on November 16, 2014
Your Inner Fish from PBS and Shubin is to evolution what The Elegant Universe was to quantum physics and string theory. It's that fascinating, exciting, absorbing, and mind-blowing about life on earth and our origins and ancestors among much simpler organisms hundreds of millions of years old. Keep in mind that this is popular science for the masses. This has its pros and cons, but for the most part, it's all good.
I have not read Shubin's book yet, but after seeing all three episodes of Your Inner Fish, I am definitely going to read it. But while the title suggests that it's about the commonalities we have with fish, reptiles and monkeys, it only delves into certain commonalities in order to explain the resulting evolutionary divergences.
Through a combination of live action interviews; sped up video (e.g. assemblage of fossil skeletons or clearing of fossils in situ); CGI superimposed on the skeletons of living animals humans and fossils; close-ups through video monitors and microscopes; and animation reminiscent of that used in Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos flashbacks (which looks like a more elegant version of Adobe Shockwave, to me), Your Inner Fish tells the story of our evolution from primitive life forms over three episodes: Your Inner Fish, Your Inner Reptile, and Your Inner Monkey.
This series will please science geeks (there is a little simplification for lay people, but not as much as you'd think) as well as the interested general public, including older children and teens.
I would call this Evolutionary Biology 101 For Everyone. It does a great job explaining the evolutionary tree. While it does not ever directly address creationism/intelligent design, it lays out the facts of evolution in plain language and in an understandable narrative. You could say that the common ancestry and evolution of larger multicelled organisms on earth -- including us -- is given an overview in a very entertaining and yet thought-provoking way. Shubin's excitement is infectious and enthusiastic and that carries over to the viewer.
Animated fossil animals added to the live action, though may confuse smaller children. They probably won't understand that it is a rendering of what we think the ancient animal looked like; they may think it is a real animal in the scene.
Unless you majored in evolutionary biology and have an advanced degree in it, I think almost anyone can learn something new from the three episodes in this series. And, like The Elegant Universe series on Nova, this is not just a showcase for the original author of the book Neil Shubin. Yes, he hosts the episodes and he interviews the other scientists. But many other renowned anthropologists and paleontologists are also presented -- even the grad students and fellows are credited!
The first episode reminded me how strangely happy, absorbed, and respectful I felt of the former humans/cadavers I dissected during my introductory anatomy classes when I took my nursing school prereqs. The second and third episodes reminded me how exciting it was to go rock and fossil hunting as a kid, and why I loved going to the museum so much, looking at skeletons and fossils. I'm nothing but a rank amateur at all of that, but I have enough knowledge and background to know that everything presented by Rubin is true, i.e. I knew about Lucy. However, I did not know about Ardipithecus, the other bipedal "missing link" fossil.
In addition to really enjoying this on an intellectual level, a few things have resulted in my great affection for this series.
First is the showcasing of Chicago. Since Shubin's home is at the University of Chicago, the cutaway exterior shots are often to Chicago's downtown urban landscape via the skyline or overhead helicopter shots, mostly at night when it looks most gorgeous (reminiscent of the overhead shots from Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy). These shots make Chicago look like a glittering citadel of giant skyscrapers and imposing steel and glass architecture; their inclusion feels almost like a love song to Chicago hidden in these episodes.
Of course, the presentation of such a modern urban hub illustrates what the evolution of the human brain and ingenuity can accomplish and contrasts with what we started out as (little fish), which is probably the point. And other recognizable cities are included when Shubin travels to them to meet with other scientists (London, for example). But Chicago's beauty is referenced again and again in all three episodes, more than any other city. I liked that very much.
Second, I really like that the work of post-docs and grad students is credited, including the discovery of Ardipithecus's hand bone by Ethiopian grad student Yohannes Haile-Salassie while working with Tim White. It helps illustrate that this kind of work is highly collaborative and sometimes large teams are involved.
Third, I really like that the very long periods of time required to find these incredible fossils is portrayed. Shubin's work is portrayed as returning to the same area of arctic Canada to find the first fish that crawled onto land over a period of more than a decade. Many other paleontologists interviewed also explain -- and Shubin emphasizes -- that they and/or other paleontologists have worked and searched in the same particular area of the world (the Rift Valley, the Karoo, Bay of Fundy) for literally years and sometimes *decades* -- often for years and years, finding nothing, or finding only tantalizing fragments that keep them coming back, knowing there is probably something bigger there.
The length of time it takes, the diligence and perseverance required, to find these amazing "missing link" fossils is not often explained in the more exciting dramatizations of fossil hunters and their professional lives. This is something children and teens interested in these fields need to see and understand, so that they get a more realistic portrayal of how the professions really work.
Fourth, the incredibly collaborative nature of this work is also portrayed, as anatomists, embryologists, geneticists, anthropologists, geologists, sedimentologists and many other scientists are included in the discussions. As you see how their research and data supports each other's work, the viewer realizes that though today's scientists may "stand on the shoulders of giants," the nature of their research today requires collaboration and cooperation for great advances.
Now, I also have some issues with Your Inner Fish.
First, I was really excited when they mentioned the human genome in the first episode. I was hoping that there would be an eventual discussion of the fact that huge portions of our genome are also shared with species as diverse as butterflies, plants, giraffes, etc. -- or at least that there would be some overview of how much of the genome of all living things is shared.
This is not done at all. Selected genes (such as "hedgehog" and "sonic hedgehog," responsible for development of digits on extremities) are discussed. But the commonality of large portions of the genomes of many widely different organisms, from insects to humans, is not mentioned
Second, the sense of smell and the olfactory system are almost entirely ignored. It is barely mentioned in passing when we are told that loss of our primate ancestors' great sense of smell occurred when, and was necessary for the development of, color vision evolved in our eyes. Shubin says that there was a trade-off when we developed increased color sensitivity in the opsins in our retinas, and most of the genes common with other mammals for the sense of smell are turned off in humans. That's it.
No mention is made that olfaction is the only human sense that directly interfaces with the environment -- that is, that molecules of air and odor directly bond with olfactory receptors (likely a remnant of ancient fish ancestors; the sense of smell originally evolved in water). It is not pointed out that olfactory connections to the amygdala and the limbic system of the brain are part of the oldest parts of the brain, commonly called "the reptile brain" -- also responsible for our ability to recognize facial expressions and for our instinctual fight/flight/freeze survival reactions. (This is also why odors can sometimes jog vivid memories.) No mention is made of pheromones, which affect us even though we can not consciously smell them -- remember the experiments that proved pheromones synchronized the menstrual cycles of women living together in all-female dorms?
Furthermore, dysfunctions in the amygdala and the limbic system, especially in the areas of recognizing facial expressions and knowing where or what to look at, are symptomatic of autism and autism spectrum disorders. Neurotransmitter dysfunctions in this area of the brain may also be responsible for anxiety/panic disorder, but the fight/flight/freeze reactions were once a survival mechanism. Considering how much of this area of the brain we have in common with other animals, how could the amygdala and the limbic system have been left out of this series? They are some of the oldest brain structures outside of the brain stem (which is also left out). I was kind of dumbfounded and really disappointed that they were never even mentioned. If this is reflective of Shubin's book, I'll have the same objection to the book, because this is a huge omission.
If this information is included in the book, and was left out of the series for purposes of brevity or simplicity, I understand... but I still think it's a terrible omission and that the series should simply have been expanded to include this information. This is a huge area of commonality with the brains of other animals and should be included in any discussion of our evolution.
The only thing I can figure is that there aren't many brains in the fossil record because soft tissues tend not to be preserved, so there might be relatively little to compare it to. But you can still compare our brains to those of modern animals descended from, and there are animals that have remained relatively unchanged for millennia down to the present day to compare to as well.
Now, to be fair, although the evolution of our senses of hearing and sight are covered, the sense of taste/gustation are also ignored, as are the brain stem and a whole host of other organ systems (cardiovascular, digestive, etc.). It is clear that certain senses, organs, and developmental periods were selected for comparative purposes, and many (most) others were left out.
This is not necessarily a good or bad thing; there are probably far too many areas of commonality to produce a concise, 3-episode series of specials on this topic (or for that matter, to cover in one book without it turning into a thousand-page tome).
I just found it curious that one of the senses we have in common with some of our oldest fish and reptile ancestors was left out except for a brief mention, and the oldest brain structure (other than the brain stem), which we also have in common with the same ancestors, isn't even mentioned.