People who are passionate about their subject tend to fall into two categories. There are those who will bore you at length on such subjects as the taxonomy of sponges or the structure of the inner ear. Then there are those whose passion is matched by an ability to communicate, who will make you understand why the taxonomy of sponges or the structure of the inner ear are actually amazing and fascinating subjects.
Neil Shubin covers both those subjects and more in his book Your Inner Fish. Shubin definitely falls into the latter camp of interesting experts – he refers several times to his teaching work and in the book you feel that you are being gently led through the subject by an excellent teacher. Shubin’s passion is using both fossils and DNA to assess what humans share with other forms of life. He refers not just to inner fish but inner flies, inner chickens and inner skates, among others. Like the best teachers, he has the ability to simplify difficult concepts without talking down to his readers. The book is suited to a general readership and no prior knowledge of the field is assumed. In fact, you have the sense that Shubin is particularly targeting those people who might have thought the subject boring. From genes called “sonic hedgehog” to an exploration of why tadpoles hiccup, Shubin is never less than engaging, and his enthusiasm for the subject shines through. In an era when science and in particular genetic experiments on animals have become the subject of a thousand horror films, it is refreshing to find someone who talks unashamedly of his love for science and his joy of living in an “age of discovery.” By the end of the book it is almost impossible not to share his wonder at “finding the basis for our humanity…nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that have ever lived on our planet.” Shubin should be congratulated on translating his passion into a readable and fascinating book.