By Ray Lesser
Five summers ago, Neil Shubin discovered the missing link: a fish with hands. Finally, scientists had proof that our ancient ancestors really did drag themselves out of the ocean, becoming the first proud owners of beachfront property.
Professor Shubin was wandering around one snowy July day on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic when he spotted our 375-million-year-old great-granddaddy’s fossilized flat head poking out of the rocks, a remarkable moment of serendipity that came after searching fruitlessly for years in many similarly forbidding places. For example, as a poor young paleontologist, unable to raise enough money to mount expeditions to prime sites in the Sahara or Gobi Deserts, he spent the summer fossil-hunting in central Pennsylvania, driving to virtually every large road-cut that the Department of Transportation had blasted through the mountains to build highways. “Its not always the best exposure, but we take what we can get,” says Shubin. “With cheap science, you get what you pay for.”
Remarkably, even in that desolate Pennsylvanian landscape, with vehicles sometimes whizzing by within inches, his team discovered another early predecessor, which they named Hynerpeton, a name that translates from Greek as ‘little creeping animal from Hyner, Pennsylvania.’ Its descendents can still be found in the area, crawling from pub to pub on most weekends.
On the basis of Hynerpeton and other discoveries, Shubin was finally able to finagle enough grant money to mount an expedition to much more promising fossil-hunting grounds in the Canadian Arctic. “We risked being eaten by polar bears, running out of food, or being marooned by bad weather,” he says. “We were 250 miles by air from the nearest supply base. In our first week, one of the crew saw a moving white speck. It looked like a polar bear about a quarter mile away. We scrambled like Keystone Kops for our guns, flares, and whistles until we discovered that our bear was a white Arctic hare 200 feet away.”
It took four more expeditions over six years to finally find what they were looking for: Tiktaalik, an animal with the same shoulder, elbow and wrist bones as a human. A fish capable of crawling up out onto the muddy banks of the streams where it lived and doing push-ups. What possessed a fish to crawl out of the water? “Virtually every fish swimming in those 375 million-year-old streams was a predator,” says Shubin. “The most common fish species we find alongside Tiktaalik is seven feet long and has a head as wide as a basketball. Its teeth are barbs the size of railroad spikes. Would you want to swim in those ancient streams?” In order to survive this fish-eat-fish world, Tiktaalik decided to risk becoming a fish out of water.
In his book Your Inner Fish, Shubin describes many of the recent amazing discoveries in paleontology and genetic research to explain human origins and evolution. We quite literally contain the entire tree of life inside our bodies. He says humans are the fish equivalent of a Volkswagen Beetle souped up to race 150 mph. “Take the body plan of a fish, dress it up to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers — and you have a recipe for problems.”
The difficulty of engineering a fish to walk on two legs has resulted in many a sore knee and sprained ankle, not to mention closets full of poorly fitting shoes. The strange loops and detours our nerves and veins have to take to get around various organs lead to other common annoyances such as hiccups and hernias. Four of the leading causes of death in humans — heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and stroke — are mostly due to having at our core a body that was designed to swim around all day, rather than sit on its keister surfing the Internet, or drive truckloads of sardines from L.A. to Indianapolis. Fish don?t get hemorrhoids, either.
Neil Shubin has spent much of his life wandering desolate landscapes and squinting at ancient rocks to try to explain the evolution of life. His research can help you understand how you are a fish, even if you can’t swim a stroke and hate the smell of seaweed. You are also a fly and a worm and a frog, and most certainly a rodent. But we would never have become what we are today if it hadn?t have been for that brave Tiktaalik, who was the first to find a place where he could finally bask in the sun — and not be eaten.