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From Fish to Philosopher

Smith, Homer

Last Updated: May-17-2018
Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Most students of biology are well aware of our humble beginnings as puny, single-celled lifeforms. The mechanism of our remarkable transformation was famously described by Charles Darwin in his groundbreaking text On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. In many respects, Darwin’s magnum opus was just the opening chapter of a much broader discussion of how we humans have taken our current form. Darwin elucidated only a general process of adaptation and evolution in the face of environmental pressures. He left his successors with the more onerous task of applying this rule to the tortuous history of human evolution.

Rising to the occasion nearly a full century later was Homer Smith, a prominent kidney physiologist who spent much of his life and career as the Director of Physiological Laboratories at the NYU School of Medicine. Dr. Smith shares his account of our evolutionary history in his 1953 book From Fish to Philosopher. In the book, he posits that organisms must have a system for maintaining a distinct “internal environment” in order to have any sense of freedom from the perennially dynamic external environment. He guides the reader through the various biological filtration devices that have come and gone over the eras, culminating with the fist-sized organs dangling next to our spines.


The book is often billed as a detailed treatise on how modern-day mammalian kidneys have arisen from their more primordial forms – a fair assessment, especially given the author’s background. But this book offers readers something much more ambitious in scope than a rehashing of his work in renal physiology. For example, the first chapter of the book, “Earth”, highlights geological milestones that molded the early environment of the first known lifeforms. In Dr. Smith’s words,

“the history of living organisms has been shaped at every turn by earth’s vicissitudes, because every geologic upheaval, by causing profound changes in the distribution of land and sea, has had profound effects on the climates of both, and hence of the patterns of life in both” (pp. 9).

By the final chapter, “Consciousness”, he has begun to ponder questions of metacognition and learning. He marvels at how our complex nervous system has allowed classical pianists to balance the rigidity required for technical prowess, and the fluidity required for creativity. This is not a textbook about our kidneys. From Fish to Philosopher is a story of mankind’s genesis, told through the existential musings of a physiologist who left no stone unturned.

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Leonardo da Vinci

Isaacson, Walter

Last Updated: Jan-09-2018
Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Leonardo da Vinci – the name alone evokes images of an artistic virtuoso, the Renaissance man, the mind behind the Mona Lisa. Though known best as an artist, his work extended beyond paintings into a myriad of disciplines, with notebook entries documenting his studies of optics, bird flight, comparative anatomy, hydraulics, and countless others. And yet what has been obscured by the shadow cast by his prolific career are the details of how a young man from a town called Vinci became Leonardo da Vinci. What did he do every day? What did he eat? Who were his friends? Did he even have any? We tend to immortalize Leonardo as a god, and yet he was human after all, not unlike the rest of us. This realization should encourage us to study one of history’s most celebrated humans, and see if we ourselves might be able unlock our own inner genius.

Walter Isaacson aids us in this study with his thoroughly researched biography of Leonardo da Vinci. He adds this to his growing portfolio of biographies of history’s great minds, including Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. In this most recent biography, Isaacson takes us through the life and times of Leonardo, highlighting milestones of his career, while also underscoring some of the seemingly trivial habits that were signatures of Leonardo’s personality and worldview.

Born of illegitimacy and openly gay, Leonardo was no stranger to defying convention. In fact, many of his grandest discoveries were a result of his willingness to challenge commonly accepted wisdom. Yet his greatest asset was his relentless curiosity and unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a recurring theme of Isaacson’s biography and of Leonardo’s life. Intertwined with this curiosity was his tendency to draw connections across disciplines, blurring the lines between art and science. Everything that Leonardo produced – whether his sketches of war machines, his treatises on anatomy, or his timeless portraits – was a manifestation of his desire for unifying knowledge.

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