Tag Archives: Dinosaurs

The Silurians – Lost in Time

The Silurians, a classic Doctor Who “monster” have returned to our screens in Chris Chibnall’s new story The Hungry Earth. Sadly, the story has not done anything, so far, to correct an unfortunately horrid series of errors placing them in geologic time. In fact, by adding one more piece, he’s compounded the error yet again.

For the sake of this post, I’m going to call them “Silurians” but as you’ll see, as things stand now, we’re no closer to giving them a correct name as we were when they first appeared 40 years ago.

Consider: These reptilian creatures were first dubbed “Silurians” in the original series story, “Doctor Who and the Silurians.” This is clearly a misnomer. The Silurian Period spanned from 430 million years ago (mya) to 408 mya. By the end of the Silurian period, land-dwelling reptiles didn’t exist yet. A gross misnomer.

It was also pointed out that the so-called Silurians went into hibernation when a small planetoid threatened the Earth. The planetoid instead went into orbit and became the moon. Although not known that the time of the writing of that story, the moon is the result of collision with the primordial Earth, over 4 billions years ago. One this is for sure, the moon has orbited Earth for as long as life has been present.

Later, the Silurians cousins turned up in the story, The Sea Devils. The Doctor helpfully pointed out that the Silurians should have been called The Eocenes.

Problem: The Eocene Epoch spans from 57.8 mya to 35.6 mya. That’s over 7 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs. We know that the Silurians co-habitated the earth with dinosaurs which must put them into the late Triassic, the Jurrasic or the Cretaceous periods roughly 220 mya to 65 mya. Most likely they must have come from the end of that time as they have a pet Tyrannosaur, which only dates back about 68 mya.

Next problem: Even the original Silurians recognized apes, which didn’t evolve until just after the Eocene, in the Oligocene.

You’d think it couldn’t be any worse and then Hungry Earth comes along and not only does the Doctor call them Silurians and Eocenes, but he also refers to them as Homo Reptilia, and then suggest they’re from 300 mya – which is in the Carboniferious Period!

While the Carboniferous did have amphibians, the major reptilian lines didn’t really get going until the next period, the Permian.

Finally, I don’t know where he pulled the name Homo Reptilia from, but in biological classifications, you don’t just slap “homo” in front of a name if the creature is vaguely anthropomorphic. For it to be Homo Reptilia, these creatures would have to be our very close, mammalian relatives.

One could almost think Chibnall threw this stuff in just to push my buttons. Maybe he’ll fix it all better next week.

One thing in the original story’s favor. Although it was clearly intended and stated to have been the moon, time has given us an out. When the first Silurian story came out, nobody knew about the asteroid that struck the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous, now widely thought to have been the final straw in the extinction of the dinosaurs. It would be easy to retrofit the original explanation and say that it was that asteroid instead of the moon that the Silurians hid from.

But that just adds more fuel to the argument that the Silurians really should be called The Cretaceans.


Follow-up June 2, 2010:

There was no magical explanation in the final episode, Cold Blood and they even re-enforced the wandering moon problem, too. I guess I really was giving them too much credit.

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (or, is there are Dinosaur in my back yard?)

Spring in in the air here in Phoenix, and with it warm, comfortable outside temperatures. We’ve often got the doors open to let in the outside air.IMG_3851

Monday, when I was home taking care of a sick James, it was rather windy, and I kept hearing this noise. It was a very familiar knocking noise and yet at the same time, I couldn’t quite place it. I was certain it was something rattling in the wind.

Today; however, it was dead calm, but the noise was still there.

It was then that I realized what it sounded like: A woodpecker. I’ve never seen, heard or even heard of a woodpecker in Phoenix, but they’re not uncommon up in the mountains.

I went out to the back yard and there in the pecan tree was a little red-headed woodpecker, knocking away at the tree. It also seemed to be paying a lot of attention to a hole in the tree I’ve never noticed before. A nest hole perhaps?

Despite my life-long fascination with extinct dinosaurs, I’ve never cared much for our modern, avian dinosaurs – save for a few of the larger, majestic (and terrifying) birds of prey.

Nonetheless, it was kind of cool to discover something other than those damned pigeons around the house.

Full disclosure, there is no Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in my backyard because they, like non-avian dinosaurs, are extinct.


Other photos of the woodpecker

Claudia Brown and Pedigree Collapse

A recent comment post on this blog got me thinking about the series Primeval’s Claudia Brown.

Fans of the show will know that Claudia Brown was a character who was becoming romantically involved with Nick Cutter. The main series villain is Nick Cutter’s wife, Helen, long missing, thought dead, but actually just traveling through time.

Very soon after Claudia and Cutter expressed their feelings for each other – which Helen was aware of – Cutter travels with Helen back to the Permian period (299 – 251 MYA – at the end of the Paleozoic era) to recover a future predator and stop it from destroying history. When they return, not realizing that they’ve left baby predators alive in the past, Claudia Brown no longer exists, and no one knows who she is, except for the returning Nick and Helen Cutter. Helen then craps all over Cutter, revealing that, before she disappeared, she was having an affair with his best friend Stephen. Clearly she does this to hurt Cutter, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that a vindictive Helen, with her time-traveling knowledge, may have engineered the disappearance of Cutter’s new love interest.

But is that what happened?

I don’t think so, but then, Primeval can be so ill-conceived at times you never can tell if some intentional is so poorly executed that you can’t discern it from background noise.

Consider: Helen and Cutter enter the anomaly to the Permian, Claudia Brown exists. Helen and Cutter return, thinking they have succeeded, but not realizing they’ve left future predators behind. Claudia Brown now no longer exists. If Helen, 251+ million years in the past, was able to hatch a plot that, by leaving random agents (the predators) behind, exhibited so much fine-grain control that it could pluck one single person out of existence… well, if she could do that she was incredibly good. She might as well be trying to fire a bullet around the planet with a rifle and hitting Claudia on the 251,000,000 circuit around the planet. (Actually, it’s even more improbable than that.)

No, I think she was unaware that Claudia was gone.

Further, you might argue that Claudia may have been there when Cutter and Helen returned and she just wasn’t mentioned and wasn’t in camera shot and that it wasn’t until after she jumped back into the anomaly that Claudia disappeared. If that were the case, Cutter would have forgotten her as well as everyone else had, so that seems unlikely, too.

Let’s, for a moment, consider the likelihood of Cutter and Helen’s mistake of leaving the baby predators altering the timeline enough to erase Claudia.

With 251 million years to compound changes in the timeline, it seems that if significant changes were wrought, that the world would be a completely unrecognizable place, likely having no similarity to the world we inhabit today.

It’s all hypothetical,of course, but here’s one way to look at it. The answer may lie in a concept called Pedigree Collapse.

People have a lot of misconceptions about… well, for the want of a better term, I shall call the Mathematics of History. Most people, for example, view their history as a binary tree. I have two parents, they each have two parents, therefore I have four grandparents. Each of them had two parents, therefore I have 8 great-grandparents. The progression goes like this: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128…

Simple, you say? Obvious? Yes, and completely wrong… or at least wrong inasmuch as people tend to assume these are all distinct people. You don’t have to go back many generations to realize that your number of ancestors will rapidly approach a number greater than the total number of humans who have ever existed on this planet. How can this be? Answer: Kissing Cousins (wink wink nudge nudge say no more!) There’s a lot more of that going on than people think.

The further you go back in you ancestors the more inevitable it is that multiple people occupy multiple places on your ancestral chart.

If a single human – or, more specifically a single human being who had offspring – far enough back in time were wiped out, huge swaths would have been cut in our ancestry and it seems unlikely that any of us would be here. (And I mean here biologically. As beings made up of the same genetic material, not the ridiculous “gosh, Jenny Lewis is the same person as Claudia Brown with a different history.) Presumably a missing person on the chart would result in others filling in the holes, leading to an ever expanding web of genetic changes.

If the future predators impacted the course of life on the planet, the changes would have been massive. And, of course, this web would have been unravelling since long before humans, mammals or even dinosaurs existed. That’s an inconceivably long period of time.

It is not at all inconceivable that a disturbance back 251+ million years would completely end the world as we know it.

On the other hand, it’s also possible to go too far back in time to have any effect.

We have to consider the misconception of continuity of life on this planet. Virtually every creature that has ever existed on this planet has already died. The vast majority of species that have ever existed are extinct. That’s a whole lot of dead.

Since 251+ million years ago, there have been at least two major planetary extinction events and lots of smaller ones. Ice ages, deserts, droughts, asteroids, mountains, seas, oceans and continents have come and gone.

Over such an immense time scale, it’s very likely that the doomed future predators’ changes would be wiped clean long before they reached the Mesozoic era, let alone the Cenozoic.

Aside: There’s 3 (if I recall correctly) baby future predators, without mother, in an unfamiliar and hostile environment. They’re mammals, therefore dependent on mom for milk (assuming they haven’t been weened.) There are no other mammals in the Permian, therefore it’s doubtful they could be raised, Romulus and Remus fashion, but some other beneficent creature. It’s likely that some or all of them will be killed before adulthood. Even if all three survived, their genetic pool is too shallow to have a long-lasting colony. There’s nothing even close for them to cross-breed with. They’re doomed in short order.

The baby predators conceivably wipe out an entire species or even more than one, but if those species were already going to die out, the effect could be negligible.

No. What Nick and Helen Cutter did back in the Permian could not have lead to Claudia Brown becoming Jenny Lewis.
So what could have? Still working the premise that Helen did this on purpose, let’s see what she could have done. For starters though, let’s consider this bit of biology: A human being is produced by the combination of a single egg and a single sperm. Mom produces one unique egg per month for her adult lifespan, dad produces millions in a single toss (so to speak.) For Claudia and Jenny to be the “same person in a different reality” as the show intimates, Jenny had to be the product of the exact same sexual act as Claudia. Considering the number of sperm working towards their goal, they’re couldn’t have been even a seconds’ difference in the act. It couldn’t have been on the kitchen table instead of the bed or the nearby park bench or the back of a car because that would have changed the result of the sperm race.
Therefore we have to conclude that not only are Jenny’s parents the same, but that her conception and the events that lead up to it were identical. That means whatever changed Claudia into Jenny happened after she was conceived.
Here’s what I consider a likely scenario: Mr. and Mrs. Brown conceive a baby. Very shortly after this moment, Mr Brown is removed from the picture, by some means, and before what would have been baby Claudia is born, Mr, Lewis marries the ex-Mrs. Brown and they raise the baby entirely as their own child. Jenny would almost have to be completely ignorant of Mr. Brown’s role in her formation, as she’d likely put 2 and 2 together when told the name of Claudia Brown. (“Hey, my mother’s first husband was named Brown, too! What a coincidence!”)
We also make some assumptions about the “normal flow of time.” We naturally assume something that didn’t happen in our timeline did happen in Jenny’s. But is that our natural tendency to see normality as a still stream that gets disturbed by a pebble. What if it is the reverse?
We don’t actually know that much about Claudia, and her history was erased, so perhaps the opposite happened in her universe. Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Lewis were biologically the parents and Mr. Brown came along to do the paternal duties. She may very well have known, but never mentioned this aspect of her family background because it was largely a trivial matter to her. There’s no way to compare it to Jenny Lewis until after the timeline change, and then the only people who would know what happened, Claudia is gone, and anyone who knew her family has forgotten her.
In this later scenario, it’s even possible that Claudia Brown was orphaned and adopted. Any of a number of things that might have led Jenny to becoming Claudia in our own timeline could have happened and we can never know – unless, of course, Helen knows, and if she did she probably took that with her to her grave.
And now, the entire program, Primeval, has taken that to its grave, too.
None of that explains the creation of the ARC, although it’s possible that, with no Claudia as government liaison, the alternate reality government team behaved differently and helped create the ARC. Perhaps the evil Leek (Claudia’s replacement) somehow pushed this entirely for his own machinations.
So what have we got? If Helen engineered Claudia’s disappearance, she did something after Claudia was already conceived, which seems a completely stupid approach. The alternative is, as I suspect, that Helen was not involved and that the writers just didn’t bother to think things through, insulting the audience once more in the process.

Primeval – Here’s a twist I never expected!

From Variety:

In a high-six-figure deal, Warner Bros. has acquired screen rights to “Primeval,”the ITV series that airs in the U.S. on BBC America and Sci Fi Channel.

Akiva Goldsman and Kerry Foster will produce through Goldsman’s WB-based Weed Road banner. Emily Cummins will also be involved in a producing capacity.

Goldsman, who scripted the Ron Howard-directed “Angels and Demons” withDavid Koepp, will hire a writer to draft “Primeval.”


Movie? Primeval? Why do I almost fear this more than the Land of the Lost movie?

Fate is Determined – Primeval, Series 3, Episode 7 – Review, Spoilers

Worms? What can of worms?

Synopsis

In the middle ages (14th, I think) a “dragon” menaces a village. Sir William goes forth to do battle and we see the “dragon” to be a dinosaur.

In the 21st Century, an anomaly opens up in a car wrecking yard and out comes a dracorex hogwartsia (no, I’m not making that up.) The terrified crane operator fights back and nearly kills the dracorex, which is already wounded with a lance in its side.

Meanwhile, Conner discovers Rex up for auction on eBay and contacts Abby’s good-for-nothing-plot-complication-of-a-brother Jack and tells him to get rex back. Keeping the incident a secret from Abby.

Better late than never, the anomaly detector notices the anomaly and alerts the crew, who arrive just in time to save the dracorex. They try to heard it back through – not seeming the slightest bit interested in how a manmade artifact is imbedded in its side – the anomaly, and just as they are about to succeed, Sir William charges through the anomaly in pursuit of the dracorex, which runs away with Sir William in pursuit.

While Quinn and Conner pursue the knight, Abby and Becker track down the dracorex.

The knight is causing all sorts of problems, but, coincidentally, there’s a carnival parade through the streets of London, so he doesn’t quite stick out like a sore thumb. Quinn and Conner catch up to him several times, but he repeatedly escapes them.

Abby and Becker catch up with the dracorex, and Becker wants to shoot it, but Abby threatens to shoot him with a tranquilizer dart if he does. The beast finally collapses rendering the Mexican standoff moot and they haul the beast back to the junk yard where Abby tries to nurse it back to health.

While all this is going on, Sarah Page decides to trick her way through the anomaly, where she does field research on Sir William. She lies about her authority to pass through the anomaly, and then demands that the guard pretend he saw nothing when she comes back.

Using her knowledge of Sir William, and the extremely fortuitous placement of Sir William’s grave, Sarah convinces him to return to the anomaly. He then battles it out with Abby, who seems to be the only one man enough to take him on, to save the dracorex’s life. He defeats her, but her willingness to sacrifice herself wins him over and he departs, leaving the dracorex behind. Another pet for Abby, it seems.

Jack fails to get Rex back, so Conner takes Becker and some armed soldiers to Jack’s friend and retrieves Rex.

Analysis

Ever since this series started, there’s been the “new” concept that the anomalies have opened in the past, giving rise to various mythological legends. It was that information that allowed Cutter to devise his map of the anomalies, which was verified to be accurate, therefore it was just a matter of time before that showed up in the plot, but this opens a huge can of worms.

Destiny, fate, pre-determinancy and all that baggage that goes along with time travel stories. We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s time for a refresher: Either the past is fixed or it isn’t. Conversely, since the future is someone’s else’s past, the present is either fixed or it isn’t.

Primeval as followed the notion that the past is not fixed, hence the need to return as many creatures through the anomalies as possible. It’s also the reason that Cutter’s world disappeared and was replaced by the current universe and lead to the non-existing of Claudia Brown and replacement by Jenny Lewis. The anomalies represent a very real and incredibly far-reaching threat for the very fabric of reality. Frankly, the ARC doesn’t take this seriously enough. There is nothing more important in the world than stopping the anomalies. It is simply a matter of time before the universe gets changed again – and yet, the people working at the ARC seem to have no grasp that their very existence hangs on a thread that could be severed with the opening of the next anomaly.

A commenter noted earlier that Jenny Lewis would never quit her job just because she nearly died. Could someone walk away – no matter what the reason – from the single most important job in the world? The lives of billions of people, plus billions, if not trillions of plants and animals throughout all time are threatened and the ARC is the only place (we know of) that is combating them. There’s a lot of pressure in a job like that, but it isn’t one that anyone with a conscience could walk away from.

But now we have a new wrinkle. Sir William left his time – he was no longer there to get married and die and be buried. When he left, time would have changed and his grave would be gone – unless it was pre-destined that he would return to the past. If that’s the case, then time can’t be changed and history is safe – but we know it isn’t because of Claudia/Jenny.

So, the next question is, what about the second anomaly in the 14th century? You know, the one that must be there letting the dracorex through in the first place? Keeping with Cutter’s map/theory those events are now part of historical fact – and always have been. They apparently did no lasting damage to the fabric of time. (Although, how would we know it if it had?) If these anomalies have been opening throughout human history, can we not also assume that they’ve been happening throughout the entire 4.6 billion year history of Earth? Are Permian creatures walking through anomalies into the Cretaceous? And why is it that creatures seem to come through the anomalies to our time, but for the most part, things in our time don’t go into the anomalies? If an anomaly opened on a farm in Surrey, would cows be just as likely to walk through into the past as a dinosaur would into the present?

Should we be wondering if anomalies are more one-way than another? Consider, they’re highly magnetic – hold up a spoon and it shoots into the anomaly. What’s it do on the other side? Shoot back through? If not, what does that mean? What would have happened to Sir William in that armor suit of his?

Oh, wait, they’re anomalies they don’t have to behave in a consistent fashion.

Let’s turn to the ARC team then and their procedural operations. Can we at least assume that they keep all their needed gear in their vehicles, ready for a scramble? If so, why don’t they get it out of the car when they go to investigate? They always seem to arrive completely unprepared.

Clearly, from the way Dr. Page has to trick her way through the anomaly, the ARC has standing orders not to go through. That’s probably a good idea when it could lead to the destruction of time. In that case, shouldn’t they also have a standing rule to put creatures back through the anomaly? Wouldn’t Becker know that? Why was he planning on shooting the dinosaur? Would Abby have really shot him with the tranquilizer dart? Does she realize (and as a zoologist, she should) that a dosage big enough for the dracorex would surely kill Becker?

Speaking of Dr. Page going through the anomaly. First she lies to the guard, telling him she has authorization, then on the way out she tells him that he never saw her. Shouldn’t that have been a tip off that she BSed her way in in the first place? Shouldn’t he report that to someone? At least she showed enough curiosity to want to defy orders to go through the anomaly and research. That kind of spirit of inquiry is completely missing in everyone else on the team.

Looks like the end is heating up next week – an expedition into the future to see the aftermath of the destruction of the human race. (Unfortunately, it looks like they’ll be chasing Abby’s good-for-nothing-plot-complication-of-a-brother Jack.)

To walk with dinosaurs

Yesterday, on the 9th anniversary of the moon being blasted out of Earth’s orbit, we celebrated by attending Walking with Dinosaurs, the Live Experience.

This is a multi-million dollar extravaganza (the production, not – quite – the ticket price) to bring life-sized dinosaurs from the Walking with Dinosaurs series to life, on stage.

No matter how many books you read, the scale of these creatures is difficult to imagine. Even the fossilized bones and reconstructions in natural history museums don’t fully convey their scale because they are hollow frameworks.

And so I’ve been eagerly anticipating this show since I first heard of it.

It didn’t disappoint.

Seeing a full-sized brachiasaur walk onto stage is humbling. That we were 14 rows back in a steep sports arena and that it’s head still towered over us really drive home how magnificent these beasts must have been.

Of course the technology could not completely make these “real”. The monstrous beasts were supported on sled-like mechansms that allowed them to be driven without interfereing with the simulated motion of the legs.

The smaller, more agile creatures were performers in suits. This presents an interesting problem as human legs articulate in a reverse fashion from theropod dinosaurs.

Clearly this was a stage production, but an impressive one.

I even shed a tear when the tyrannosaur family was wiped out by the commet.

Of Dinosaurs and Birds

The week before last was Michelle’s spring break, so I took a day off to take her down to the Mesa Southwest Museum (AKA Arizona Museum of Natural History) to see the traveling “Feathered Dinosaurs” exhibit.

There is a province in Northeastern China called Liaoning, where, 120-odd million years ago a lake and a volcano combined to preserve an abundance of unique and exquisitely preserved fossils. Probably the most important finds coming out of the Liaoning fossil beds are… well, let’s call them “feathered dinosaurs”, since that’s what the exhibit is called.

Ever since the discovery of Archaeopteryx in the 19th century, it’s been clear that birds evolved from reptiles. Specimens have been few and far between, but in the later part of the 20th century, dromeosaurs were discovered.

No, that’s not a good place to start, let’s try again. A long time ago there were Archosaurs, the ancient reptiles that came before dinosaurs. Archosaurs led to dinosaurs, marine reptiles, flying reptiles and crocodilians amongst others.

Dinosaurs broke into two major groups – bird hipped and lizard-hipped. Bird-hipped dinosaurs are somewhat unfortunately named as they have no connection to birds and have no further part in our story, but are represented by familiar dinosaurs such as Iguanodon, stegosaurus and triceratops.

The lizard-hipped dinosaurs further branched into theropods and sauropods. The sauropods being the gigantic diplodocus and other long-necked forms. The theropods are the great two-legged meat eaters – the Tyrannosaurs and such.

Then they discovered Dromeosaurs. Which are classified as theropods, although they are generally smaller and have some unique characteristics, such as long arms, and often a wicked retractable killer claw on the hind feet. Think Velociraptor from Jurassic Park, and you’ve conjured up the image of a dromeosaur.

Perhaps you noticed between Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III, the ‘raptors suddenly gained feathers.

For most of the 20th century, Archaeopteryx was thought to be a parallel line of development, alongside the dinosaurs – just as marine reptiles and flying reptiles were. The problem was, not enough evidence to say where they branched from.

When dromeosaurs were discovered in the 1960’s, it became obvious that significant physiological similarities existed between them and birds. The branching point where birds began to separate from reptiles was found. Or was it?

The case for the dromeosaur/bird relationship has been strengthening steadily over the years, and increasing number of dromeosaurs have now been identified (or extrapolated) as having feathers.

Now, the researchers who put together the “Feathered Dinosaur” exhibit, based on the amazing finds in Lioaning have arrived at a new conclusion and turned things on their head: Dromeosaurs aren’t theropod dinosaurs on the way to becoming birds at all. They’re not dinosaurs at all. They’re flightless birds, like ostriches. These are creatures whose ancestors developed true feather and wing flight, but who, through some form of evolutionary selection pressure, became land-dwelling creatures, similar in appearance to theropods, but not related any closer than the Archosaurs.

I’ve read the (rather sparse) material associated with the exhibit and it makes a logical case. No evidence is presented to counter the hypothesis, and I don’t know what the reaction has been in the paleontological community has been.

What I do know is that, if this were such an obvious slam dunk of an hypothesis, I would imagine I would have to have heard more about it than I have. Has consensus been achieved this quickly? Or is this hotly contested? I can only imagine the latter. That’s the way science works, in fact, that’s probably how science works best. If there’s any lesson to be learned in science for the general public, it is that science is a self-correcting system that arrives at conclusions via evidence, multiple independent verifications and a lot of academic debate.

So, why am I bothered?

I’m bothered because the museum was rather full of kids on field trips and they were stocked up on docents, and they were telling everyone about this theory as if it were completely proven. The materials accompanying the exhibits were not much less certain, but the book that can be purchased separately does at least pay some lip service to the notion of academic debate on these findings. I don’t blame the authors, exactly, for they are putting forward their case, and doing a convincing job – at least to this layman, but at the same time, as far as I can tell, dromeosaurs are still considered theropod dinosaurs – for now.

Anyway, despite that, it is an amazing exhibit! These are some of the most exquisite fossils ever found. The preservation is such that you can see intricate details on the wings of bugs. It’s astounding.

How sad that these fossil beds are stuck in China. The local farmers can make a comparative fortune finding and smuggling out fossils. The fields aren’t well guarded and, well, let’s be brutally honest: Chinese officials are corrupt to the core. A payoff here and there and who knows how many incredible finds are in the hands of some private collector?

No pictures are allowed in the exhibit (and armed guards will stop you if you try*) and no pictures are available for purchase, although the companion book, Feathered Dinosaurs by Stephen A Czerkas and Sylvia J. Czerkas has photos of all the exhibits and the text of the placards, along with some additional material.

I strongly recommend anyone with an interest in paleontology to see this exhibit if you get the chance. For most people, it’s probably a once in a lifetime exhibit.


*Or is the purpose of the armed guards to stop political activists from unfurling “Free Tibet” banners?

Book Selection: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… as I was approaching college age as the 80’s were dawning on us, I had three areas of interest that I explored for my future life’s work. Each would set the course of my adult life in three very different ways and each would have been a different University.

I was interested in forestry, which would have taken me to Northern Arizona University, paleontology, which would have started at my home town university, the University of Arizona, or computer science at Arizona State University.
Forestry was the long shot and got eliminated early, and plays no further part in this story.
My deep and abiding interest was paleontology – I wanted to be a fossil hunter, but my aptitude was more computer science.
Computers won because as I learned more about the coursework required for paleontology, I realized that there were large parts (like biology and zoology) of it that would really be painfully dull for me.
Looking back, I didn’t make the wrong choice. Paleontology has developed significantly since the days of Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. Parallel developments in other fields, such as genetics and evolutionary biology have dovetailed with the old bone diggers and brought us to a quantum leap in our understanding of past life. (Yuck, I apologize for that sentence. Must be too much sugar in my iced tea.)
That’s my long way of saying, I love a good book on the evolution of life, especially when there’s a paleontological adventure involved.
Neil Shubin’s book Your Inner Fish (and Shubin himself, for that matter) first came to my attention when he plugged the book on the Colbert Report. Colbert, in his role as a conservative fundamentalist host, always throws his guests a few curve balls (or googlies, if you prefer a cricket analogy over baseball) and I was really impressed at how well Shubin comported himself on the show.
That alone made me want to give him money by reading his book, but Shubin has another important claim to fame: He was an instrumental part of the team of paleontologists who discovered Tiktaalik, the important fish to amphibian transitional fossil.
The book’s subtitle is “A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body” and, as such, isn’t strictly about Tiktaalik, or even fossil-hunting. It is an excellent, and easily accessible book that gives a good primer into how genetics and fossils tell us why life is the way it is.
As such, I’d recommend the book to anyone with even a passing interest in understanding “how it all comes together.”
Your Inner FishA Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body
by Neil Shubin
Pantheon BooksISBN 978-0-375-42447-2