Q&A: Neil Shubin Explores "Your Inner Fish"

Deep questions drive discoveries in science, the famed fossil finder reveals.

Icons of evolution don't come much uglier than Tiktaalik, the land-walking ancient fish from 375 million years ago. (See: "Our Fishy Ancestors Had Fins Made for Walking.")

But Tiktaalik was acclaimed as a beautiful scientific discovery when it was announced in 2006 by paleontologist Neil Shubin and his team. The project was partially supported by the National Geographic Society.

Unearthed in the Canadian Arctic, the fossil "fishapod" once flopped on land with surprisingly agile fins and a flexible neck, a forerunner to today's four-limbed land animals. (Related: "How We Got on Land, Bone by Bone.")

National Geographic caught up with the University of Chicago's Shubin, who unreels the story in a three-part series based on his best-selling book, Your Inner Fish (PBS, 10 p.m. EDT). The series looks at how evolution shaped Tiktaalik, the human form, and much more.

Why a TV series? You already have written a best-selling book.

It riffs on the book. But the reason I was so excited, and scared, was this: Can we use the unique opportunities of that medium to tell the story?

So I spent a lot time thinking about the written word. How can we interleave graphics to camerawork, interviews with scientists, encounters with real fossils? How can we leverage all that to tell the story in a different and possibly even more powerful way?

What were the challenges of telling the story of Tiktaalik, and human evolution, on television?

In a book, it's easy. You want to say something, you add another chapter. With TV, it's 56 minutes and you're done. Readers will give you a chapter or two before they jettison the book. With TV, there's a one-microsecond-long moment before the thumb flicks to the sports channel instead.

But you're telling the same story as the book in a sense, just with more elements?

It is the discovery narrative, the human story of how a few people—[the Academy of Natural Sciences's] Ted Daeschler and [Harvard's] Farish Jenkins, who is no longer with us, sadly—came together to make this discovery. How do other people do this? How do paleontologists make discoveries? How do we do the same thing with genes? Ultimately, it's the story of people making discoveries.

How did you find a neighbor with one of these evolutionary holdovers from our ancient days, a gill hole above her ear?

Yes, that was great. I'm so glad that made it into the show. Her husband is a friend, and he read the book, and they told me about it.

It turns out about 1 in 10 people have these sort of holdovers, so it is not so improbable. There's a lot of fish in all of us.

Was it fun to go back to Canada's Ellesmere Island [where the Tiktaalik discovery was made] for the series?

It was a lot of fun. We went to South Africa, we went to Ethiopia, we went to the Arctic. We went to Nova Scotia, the site of one of my first fossil finds. We went to see scientists in Boston, Seattle, and London. It was a broad scope.

We wanted people to see us standing in a snowstorm in the Arctic—how cool is that?—where we found Tiktaalik, and see that it really is a human story of discovery.

Can you talk a little about what it's like to make a huge find in paleontology?

Well, it's different for everyone. I wasn't ready. I knew the fossil would get some attention—we had two papers in [the journal] Nature. But I had no idea it would get so big.

And it did largely because there was the "intelligent design" court case going on in Dover [Pennsylvania] at the time. And so it landed in the middle of that, and I eventually ended up on the Colbert Report. So it ended up part of popular culture, which is really wonderful.

What are you hoping that folks take away from the series?

What I'd love people to take away is that there is a science to people finding these things, and this is how that science works. And there are human stories behind that, and that is important because that is how we connect to people.

What's next for you?

I love the great questions [like] where do we come from? Hey, I'm 53—I'm ready to move on to the next great question.

I'm done with the Devonian [the era of Tiktaalik]. But not Ellesmere Island. I'm going back there this summer to look for something even older, something from the "Cambrian Explosion," when you see all these different sorts of creatures appear in the fossil record.

A fish with a real skull, that's what we hope to find. That would be terrific.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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