Tiktaalik specimen in box. / Tangled Bank Studios, LLC
Paleobiologist Neil Shubin digs up the fossils of extinct animals. Now television is bringing those fossils to life.
In an episode of Shubin's new PBS series, Your Inner Fish, based on his best-selling book of the same name, he cups a tiny Jurassic reptile called a tritheledont in his palm before it jumps off his hand and meanders across a tabletop. No flesh-and-blood tritheledont has scuttled the Earth for at least 150 million years. But 21st-century computer animation has resurrected the little animal in all its lithe, long-tailed glory for a star turn in Shubin's series, premiering April 9. (Check local listings.)
The tritheledont's appearance is a moment of wonder, but Shubin and his collaborators have greater ambitions than making a more factual Jurassic Park. They want viewers to realize that their own bodies are directly related to those of fish and reptiles that lived millions of years ago. And, in a tougher sell, the show's creators want viewers to be enraptured not just by scientific results but also by the halting, messy, failure-ridden scientific process itself.
"I didn't go into science to memorize note cards. I went into science to discover, to go into the unknown," Shubin says. "I want (viewers) to see the joy of discovery in science."
That philosophy also pervaded Shubin's 2008 best-selling book, Your Inner Fish, which makes a point of telling readers not only what scientists know but also how they know it - and how they learn to know anything at all. The book chronicles Shubin's own evolution, from naive graduate student who couldn't spot a fossil even when he was staring right at it to skilled paleontologist whose fossil expeditions have uncovered groundbreaking new specimens. Along the way, the book introduces a throng of scientists whose work contributed to the book's central thesis: that our own anatomy bears the traces of animal ancestors that lived eons ago.
Shubin didn't write the book with a film treatment in mind. But when the production company now called Tangled Bank Studios came calling in 2011, Shubin was persuaded that executives there wanted to "elevate the conversation â?¦ but also make it entertaining," as he did. Shubin agreed to host a documentary based on his book, an agreement that would eventually find him baking on the plains of Africa, shivering on the tundra in the Arctic and climbing a tree with monkeys despite a lifelong fear of heights.
As host, Shubin is on-camera for much of the three-part series, each an hour long. He is a winningly exuberant, wide-eyed presence, with a spontaneity that is genuine: All of his on-camera scenes were entirely ad-libbed, though he'd never done TV before.
"Honestly, I was scared at the beginning of the process about how I would be on camera. â?¦ I remember walking in (the first) morning, thinking, can I really do this?" Shubin says. At the end of the first day of shooting, "I remember going home not being scared anymore, being excited."
Learning to be natural in front of a camera was the least of the pain as producers sliced, diced and blended Shubin's book to suit the needs of TV. Much of the show's third episode is devoted to early members of the human family tree, a subject that Shubin's book barely mentions. And the program omits key sections of the book, such as the passage describing how the young Shubin, under the tutelage of a veteran fossil hunter, learns to distinguish the telltale gleam of a fossil from the gloss of surrounding rocks. He regrets that anecdote's absence from the show.
"Yeah, that's a piece I think is very important â?¦ because that tells the story of how you train your eye to be a paleontologist," Shubin says. But he bows to the merciless demands of the format. "TV is 56 minutes. So when you wanna add something, something's got to go." Entire trips filmed for the series were left on the cutting room floor, he says, but at least much of it will be used for educational projects.
Shubin is quick to acknowledge that for everything lost in the transition from page to digital image, much is gained. In one of his favorite animations, Shubin stands on an Arctic hilltop close to the site where his team made one of its most important finds, an ancient fish that could heave itself around on solid ground with its strong fins. The bleak hills behind him morph into a lush river valley, showing the landscape as it was 375 million years ago, which is what today's geologists see when they study the terrain. In another scene, a magazine illustration of an extinct mammal the size of a paper clip comes to life and scampers off the page, pausing to lick its paw like a cat.
"Critters that lived so many hundreds of millions of years ago can seem like dusty history, and we wanted to bring them to life," says Inner Fish executive producer Michael Rosenfeld, to explain the show's lavish â?? and expensive â?? 3-D animations. And to Shubin, "they're kind of real. â?¦ We were trying to show the Neil-Shubin-eyes view of the world."
For the one-third of Americans who reject evolution, Shubin's view of the world may be a hard sell. The show makes no direct effort to win over creationists. Arguments against evolution were debunked decades ago, Shubin says to justify the show's strategy. He'd rather try to open his viewers' eyes to the link between the architecture of the human body and the internal structures of creatures like the tritheledont.
"My approach is to show the science is solid, and not look over my shoulder," he says. "That'll change some minds. â?¦ Most important, I want (viewers) to see their bodies in a new way. I want them to see the great connection that exists (between) their bodies and the rest of life on the planet, that they contain history inside of them."
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Read the original story: PBS series explores evolution of 'Your Inner Fish'