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Originally published Friday, January 11, 2013 at 5:02 AM

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‘The Universe Within’: the world’s history inside us

Neil Shubin’s “The Universe Within” looks at how millions of years of Earth’s history have shaped the biological makeup of humans. Shubin will discuss his book Thursday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Neil Shubin

The author of “The Universe Within” will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Advance tickets are $5 at www.townhallseattle.org or 888-377-4510 and at the door beginning at 7 p.m.

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Forty million years ago, our planet began to cool down, from the warm Earth known by dinosaurs and early mammals to our present planet with its frozen polar regions. Geologists trace this change to the earlier collision of India and Asia and the subsequent rise of the Tibetan Plateau, which acted as a giant sponge that sucked carbon out of the atmosphere.

The colder climate also altered plant life, leading to an unexpected result: the mammals that thrived had vision adapted to finding more nutritious plants in the new ecosystem. That special visionary adaptation was color, an essential trait of humans. So as Neil Shubin writes in his new book, “The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Plants and People” (Pantheon, 240 pp., $25.95), “Every time you admire a richly colorful view, you can thank India for slamming into Asia.”

Shubin is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago and the author of the best-selling “Your Inner Fish,” which connected the geological and evolutionary dots between human anatomy and the long march of life on Earth. In “The Universe Within,” he has taken an even longer term approach: Shubin’s goal is to reveal how humans reflect the entire history of the Universe, all 13.7 billion years of it.

It’s a wonderful idea for a book, and we need writers who can make deeper connections between people and the natural world around them, as well as showing how that interrelatedness has played out over the deep time of geology. As Shubin writes: “Seeing our connections to the natural world is like detecting the pattern hidden inside an optical illusion. We encounter bodies, rocks, and stars every day of our lives. Train the eye, and these familiar entities give way to deeper realities. When you learn to view the world through this lens, bodies and stars become windows to a past almost beyond comprehension…”

Shubin’s writing is engaging and approachable. He tells nice stories about being out in the field, revealing the fun, the challenges, and some of the absurdities of a working paleontologist. He builds up his theme, whether it’s how exploding supernovae led to the elements in our bodies, or how the origin of the moon influences our internal clocks. He fleshes out the connections, then ends the chapter, usually abruptly. Perhaps it’s my inner scientist wanting more from a respected paleobiologist who regularly engages in deeper and more probing science, but I came away wanting more from “The Universe Within.”

I wouldn’t call Shubin’s writing dumbing down. Instead, it seems as if he let story telling get in the way of more complex science. “The Universe Within” will make you think and perhaps connect a few dots, but it may also leave you wishing that like a paleontologist, he had dug a bit deeper.

David B. Williams is the Seattle-based author of “Cairns: Messengers in Stone.” You can find his work at www.geologywriter.com.

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