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Some Assembly Required, Neil Shubin (review) [Long]

Some Assembly Required, Neil Shubin, Pantheon/Penguin Random House, March 2020, ISBN 978-1101871331, publisher’s price HB $26.95, £20.72. Publication date March 17

A shorter version of this review has appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.

This book will be of interest to anyone who is interested in the way in which evolution actually proceeds, and the insights that we are now gaining into the genome, which controls the process. The author, Neil Shubin, has made major contributions to our understanding, using in turn the traditional methods of palaeontology and  comparative anatomy, and the newer methods of molecular biology that have emerged in the last few decades. He is writing about subject matter that he knows intimately, often describing the contributions of scientists that he knows personally. Like Shubin’s earlier writings, the book is a pleasure to read, and I was not surprised to learn here that Shubin was a teaching assistant in Stephen Jay Gould’s lectures on the history of life.

Shubin is among other things Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. He first came to the attention of a wider public for the discovery of Tiktaalik, completing the bridge between lungfish and terrestrial tetrapods, and that work is described and placed in context in his earlier book, Your Inner Fish. The present volume is an overview, from his unique perspective, of our understanding of evolutionary change, from Darwin, through detailed palaeontological studies, and into the current era of molecular biology, a transition that, as he reminds us, parallels his own intellectual evolution.

18 March 2020, this just in: Fish finger fossils show the beginnings of hands; The researchers analyzed the fin to determine its skeletal structure.

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Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates

This article explains exactly what endogenous retroviruses are, the many distinctive features that leave no doubt as to their identity, and how they provide crushingly strong evidence for common ancestry. The argument from endogenous retroviruses to evolution in general, and to specific family trees, is to my mind one of the most immediately convincing (compare, 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, Sec. 4.5).

As the article points out, the odds against any ERV occurring in the same place in humans and chimps is about 1 in 10^4; humans and chimps share 100,000 ERVs in the same locations, and the odds against this would then be 1 in 10^400,000. By my arithmetic, allowing for the 0.1% where there is no match changes this to 1 in 10^399,800, still a ridiculously vast number.

I would also have welcomed numbers showing where gorillas, for instance, fit into the picture, and numbers of ERVs specific to each species.

The final section of this post is addressed to those who, like the author, regard the Bible as divinely inspired but not as literally true. The argument goes back to Maimonides, if not Augustine, and here forms part of the ongoing civil war within the Abrahamic religions between Fundamentalists and Modernists. Not my battle.

Letters to Creationists

Introduction to Endogenous Retroviruses

Advances in biochemical technology since 2000 have allowed us to determine the full DNA sequences for humans and other animals. This new information has illuminated our evolutionary history. A number of patterns in our DNA are consistent with a common ancestry of humans and other primates.

One such genetic feature is the distribution of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) in our genomes. As most readers know, viruses work by introducing their RNA or DNA into a host cell, and hijacking the host cell’s genetic machinery to start making more copies of the virus. Some viruses, called “retroviruses”, do this by having their RNA transcribed into DNA, which then gets inserted into the cell’s DNA genome. (This is considered “retro”, because normally in a cell DNA is transcribed into RNA, not the other way around). The HIV virus that causes AIDS is an example of a retrovirus. Once the…

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