By John Easton
Photo courtesy Tangled Bank Studios, LLC
“ Now, you might not think your body has much in common with a fish, but I see a family resemblance.”
Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy
A recurring image of Prof. Neil Shubin’s new PBS miniseries “Your Inner Fish” places the UChicago scholar on a Chicago “L” train, marveling at fellow riders as they sprout fish heads, reptile tongues, and ape tails.
The slick animations serve a scientific purpose: Shubin is reaching out to a national audience with the message that human body parts, talents, ailments, and biological puzzles have origins in the genes and body plans of our animal relatives.
“Now, you might not think your body has much in common with a fish,” he suggests, “but I see a family resemblance…You are related to them, and the clues to that connection are etched in ancient stone.”
The three-part series, which premieres April 9, brings to life Shubin’s best-selling and highly readable 2008 book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. Chicago’s dramatic scenery is a star of the show, as are the UChicago classrooms and laboratories in which Shubin explains anatomical links between seemingly disparate relatives, including the brains of humans and sharks.
The episodes, made possible by a collaboration between Shubin, Tangled Bank Studios of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Public Broadcasting Service, also follow Shubin and fossil-hunting colleagues on expeditions to the Arctic, the deserts of Ethiopia and the high plains of South Africa.
For Shubin, the Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Anatomy, the new show’s broad audience offers an unusual chance to bring complex ideas and discoveries in biology to new audiences, including young students.
“We live in an age of a big disconnect,” Shubin said. “Just at a time when many of the issues we face as a society require a knowledge of science and technology, we have a large fraction of people who are either intimidated by or antagonistic to science itself. Efforts like 'Your Inner Fish' are an attempt to reveal the power of scientific reasoning to explain our world.”
There is grandeur in this view of life, as Charles Darwin once put it. Shubin’s book on the topic was an instant success. “Your Inner Fish is my favorite sort of book,” wrote reviewer Oliver Sacks, “an intelligent, exhilarating and compelling scientific adventure story, one which will change forever how you understand what it means to be human.”
On television, Shubin is a genial guide for that adventure. Often wearing his trademark orange down vest, he returns to the scenes of many historic discoveries that helped establish the evolutionary story behind our body plan.
Shubin, a self-described “fish paleontologist,” discovered one such stony clue. He led a team of researchers who found fossils of Tiktaalik roseae. Soon dubbed the “Fishapod,” Titaalik was the missing evolutionary link between fish and the first animals that waddled out of water onto land, about 375 million years ago. This ancient creature, the real star of episode one, was at the cusp of the fish-tetrapod transition, combining a skull, a neck, ribs, and parts of the limbs that are similar to four-legged animals with fish-like features such as a primitive jaw, fins, and scales.
The discovery, published in the April 6, 2006 issue of the journal Nature, came at an opportune time, during the highly publicized “intelligent-design” court case in Dover, Penn. Stories about Tiktaalik ran on the front pages of The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Time magazine gave it three pages. ABC News featured Shubin as their “Person of the Week.” He even turned up, awhile later, on the Colbert Report, where he faced difficult questions. “What is it about evolutionary biologists,” the host asked, “that they just can’t let people think what they want about themselves?”
The intense and persisting interest in ancient fish bones gave Shubin the idea to write the book, which evolved into the TV series. Old bones, properly examined, “can be a path to knowledge about who we are and how we got that way,” he wrote. “We learn about our own bodies in seemingly bizarre places, ranging from the fossils of worms and fish recovered from rocks from around the world to the DNA in virtually every animal alive on earth today…I can imagine few things more beautiful or intellectually profound than finding the basis for our humanity and remedies for many of the ills we suffer, nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that have ever lived on our planet.”
Each of the three hourlong episodes focuses on an important transition: the fish-to-tetrapod transition starting about 375 million years ago, when our predecessors transitioned from living in water as fish to living on land; followed by the reptile-to-mammal transition; and the early primate-to-human transition.
Originally published on April 7, 2014.