Program review: Your Inner Fish

I threatened to do this, and after watching I felt more than obligated, so let’s talk about Your Inner Fish, a video program from PBS.

This one-hour program by Tangled Bank Studios is hosted by Neil Shubin, a self-described ‘fish anatomist’ from the University of Chicago, and based on the book of the same name. If you’ve read the book, the video will hold few surprises – but that isn’t why we watch videos, is it? And for the visual augmentation that is provided by such, PBS did an excellent job. CGI is present in a lot of things anymore, and ridiculously overdone in many cases, but here it was used judiciously and with great effect. Most of the program is straight video – interviews, set pieces, location shoots, and dramatizations – but mixed among them all, often overlaid on top, are graphics that illustrate the concepts and anatomy in a compelling and often dramatic way, but without going overboard at all. Fossils can be very hard things to merely spot, much less ascertain the details of, so the glowing outlines delineating their presence and shape are much appreciated, and manage never to get too obtrusive or distracting. Meanwhile, the virtual long-track across the curving tree of descent is both illustrative and expressive, taking a relatively simple subject and giving it a nice bit of flair.

We travel to the road cut in Pennsylvania, where the first discovery was made, and thence to remote and forbidding Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic, seeing firsthand the conditions that greet fossil-hunters (and many other scientists.) But we also see the lab work, watching skate embryos swimming within their egg cases and the beating hearts of unhatched chickens. Overall, the visualizations kept pace with the details, always giving us something to see along with the information imparted by the narrative.

There were a few small exceptions. The actual developments spurred by the implantation of the sonic hedgehog genes were graphically portrayed, but not shown as real photos. There is an illustration of the tendons of the human hand, but not of the counterpart in Tiktaalik, despite indicating the broad attachment points for such. These are minor and largely up to personal preference; others might have wanted to see something else illustrated, or felt that what was included was more than adequate.

Another minor point was the solitary perspective, only noticeable early in the program. Shubin announces that, as a scientist, he looks at people differently, and in a few other places he speaks of what “I” do, in circumstances where these are shared by not just the scientific community (whatever that is,) but everyone who even holds a strong interest in the topics. It was a slightly uncomfortable distinction, separating the scientist from the viewer, and served no purpose, but thankfully it was brief (and not noticeable in the book.) Shubin is an entertaining and enthusiastic speaker though, so this is a minor detraction in an otherwise positive presentation.

The anti-evolutionist will not be convinced, unfortunately – a one-hour program covering a lot of territory isn’t going to provide the kind of rigor necessary, but then again, nothing would be adequate for a large percentage of creationists anyway; their desire is for self-indulgence, not real understanding. I’m not coming from a perspective that will allow me to judge, but overall, I got the impression that what was given in the program was a pretty enticing taste of what can be found, indeed in the book, but also with a greater study of the subject matter through other sources. It is one of the best ways I’ve seen science presented, beating out both incarnations of Cosmos, and appears well able to spur greater interest in pursuing some of these subjects. It also helps that PBS is marketing the book right alongside the DVD as a package.

There are two more installments to come, Your Inner Reptile and Your Inner Monkey, and right at the moment it does not appear that PBS has scheduled these yet – I will try to keep an eye on them and throw out an alert when they’re due to air. I will do the same if this particular episode gets run again. If you’re not inclined to wait (and definitely shouldn’t trust little old unconnected me to catch the later episodes,) there’s always the DVD – it might seem a little pricey, but this is PBS, and part of that fee is going towards supporting such programs free of idiotic commercial interruptions. Whatever it takes, however, I urge you to check it out – I doubt you’ll be disappointed.