The University of Chicago’s Neil Shubin, along with Michael Rosenfeld from Tangled Bank Productions and David Dugan from Windfall Films, will share the 2014 Kavli Science Journalism Award for “in-depth television reporting” for their three-part PBS series: Your Inner Fish.
The coveted Kavli awards, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) since its inception in 1945, go to professional journalists for distinguished reporting for a general audience. Independent panels of science journalists pick the winners, who will receive $3,000 and a plaque at the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, Calif., in February. The Kavli Foundation provided an endowment in 2009 that ensures the future of the awards program.
The winning series describes how Shubin, a fish paleontologist, and his academic colleagues, use fossil evidence and DNA to trace different features of human anatomy to animals that lived long ago. It is based on his 2008 best-selling book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.
The book won the 2008 Phi Beta Kappa Book Award in Science, the 2009 National Academy of Sciences Book Award and was selected as the best science book of the year by Amazon.com. The PBS show also won honors for best biological/life sciences program, best limited series, best single episode and best writing at the 2014 Jackson Hole Science Media Awards in September.
“I’m thrilled to share this special recognition by the AAAS with Michael and David,” said Shubin. “One of the great joys of doing the show was the way it became a partnership between scientists and filmmakers, each bringing their different vision to telling the story.”
Shubin, the Robert Bensley Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and associate dean for academic strategy for the university’s Biological Sciences Division, has spent his career studying the deep history of the human family tree, looking for evidence of the ancestors that helped shape the human body.
Much of how we look today, from our necks and lungs to our limbs and hands, can be traced to our fishy evolutionary forebears, he said. This includes the amphibious creatures that first crawled onto the land more than 300 million years ago. Every reptile, bird and mammal alive today is descended from ancient fish, Shubin notes, including us.
“Using multiple scientific disciplines, and with Neil himself as our charismatic presenter, we were able to take our viewers on a journey through millions of years to meet a strange cast of characters — the ancestors that shaped our anatomy,” said Rosenfeld, executive producer of the series.
Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for The New York Times, praised the PBS series. “I particularly applaud the segments that reveal what fieldwork is really like,” Angier said.
“I loved it,” said Lila Guterman, deputy managing editor of Science News. “It had loads of science, including how it’s done.”
“After watching the series,” according to a review in the Los Angeles Times, “it’s difficult not to wonder whether it’s too late to become a paleontologist or evolutionary biologist because Shubin and his peers appear to be having a blast. All in all, Your Inner Fish reminds us what smart TV really is.”