This post is essentially composed of a quote from the preface of Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (Pantheon Books, New York, 2008), a book I can recommend to everybody with interest in biology. By posting this text, I am greeting a colleague and friend who is right now struggling with comparative anatomy. I am also celebrating the year of Darwin, which had not yet been marked on this blog.
"This book grew out of an extraordinary circumstance in my life. On account of faculty departures, I ended up directing the human anatomy course at the medical school of the University of Chicago. Anatomy is the course during which nervous first-year medical students dissect human cadavers... This is their grand entrance to the world of medicine, a formative experience on their path to becoming physicians. At first glance, you couldn't have imagined a worse candidate for the job of training the next generation of doctors: I'm a paleontologist who has spent most of his career working on fish.
It turns out that being a paleontologist is a huge advantage in teaching human anatomy. Why? The best road maps to human bodies lie in the bodies of other animals. The simplest way to teach students the nerves in the human head is to show them the state of affairs in sharks. The easiest road maps to their limbs lies in fish. Reptiles are a real help with the structure of the brain. The reason is that the bodies of these creatures are often simpler versions of ours.
During the summer of my second year leading the course... my colleagues and I discovered fossil fish that gave us powerful new insights... That discovery and my foray into teaching human anatomy led me to explore a profound connection. That exploration became this book."