Fish connections


As soon as we take ourselves to be an object in the world, there is an impulse to feel connected, to find that wholeness we feel – and rightly so – is missing.

One of the ways to find this sense of connection is through the Universe Story, with all its minor stories woven in at different size levels (holons in a holarchy) and areas of life. The history of the universe is our history. We are made up star stuff. All life on earth shares the same basic building blocks. We share the same ancestors. We are the ways the universe touches, sees, tastes, knows itself.

It is beautiful, poetic, scientific, aligned very much with spirituality (at least certain forms of it), and gives a deep sense of connection, belonging, shared existence, and meaning.

It also widens our circle of care, compassion and concern, our circle of us. If this human self is a local expression of this universe and its evolution, and the earth and its evolution, what can I leave out of my sense of us? There is really nothing that can be left out.

The more we learn about these connections, the deeper we can feel it. And one way we can learn about it is to read books like Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. (On my reading list.)

From a pun-heavy New York Times review:

[…] Yet after reading Neil Shubin’s brisk new book, “Your Inner Fish,” and speaking with other researchers who use fish to delve into the history of vertebrates in general and ourselves in particular, I realize that many traits we take pride in, the body parts and behaviors we exalt as hallmarks of our humanity, were really invented by fish.

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.

The fish’s tale of firsts is a tall one. “The backbone that holds us upright, that’s a fish invention,” Dr. Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum, said in an interview. “The cranial nerves that we use to control the muscles in our jaw, that we use to talk and to hear, they relate to a fish’s gill arches. The basic wiring in our skull, the body plan we take for granted, that’s part of our story. It’s all from fish.”

Our inner fish extends beyond physicality. New research reveals that many fish display a wide range of surprisingly sophisticated social behaviors, pursuing interpersonal, interfishal relationships that seem almost embarrassingly familiar.

“Fish have some of the most complex social systems known,” Michael Taborsky, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said. “You see fish helping each other. You see cooperation and forms of reciprocity.”

Dr. Taborsky and his colleagues have studied the social lives of African cichlids, colorful freshwater fish from Lake Tanganyika. The cichlids live in relatively large groups of 10 or so individuals, a dominant breeding pair and a retinue of adult and adolescent helpers. The helpers share in all duties, Dr. Taborsky said. They defend territory, they help keep the nests tidy and they clean, fan and oxygenate the breeding pair’s eggs. When the eggs hatch into larvae, the helpers take up the babies in their mouths for cleaning — all the while forgoing their own breeding efforts.

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