Your Inner Fish

Your Inner Fish is a fascinating new book by palaeontologist Prof. Neil Shubin. Using his knowledge of palaeontology and anatomy, Shubin unravels the connections between humans and every other animal that has ever been on this planet. The book starts off with Shubin explaining how palaeontology works, how sites are chosen, how digs are done and how fossils are found. Then he describes his most famous find of Tiktaalik, a fossilized fish whose fin bones reveal how it must’ve been the missing link between fish and tetrapods. From here on the book gently turns towards explaining how the various features of humans (brain, nerves, eyes, ear, nose and such) have evolved from beings that lived millions of years ago. In all chapters, he covers his bases well by using fossils, comparative anatomy, embryology and DNA analysis for explaining.

Don’t get misled by the descriptions, this book is an un-put-downable and easy read. There’s a casual demeanour in the writing, and this is the first book which I’ve read where the author is both direct and detailed about how certain strange artefacts in our bodies are the results of evolution from fishes and other beings. Shubin even goes as far back as single celled organisms to explain certain features in our anatomy! This book definitely filled the gaps on some niggling doubts left behind by rote textbooks, for example why/how/when did single celled organisms come together to form multi-cellular organisms and finally larger and complex animals? Refreshingly (for a book published in 2008), the Creationism vs. Evolution debate is never touched! In fact, Shubin avoids even mentioning evolution anywhere, it’s taken for granted. This is a good read, loved it.

Exile And The Kingdom

I have been reading Exile And The Kingdom by Albert Camus over the past 2 weeks. It is a collection of 6 short stories by this Nobel laureate who wrote in French. I read from a 1966 Penguin edition, which is a translation to English by Justin O’Brien. These stories are detailed, picturesque, expansive and very subtle. This book has to be read in quiet settings with a still mind. The settings of the stories go from deep in the Brazilian jungle to the deserts of Algeria to Spain and France. People, cultures, especially French and Algerian, Camus is a French-Algerian, faith and spirituality play a part in all the stories. Though the stories are simple on the surface, they go deep with multiple interpretations. I do not think I got most of the interpretations. I am getting to appreciate the stories a lot more by following the book discussion at BookTalk here. The book is just 152 pages, but it takes a lot of mental chewing. Good read, I should read more Camus.

An excerpt from The Growing Stone, the last story in the book which is set in Brazil:

The night was full of fresh aromatic scents. Above the forest the few stars in the austral sky, blurred by an invisible haze, were shining dimly. The humid air was heavy. Yet it seemed delightfully cool on coming out of the hut. D’Arrast climbed the slippery slope, staggering like a drunken man in the potholes. The forest, near by, rumbled slightly. The sound of the river increased. The whole continent was emerging from the night, and loathing overcame D’Arrast. It seemed to him that he would have liked to spew forth this whole country, the melancholy of its vast expanses, the glaucous light of its forests, and the nocturnal lapping of its big deserted rivers. This land was too vast, blood and seasons mingled here, and time liquefied. Life here was flush with the soil, and, to identify with it, one had to lie down and sleep for years on the muddy or dried-up ground itself. Yonder, in Europe, there was shame and wrath. Here, exile or solitude, among these listless and convulsive madmen who danced to die. But through the humid night, heavy with vegetable scents, the wounded bird’s outlandish cry, uttered by the beautiful sleeping girl, still reached his ears.

(Emphasis mine.)