Orange Alert

Your Inner Fish

Milton Lecturer Neil Shubin uses paleontology to awaken students’ inner scientist

Oct. 16, 2014, by Rob Enslin

Neil Shubin with a model of "Tiktaalik." (Photo by Nathaniel Chadwick/Tangled Bank Studios)
Neil Shubin with a model of "Tiktaalik." (Photo by Nathaniel Chadwick/Tangled Bank Studios)

Every scientist knows of those rare “Eureka” moments—when inspiration seems to strike like a thunderbolt from nowhere. For paleontologists who study fossils of plants and animals, it may happen on a rock-strewn landscape, in the hushed backroom of a museum, or in a basement laboratory.

For Neil Shubin, one of today’s leading paleontologists and evolutionary biologists, it took place almost 15 years ago in a classroom at The University of Chicago. There, while teaching human anatomy to first-year medical students, he made the startling discovery that the best road maps to human bodies lie in those of other animals.

“In my first few days of teaching the course, students asked me what kind of doctor I was. A cardiologist? A neurosurgeon? I told them I was a fish paleontologist,” said Shubin, during this fall’s Laura Hanhausen Milton First-Year Lecture. “It soon became clear that being a paleontologist—not just any paleontologist, but a fish paleontologist—was a powerful way to teach human anatomy.”

Thus began Shubin’s self-described “intellectual journey” into the 3.5-billion-year history of the human body—one that has taken him to some of the most remote corners of the world. In the process, he has made remarkable finds, the most famous of which is the 2004 discovery of Tiktaalik roseae, a 375-million-year-old “fish with hands,” proving, once and for all, that prehistoric fish evolved into land-roving vertebrates.

“At first glance, you couldn’t have imagined a worse candidate for the job of training the next generation of doctors,” said Shubin, recalling his early days as a Chicago professor. “I was a paleontologist who had spent most of my career working on fish. But it turned out that the simplest way to teach students about the nerves in the human head was to show them the state of affairs in sharks. Likewise, reptiles are a real help with the structure of the brain because their bodies are often simpler versions of ours.”

Small wonder Shubin was invited to deliver the Milton Lecture, which, through the generosity of Jack and Laura Milton (both from the Class of 1951), brings a speaker of national or international stature to campus each fall. More than 1,500 first-year and transfer students from the College of Arts and Sciences filled Goldstein Auditorium to hear Shubin wax rhapsodic on the evolutionary history of humans and other animals.

Drawing heavily from his bestselling book Your Inner Fish (Vintage Books, 2008) and his acclaimed PBS series by the same name, Shubin did not disappoint.

“Neil Shubin’s work provides one of the most elegant and convincing examples of evolution out there and illustrates the power of scientific reason to deduce the history of life on this planet,” says geologist Linda Ivany, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences. “The exciting thing about Tiktaalik is that it actually had been predicted to exist, long before Shubin and his colleagues found any fossils at all.” 

During his whirlwind visit to campus, Shubin also met with Chancellor Kent Syverud; addressed members of the Department of Earth Sciences; and participated in a lunch conversation with students of The Renée Crown University Honors Program, overseen by professors Cathryn R. Newton and Samuel Gorovitz.

Newton, who first met Shubin when he was a “20-something-year-old, interested in mass extinctions of the Triassic Period,” was largely responsible for his visit.

“Neil is one of the most prominent scientists of our age,” says Newton, Professor of Interdisciplinary Sciences and dean emerita of the College. “What’s unique about him is that he realized, early on, the critical societal need for scientists to communicate directly with the public and to do so well. Neil cares deeply not only about discovery, but also about students—a quality that makes him an ideal Milton Lecturer.”

A distinguished paleontologist in her own right, Newton illustrates her point with an anecdote. “The very week Neil was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, he won the Science Communication Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers,” she says. “Neil resides at the nexus of science and the humanities.”

Gorovitz, a professor of philosophy and former Arts and Sciences dean, strongly agrees. He says one highlights of the Milton Lecture occurred during the Q&A session, in which a student asked Shubin why he became a paleontologist.

“In his response, Neil explained how his liberal arts training—doing ‘real exploration’ of ideas and concepts from various fields—was vital to his intellectual growth,” Gorovitz says. “It was a powerful and persuasive endorsement of broad liberal education.”

Shubin has come far from his halcyon days as a graduate student at Harvard University, where he was mentored by paleontologists Farish Jenkins Jr. and Stephen Jay Gould, the latter of whom served as Syracuse’s inaugural Milton Lecturer in 1997. Following a series of appointments at The University of Pennsylvania, Shubin relocated to the Midwest, where he has spent the past 15 years at Chicago and the Field Museum of Natural History. 

Neil Shubin in labShubin's "Your Inner Fish" (Vintage Books, 2008) became the basis for an acclaimed PBS series by the same name. 
Since stepping down as the Field’s provost in 2008, Shubin has directed most of his attention to Chicago, where he is the Robert R. Bensley Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, associate dean of the Biological Sciences Division, and an advisor to the University president. 

“Teaching a college class or visiting another university, such as Syracuse, gives me perspective on my own life and work,” Shubin says in a recent email exchange. “By seeing [students’] reactions, I can judge how effectively I communicate.”

Being a media darling and sought-after speaker—Shubin estimates he’s done close to 200 public lectures in the past five years—has taught him a thing or two about effective communication. Revered for his Carl Sagan-like clarity, Shubin earns favor with scientists and non-scientists alike. Sometimes it can be a delicate dance, when matters of faith and reason are involved.

“When Tiktaalik was the lead story in The New York Times, I got more than 1,500 emails, many of which were from creationists who were convinced I would burn in Hell,” says Shubin. “My standard response was, ‘Hey, I just found a fossil fish. Don’t worry about it.’ … But seriously, it gave me an opportunity to remind people to look at the evidence behind the idea. That’s what I try to do in my books and lectures and on television. The less jargon, the better.”

Shubin had no problem endearing himself to Syracuse. “Friendly,” “engaging,” and “inspirational” are just a few of the recurring plaudits that students use to describe his demeanor. Case in point: “The obvious passion he showed for his work was exciting and engaging,” says Arts and Sciences freshman Jacqueline Page '18.

Ethan Schafer '16, an engineering major who participated in the Honors luncheon, says Shubin was unbelievable. “I was impressed with his modesty and with how, even after making great discoveries, Dr. Shubin has kept looking for more,” he says.

Adds Margo Malone '16, an Honors student in Arts and Sciences: “Professor Shubin’s analogy of fossil hunting to real-life goal-setting and using strategies to overcome adversity was my take-away message.”

Shubin (right) and Ted Daeschler in the Canadian Arctic, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Jason Downs)
Shubin (right) and Ted Daeschler in the Canadian Arctic, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Jason Downs)
It’s little-known that the discovery of Tiktaalik may be linked to a fortune cookie. During the Milton Lecture, Shubin recalled how, one morning in Philadelphia in 1998, he and a graduate student named Ted Daeschler got into a heated exchange about where to dig for fossils with elements of fish and amphibians. Until then, their search had been confined to Pennsylvania.     

“To settle the argument, I pulled out my college geology textbook,” Shubin told the rapt audience. “As I was thumbing through it, I spotted a map of an unexplored region in the Canadian Arctic, containing rocks of the type and age for which we had been looking.”

The duo continued their discussion over lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant, when Shubin opened his fortune cookie and nearly fell out of his chair.

“It read, ‘Soon you will be at the top of the world,’” he laughed. “Ted looked at me and said, ‘We have to go.’”

After months of planning, Shubin and Daeschler co-led a team of scientists to a remote spot near the North Pole. Their efforts bore fruit six years later, when, on the verge of quitting, they came face to face with the fossilized snout of an ancient creature. It wasn’t until a few more months of careful, painstaking recovery that Shubin and his team realized they had found the evolutionary gap between fish and land vertebrates.  

"Tiktaalik looks like a fish. It has scales on its back and fins with fin webbing. But then it has a flat head, with eyes on the top, like an early land-living animal. And it has a neck, which fish don’t have," said Shubin, whose latest bestseller is The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body (Vintage Books, 2013). "When you open up the fin, the bones correspond to our upper arm, forearm, and even parts of our wrist.”

Since then, Shubin has led similar expeditions to Greenland, China, Argentina, South Africa, and Morocco, all of which have yielded partial skeletons of more than 20 other Tiktaalik-type specimens, ranging in length from four to nine feet. They also have provided invaluable insight into the origins of mammals, frogs, crocodiles, and lobe-finned fish.

Cathy Newton and Jack and Laura MiltonDean Emerita Cathryn R. Newton with Jack and Laura Milton (both from the Class of 1951). All three made Shubin's visit possible.
"I was amazed at how Neil Shubin kept returning year after year to the Arctic, before he found what he was looking for,” says Arts and Sciences freshman Tianze Hao ’18, adding that the first Tiktaalik site was discovered by Jason Downs, then an undergraduate who was the youngest member of Shubin’s team. “Maybe one of us will make an important and exciting discovery while we’re enrolled at Syracuse.”

Steven Hanes, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at SUNY Upstate Medical University, was among those at Shubin’s Earth Sciences presentation.

“Neil Shubin’s enthusiasm for science reminds us of why we go into it in the first place,” he says. “His discovery of Tiktaalik is about insight, perseverance, and luck. It also demonstrates how incremental physical changes in animals help them adapt to new environments.”

Hanes’ colleague, Associate Professor Michael Cosgrove ’93 and G’98, also attended the Earth Sciences meeting. “Neil Shubin’s work is a perfect example of how small changes in the regulation of a gene can have big effects on the phenotype of an organism,” says the former Syracuse professor.

Shubin keeps his work in perspective. He’s aware that most people have little or no interest in their genetic connection to animals. “So I have an ‘inner fish.’ Who really cares?” Shubin deadpanned during his Milton Lecture. “I’ll tell you who cares—the Nobel Committee [for Physiology or Medicine], that’s who. Two Nobel Prizes in the past eight years have gone to folks working on worms, which provide insight into how cells die naturally and genes are turned on and off during disease.

“I like to think that as we discover cures for everything that ails us, from Alzheimer’s to different cancers, we can trace our breakthroughs to work done on worms, flies, mice, and even fish. I can’t imagine a more powerful or beautiful statement on the importance of our connection to life on Earth.”

Media Contact

Rob Enslin