Moving downward from the shoulder, the arms of Neil Shubin, fish paleontologist, are built like this: one bone, two bones, lots of bones, digits.
The same is true for a bird's wing, a leopard's forward leg and the front fins of Tiktaalik, the ancient fish Shubin discovered in arctic Canada that was one of the first to walk on land.
It is also true for the couple of hundred undergraduates overstuffing a University of Chicago basement classroom on a recent afternoon in Hyde Park, using those digits to type notes into laptop computers. They are here because they can at once fulfill a science requirement and follow the dictum to take courses with your college's best teachers.
It is the second lecture in Shubin's spring comparative biology class titled, provocatively, The 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. Using one of his arms to wield a laser pointer, the other to advance slides on a screen, Shubin talks about Tiktaalik and Pokemon, the biological tree of life and the family tree of the British royals.
If contemplating the vastness of space is humbling, he tells the students, "something equally humbling is looking at the tree of life and seeing that you're one tiny little twig on this vast tree."
"If this is confusing to you," he says at another point, "read the last chapter of 'Inner Fish.'"
And there it is. "Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body" is Shubin's surprise 2008 best-seller that makes many of the same points his class does: Our bodies are the result of all the animal bodies that have preceded us on Earth, including the fish whose "arms" are built like ours.
The book becomes visual — and the lecture goes national — Wednesday with the debut of "Your Inner Fish," a three-part, three-hour series on PBS. It features Shubin in virtually every scene as patient explainer, peripatetic explorer and, in one memorable moment, silver-haired human doing pushups on a riverbank in imitation of early land-going fish.
The series, like Shubin's class and like his book and its follow-up, 2013's "The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People," wants to help us understand that although our species, Homo sapiens, is a very recent addition to the biology of Earth, our bodies are more ancient and deeply interconnected.
"Every reptile, bird and mammal alive today is descended from ancient fish, and that includes us," Shubin says in the show.
It is a series about the hunt for and the discovery of missing links — between fish and land animals, for instance, or between apes and humans. But it also makes you understand, with a compelling, straightforward narrative, that finding one missing link complicates, rather than solves, the puzzle.
"It's like the old joke," Shubin explains a few hours after the classroom lecture, during a question-and-answer period following a public screening of the series' first episode in a university theater. "Every missing link you discover, you create two gaps in the fossil record."
This may not be an old joke to many, but "Your Inner Fish," at least, arms us with enough knowledge to chuckle along.
The series takes Shubin around the world: back to the site of the Tiktaalik discovery in 2004; up into the canopy of the rain forest where monkeys' hands let them reach the bounty at the edge of tree limbs; to the spot in Ethiopia's Rift Valley where the human ancestor known as Lucy was discovered.
But it is firmly rooted in Chicago. There are aerial shots of Lake Michigan ice — a clever transition from arctic ice — leading to a view of Navy Pier, and there is much beautiful photography of the city skyline at night.
Footage from the ice rink at Millennium Park helps demonstrate how the human primate lost its tail. And the opening credits in each of the three episodes have Shubin on the "L" explaining that, as an evolutionary biologist, he looks at people differently than the rest of us do.
And so we see a normal-looking rider whose tongue (animated) suddenly shoots out like a lizard's, amphibians trudging along the car's floor (in what is not a comment on Chicago Transit Authority janitorial practices), a Chicago Tribune that is pulled down to reveal a large fish as its reader (in what is surely not a comment on the Tribune or its readers).
Rooting the series in Chicago came about because the producer, David Dugan of Windfall Films in London, "was really struck by the Chicago landscape and how much Chicago is part of Neil's life. So (Dugan) decided to use that," says Michael Rosenfeld, the executive producer, whose Tangled Bank Studios funded and oversaw the project.
With two appearances on "The Colbert Report" under his belt, Shubin, whose title at the U. of C. is Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Anatomy, had been approached about making "Inner Fish" for TV before, he says. But nothing felt right before the discussion with Tangled Bank, a new science film venture from the prestigious and deep-pocketed Howard Hughes Medical Institute, headquartered in Maryland.
One basic appeal to Shubin: Tangled Bank's name derives from a phrase in Charles Darwin's eloquent last paragraph in "On the Origin of Species."
"The first time I heard Neil lecture, I thought, 'Gosh, we can just tape this, and that can be the first hour of the series,'" says Rosenfeld. "Neil is enormously gifted on camera. He has a knack for connecting with the viewers. More important, he has an instinct for how to take big scientific ideas and make them accessible to the general audience."
So for most of the last couple of years, Shubin, 53, has shoehorned making a TV series into his regular duties without, he notes, setting aside any of his regular teaching.
The result deftly combines animation to put flesh on ancient fossils with lovely nature footage and the powerful human element of Shubin and his fossil-hunting peers sharing their passion for decoding DNA or digging in ancient rock.
Along the way, viewers get a sense of the hard slog that paleontology can be. Shubin and his team only found Tiktaalik roseae after four seasons of looking through Canadian rock, in an area chosen because the land's exposed surface was from the Devonian period likely to have produced such a transitional animal.
Peeking from the rock, "I saw these teeth and saw this snout right here," Shubin says, holding a reproduction of the animal's skull bone.
Since dated to 375 million years ago, Tiktaalik — a native word for "large, freshwater fish" — had a neck, unlike other fish, for looking around to spot food or prey. "Here's the hip," Shubin says, "It's a fish with a hip socket." He holds up the actual hip bone, stored in a room at his on-campus laboratory, a facility mostly devoted to the DNA work that is equally essential to his line of work.
The DNA portion of the "Inner Fish" series is told in a way that doesn't suddenly turn the TV show into a lecture hall. We learn about the gene dubbed "Sonic hedgehog" (yes, after the video game character) that is responsible for shaping the digits in hands. It is common across species, "Your Inner Fish" tells us — even in the prehistoric skate.
"I was working with a group of filmmakers who really got it," says Shubin.
At the public screening in the Logan Center for the Arts Performance Hall, the several hundred on hand, from schoolkids to scientific colleagues of Shubin's, seem to get it as well.
Introducing him after the episode ends, Lance Grande, distinguished service curator at the Field Museum, recalls when Shubin, years ago, shared his idea for the "Inner Fish" book. Shubin said he would take comparative anatomy textbooks "and rewrite them so they were fun to read," Grande says. "Neil's brought real science to the general public in a way that very few people could."
A teacher stands and tells Shubin she assigns "Your Inner Fish" to her students and that they've developed a song, after the wording used in the book: "One bone, two bones, lotsa blobs, digits. Yay, Tiktaalik!"
Asked why Tiktaalik and its peers started walking on land, Shubin says the water "is a real fish-eat-fish world. You can get big. You can get armor. Or you can get out of the way. There's opportunity on land."
To a question about how paleontologists distinguish bone from rock, Shubin tells a story on himself. In Nova Scotia on his first expedition, while a Harvard graduate student, Shubin had been taught that bones would be white, and he thought he was doing great, plucking them from rock right and left, just a natural at it. He got back to school and found "I had collected a lot of bird poop."
A boy asks, "Why did you show the naughty bits?" referring to a segment about human testicles being vulnerable outside the body while the comparable organs in a fish are near the heart.
The point, says Shubin, is to show that "our bodies don't work as well as they could," and that's because they weren't designed from scratch but are rather modifications on animal bodies.
And that, perhaps, leads to the inevitable question about a series like this, and work like Shubin's, in a country that has a science literacy problem and in some quarters an active aversion to evolution.
"I live in the world of evidence," Shubin says. "What we're trying to do in 'Inner Fish' is show the evidence. … For me, that's my balm, if you will, in dealing with creationism and anti-rationalism."
Another balm comes in the form of fieldwork. This summer, Shubin and team head back up to the Arctic, north of the last site, where the rock is older still, from the Cambrian period. The quest is for a kind of transitional worm, "early creatures with backbones and proto-skulls," he says.
"The work that will ultimately make the difference is based on worms, flies, fish and mice," says Shubin.
'Your Inner Fish'
9 p.m. Wednesday
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