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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Evolution

Some Assembly Required Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA

Popular Science
By: Neil Shubin(Author), Kalliopi Monoyios(Illustrator)
271 pages, 40 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
A showstopper of a book, Some Assembly Required is an utterly engrossing exploration of the many unexpected shortcuts that have allowed rapid and large transitions in the evolution of life.
Some Assembly Required
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  • Some Assembly Required ISBN: 9781786079428 Paperback Apr 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
  • Some Assembly Required ISBN: 9781786078018 Hardback Mar 2020 Out of Print #247509
Selected version: £11.99
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About this book

The author of the bestselling Your Inner Fish gives us a brilliant, up-to-date account of the great transformations in the history of life on Earth. Over billions of years, fish evolved to walk on land, reptiles transformed into birds that fly, and ape-like primates changed into humans who walk on two legs, talk and write. This is a story full of surprises. If you think that feathers arose to help animals fly, or lungs to help them walk on land, you'd be in good company. You'd also be entirely wrong. Neil Shubin delves deep into the mystery of life, the ongoing revolutions in our understanding of how we got here, and brings us closer to answering one of the great questions – was life on earth inevitable…or was it all an accident?

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A showstopper of a book, utterly engrossing
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 25 Mar 2020 Written for Hardback

    The history of life is punctuated by major transitions and inventions: fish that moved onto land, reptiles that turned into birds. But how did these happen? In Some Assembly Required, Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy Neil Shubin provides an up-to-date and utterly engrossing account of the latest thinking on the great transformations in evolution. And he has one clue for you: nothing ever begins when you think it does...

    When Charles Darwin formulated his ideas, he was candid about weaknesses and gaps in his thinking. Shubin opens the book with one vocal critic, St. George Jackson Mivart, who thought Darwin's ideas were flawed. If evolution is a process of gradual changes via mutation and natural selection, then how are major transitions supposed to arise? It sounds like a sensible question and to this day creationists like to trot out this argument. Darwin had five words for Mivart (and I am not building up to an obscenity-laden punchline here): by a change of function. Shubin beautifully clarifies this on page 27: "innovations never come about during the great transitions they are associated with". I am just going to step back while you read that sentence again.

    What Shubin gets at is that evolution takes shortcuts. Rather than inventing new traits from scratch, it repurposes existing ones. Examples Shubin gives are air-breathing in fish, which was repurposed to make lungs in land animals, and feathers on dinosaurs that originally evolved in a different context, but were repurposed for flight. Shubin has spent a research career working on our fishy ancestor, Tiktaalik rosaea, which was the subject of his previous book Your Inner Fish.

    This is but one of the many ways in which evolution can achieve rapid and major transitions. Subtle changes during embryonic development can have large impacts later in life. Shubin introduces German naturalists Karl Ernst von Baer, who observed that early-stage embryos of different species looked very similar, and Ernst Haeckel, who took that idea too far with his motto "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" and took some liberties with his famous embryo drawings (see my review of Haeckel's Embryos).

    The real kicker here? Walter Garstang and the sea squirt.

    Sea squirts hatch as free-swimming tadpoles, complete with nerve cord, gill slits, and a connective tissue rod, a sort of proto-backbone. Adult sea squirts lose all this when they metamorphose. Garstang proposed that the ancestor of all vertebrates resulted from the freezing of larval traits during sea squirt development. I came across this before when reviewing the rather technical Across the Bridge, where Henry Gee mentions it almost off-handedly on page 167: "Paedomorphosis produced the ancestor of vertebrates". You would be forgiven for missing the significance of that sentence. Shubin's talent lies in turning this observation from a "What...?" into an "Oh my god!" moment.

    Or take Félix Vicq D'Azyr's realisation that some body parts are copies of each other. Ray Lankester's observation that species can evolve by losing traits. Stephen Jay Gould's thought experiment of "replaying the tape of life" and the question of how repeatable evolution is. (The answer: quite, see my review of Improbable Destinies.) Lynn Margulis's idea of endosymbiosis. Or Nicole King's work on choanoflagellates: the single-celled creatures you have never heard of that can form colonies and are the closest living relative to multicellular life forms.

    Time and again, Shubin shows how evolution can reuse, repurpose, or rejiggle already existing structures and processes. I don't know about you, but these kinds of spine-tingling revelations were what drew me to study biology.

    Another powerhouse of innovation is DNA, and genetics can tell us much about evolution. These sections are a giddy ride where Shubin highlights one after another stupendous concept. Take the huge similarity between e.g. chimps and humans. Genome sequencing revealed some 95%-98% similarity. Why are we so different then? Because DNA is not just a molecule containing gene after gene. Like a circuit board, it is a network, where some pieces of DNA function as switches that turn other genes on and off. This is the field of evolutionary development or evo-devo and offers another way for small changes to have big effects.

    Hox genes control the development of whole body segments and can be repurposed to make e.g. limbs. Most DNA does not even code for anything and Susumu Ohno surmised it results from copying processes gone wild, whether gene, chromosome or whole-DNA duplication. And then there is Barbara McClintock's discovery of jumping genes: selfish genetic elements that multiply and willy-nilly insert themselves all over a DNA molecule. And how about this? If such a jumping gene mutates and becomes a genetic switch, they can insert switches all over a genome. Dramatic new traits that at first sight would require an unlikely number of separate mutations suddenly become a whole lot more plausible. One example Shubin provides is the evolution of pregnancy.

    Even viruses are not exempt. You might remember that a virus commandeers a host's biochemical machinery for its own reproduction. Some viral genes can end up in the host's DNA by accident or, in the case of retroviruses, by design. This viral DNA can be neutered and repurposed, offering another option for rapid evolution (see my reviews of Viruses and Discovering Retroviruses). We even have turned this into a powerful biotechnological tool, CRISPR, that allows fine-scale gene editing, rather than the previous blunt tools of genetic modification (see my review of A Crack in Creation).

    Shubin reveals there is a plethora of pathways to rapid evolution and sudden transformations. Some Assembly Required is a very pleasant mix of the latest science, the historical roots of ideas, and the people behind them. Not infrequently, these stories of discovery show multiple people converging on the same idea at the same time. Or show people being far ahead of their time, resulting in them being ignored or even ostracized for heretical views. The latter, sadly, involves a fair share of brilliant women whose ideas were initially not taken seriously.

    Like a spider in a web, this book sits in the centre of a large number of topics I have been reading about, lighting up paths of intellectual enquiry branching off in different directions. For a moment, while reading this book, I was a young student again, attending lectures, and getting acquainted with mind-blowing ideas. Frequently funny and always eloquent, Shubin's power as a science communicator is to make you fall in love with evolutionary biology all over again.
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Neil Shubin is the author of Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within. He is the Robert R. Bensley Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago, and the provost of The Field Museum of Natural History. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2011. He lives in Chicago.

Popular Science
By: Neil Shubin(Author), Kalliopi Monoyios(Illustrator)
271 pages, 40 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
A showstopper of a book, Some Assembly Required is an utterly engrossing exploration of the many unexpected shortcuts that have allowed rapid and large transitions in the evolution of life.
Media reviews

"A rollicking ride [...] light of touch, anecdote-rich and funny, and yet [...] still feels satisfyingly informative [...] What's not to love?"
– Dr Tori Herridge

"Neil Shubin is one of the most accomplished writers on evolution and the history of life, and this book is a worthy successor to its predecessors."
– Richard Fortey, author of Life, The Earth and Fossils

"Another winner from Dr. Shubin, who skillfully and thoughtfully steers us through the incredibly fascinating world of DNA and fossils. Dr. Shubin's clear and engaging writing rewards us with a deeper understanding of how all life on our planet is interconnected. Steeped in the paradigm of evolutionary theory, he inspires us to think more deeply about our connectedness with the natural world. Charles Darwin would applaud Dr. Shubin's clear explanations and insightful rendering of the incontrovertible evidence for the evolution of all life on planet Earth."
– Donald Johanson, paleoanthropologist and discoverer of Lucy

"A welcome new exploration of the evolution of human and animal life on Earth [...] Shubin explores it with his characteristic enthusiasm and clarity [...] A fascinating wild ride through the mechanics of evolution."

"Neil Shubin has been one of my favourite science communicators ever since I took his undergraduate anatomy course. In this ambitious and readable book, Shubin blends his own research, epic tales from the history of science, and the latest discoveries in palaeontology and genetics to tackle some of the biggest mysteries of evolution. This is an engrossing account from a scientific storyteller at the height of his talents."
– Steve Brusatte, University of Edinburgh palaeontologist and author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

"Shubin's [...] exhilarating excursion into the ways of evolution [...] Shubin isn't the most prolific popular-science writer, but he is one of the best."

"Making complex scientific ideas both accessible to and enjoyable for the general public is a rare skill, but one that Shubin (Your Inner Fish) [...] has mastered in his eloquent survey. [...] This superb primer brings the intellectual excitement of the scientific endeavor to life in a way that both educates and entertains."
Publishers Weekly

"Through tales of remarkable creatures, and some even more remarkable people who study them, Neil Shubin unravels the mystery at the heart of evolution – how nature invents. From bacteria to brains, fish lungs to ballistic salamander tongues, Shubin decodes the surprising origins of the marvelous gadgets that have driven the riot of life's diversity."
– Sean B. Carroll, author of The Serengeti Rules and Brave Genius

"Shubin is not only a distinguished scientist, but a wonderfully lucid and elegant writer; he is an irrepressibly enthusiastic teacher [...] a science writer of the first rank."
– Oliver Sacks

"A magical storyteller."
– Richard Hamblyn

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