BookBrowse Reviews Some Assembly Required by Neil Shubin

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Some Assembly Required

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

by Neil Shubin

Some Assembly Required by Neil Shubin X
Some Assembly Required by Neil Shubin
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Mar 2020, 288 pages

    Genres

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Ian Muehlenhaus
Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


A clear and fast-paced history of scientific discovery surrounding how life on Earth has developed and adapted, designed for the layperson by an evolutionary biologist.

Like the science covered in the book, Neil Shubin's Some Assembly Required is fascinating. The book is lucid, precise, and paced like a mystery thriller. Unlike many good "hard science" nonfiction books, you'll never find yourself asking, "Is this chapter almost over?"

Shubin has experience writing well-reviewed popular science books, and his prowess is on full display here. One has the feeling that the entire book was methodically outlined before being written. While the material itself is technical and dense, it is totally comprehensible. No dictionary required — new scientific terms are colloquially explained as they arise. In fact, Shubin even displays a sarcastic sense of humor about how daft scientific esotericism sounds in hindsight:

Haeckel, always quotable, coined a phrase linking the two that was to linger like an advertising jingle for many who studied biology in the twentieth century: 'Ontogeny [development] recapitulates phylogeny [evolutionary history].'

I came into this book not knowing anything about genetics. I had an inkling (I thought) about how evolution works, but nothing about DNA, amino acids or chromosomes. In 230 pages, Some Assembly Required not only informed me about the building blocks underlying genetic evolution, it also showed me everything I thought I knew was probably wrong. Beyond that, though, it fascinated me. I now have a rough understanding of how to create centipedes with legs going the wrong direction.

The book is divided into eight chapters that outline different epochs, or major jumps, in our understanding of how life evolves on this planet. Beginning with Darwin and early debates over evolution, the first chapter lays out the thesis of Shubin's entire project: evolution is guided not by big drastic transformations, but "by a change of function." Evolution occurs when an organism repurposes old functions for new ones. Salamanders are able to pull this feat off within one generation. If you take two salamanders with gills and webbed feet, breed them, and put them in a storage container without water, their offspring will be born and develop without gills and with feet designed for land. They will look nothing like their amphibious parents. The existing DNA is repurposed during the offspring's development so that they have traits more suitable for survival in the current habitat. Point established, each subsequent chapter hops to a new stage of research about the building blocks of life, covering new tracks of experimentation.

The chapters are all extremely informative, highly entertaining, and laser-focused on bringing us to where scientists are today. Indeed, if there is any critique to be had, and this really would be a stretch, it's that Some Assembly Required is almost unnervingly organized — particularly compared to the chaotic nature of the DNA sleuthing it describes. Each chapter is structured episodically, almost like a screenplay with three acts. First, Shubin begins with a humorous or exciting slice of life vignette about a scientist from the past. From there, he launches into an important discovery the person made aiding our knowledge about the building blocks of life. This is followed by the science and further understanding of a particular concept in evolution and the composition of animal genomes. Each chapter ends with a perfect segue into the next, revealing a new mystery to be solved.

The repetition, and the use of slice-of-life storytelling from various scientists' careers, quickly suck you into the book. There were times I caught myself unable to stop reading, even though in general I'm not at all interested in worm DNA. Like a good television series, the pacing never flinches. Each chapter leaves you wondering what will come next. I was disappointed when it ended; I was left wanting more.

There is something for everyone here — scientific history, the science of evolution, and information that can help us speculate how life will evolve in the future (with or without human tinkering). Neil Shubin has written a masterful book, and I feel both lucky and more intelligent for having read it.

Reviewed by Ian Muehlenhaus

This review is from the Some Assembly Required. It first ran in the May 6, 2020 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $12 for 3 months or $39 for a year.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Viruses and Evolution

Join BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten.

Find out more

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Dark Horses
    Dark Horses
    by Susan Mihalic
    Dark Horses is a shocking, heart-pounding debut; it's both a coming-of-age novel and an unflinching ...
  • Book Jacket: Best Laid Plans
    Best Laid Plans
    by Gwen Florio
    When starting a series, first impressions are key. Introducing a sympathetic or relatable ...
  • Book Jacket: Last Night at the Telegraph Club
    Last Night at the Telegraph Club
    by Malinda Lo
    Author Malinda Lo takes readers to Chinatown, San Francisco in 1954, where 17-year-old Lily Hu is ...
  • Book Jacket: No One Is Talking About This
    No One Is Talking About This
    by Patricia Lockwood
    If anyone knows the ins and outs of living online, it's Patricia Lockwood. Before her stellar memoir...

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Black Widows
    by Cate Quinn

    A brilliant joyride in the company of three sister-wives with nothing in common except their dead husband.

    Reader Reviews
Book Club Discussion
Book Jacket
The Narrowboat Summer
by Anne Youngson
From the author of Meet Me at the Museum, a charming novel of second chances.
Win This Book!
Win Band of Sisters

Band of Sisters
by Lauren Willig

"A crackling portrayal of everyday American heroines…A triumph."
— Fiona Davis

Enter

Wordplay

Solve this clue:

P G Before A F

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.