Let me start by saying we’re not a bunch of geeks. No pocket protectors or thick-rimmed eyeglasses repaired with tape here. But we do geek out about a lot of things. By that, I mean we get excited by a wide range of things—sometimes inordinately so—many arcane and esoteric. And we drill deep.
WTF? Random food for thought is a veritable catalog of many of my geek outs: Art, urban living, photography, the written word… pretty much anything that catches my magpie eye. Where else have you read about Samuel Pepys’ diary, for instance?
One of Marion’s geek out indulgences is buying the Tuesday New York Times every single Tuesday for the Science Times section. She always finds something interesting in it. On February 19, it was this: An article by Natalie Angier entitled “What People Owe Fish: A Lot.” Angier catalogs exactly what a lot means. And even better, she does it with witty writing, something we both geek out over. The first paragraph of this passage is a perfect example:
You like having a big, centralized brain encased in a protective bony skull, with all the sensory organs conveniently attached? Fish invented the head.
You like having pairs of those sense organs, two eyes for binocular vision, two ears to localize sounds and twinned nostrils so you can follow your nose to freshly baked bread or the nape of a lover’s irresistibly immunocompatible neck? Fish were the first to wear their senses in sets.
They premiered the pairing of appendages, too, through fins on either side of the body that would someday flesh out into biceps, triceps, rotating wrists and opposable thumbs.
Or how about that animated mouth of yours, with its hinged and muscular jaws; its enameled, innervated teeth; and a tongue that dares to taste a peach or, if it must, get up and give a speech? Fish founded the whole modern buss we now ride.
Angier’s source for this startling information? A fascinating new book by Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum—Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.
According to the Field Museum, in 2006, a discovery by Dr. Shubin and his colleagues made headlines around the world. It was a fossil called Tiktaalik roseae, a “missing link” between fish and land animals. On expedition in Arctic Canada, they unearthed the 375-million-year-old fossil fish “whose fins contained the same structure found today in the limbs of all walking animals! Tiktaalik represented one of the earliest ancestors of creatures that left the sea to live on land.”
Our inner fish extends beyond physicality too. Angier cites other researchers who point out that fish have some of the most complex social systems known; they help each other and exhibit cooperation and forms of reciprocity. In fact, as her article reports, “In laboratory experiments, the researchers have shown that when subordinate [fish] are temporarily prevented from performing their duties, the fish compensate at the first chance by ostentatiously redoubling displays of helpful behaviors.”
Okay, I geek out as much as the next guy—and perhaps more than some. But doesn’t it seem that the researchers who devised these experiments maybe crossed some sort of line? I hope they’re already married. Let’s say you meet someone in a bar and the conversation turns to what you do for a living. You start talking about experimenting with fish subs and you are so not going home with a phone number.