Neil Shubin Wants to Bring out the Animal in You

neil shubinIf you enjoy playing basketball, texting with your friends, or any other activity that requires the use of your fingers, you may just have a particular ancient ancestor to thank. And Neil Shubin, a mild-mannered paleontologist, wants to show you who that is by bringing out all the animals hidden deep in your evolutionary past.

Shubin, a professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago, has a pretty solid claim to that sort of inside information. In 2004, he made a ground-breaking discovery when he unearthed the fossil of an ancient–and decidedly funny-looking–fish named Tiktaalik in the frigid rock of the Canadian Arctic. The name is a native word for a large freshwater fish, and it was immediately obvious that he had stumbled onto something big. For one thing, Tiktaalik had a neck that helped increase its range of vision when looking for prey, or predators for that matter. In addition, it was found to have a group of bones within the fins that were the precursors to the wrist and ankles found in four-legged animals, or tetrapods. Tiktaalik even had a hip bone, a structural element not found in the skeletons of normal fish. The discovery is crucial because it sheds light on the idea that at some point there existed an animal that was a fish, and simultaneously a tetrapod. Tiktaalik, for all of the 375 million years under its belt, seems to fit that description perfectly. It is the link between ocean-bound fish and the beginnings of their eventual push onto land. Neil Shubin goes on to explain that every animal alive today, whether of land, sea or air, is a distant descendant of an ancient fish. And don’t forget that we, too, are a part of that vast family tree.

Every aspect of our body as we know it today is the direct result of a long line of adaptations that occurred in our evolutionary past. There are countless animals within us, in a sense, and Neil Shubin wants to bring them out into the light of day. He wants to show how human beings are intimately connected to all the other living things that are now or have ever been alive. Shubin published his first book, Your Inner Fish, in 2009, in which he takes us step by step on a journey recounting the fascinating evolutionary history hidden within each of us. He shows us an early version of the human tooth in the fossil of a mouse-sized animal about 200 million years old. He explains the way that our eyes adapted from early light-sensitive cells in the most primitive sea creatures. Tiktaalik has the honor of gracing the book’s cover since it was ancestor to every one of us, the great and wise progenitor that helped us along on the path toward these fancy bones and fingers we enjoy today. The book has now been made into a three-part series for PBS, the open episode of which will share the title of the book. The second and third episodes will be titled Your Inner Reptile, and Your Inner Monkey, respectively.

Neil Shubin wants to introduce you to your own rich history, to discover the beauty in the intimate connections we share with the history of all life on Earth. So many animals have come and gone, leaving bits of themselves within us, and Shubin wants to bring every one of them out to show them to you. And while old uncle Tiktaalik may not exactly have a place at the dinner table next Thanksgiving, it would be nice for us to think about him every once in a while, maybe offer a little snap of the fingers in memory to the lovable old coot.

by Peter Barreda


New York Times
Ars Technica
Chicago Maroon
Chicago Tribune

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