April 8, 2014

Your Inner Fish

For more on this story, check out the Maroon podcast, On Beat — Your Inner Fish.

Tiktaalik is slim and sleek—its flat, triangular head, punctuated squarely by two tiny, beaded eyes, grows into an elongated body both amphibian and fish. The creature’s fossil is a transitional skeleton, one that illuminates a previously suspected but never proven bit of evolutionary history: that some creature somewhere possessed traits both fish and tetrapod. Tiktaalik is a special wonder, as he marks a branch on life’s evolutionary tree that is in each of our pasts. And he is a particular wonder for paleontologist and UChicago Professor Neil Shubin, who led the team responsible for finding Tiktaalik in river sediment rock formations on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic.

Shubin’s book about the discovery, Your Inner Fish, serves as the outline for a three-part PBS television production of the same title, the first episode of which will air on April 9. As Shubin explained in a Q&A session after a screening of the first episode at the Logan Center, the television production was a new challenge for him, a far different thing from writing a book. “It’s a compromise you have to keep it interesting, because the thumb is hovering just over the remote and about to change the channel to the sports game,” Shubin said.

In Your Inner Fish he describes Tiktaalik as the creature evolves, emerging as an animated graphic before the audience’s eyes. The show’s graphics are splendid and entertaining and, as Shubin expressed satisfactorily, accurate—scientists were directly involved in the design and rendering of the computer graphics.

Neil Shubin is an exemplar of the scientist-educator-entertainer that has emerged out of necessity in our age, similar to Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan. After an hour’s discussion and 20 minutes giving autographs, he was as energetic as ever. As if that were even a question.

“Oh, come on,” he said with a grin. “It was a hoot!”