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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 109

Neil Shubin — Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA

The author of the best-selling Your Inner Fish gives us a lively and accessible account of the great transformations in the history of life on Earth — a new view of the evolution of human and animal life that explains how the incredible diversity of life on our planet came to be. Over billions of years, ancient fish evolved to walk on land, reptiles transformed into birds that fly, and apelike primates evolved into humans that walk on two legs, talk, and write. For more than a century, paleontologists have traveled the globe to find fossils that show how such changes have happened. We have now arrived at a remarkable moment — prehistoric fossils coupled with new DNA technology have given us the tools to answer some of the basic questions of our existence: How do big changes in evolution happen? Is our presence on Earth the product of mere chance? This new science reveals a multibillion-year evolutionary history filled with twists and turns, trial and error, accident and invention. In Some Assembly Required, Neil Shubin takes readers on a journey of discovery spanning centuries, as explorers and scientists seek to understand the origins of life’s immense diversity. Shermer and Shubin also discuss:

  • Darwin’s consilience of inductions (convergence of evidence) from multiple lines of inquiry
  • how a scientific theory can gain acceptance without an underlying causal mechanism (evolutionary theory before DNA)
  • what scientists should do with anomalies unexplained by the prevailing theory
  • Does ontogeny recapitulate phylogeny? (What can we learn about evolution from embryology?)
  • What is epigenetics, anyway?
  • the best explanation for the origins of life
  • how information can increase in a genome
  • from microevolution to macroevolution: why creationists are wrong
  • Are there hopeful monsters in evolution?
  • Punctuated equilibrium and what it was like to be Steve Gould’s TA
  • women in science, then and now
  • What it’s like to do a paleontological dig north of the arctic circle? and
  • Martian paleontology.

Neil Shubin is the author of Some Assembly Required, Your Inner Fish, and The Universe Within. He is the Robert R. Bensley Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2011. He lives in Chicago.

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This episode was released on March 24, 2020.

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