UChicago professor explores fishy origins of human life

Laura Zhang

Neil Shubin, professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago, said becoming a fish paleontologist has altered his perception of people.

“If you look at Albert Einstein, you see the pinnacle of human achievement,” Shubin said. “I look at Albert Einstein and I see a big, old, evolved fish.”

On April 21, Shubin gave a lecture at UT hosted by the Dean’s Scholars Honors Program. Shubin spoke about the expeditions that led him and his team to discover Tiktaalik, an ancient fish that filled a crucial gap in the evolutionary journey from sea to land. 

Tiktaalik, which means “large, freshwater fish” in the Inuit language, lived over 375 million years ago. 

Though it has scales and fins like fish do, Tiktaalik has arm bones inside its fins, as well as wrists and finger-like structures similar to those of humans. New evolutionary structures, such as necks, shoulders and ribs, suggest that it could live in shallow waters and make short trips on land, according to Shubin. 

“Every time you bend your wrist or shake your hand, you can thank Tiktaalik and its cousins,” Shubin said.

Shubin and his team discovered Tiktaalik after eight years in the Canadian Arctic. According to Shubin, his team ran into many dead ends, but these failures helped them to train their eyes to distinguish between rock and bone. 

The years of practice allowed Shubin to immediately distinguish the V-shaped fossil stuck in the rock, which showed the flat-headed fish.

“I ran over and I knew we had finally found what we had spent eight years looking for,” Shubin said.  

To find a name for this revolutionary fossil, Shubin and his team consulted the Inuit tribe, whose territory they were on. After some struggles with the language barrier, the fossil was named Tiktaalik, which means “large, freshwater fish” in the Inuit language. 

For Shubin, discovering Tiktaalik has paved the way for more scientific discoveries in the similarity between embryos of humans and other creatures. These similarities arise as a result of Hox genes, a set of genes that help control development.

Alanna Self, a senior in the Jackson School of Geosciences and undergraduate research assistant in a vertebrate paleontology lab, said she is fascinated by the relationship between people and other animals.

“I do find it beautiful, like [Shubin] said, that humans are descended from fish and that you can trace out our relationships with them,” Self said.

As the road map of evolution unfolds, Shubin said he hopes that humans’ connections to other animals will provide more insight into human genetics.  

“I’d like to think that as we discover cures, from Alzheimer’s to different cancers, that the breakthroughs that will eventually enrich and extend our lives will ultimately be based on the work of worms, flies, mice and in some cases, even fish,” Shubin said. “I can’t imagine a more powerful — or more beautiful — statement in the importance of our evolutionary roots.”