Contented Reader

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Book review: Your Inner Fish

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Your Inner Fish

Neil Shubin

Vintage Books




For me, Your Inner Fish finished the learning process that began with Ken Ham.

I grew up fundamentalist, a member of the small and little-known Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.  You might know them as the group that once split the denomination over the question of whether or not it was theologically correct to have a piano in the church.

I was teaching junior high school in the tiny Christ Centered School (school mascot: the Crusaders) when I was called upon to teach science.  As a person with a BA in English, I was not ideally qualified to teach science, but neither was anyone else teaching there at the moment, and so I did my best.  I didn’t know much about science, so I was teaching myself as I taught my students, from our highly specialized Christian science textbook (if you’re looking for a curriculum to avoid, you can’t do much better than A Beka Books).  My ignorance actually made me a good teacher, because I would bounce into the classroom thrilled by the new thing I had just learned.  (“Hey, kids!  Did you know there are different kinds of clouds?  How cool is that?”)

All the  textbook said about evolution was that Darwin was a bad scientist, and that his theory, that humans had descended from lower life forms, had been widely discredited.  I didn’t feel that gave me a full enough understanding to answer students’ questions, and so I started looking for books on the subject.

Because when I am curious about something, I always look for books.

All the people I knew who were interested in the origins of life spoke highly of Ken Ham’s wonderful books about creation science, and so this was where I started.  But, as a person who was already reading widely in a variety of subjects, it did not take me long to recognize that Ham’s books had certain flaws.

They were published very amateurishly.  The writing quality was poor.  And the reasoning- not knowing much about science, I was open to taking Ham at his word when he explained the reasons that the physical world proved that it was created by God, but it was hard to do that when, every once in a while, he would say something that I recognized as insane.  The Loch Ness Monster is real, and evidence that dinosaurs are not extinct, for example.  Hell is physically located beneath the Earth’s crust, and there are certain caves where you can hear the screams from there.

Ask me sometime about how Noah fit all those dinosaurs on the ark.

Now, I didn’t really doubt that God had made the world by speaking it into existence 6000 years ago, since that was what all the older and wiser people I knew said was true.  But this book was clearly written by a crazy person, and the fact that so many of the older and wiser people I knew did not recognize that was the first sign that something about my religious beliefs was seriously wrong.

So I did what I do: I went to the library, and got as big a stack of books as I could carry, by creation scientists and by evolutionists.  Yes, I know, those terms are a little skewed, but those were the words I knew, at the time.

In Star Trek fandom at the time, there was a delightful intellectual exercise: one would find something that appeared to be a continuity error in series and movies, and them come up with a logical reason why it made sense after all.  The more plausible the explanation, the more merit was due the fan who created it.  My personal favorite is the completely plausible reasoning that the reason for the complete difference in appearance between the Klingons of the original series and the later films was that a race war had shifted the dominant Klingon race, and the once-marginalized bumpy-headed Klingons were now the majority, having vanquished the previously ruling class of much more human-looking Klingons.  And not, you know, that the movies had a larger makeup budget.

As I read books on evolution and books on creation, I couldn’t help noticing how much the creation science logic resembled the logic of fans trying to explain why the stardates on Star Trek don’t appear to correspond to any known system of timekeeping.  They started with the predetermined conclusion, then made the facts work, stretching the reasoning just as far and as improbable as it would go.  I was stunned at the comparative simplicity of the books on evolution:  “Here is what we see,” they said.  “Here is what we think it means.  Here’s how we tested that.”  And, most shockingly, “Here’s how we were wrong, and how we adjusted our thinking.”

I don’t think I remember ever reading about a creationist adjusting his thinking or being wrong.

For the first time, I was really learning about science.  I had memorized terms and dissected worms in school, but this was the first time I really wrapped my mind around the broader ideas of how people use science to understand the world.

Please don’t get me wrong, though.  I could see that the kinds of reason the biologists used were much simpler and more direct than the kinds of reason the creationists used, but their books were still difficult to understand, because I was reading them with the only tool I had- a fundamentalist Christian brain, steeped in assumptions I didn’t even know were there, and with very little science background that I had truly understood.

I knew this was important, though.  There was something massively important about the nature of the world, right at the edge of my understanding, and I was determined to figure it out.

I got it well enough to accept that it was true, and the experience helped me to question some of the other assumptions the older and wiser people around me were making.  Was the graceful submission of women to men really a necessary part of the natural order?  Is drinking alcohol really likely to lead to alcoholism?  Is it possible, could it be possible, that I could admit to myself that I am gay and not be damned?

So thank you, Ken Ham, for starting me on the road that led me ultimately to notice that the whole house of cards is built on the assumption that (a) any sort of deity exists, and (b) the only deity that exists is the one taught by the elders of the Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, and (c ) we have any way of knowing that with certainty.

But (to get back to the book) it was this book, Your Inner Fish, that finally helped me really grasp the theory of evolution in a deeper way, how it works, and how we can know that it really happened.  Was it that the book focuses very specifically on one fossil, tiktaalik, and explains in detail how that fossil connects human beings with their fishy ancestors?  Was it that Neil Shubin is a masterful explainer of biology for the lay reader?  Or was it just that I finally read enough different explanations of evolution, and this happened to be the final piece that helped my brain put it all together?

Who knows?

But if you want to know more about why you have the skeleton of a fish inside your human body, you should totally read this book.


Written by Contented Reader

July 27, 2011 at 7:59 am

Posted in Reviews


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