Fish Out of Water

Human ailments as varied as hernias, hiccups, and choking are a legacy of our “fishy” ancestry.

Fish art
Christos Magganas

Humans make much of what distinguishes us from the apes, but we actually share so much with fish that the comparison with apes feels almost trivial. Once you see our similarities to fish, all mammals start to look alike. And our very ancient evolutionary kinship with other animals has an impact on our lives today. The exceptional combination of things we do—talk, think, grasp, and walk on two legs—comes at a cost, the inevitable result of the tree of life inside us.

Imagine trying to jury-rig a vintage Volkswagen Beetle to travel at speeds of 150 miles per hour. In 1933, Adolf Hitler commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to develop a cheap car that could get forty miles per gallon of gas and provide a reliable form of transportation for the average German family: the result was the Volkswagen, a car that remained substantially the same throughout its many years of production. Its original design placed constraints on the ways it could be modified—engineers could only tweak it so far before major problems arose—and it ultimately was replaced by a completely new Beetle.

In many ways, humans are the fish equivalent of an old Beetle turned hot-rod. Take the body plan of a fish, reconfigure it to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers—and you have a recipe for trouble. In a perfectly designed world—one with no evolutionary history—we would not have to suffer from hemorrhoids or easily-damaged knees. Indeed, virtually every illness we suffer has some historical component that can be traced back from mammals to amphibians to fish and beyond.

You can dress up a fish only so much without paying a price.

Speech comes at just such a price: sleep apnea and choking are high on the list of problems we have to live with in order to be able to talk. We produce speech sounds by controlling motions of the larynx, the back of the throat, and the tongue. All those structures are relatively simple modifications to the basic design of a mammal or a reptile. The human larynx, for example, is made up mostly of cartilages that correspond to the gill arches of a shark or fish [see illustration below]. But in humans, the back of the throat, extending from the last molar tooth to just above the voice box, has flexible walls that can be widened and narrowed by relaxing and contracting a number of muscles. The human tongue, too, is woven of multidirectional muscle fibers that give it a remarkable range of movement. By changing the size and shape of the mouth cavity and the softness or rigidity of the throat, we are able to modify sounds from the larynx.

Unfortunately, that flexible throat, so useful in talking, makes us susceptible to a form of sleep apnea that results from obstruction of the airway. During sleep, the muscles of the throat relax. In most people, this does not present a problem, but in some, the passage can collapse so that relatively long stretches pass without a breath. This, of course, can be very dangerous, particularly in people who have heart conditions. Snoring is a symptom of the same underlying problem.

Another trade-off of speech is choking. Our mouths lead both to the trachea, through which we breathe, and to the esophagus, so we use the same flexible passage to swallow, breathe, and talk. Those functions can be at odds, for example when a piece of food “goes down the wrong pipe” and gets lodged in the trachea; our fishy ancestors had no such worries. Other mammals, and reptiles too, use the same structures for eating, breathing, and communicating but the back of the mouth does not need to be so vertically spacious and flexible as ours. The basic mammalian structures are arranged so that nonhuman animals can safely swallow while breathing. Tweaking the engineering to enable us to talk has left us peculiarly vulnerable.

The annoyance of hiccups also has its roots in our fish and amphibian past. If there is any consolation, we share that misery with others. Cats and dogs, like many other mammals, also get hiccups. A small patch of tissue in the brain stem is thought to be the center that controls that complicated reflex.

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