Field of Science

Where did my gills go, again?

This has nothing to do with complex systems theory, but it's so cool I had to share it. I found out on Wired Science today that, according to anatomist Neil Shubin's book Your Inner Fish, hiccups are a leftover evolutionary impulse from our time as amphibians. Essentially, when we hiccup, our brain is trying to get us to breathe through our gills, rather than our lungs. As the Guardian explains:

Spasms in our diaphragms, hiccups are triggered by electric signals generated in the brain stem. Amphibian brain stems emit similar signals, which control the regular motion of their gills. Our brain stems, inherited from amphibian ancestors, still spurt out odd signals producing hiccups that are, according to Shubin, essentially the same phenomenon as gill breathing.

Kevin Costner may have been a visionary after all.


  1. amazing! i love learning something new every day. thanks for sharing!

  2. Actually, I think the evolutionary study of developmental biology has a great deal to do with complex systems! It goes back to the "how complex is a human being" question: when there are far more cells in a body than genes or even nucleotides in the genome, what consequences can we expect? There's no way that genes could specify positions for cells; instead, genetic instructions lay out patterns of interactions which lead eventually to the form of a living creature.

    You should read Shubin's book — I can bring my copy to our next DIYU meeting. (It's a pretty quick read.)

  3. Yes, but can fancy-schmancy Neil Shubin explain why I'm told to drink water from the opposite side of the glass or breath through a paper bag to make those gills stop working again? :)

  4. @blake-Papadimitriou actually made some interesting comments about evolution. His thesis was that asexual reproduction was is better at finding optimal fitness, but that sexual reproduction is better at creating modularity (independent working parts), which is better for the species as a whole. But I don't think I understand this well enough to post on it.

    @gg-it's funny, most of the discussion on the Wired Science blog is people giving extraordianry complicated "never-fail" hiccup solutions. The blog's author recommends reading Descartes or Thoreau, to remind you of your membership in the human species.


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