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My Inner Coelacanth June 14, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, climate, crime, politics, science, weird.
Tags: ,

The Penn Reading Project is a 20-year old tradition designed to introduce incoming freshman to “intellectual life at Penn.” Each spring, a small cabal of Penn faculty selects a book. In July, that book is sent—either as pulp or as DOI—to the matriculating class and to faculty discussion leader volunteers. Students are expected to participate in one or more faculty-led discussions about the book at several points during the year. It’s a neat idea. Having been a faculty member for nine years, I have yet to lead one of these discussions although I have read some of the books—Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” (PRP 2004), Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” (PRP 2007), and just now, a few years late, Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” (PRP 2008). By the way, last year’s PRP was not a book, but a Philadelphia Museum of Art painting by Philly native Thomas Eakins—“The Gross Clinic.” The selection of a painting rather than a book “… as the PRP subject launched as [sic] special series of “Arts and the City” events sponsored by College Houses & Academic Services and other university departments.” I hope it isn’t also a concession to the sad fact that generation Z (?) doesn’t read books.

Back to “Inner Fish.” I don’t know what the class of 2011 learned from it, but I learned three things. First, I learned that the complexity of life may appear miraculous—with features from wings to eyes and all the way down to basic multi-cellularity possible only through the most serendipitous alignment of the stars and molecules—but the reality is much closer to a mundane and iterative arms race between predator and prey. Many of the “advanced” mechanisms we have now are straightforward variations and combinations of mechanisms present in far simpler creatures—including microbes! Microbes could always chemically attach to one another for the purposes of feeding. That same ability was repurposed to enable multi-cellularity—which itself was probably a defense mechanism against being eaten by single-celled microbes. And so on. And so on. La di da.

Second, I learned a sea of fascinating facts about anatomy, development, and genetics. For instance, did you know that fish can smell but can’t hear and dolphins can hear but can’t smell? I didn’t. I suppose if you would have asked me “which of the ‘five senses’ are fish missing?” I would have guessed hearing because—”Finding Nemo” aside—that seems like that least useful sense in underwater life. But that would have been a guess. And if you would have asked me “which of the ‘five senses’ are dolphins missing?” I would have guess none. After all, they are mammals—and highly evolved ones at that—why should they not have all five senses? But they don’t. Evidently, smelling in water is genetically different than smelling in air—makes sense from a chemical standpoint I suppose. When dolphins returned to the water—being mammals, they are descendents of terrestrial creatures—they were equipped only with air-smell genes and machinery. Because that machinery is useless in the water, mutations that disable or distort it are operationally benign. Over time, those mutations accumulated and the mechanism broke down entirely—does this mean that dolphins can’t taste also? Humans have gone down this road a ways too. Over 300 of our roughly 1,000 air-smelling genes—that’s right, a full 3% of our genome is devoted to making cellular protrusions that can bind to and thus detect different kinds of chemicals in the air—are already disabled by this same mechanism. You like this kind of stuff? There’s more in the book. Did you know that 70% of your sensory cells are in your retinas? Did you know that non-primate mammals only have two kinds of color receptors and cannot distinguish as many colors as primates? Did you know that dogs and bees can smell fear?

But the last thing I learned? Don’t try to write a book if you aren’t at least a semi-professional writer! Know why “Tipping Point” and “Omnivore’s Dilemma” read so well? Because Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan are journalists! Neil Shubin is not a journalist and that’s why “Inner Fish” reads like a cross between a textbook and a Mr. Men book. And I like Mr. Men books! Maybe this doesn’t bother me as much as it would bother some other people, but when I read a book which uses big words and latin, I want to be “spoken to” like a grown-up. Neil, if this gets back to you, don’t take too much offense. It’s obviously easy for me to criticize having never written a book of my own—and not intending to in the forseeable future. You’ve obviously carved out an interesting and productive career for yourself. You’ve obviously made contributions to science. You obviously have many interesting things to say. But please, get a ghost-writer! I’m not looking forward to reading “Your Outer Geoduck.”

Anyways, it seems that Penn has learned its lesson. Fresh from my inbox, the 2010 PRP book is “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters” by Rose George, Penn alumna and thankfully—a journalist. It’s on the queue.

P.S. In the epilogue, Shubin mentions that the question he is asked most frequently about “Inner Fish” concerns climate change. Specifically, whether climate change will make Arctic paleontology easier. Really, people? That’s the most pressing climate change-related evolutionary question you have? I have a different one. Will climate change accelerate evolution by applying new external selection pressures? What new plant/animal/human variations are we going to see?

P.P.S. Don’t know what a Coelacanth is and too lazy to Wikipedia it? A Coelacanth—pronounced seal-a-kanth—is a lungfish with primitive arms and legs inside its fins. For a while, it was thought to be a link in the chain from fish to amphibians. For a while, it was also thought to be extinct seeing as the youngest specimen was a 60,000,000 year old fossil. Then in 1998, an Indonesian fishing trawler dragged one up. You can see why Bluejay likes Coelacanths—not only are they bluish, they are also quite handsome. Hey guys, where have you been hiding for the last 60,000,000 years?

P.P.P.S. Have your own idea about how to stop the BP oil spill? Contact this dude. detonating a nuke near the well to “squeeze it shut” has been suggested. Has anyone suggested trying to plug the leak with Joran van der Sloot? If he’s too small, maybe we could try Rush Limbaugh.

P.P.P.P.S. When I first read the headline, I thought this was a story about Sarah Palin.

P.P.P.P.P.S. I would have thought that fathering seven children with your own daughter was an isolated sickness. Apparently not.



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