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Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish

If you haven’t seen any of Neil Shubin’s 3 part series, Your Inner Fish on PBS, start now! It can be streamed here. It’s in the same vein as the new Cosmos, but with a stronger emphasis on biology, anatomy, genetics, and paleontology. In Cosmos, you get NDT’s cool, calm, perhaps-slightly-baked, but always reverential delivery. In Your Inner Fish, you get Shubin’s “YOU GUYS! HUMAN ANATOMY IS BASED ON A FISH BODY PLAN AND THATS WHY MEN GET INGUINAL HERNIAS!” brand of enthusiasm.

Both shows have similarly beautiful animation, both 3D and 2D. YIF has a lot of transparent animals with visible skeletons, some of which end up looking strangely cute. Tiktaalik (the transitional fossil that Shubin’s helped discover) looks downright cartoony, with its oddly placed eyes, seeming smile, and waddling gait. There are also lots of beautiful shots of Chicago and Shubin riding the L. He teaches anatomy at the University of Chicago, and had to explain to his med students’ dismay that he is a paleontologist and not a surgeon (cmon med students!). The shows open with a sequence on the L with riders morphing into a cat, a lizard, a monkey, and a kind of menacing fish to emphasize the fact that these critters are our phylogenetic brethren. The animated rendering of the phylogenetic tree of life is the most sinuous and beautiful version I’ve ever seen (hello, new tattoos on Carl Zimmer’s website).

Your Inner Fish was this great book Shubin published in 2008, and it was similarly informative, interesting, and enthusiasm-laden. It is even included in classroom curricula now, which makes it apparent that Shubin is part of the Sagan/Tyson school of public science communication. The TV series is divided in three parts: Your Inner Fish, Your Inner Reptile, and Your Inner Monkey. Each show emphasizes a number of transitional fossils that either Shubin and his team or some other team had discovered. There is an emphasis on firsts: the first rudiments of hands, the first amniotes, the first waterproof skin, the first inner ear bones similar to ours, the first eyes with color vision, the first diverging thumb, and the first bipeds.

22_EP01_ARCTICThe first episode was very Tiktaalik heavy, and went over similar concepts to the ones I covered in my last post about branchial cleft remnants. Shubin even goes to meet a friend’s wife who “is a fish,” though hers presented a little differently than mine, and was more like an extra tiny opening in her ear. He also covers the mechanism behind inguinal hernias, which is that human testicles don’t remain in the body cavity as they did in fish; they descend into the scrotum, creating a weak spot in the abdominal wall, and intestine can end up poking out of those openings (sorry dudes). In his book, Shubin also covers how hangover spins are also related to our fishy past (horrible double entendre completely unintentional).

The second episode, Your Inner Reptile, emphasizes what evolved as quadrupeds starting living out of the water more and more, and what happened as reptiles began to show mammalian characteristics. The transitional lizard-mammal, tritheledont is Pixar-style cute. Reptiles had developed the ability to lay eggs with an amnion on land, along with waterproof skin. Mammal-like reptiles developed specialized teeth and hair (probably as a sensory organ to help them get around underground). Of course, then a big mass extinction came along and ended the dinosaur frat party, allowing the burrowing little guys to inherit the earth.

In the third episode, Your Inner Monkey, Shubin gets into the changes that started to make animals human, like hands that could grip, color vision, and bipedalism. He emphasizes the that we didn’t evolve from monkeys, but instead had a common ancestor that we share with them (he’s lookin in your general direction, willfully ignorant creationists!). One of the earliest primates, Notharctus was a long-fingered, lemur-looking tree dweller. Treelyfe led to color vision, which helped differentiate which fruits and things were good to eat. A color researcher shows a monkey named Kramer doing color sensing tests in order to demonstrate the monkey’s partial color blindness (sorry Michael Richards, it’s possible that wasn’t a jab at you) to demonstrate how the specific set of opsins that most of us have evolved later. “Lucy” and “Ardi” are discussed as early, bipedal hominids.

The site has a lot of great resources, including interactives and a teaching guide. You will be the coolest teacher ever if you share these with your class. This was a really great series, and might be a good fit for the Cosmos-shaped hole you will soon have.

Photos courtesy of PBS.


Katie is an animator and illustrator of human innards living in Chicago.

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  1. Yes! We should read it in ours in Chicago. We also like combining books with movies, or in this case TV.

  2. Great post! I love enthusiastic science communication! I’m going to watch this as soon as I can! Yay!

  3. I’ve seen parts one and two that I recorded. I like it better than Cosmos because it is less corny and “wondrous” and more down to earth. The book is excellent and easy to read, much more detail than this series and low enough level that this old engineer could understand it. Same level as Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution Is True.”

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