SINK OR SWIM

04.09.14

PBS vs. Creationists: A Fight Over Our Fishy Ancestors

A PBS series aims to show how humans evolved from creatures of the deep. But creationists have denounced it as an attempt to ‘package unconditional blind faith in evolution as scientific literacy in an effort to create interest in science.’

If you think Neil deGrasse Tyson’s discussion of the Big Bang, the origins of life, and scientific method in Fox’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has pissed off creationists, just wait for the inevitable uproar over a taxpayer-funded documentary miniseries that asks viewers to contemplate their own evolution.

Your Inner Fish, based on the eponymous bestselling book by paleontologist and anatomy professor Neil Shubin, aims to answer one question: Why do we look the way we do? Shubin, who also narrates the series, is the discoverer of the Tiktaalik, a 375-million-year-old “fish with hands” that many paleontologists cite as a crucial snapshot of Earth evolution. According to Shubin in the trailer for the series, which premieres tonight on PBS, “If you really want to see why you’re built the way you are, it’s time to meet your inner fish.”

By examining long-dead fossils and human DNA, Shubin aims to show viewers that our anatomy isn’t so different from that of our ocean-dwelling ancestors: human hands actually resemble fish fins, our inner ears aren’t that dissimilar from gills, and some of our genomes are no more complex than those of ancient worms. Shubin’s professorial exuberance about his subject, paired with the show’s lavish 3-D animations of long-dead creatures from the deep, may offer slick competition to Fox’s Cosmos reboot, but at least one audience may prove resistant to Shubin’s bookish charms: creationists.

“Human hands resemble fish fins, our inner ears aren’t that dissimilar from gills, and some of our genomes are no more complex than those of ancient worms.”

DeGrasse Tyson’s blockbuster science show has prompted calls for equal airtime for the concept of “intelligent design” (a term that belongs in a classroom only insofar as a demonstration of the concept of irony). Answers in Genesis, a ministry that advocates for scientific justification for so-called “Young Earth creationism,” has accused the program of attempting to “package unconditional blind faith in evolution as scientific literacy in an effort to create interest in science.”

Creationists have already accused Shubin’s book on the waterborne roots of human evolution of trying to “shoehorn the data,” but the fact that Your Inner Fish is being broadcast on PBS is the real target. Since PBS is brought to you by grants from the federal government (as well as contributions from viewers like you) arguments by advocates for intelligent design that a public station should offer both sides of the story may appear to be more reasonable.

Despite the haranguing that deGrasse Tyson has gotten from the anti-science crowd, Shubin has no interest in joining the fray over what he considers a settled issue: “My approach is to show the science is solid, and not look over my shoulder.”