In 2008, Neil Shubin published his best-selling book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion Year History of the Human Body. Based on his experience teaching medical school anatomy at the University of Chicago, the book explored the evidence of our evolutionary past demonstrated in the peculiar jury-rigged anatomy of humans. Interspersed with the anatomical evidence of evolution were stories about his field work discovering important fossils that showed the transition from fish to amphibians (Tiktaalik), as well as other important finds. Shubin’s research is not only in anatomy and paleontology, but also in evolutionary developmental biology (“evo-devo”), so there were many stories in the book detailing the new discoveries in genetics that explain the oddball poorly-designed way we are constructed, and how these genetic mechanisms were inherited from our ancestors. The book was named “Best Book of the Year” by the National Academy of Sciences. After his earlier career at the University of Pennsylvania, Shubin is currently the Robert Bensley Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and Associate Dean for academic strategy of the university’s Biological Sciences Division. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2011.
(Full disclosure: I first met Neil in the 1980 when he was an undergrad at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History, and I was a grad student there. Before he graduated and moved on to Harvard for grad school, we worked together on a project deciphering the evolutionary history of the fossil horses Mesohippus and Miohippus in the American Museum collections. This was his first research project. It was eventually published in 1989, and praised by Stephen Jay Gould in one of his Natural History columns).
Shubin’s book was such a success that it was a natural fit for a documentary series. Finally all those years of planning and filming are about to air on PBS. Broken into three hour-long episodes (“Your Inner Fish,” “Your Inner Reptile”, and “Your Inner Monkey”), the TV series does visually what no book could do: take us out into the field (from the Canadian Arctic to South Africa to the hominid beds of Ethiopia to many other places) to see and understand how the fossils are found and collected, often with the famous paleontologists who made those discoveries. It takes us to the labs of geneticists and embryologists to watch experiments being done before our eyes. And it takes us into the med school anatomy lab to see parts of the human body and brain. (My young boys were a little grossed out to see the dissection of a human hand, or slicing a human brain, but it’s filmed with taste and discretion). Like any good modern film series with a budget, there are plenty of clever CG animations, from fossil creatures coming to life in Shubin’s hands, to graphics capturing the immensity of the “Tree of Life” or the landscapes of the past when these fossils were alive, to morphing the anatomy of one organism into that of its descendants.
Shubin reviews many of the striking examples of our anatomy that are poorly designed or jury-rigged, and can only be explained as a result of inheritance from our distant ancestors: our stumpy tail bone and poor adaptations for bipedalism; our embryonic gill slits and tail, and the pattern of bones in our limbs similar to that in lobe-finned fish; our peculiar ear apparatus that begins as reptilian jaw bones while we are embryos, then migrates to our middle ear; and many more. These are impressive, although seeing the harsh conditions of collecting fossils in the wild places like South Africa, Ethiopia, and the Canadian Arctic may impress people even more. (I was pleased when they talked about how they found the Devonian outcrops of the Canadian Arctic, and showed a map from the first edition of the classic historical geology book Evolution of the Earth by Dott and Batten. Since the 5th edition that book has been authored by myself and Bob Dott). In short, there is no shortage of stunning and impressive evidence and footage throughout all three episodes.
But in one particular way, the documentary is much more powerful than any book could be. Not only do we see the filmed footage of things that the book could only suggest in words, but we get the full impact of Neil’s charming, winning personality, his high energy and bubbling enthusiasm and excitement for what he does, and wonderful skills bringing the viewer into the excitement of evolution (something that was obvious to me when we worked together as students in 1980). The series introduces us to the data supporting the reality of evolution in a subtle but extremely persuasive way, without mentioning creationism or religion once, so most people who don’t already have strong creationist views will be entranced, not alienated. This strategy of showing the overwhelming evidence for evolution and appealing to our common sense worked remarkably well when Bill Nye beat Ken Ham in debate on February 4, and for Neil DeGrasse Tyson in his current reincarnation of “Cosmos” (although there are digs at religion and creationism in many episodes of “Cosmos”). Shubin’s friendly, enthusiastic, non-confrontational but matter-of-fact way of showing the proof of evolution in our anatomy seems to be the best way to win over nearly everyone who is not already a hard-core creationist. Of course, the creationists are still going to be screaming bloody murder, as they are currently doing about “Cosmos”—but anyone with a fair mind and a willingness to listen and see the evidence will find it hard not to be persuaded by Shubin. I strongly feel that this kind of approach, broadcast to millions of viewers, will have more impact on America’s pathetic public understanding of science, biology, and especially evolution, than any number of books or YouTube videos or cartoons.
After years of crummy movies and TV shows pushing pseudoscience and religious dogma and creationism, we finally have an embarrassment of riches with the airing of “Cosmos” and “Your Inner Fish” in the same month. I’m grateful of this glut of science programming, but I wish we had many such shows on a year-round basis to compete with the thousands of hours of programming of religious nonsense and pseudoscience. If we came even close to parity, maybe America wouldn’t be so pathetically ignorant or misinformed about science as it is now.