Popular Science: Two University of Chicago professors shed some light on the animal in all of us

Scientific discoveries are usually presented to the public the way wine is introduced to youngsters: watered-down to the point where the drink is more H20 than alcohol. Scientists write dense papers in exclusive publications whose yearly subscription costs are usually in three figures. Reporters try to make sense of the jargon and translate it into articles that laypeople can understand–but in that process, much of the original content is dumbed down. It seems that Americans just don’t care enough about science to try to understand it.

At the time of this writing, the most e-mailed article on the New York Times website is entitled “Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?” The phenomenon described in this piece is not a new one; the state of our education system has been bemoaned for decades, and it was only logical that aversion to learning would become a legacy in our adult populace. It’s the reason that the Creation Museum in Kentucky exists.

University of Chicago academics have a history of trying to cut out the middleman and trying to explain obtuse or demanding concepts and theories themselves, through books or through television. Those who have succeeded in making their research palatable immediately enter the ranks of academic and even popular celebrity. At the UofC, these ranks include economists Milton Friedman and Steven Levitt, astronomer Carl Sagan, paleontologists Paul Sereno and Neil Shubin, and biologist Dario Maestripieri. The latter two have recently written their first popular science books.

In early 2004, Shubin first received attention from the media when he discovered Tiktaalik, a 375 million year-old fossil of a transitional animal that looked like a fish, but had eyes on top of its head along with primitive limbs. Though it is a fish, Tiktaalik also shared features with land-bound four-legged creatures, making it one of the crucial points of evidence in the theory that life originated in water and moved onto land. “When Tiktaalik came out, it was the lead story in the New York Times, and a couple days after, I had like 1500 emails,” he laughs. Some creationists responded angrily, but Shubin shrugs it off, “I just respond with evidence–that’s what I do. I’m a scientist.”

Neil Shubin’s new book, “Your Inner Fish,” came out on January 15 of this year through Pantheon Books, and is currently ranked 20th among hardcover nonfiction on the New York Times Bestseller List. In “Your Inner Fish,” Shubin, who is a fish paleontologist in the UofC’s Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, explains human anatomy in the context of evolution. For example, he accounts how the three-boned inner ear (which translates sound vibrations in the air to mechanical vibrations that are in turn translated into neural signals) originated from modifications in fish jaw bones, and later, in reptile jaw bones.

Another more salacious story is where our propensity for hernias comes from. Testicles are located around the chest area in sharks and other primitive animals. But in humans, testicles must be stored in a scrotum. In the womb, testicles shift from the chest area down to between a male’s legs. The testicles’ descent from inside the body results in a weak wall which provides ample opportunity for other organs to drop in. This and other entertaining (but accurate) stories are part of the reason “Your Inner Fish” is so popular.

In a practiced tone, he tells the story of how he ended up teaching human anatomy after a wave of faculty departures, and how he discovered Tiktaalik and then put the two together. “Finding that fossil, teaching human anatomy, it occurred to me that there’s a really big story to tell, which is the story of the human body as told through the bodies and DNA and the fossils of everything from fish to sponges,” he recalls, looking more animated.

He started working in earnest on the book in the winter of 2006, after getting a publisher. Scientist that he is, Shubin took a methodological approach to finding a publisher: “I went through Brian Greene’s book [‘The Elegant Universe’], and I looked in his acknowledgements–‘Who’s Brian Greene’s agent?’ Then I looked at [Richard] Dawkins [author of The Selfish Gene]–‘who’s Dawkins’s agent?’ There’s an agent there–who’s underlying all these people?” Soon enough, he signed with Marty Asher, Brian Greene’s editor. After a year of writing “Your Inner Fish,” Shubin spent eight months editing, cutting down the book to a slim 250 pages, though he says it could’ve easily reached 900.

When asked to explain his motivations for writing the book, he gives three reasons. The first, he says, was to “convey the power of the science behind what we do–it’s very wonderfully powerful in terms of what we can explain.” But more importantly, he wants to present science in a new way. Science, he exclaims, eyes opening wide, “is the joy of discovering stuff,” not “a bunch of notecards that have to be memorized.”

“I’m talking about people who don’t encounter science during the course of the day. Who may be businesspeople or lawyers and stuff, whose last science course was twenty-five years ago. Or even a high school kid,” says Shubin, enthused about his readers. “For me, the passion was that there was a large audience that was not getting science in the same way that I wanted to convey.”

“The Tiktaalik story gave me a real lesson that science involves taking risks–some kinds of science, not all, but the kind I do involves taking risks. Personal risks, as well as career risks”– including watching out for man-eating polar bears when digging in the Canadian Arctic. Still excited, he talks hopefully about getting younger people interested in the field. And, he says, “I also wanted to show something a little deeper, which is that [understanding] the story of humans is also understanding the rest of life on our planet.”

In fact, the comparisons between just two forms of life can encompass an entire book. Dario Maestripieri, a professor in Comparative Human Development, wrote “Macachiavellian Intelligence,” released November 15, 2007, through the University of Chicago Press. The spelling of “Macachiavellian” is intentional, a portmanteau of “macaque” and “Machiavellian.” In his book, Maestripieri defines Macachiavellian Intelligence as “social opportunism” that “people and rhesus macaques have in common.”

Like Shubin, Maestripieri did not have much difficulty getting his book published–in fact, he’s on the board of the University of Chicago Press, though he insists that people at the UofC Press “liked the idea from the beginning.” In contrast to Shubin’s difficult editing experience, Maestripieri describes his process as “very pleasant.”

However, Maestripieri’s book has attracted more controversy than Shubin’s, primarily because he talks about behavior, not anatomy. His main point is that rhesus macaques’ behavior show striking similarities to humans’, and this may explain much of humanity’s power structure and our eventual success in survival. Though the great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos) have larger brains than rhesus macaques, most of them are under threat of extinction. Rhesus macaques live almost anywhere and sometimes wreak havoc on human settlements. In addition, the social structure of macaques has some disconcerting similarities with that of humans. High-ranking individuals don’t hesitate to exert power over subordinates, and true altruism is rare. Relationships are primarily determined by what individuals give and receive, and the monkeys are often manipulative, ganging up on any individual that shows weakness.

“I’ve been studying these rhesus monkeys for fifteen, twenty years and realized that though they’re well known by scientists, they are not very well known among laypeople, because nobody has ever written a book about them,” explains Maestripieri. But more important than raising awareness of rhesus macaques, he feels, is portraying “how you can scientifically study behavior from a biological perspective.”

He presented the book as more of a personal initiative: “One morning I just woke up and said, ‘That’s it. I’m going to write a book about rhesus monkeys and about Machiavellian intelligence … I think there’s a point in time in somebody’s career where you feel the need to write something that will not be read by just five or six people,” he laughs, “I guess I just got to that point.”

He observes that, though his colleagues are aware that he has written a book, “these books are not really read much by academics…if I had to guess, I would guess that most of the people who read this book are not in academia”–and that’s the point. In a sense, writing a general-audience science book is a form of community outreach–to make people aware of new ideas and perspectives from the scientific community. Maestripieri remarks, “I mean, hearing a colleague [say] they enjoyed the book, that’s fine. But you hear somebody from the street that I would not have an opportunity to hear otherwise–that’s very rewarding.”

Photos by Lisa Bang

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