Posts Tagged ‘the ancestor’s tale’

Communing with your inner fish

September 3, 2008

Continuing (and concluding) my series entitled “Books I Bought in Seattle,” I will now regale the reader with my impressions of Neil Shubin’s recent book, Your Inner Fish.

The book is an exploration of the history of human evolution, in the only place available to us: the bodies of other animals, extand and ancient. Shubin points out the one-to-one correspondence between the bones in our limbs, and the limbs of all other tetrapods, to those of the Devonian fish he helped discover, Tiktaalik. He describes how the general body plan of vertebrates was in place 550 million years ago in the Cambrian, and perhaps even in the Precambrian, as evidenced by the famous Ediacaran fossils. He similarly explores the evolution of vision, of hearing, of the sense of smell, and points out how all our wonderfully complex sense organs have analogues in far more (seemingly) humble creatures.

Shubin’s lively and playful writing captures the breathless excitement that surrounds each new scientific discovery, and I delighted in his accounts of the findings that shaped our knowledge of evolution. He succeeds in portraying scientists as ordinary people, whose job happens to be probing the underlying nature of the universe. I have to thank him also for his clear explanation of the gene Sonic hedgehog. The only complaint I would level against it is that I fear he sometimes dumbs down his accounts too much; there was more than one place in the book that I felt would benefit from the actual terminology, rather than a more general explanation by analogy. But this is a minor complaint, as evidenced by the fact that I did not provide an example.

The fundamental theme of the book is that, as remarkable as we are, we are an inextricable part of the tapestry of life, no more and no less remarkable than anything else that lives. Everything that makes us what we are is derived from something that ran or flew or swam upon the Earth before. Within each of us is an inner fish, and an inner ape, and an inner reptile, and an inner bacterium (trillions of these, actually); reading Shubin’s book is an excellent way to gain acquaintance with them. (Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale is another.)

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Sexuality and Discontinuous Thinking

May 8, 2008

I can’t recommend Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale enough. The UK hardcover edition, at least, is beautifully bound, breathtakingly illustrated, and endlessly fascinating. But I’ll leave the commercial there. I bring it up because in a part of the book called “The Grasshopper’s Tale” (if I remember correctly) Dawkins cautions against “discontinuous thinking.” This is the habit of grouping things into distinct, mutually exclusive categories, such as “short” and “tall” or “black” and “white,” when in reality these qualities fall on a continuum. A Scientific American podcast I listened to recently referenced a study into sexual orientation that suggests that “gay” and “straight” may need to be added to the list.

The podcast referred to an article in Scientific American Mind, which is freely available on the author’s website. (I acknowledge that this is pretty old.) The article appears to be mostly a persuasive piece, but at the end Dr. Epstein describes his index, the Sexual Orientation Continuum, which is designed to tell you how “gay” or “straight” you are. (Why “straight?” Are gay people “crooked?”)

This is a fascinating idea to me, and one I endorse purely for aesthetic reasons, though I’d like to see more research done. I think, for example, that much of the difficulty many people have in accepting evolution is their habit of looking at different species as distinct “kinds” of organisms. They are victims of discontinuous thinking, failing to understand that “species” is a purely arbitrary distinction, useable only because so many of the intermediate species are extinct. It seems to me that this same difficulty pervades many people’s thinking about sexual orientation.

The article boils down to this: people can’t be tidily assigned to either the “homo” or “hetero” camps. There is a continuum from 100% gay to 100% straight, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle (though for obvious evolutionary reasons, the distribution skews strongly to the “straight” side.) Dr. Epstein’s test can be taken for free online. Why not give it a try?

(I got a mean of 0.5 with a range of 1, for anyone who’s wondering. How boring!)