primer on common descent and evidence for evolution, however, this book is certainly for you.

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