Tiktaalik roseae - a transitional
life-form between fish and amphibians.
Life restoration made for the
National Science Foundation
This may be a science book but it's brilliantly written, followable even by those like myself, who don't have a science background, but is never patronising. It's part-science, part-adventure story (lots of fossil hunting in remote places), part-medical mystery. In short, it's just wonderful. Neil Shubin's a great writer, his enthusiasm for his work shines throughout the book, as does his sense of humour.
Shubin's background is as a paleontologist, but he ended up directing a human anatomy course at the University of Chicago. The two seemingly different jobs converged when he started to recognise how human anatomy relates to what would seem to be completely different animals - our ear bones, for example, are related to jaw bones in fish, while mutations in receptors for hearing gave us colour vision. It's a most extraordinary read.
The book (I nearly wrote "novel" because it does have the narrative pace of the best detective stories) opens with a fossil-hunting expedition up near the Arctic circle on Ellesmere Island, here they discovered the fossilised remains of Tiktaalik, a type of extinct lobe-finned fish from the late Devonian period (375 million years ago). What's really important about Tiktaalik is that it's a transitional life form between fish-like waterbound animals, and amphibians. Tiktaalik possessed a neck, and a wrist enabling it to have some walking function (it could do push-ups!)
Of course it's not certain that Tiktaalik is an ancestor of ours. That particular evolutionary path may have ended with our fossilised friend, but it's a possibility, and this book weaves through evolutionary history effortlessly, informing and educating, and explaining how our very ancient history can have profound implications for our daily lives today. If you only read one science book read this one - it's amazing, you'll never think of yourself in quite the same way again.