Taking the Universe Personally: Neil Shubin’s “The Universe Within”

The full title is The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body, (2013). Neil Shubin explores the connections between us and the history of not only the planet but the cosmos as well.

The molecules that compose our bodies arose in stellar events in the distant origin of the solar system. Changes to Earth’s atmosphere sculpted our cells and entire metabolic machinery. Pulses of mountain building, changes in orbits of the planet, and revolutions within Earth itself have had an impact on our bodies, minds, and the way we perceive the world around us. (Kindle location 197)

The linkages are fascinating. For example, huge Jupiter, formed before earth, attracted debris swirling around our early sun and influenced how the other planets formed and what they were like. “The formation of Jupiter defined the size of Earth and, in so doing, the pull of gravity on all things on its surface” (737). Had Earth been larger, its gravity would be stronger and we would be shorter and stockier. Smaller, we would be taller and thinner. A different Jupiter and we would “move, feed, and interact with our planet” differently.

Neil Shubin is Professor and Associate Dean of Organismal Biology and Anatomy,at the University of Chicago. (interactive.wttw.com)

Neil Shubin is Professor and Associate Dean of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago.

Different readers will be impressed by different connections. I found the most significance in events that impacted the course of biological evolution. One example is the shift from single-celled creatures exclusively during the first two billion years of life on earth to the beginning of bodies—plant and then animal. Early life was small. It was more affected by the interaction of molecules than by  gravity. Single cells transport oxygen, food and waste by diffusion through the cell. But bodies require organs and systems for transport. Why did life become bigger? Oxygen, a chemical energizer, became more available after a decline in the number of undersea volcanoes that had been spewing gases that consumed oxygen. “Life changes Earth, Earth changes life, and those of us walking the planet today carry the consequences within”(1344).

And I got goose bumps when Shubin described the cooling of earth that favored the mutation in mammals for seeing colors which in turn enabled them to find more nutritious fruit. The tracing of a particular human ability back to a huge geological shift was, to me, thrilling. But I had no goose bumps for other linkages that seemed more general and less personal—the impact of the moon’s birth, for example, on the length of our days, seasons, and circadian rhythms. For other readers, though, the goose bumps may come the other way around. What arouses our awe depends on the questions we ask about life, what we feel driven to understand, and what scares us.

Shubin refers to religion only once. He cites William James’ observation that religious experience emanates from our

‘feeling at home in the universe.’ With bodies composed of particles derived from the birth of stellar bodies and containing organs shaped by the workings of planets, eroding rock, and the action of the seas, it is hard not to see home everywhere. (2529)

Some readers may find it difficult to see home everywhere in the way that Shubin does. But his synthesis helps make separate descriptions of biology or the planet or the cosmos less adequate as grand accounts of that home.


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