The Universe Within mirrors our odd place in evolution
By Neil Shubin. Pantheon, 225 pp, hardcover
What is it with Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the University of California, Berkeley, that attracts brilliant scientific minds who also happen to be top-notch writers of popular science?
Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins all spent varying terms of residence at one or more of those institutions as either students, researchers, or teachers. And now along comes Neil Shubin, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, like Gould, who studied at UC Berkeley and Harvard and who teaches at Chicago. His second book, The Universe Within, picks up where his first, the successful Your Inner Fish, left off—sort of.
Almost a decade ago, Shubin codiscovered, in Nunavut, Tiktaalik roseae, a transitional fossil (sometimes called a “missing link”) of a species that had “intelligent design” creationists wetting their britches after they had spent 15 years lovingly assembling their tin-can rocket of theistic “science” on its Tinkertoy gantry.
The fossil basically proved the existence of intermediate species between different kinds of vertebrates—in this case, ancient fish and, essentially, the earliest amphibians (tetrapods). There’s a little Tiktaalik in all of us, and that was at the core of Shubin’s first book, which, improbably, showed how our bodies’ design is linked to the physical organization of our planet’s ancient bacteria, worms, and fish.
In The Universe Within (subtitled Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People), Shubin trades his magnifying glass for a telescope, to start with, and demonstrates how the evolution of the universe itself is mirrored in our bodies. It swaps our solar system’s relatively brief time line for a 13.7-billion-year odyssey that gets partially unlocked by academics crawling around on their hands and knees in Greenland and on Ellesmere Island.
It’s bloody fascinating, has great historical merit (and he credits everybody for their contributions to the canon), and, best of all, makes sense. This is the kind of book that should be mandatory reading for all senior high-school students. From his musings on the value of bush pilots’ eyesight to his “playground bully” speculations on species domination through catastrophe, Shubin grounds scientific conjecture in everyday anecdotes.
His writing is entertaining but not what one would call “breezy” (and certainly not as funny as Bill Bryson, but so what?). Most importantly, it is accessible: perhaps a bit more so than Gould, a lot more so than Stephen Hawking or Oliver Sacks, but maybe not as much as Sagan. Does this make Shubin the Goldilocks choice of science writers and readers? Why not?
He has earned his spot in the big bears’ house.