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Neil Shubin’s book tour was just cancelled, so he dropped in on a biology class

Neil Shubin’s book tour was just cancelled, so he dropped in on a biology class

April 14, 2020 at 10:16am

What does a famed evolutionary biologist do when a global pandemic cancels his book tour? He evolves.

Neil Shubin is a Chicago-based researcher, bestselling author and host of the PBS series Our Inner Fish. He combines paleontology and biology to uncover the origins of life’s immense diversity. His latest book, Some Assembly Required, was released March 17, just as social distancing guidelines were being implemented across the United States. With a planned book tour scrapped, Shubin decided to spend this time dropping in on classes across the country to discuss exploration, discovery and evolution. Last week, he guest-lectured via Zoom in instructor Sian Evans’ evolution class PCB 4674 in the College of Arts, Science & Education.

Students in the class enjoyed the experience, finding it both interesting and, at times, humorous — something Shubin’s books are also known for.

The human male makes no sense unless you compare it to a fish, Shubin told the class at one point.

“I think this was a fun way to present a very educational statement,” said Emanuel Arias, a pre-med student majoring in Biological Sciences. “The statement seems a little strange at first and consequently intrigues you to want to hear more. It’s also quite humorous.”

The unexpected drop-in never would have happened if not for the shift to remote learning and Evans’ quick thinking. The expert in primate natural history has followed Shubin’s work over the years and is a fan of his PBS series Our Inner Fish. The final episode was filmed at Monkey Jungle, which also happens to be where Evans’ study monkeys are. When she heard Shubin was guest lecturing remote classes, she invited him and, as evolutionary biologists say, the rest is history.

Evans said while there has been an adjustment period, remote learning also has given rise to new opportunities like this one.

Shubin is the Robert Bensley Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and associate dean for academic strategy of the university's Biological Sciences Division. He is known for his co-discovery of Tiktaalik roseae, a fish complete with scales and gills that also has the flattened head of a crocodile and some really strange fins. It lived more than 375 million years ago.

He is the author of three books including the bestseller Your Inner Fish, which was named best book of the year by the National Academy of Sciences in 2008. In Some Assembly Required, Shubin takes readers on a journey of the multi-billion-year evolutionary history filled with twists and turns, trial and error, accident and invention — all in an effort to understand our planet’s diversity.