From Fish to Philosopher

Smith, Homer

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn
  • Date of entry: May-17-2018
  • Last revised: May-17-2018


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.


From Fish to Philosopher serves as another example of the extraordinary insights that are born from interdisciplinary studies. Dr. Smith was a revered medical school professor of physiology, but it is clear from his writing that he had a great deal of interest in other fields as well. This book alone showcases his intricate understanding of topics such as geology, marine biology, evolution, literature, and even classical music!

Though this book was intended for the “general reader”, it begins to buckle under the weight of its technical details; Dr. Smith may have been a victim of his own genius, in this regard. That being said, his accomplishment was to expose the artificial nature of the boundaries that we tend to draw between disciplines. The groups of knowledge that we call “biology”, “cardiology”, “history”, and “music” are man-made categories that we invented to help us organize information. The universe is much more connected than we have grown accustomed to believing, and Dr. Smith has done a great service in reminding us of that reality.

Primary Source

From Fish to Philosopher by Homer W. Smith


Doubleday & Company, Inc.



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