Tag Archives: Neil Shubin

We Come from the Sea

This essay, which starts from a quote by Joan Jonas, was commissioned by TBA21-Academy Journal:


Speaking at the first of the Structured Conversations (“Unpredictable Oceans and the Monstrosity of the Sea”), held at Cochin Club in Fort Kochi, Kerala during the opening of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale on 13 December 2016, artist Joan Jonas mused:

We come from the sea. We don’t think about it very often but […] our semi-circular canals are similar, our eyes are similar, we have backbones. And the fish grew little legs and came out of the sea and then developed into what we are today. There are different theories about how that happened. My idea is that we have a memory of that. Somewhere in our unconscious we remember that we come from the sea. It’s not a memory; it’s a feeling; it’s in our DNA. I think that’s where all these stories come from and our desire to go back to the sea, our desire to swim under water, which I love to do… I did love to do.

This dense cluster of ideas, from which the present essay stems, would be developed and illustrated by Jonas the following evening, in what the artist insisted on calling a “demonstration talk” (to distinguish it from a fully worked-out performance) staged in the public Vasco da Gama Plaza. Modestly titled “Oceans – sketches and notes”, the talk with its performative elements was an experiment that – by her own admission – marked a new departure for the artist, even though some of the accompanying images and music, notably by Jonas’s habitual collaborator Jason Moran, had appeared in previous works, above all her project for the US Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, They Come to Us Without a Word (2015). Taking over the pavilion, the installation prominently featured bees as well as various aquatic species and yet, as Jonas explained during the Structured Conversation, by “they” she meant specifically the fish.

Jonas’s remarks spoke to me for a number of reasons. An avid swimmer, like Jonas, I always felt that nothing quite compared to the sensation of well-being verging at times on euphoria that full immersion procures – and nowhere more so than in the sea. But in May 2015, what had hitherto been by and large a leisurely pursuit took on a more adventurous turn. Just as Jonas’s installation in the US Pavilion was being unveiled, I was asked to write about swimming in the sulphurous waters of the Santorini caldera at the outcome of a week-long residency hosted by the Santozeum Museum in Thera. Volcanic swimming, as I soon discovered, can be quite addictive. In the last two years, I have swam inside crater lakes and sea-flooded calderas from São Miguel in the Azores to Hachijo-jima in the Izu Islands of Japan; around volcanic plugs and islets in Iceland and California, off of Stromboli and Nisyros; in the acidic pale green waters of Ijen volcano, a working sulphur mine in East Java. I knew I was hooked but could not easily explain to myself why I took to this somewhat eccentric pursuit with all the eagerness of a budding collector.

Some of the swimming, writing and thinking on the subject of swimming as an aesthetic and quasi meditative activity, which for me felt as natural as walking and breathing, have taken place in the context of self-assigned “immersive residencies” in Li Galli, on the Amalfi Coast, once thought to be the dwelling place of the mythical sirens (of the half-bird, half-human variety) and hence known by the alternative name of Le Sirenuse; at Roni Horn’s VATNASAFN / LIBRARY OF WATER in Stykkishólmur, a small harbour town on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland; and, most recently, in preparation for the “Growing Gills” project involving a research residency on the Aeolian Island of Stromboli facilitated by the Fiorucci Art Trust. The working title for this collaborative venture that brings together four female artists, all of us keen swimmers, seemed fitting for a project setting out to stage long-distance group swims in an extreme natural environment. Yet it took on a whole new meaning once I started unravelling Jonas’s poetic statement in an attempt to grasp what it implied.

In the summer of 2015, the Portuguese artist Marta Wengorovius invited me to São Miguel in the Azores to help her elaborate the concept for an exhibition that was to take the form of a map of the island.[1] One afternoon we drove out together to Lagoa do Fogo (“Lagoon of Fire”), a crater lake within the Agua de Pau Massif stratovolcano, situated right in the centre of the island of São Miguel, whose shape on a map recalls that of a whale. It might have been the centre of the Earth. As we went down into the caldera, along a path cutting across a thick growth of endemic plant species that looked positively antediluvian to me, the lake’s distinctive crescent shape with its twin udder-like strips of land jutting out into the middle of the waters gradually disappeared from view. The water I swallowed while swimming from a sandy beach to the other, more barren side of the lake, peopled by a colony of seagulls and terns, tasted sweeter than anything I had ever swam in before. Nothing could induce me to go out. From then on, Marta took to calling me “Agnieszka the Fish”.

What on one level is but an idle metaphor, a manner of speaking, when looked at from the vantage of phylogenetic classification is simply stating a fact. To quote British paleontologist Jennifer A. Clack, whose expertise lies in the field of evolutionary biology,

although humans do not usually think of themselves as fishes, they nonetheless share several fundamental characters that unite them inextricably with their relatives among the fishes. If one of the aims of classifying animals is to reflect their relationships and phylogeny, then inevitably humans and other tetrapods fall within the same grouping as other members showing these characters and sharing the same common ancestor.[2]

Simply put, phylogenetics investigates how closely different species are related in evolutionary and historical terms to work out their “phylogeny”; in the case of molecular phylogenetics, this is done by comparing DNA sequences in the genomes of organisms, which contain information about the historical evolution of the organisms in question. Humans as well as all other mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians living today are descended from four-limbed vertebrates known as tetrapods (literally meaning “four-footed”). The tetrapods themselves evolved from archaic Sarcopterygii or lobe-finned fishes about 370 million years ago in the late Devonian period – an interval of the Earth’s history appropriately, for our purposes, dubbed the “Age of Fishes”. As Clack points out, in phylogenetic classification tetrapods are Sarcopterygians (fish with lungs and bony-limbed fins) while humans in particular are Ostreichthyans (more commonly referred to as “bony fish”).

Since we are not only descended from fish but – one could argue – fish full stop, it stands to reason that there should be many similarities between them and us. In the excerpt from the first Structured Conversation quoted at the start of this essay, Jonas briefly evoked the semi-circular canal (in other words the hearing apparatus), the paired eyes and backbone or spinal column we have in common with all vertebrates, not just fish. To these, in the lecture demonstration proper, she added the fact that our embryos have the same shape, just as our skin, hair and teeth are fashioned from the materials fish are made of. According to fish paleontologist Neil Shubin, whose popular BBC documentary series Your Inner Fish: An Evolution Story Jonas invoked in the discussion at the Cochin Club, a “shared anatomy” binds us to fish. If our skeletal architecture and other anatomical features are remarkably alike this is because, as Darwin argued, at some stage in the distant past we shared a common ancestor that displayed these characteristics too.[3]

In On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin noted the close resemblance of the species at the embryonic stage, which he took to prove his theory of “descent with modification”. After stating his belief that animals have descended from “at most only four or five progenitors”, and in the case of plants possibly even fewer, he posited that “probably all the organic beings that have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form into which life was first breathed”.[4] The concept of the last universal common ancestor (LUCA), from which all organisms currently living on earth are descended, is in keeping with Darwin’s hypothesis. By comparing the DNA letter sequences from a vast pool of genes stored in DNA databanks a team of evolutionary biologists has narrowed down 355 genes that would appear to have originated in the LUCA: a single-cell microbe that lived some 3.9 billion years ago (bearing in mind that the earth began to form 4.6 billion years ago). That’s not to say, however, that life started with the LUCA; it is simply our earliest known common ancestor.

There is evidence to support the claim that the LUCA lived in a hydrothermal deep-sea vent setting, as in submarine volcanoes where erupting magma mixes with sea water, but from there to suggest that life as we know it originated in a marine environment is quite a leap. (Some scientists working in this field think warm pools on land were a more likely scenario, arguing that the energy provided by the sun’s ultra-violet light was key to life’s origin.)[5] Yet the tantalizing suggestion that the LUCA may have dwelt at the bottom of the ocean in a geochemically active environment rich in gases, if anything bears out Jonas’s assertion that “we come from the sea”. For me personally, the deep-sea  vent hypothesis goes some way to account for the elemental appeal of volcanic swimming.

The LUCA pre-dates tetrapods – the first truly terrestrial creatures that emerged from water onto land, which they began to colonize in the late Devonian – by about 3.5 billion years. But the freshwater versus marine origin is also a moot point when it comes to our more recent ancestors. New fossil evidence has challenged the widely-accepted view that the earliest tetrapods as well as the lobe-finned fish from which they descended inhabited rivers and swamps. It is now believed that the earliest known tetrapods dwelt in the diverse ecosystems of intertidal zones, marine lagoons and the like, subject to retreating tides that left behind a network of inland tidal pools, more or less removed from the sea.[6] This scenario can  accommodate Alfred S. Romer’s influential theory, outlined in his pioneering study Vertebrate Paleontology (1933), according to which those fishes that evolved limb-like appendages were at an advantage when it came to reaching the nearest body of water over dry land, in the event of being stranded. On this view, our fishy forebears developed limbs not in an effort to gain ground but rather to regain water.

The many theories explaining why and how the tetrapods left water and evolved limbs fitted with digits that Jonas evokes but does not dwell on are necessarily provisional and speculative. What is certain is that the major evolutionary shift from a body equipped with fins and gills for underwater respiration and swimming to one with limbs and lungs allowing the animal to breathe air and walk was not so much a leap as a gradual process of adjustment. “The Greatest Step in Vertebrate History: A Paleobiological Review of the Fish-Tetrapod Transition”, led by John A. Long and Malcolm S. Gordon, concludes that the complete transition was staggered over some 25 million years and involved various intermediary groups of animals – from sarcopterygian fishes to prototetrapods, aquatic tetrapods, true tetrapods and terrestrial tetrapods – who went from swimming to swimming, paddling and walking, and then to paddling and walking.[7] (The sturdy limbs ending with digits will have been an asset for underwater paddling as much as for venturing out onto land.) These changes in the modes of locomotion went hand in hand with the reduction of the reliance on gill breathing, progressively replaced by lung and subcutaneous respiration, and eventually discarded altogether.

Neither was the transition irreversible. Rather than a move in one direction – from water onto land – driving forward the historical evolution of the group of animals from which the air breathing and walking land mammals that we are arose about 100,000 years ago, a back and forth between land and sea ensued. There have been plenty of instances across the ages of tetrapods reverting to semi- or fully-aquatic lives. Those still around today include cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), sirenians (manatees, dugongs) and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, walruses). Independently of each other and at different moments, all developed bodies fit for survival in water. Take whales, for example, whose closest common ancestor is the hippopotamus; they evolved from walking land mammals and have remnants of hind limbs to prove it. The same is true of sirenians (though their closest relations are elephants and hyraxes), who are fully aquatic creatures that live on land’s edge in marine estuaries, coastal wetlands and rivers. Otherwise known as sea cows (possibly because they are herbivorous), manatees as well as other equally fleshy species of sirenians were still designated as “mermaids” by sailors well into the nineteenth century, and may lie behind the widespread belief in fish women.

Written in 1964, Italo Calvino’s “The Aquatic Uncle” – one of several literary references in Jonas’s lecture-demonstration – beautifully illustrates in condensed narrative form many of the ideas explored throughout this essay. The tale belongs to a collection of twelve short stories called Le cosmicomiche (“Cosmicomics”), each focusing on a significant event, a milestone in the history of the universe. Presented as the recollections of “old Qfwfq”, the narrator and protagonist of the story, “The Aquatic Uncle” is a family saga doubling as a love story, set at the end of the “water period” against the backdrop of earth settlement by prehistoric creatures at different stages of transition from aquatic life to inhabiting dry land. But it is above all a tale of paradoxical return to the sea, flying in the face of the seemingly inexorable march of evolution. On the face of it, the narrator’s betrothed Lll, whose very name has sci-fi overtones, is an unlikely candidate for such a conversion. She and her kin having skipped the swimming phase that Qfwfq and his own less evolved relatives still had to go through, Lll is a land creature through and through, darting forward, leaping about, even standing on her hind paws in one climactic moment – a sort of Future Eve that the infatuated narrator is awed by: “in her I saw the perfect, definitive form, born from the conquest of the land that had emerged; she was the sum of the new boundless possibilities that had opened.”

Enter Uncle N’ba N’ga. The narrator’s venerable relative, who inhabits the muddy shallows of a lagoon that were the breeding grounds of Qfwfq’s fish ancestors, is impervious to all entreaties of his concerned family when they try to get him to come ashore and live like the rest of civilized folk. One day the narrator reluctantly introduces his fiancée to him, dreading her reaction. Nothing could be more at odds with the pioneering spirit Lll embodies than his unashamedly fishy uncle, flapping his gills like a true monster, making rude comments, and propounding unfashionable views about the superiority of water respiration over air breathing. And yet, far from scathing, Lll appears won over by his reasoning. On a repeat visit, she queries: “Don’t you think, Uncle, that if we wanted to learn to breathe under water, it would be too late?” The obliging uncle gives her a demonstration followed by swimming lessons, and soon ousts his nephew from Lll’s affections. As she revels in how finely her paws work as fins, her spurned lover wryly comments about this being a “big step forward”, before assuring her: “Nobody can turn back!” But Lll begs to differ. She has made up her mind to marry the uncle and become a fish again. The future, for her, is aquatic.


[1]“UM, DOIS E MUITOS – UMA ILHA EM EXPOSIÇÃO”, Museu Carlos Machado in Ponta Delgada (31 August-26 November 2016).

[2]Jennifer Alice Clack, Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), pp. 17-18.
[3]Episode 1, broadcast on BBC Four on 9 June 2015.
[4]Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, Albermarle Street, 1859), pp. 483-44.
[5]See Nicholas Wade’s article “Meet Luca, the Ancestor of All Living Things”, published in The New York Times on 25 July 2016.
[6]Clack, Gaining Ground, pp. 129-132 and Steven A. Balbus, “Dynamical, biological and anthropic consequences of equal lunar and solar angular radii”, in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 2014 470, p. 2.
[7]Physiological and Biochemical Zoology (Sept-Oct 2004), 77: 5, pp. 700-19.