Our relation to Fish in “Your Inner Fish”

Image obtained from http://www.pbs.org/your-inner-fish/home/

While kayaking down a creek this past weekend, I became fascinated by my friend’s fascination with this fish I have never heard of before, a gar. There were many in the water which my friend made apparent by yelling “Gar!” every time she saw one. It made me think about a book I read at the beginning of the summer, Your Inner Fish. A book about a man’s greatest passion and his creative insight. Fascinated by fish, the author, Neil Shubin, has spent his career hunting for ancient fish fossils that connect the evolutionary history of land-living animals.  

Who is Neil Shubin?
Neil Shubin is a writer, paleontologist, evolutionist, and director of anatomy at the University of Chicago. With a wide range of specialties, Shubin has uncovered pieces of evolutionary history. He is known for discovering Tiktaalik, a prehistoric fish. Shubin has led expeditions in Pennsylvania and unmarked Canadian territory. 

How are we related to Fish?
Dr. Shubin’s big discovery was of the intermediate fish, Tiktaalik, was a missing key in the evolution of fish to land creatures. This fish had fins, but the anatomy showed that it was capable of more. It had bones and muscles that allowed it to move on land. Once on land, these fish evolved into amphibians and reptile-like animals. From reptiles to mammals, the anatomy changed again. In the book, Shubin covers a section of the evolution of skin. Our skin is much different than that of a reptile. They have dry skin and lay out in the sun to stay warm. The similarity between us and scaly friends is our waterproof skin. However, mammals adapted glands and hair follicles to stay warm and cool down as needed. The functions of our bodies are seen developing throughout history in our very earliest ancestors. Features such as hair and walking upright would not have been possible otherwise.  

Highlights of  book
Dr. Shubin knows how to tell a story. His writing is factual without being textbook bland. One of my favorite sections from the book was “Making Hands” located in chapter three which dove into the mechanics of how hands develop. He starts off by asking questions to get the reader thinking about the topic. A fellow colleague is introduced in this chapter who conducts research on chicken embryos. This research is important in that it finds the gene that is essentially the start button to the process of bones and tissues in a chicken which has anatomy equivalent to our hands. The most humbling part, that gene is found in every animal from chickens to rats to humans. As humans, we see ourselves as special because we have consciousness. We hardly ever consider ourselves animals with the advances in civilization. Humans have figured a way to always have food on the table, cure most common illnesses, and adapted to every corner of the world with help of technology. There is something higher that connects all living things. Dr. Shubin’s goal is to discover and teach that message.
Dr. Shubin compares the similarities between shark gills and human embryo’s pharyngeal gill slits. That basic blueprint can be taken down to the simplest of animals, the worm. The first gill arch gives rise to jaws. Bones that support the upper and lower jaw in sharks are the same bones that allow us to hear and swallow which are formed from the second gill arches. As for the last two gill arches, muscles that we use to swallow and talk are supportive muscles of gills in sharks. It is intriguing how such small resemblances connect all life.

Final Thoughts
Even though the book is titled, Your Inner Fish, there are many other animals that are compared and discussed throughout the book. Within each chapter, a new body region is covered. The book was easy to follow and engaging for someone who has a basic understanding of science. This is a great book if you are interested in evolution and science. Neil Shubin is an inspiring man and his passion for discovery is infectious. I find that I learn best from others who are passionate about what they teach. I hope others will appreciate this about the book and learn something too. 

Written by Emily Duran
Emily Duran is a cohort 6 SI Bridges to the Baccalaureate scholar. She joined the program when she was an undergraduate at John A Logan Community College. In 2020, she transferred to Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she is currently majoring in Plant Biology. She enjoys hiking, reading and spending time with family.

You are a fish: A comprehensive review on Neil Shubin’s book: Your Inner Fish

Okay, now that I have your attention, let me explain my previous sentence. Your Inner Fish is a very interesting book that explores some of the twists and turns as evolution has unfolded over hundreds of millions of years. Through these twists and turns, we got to know some of the travelers as major transitions between fish, reptiles, and mammals occurred. To name a few, Tiktaalik and Hynerpeton were some of the first fossils that were found during the many discoveries in this book. After reading multiple chapters of this book, I can see why they would suggest that fish evolved in such a way. This is a multitude of information that is given that highly suggests that fish evolved slowly throughout time.

                Fish hundreds of millions of years ago looked very similar to fish that we see today. However, there was a fish, in particular, that was doing something new, something that would change the course of evolution. This fish that would later be known by the name Tiktaalik, had developed bones that very closely resembled the bones in the human arm. According to author Dr. Shubin, Tiktaalik was able to do pushups due to the arm bones that were inside of his fins. There were many other types of fish that proved the evolution of the arm bones way before Tiktaalik’s time, Tiktaalik was just the first fish to have all of the bones in one fin. In order to find such an interesting creature, Dr. Shubin and many others were a part of a research team that went to two different locations to find fossils. The weird thing is, they did not know what they were looking for until they stumbled upon an odd-looking fish fossil in an area close to Hyner, Pennsylvania. This fish was the first of many to contain bones from the human arm. This particular fish was the beginning of the evolution chain because the only arm bone he had was the shoulder bone. This was an amazing discovery for the team so, from there, they traveled to Ellesmere Island, Canada where they spent many months. Eventually, day after a long and tiring day, they found fish fossils that were named Tiktaalik.

                In my opinion, I think that You Inner Fish was quite an interesting read. I believe that Dr. Shubin did an excellent job of describing where they went and how they found all of the fossils that led them to write the book in the first place. One of my favorite parts of the book was learning that hundreds of millions of years ago there used to be rivers and large streams that ran through what is now big cities here in the United States. Another fascinating part of Dr. Shubin’s studies involved a very detailed research project on genetic twins. In this study, German embryologist, Hans Spemann and Hide Mangold focused on newt eggs and found that there is one specific part of the egg that splits and makes another person or animal. They began to manipulate this part of the embryo to see what would happen and the results were astounding. Dr. Spemann took a small piece of his infant daughter’s hair and tied it around the newt egg which then led to the egg dividing and making a set of identical twins. Dr. Mangold was known as a largely successful woman when studying this type of research. Her experiments involved cutting a small piece of an egg (the egg was one sixteenth of an inch in diameter!) and attaching it to another egg to form a perfect set of twins. I believe this was one of the most interesting parts of the book and it is one of the reasons it kept me reading. Another reason the baffled me was when the author discussed the way that mammals smell things. He described that there are thousands of nerves behind the nose and eyes that have multiple receptors on them. Molecules that contain smells attach to these receptors and are transformed into scents once registered by the brain. There are millions of smells that humans can detect and all of these nerves work together to help the brain decide which scent is in the air around us. One amazing fact that was stated in the book is that over three percent of our entire human genome is dedicated, specifically, to different smells around the world!

                One of the things I found difficult about this book was how long it took the author to describe his findings. I feel his focus was split between giving lengthy background stories and giving readers as much detailed information as he could pack into a page. Because of this it felt at times he would lose track of what he was trying to convey. It is a good thing to give a lot of detail, but not so much that the reader gets confused. He was very focused on giving intricate details, which is a good thing, but it was so detailed that I lost interest multiple times because it felt like too much to read in order to get the needed information. Another thing that I disliked about the book is the chapters jumped around a lot. At one point he would be talking about going on a research expedition, discuss what he found, and then would jump to talking about the parts of the nose and the ears. I understand that this was necessary for later information, but instead of dedicating whole chapters to this information he could have explained what he was talking about as he went.

                Your Inner Fish was an intriguing, informative, adventure through the evolution of fish to mammals with multitudes of information to back the findings of their research expeditions. This book is a good source of information if one is studying the evolution of fish, reptiles, or monkeys, or even learning about embryonic experiments or just discovering interesting facts about how people hear or smell things.

Written by Kailee Henderson
Kailee Henderson is a cohort 6 SI Bridges to the Baccalaureate scholar. She joined the program when she was an undergraduate at Shawnee Community College. In 2020, she transferred to Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she is currently majoring in Radiological Science. Her interests include gardening, where she enjoys planting and watching the flowers bloom.

A Practice In Communicating Science

When people think of scientists, they generally think of someone good at math, prefers an objective, logical approach to life, looks clean cut or a little nerdy and uses too many Latin words. Of all the attributes or skills that come to mind when laypeople think of a scientist, one of the last things is that of communication. In popular culture, the stereotype of the scientist is someone who is socially awkward and unable to connect with people. Good communication is pretty much the last skill that people associate with scientists. However, a great deal of a scientist’s time is spent doing just that — communicating, and if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s just how important it is for scientists and laypeople alike to engage in scientific communication.

For a student scientist, from the time you enter a research lab, you’re asked to produce proposals communicating the work you would like to do and the questions you would like to ask. Then, of course, there are the regularly scheduled meetings with your advisor to communicate how your work is going. Finally, once you reach the point where you have some answers to the questions you proposed, you are asked to communicate what you’ve done and what it means. Scientists call this “telling the story.” Telling the story is the basis of a Master’s thesis or a Doctoral dissertation. It’s what scientists do when they publish papers in scientific journals or go to conferences and give talks. In reality, scientists communicate all the time, and many of them are quite good at it.

Yet, despite this, the general public still doesn’t link communication and science. This is probably because, even though scientists are communicating all the time, they usually communicate with other scientists. Communicating with fellow scientists is an important skill set, but communicating with those outside the scientific community is just as important — and it requires some recalibration. After all, there is quite a distance between a peer-reviewed journal article and a popular press book, or even between a blog post and a tweet.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this gap, as well as the importance of closing it. With so many more people tuned into how science works in real-time, and it is increasingly evident that communication with non-scientists is one of the most valuable skills for a scientist to have. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, larger issues still loom on the horizon (climate change, for instance), and this need for good communication from scientists to laypeople is only going to increase. As Mónica I.Feliú-Mójer states in her blog post, Effective Communication, Better Science, “When scientists are able to communicate effectively beyond their peers to broader, non-scientist audiences, it builds support for science, promotes understanding of its wider relevance to society, and encourages more informed decision-making at all levels, from the government to communities to individuals. It can also make science accessible to audiences that traditionally have been excluded from the process of science. It can help make science more diverse and inclusive.”

Too often, when scientific evidence is brought forth, it is done so with the intent to prove a point, to “be right.” Being right is not the purpose of science, nor scientific communication. As Baruch Fischhoff states in the sciences of science communication, “The goal of science communication is not agreement, but fewer, better disagreements.” One idea that has suffered greatly from people insisting on “being right” is the scientific theory of evolution. From a misunderstanding of the word “theory” to theological and emotional upset, to the overprescription of antibiotics, our collective inability to communicate well around the idea of evolution has been a problem for a century and a half. This is the reason for Neil Shubins’ book Your Inner Fish, in which Shubin offers readers a chance to explore their own relationship with this complex and sometimes hard to imagine the process of evolution. One of the great things we can learn from this book is that good communication, like good science, is never really done; as the audience changes, so does the conversation. Our online lives often make the world seem too close and sometimes too small. It is the scientists that understand storytelling who will help the world stay vivid and expansive, who will help all of us to understand the importance of asking questions about that world — and then communicating what those questions taught them. In that spirit, we at bridges would like to share some of the work of our budding scientists and their communications on getting to know their inner fish.

A Few Good Science Blogs

As you have probably discovered, as you have been reading about your inner fish, science writing can be informative and entertaining. Here are a handful of blogs for you to peruse that are not only entertaining and informative but also thought-provoking. I hope that these examples help get your creativity flowing.