By Alysia Burdi
Evolutionary biologist, paleontologist and popular science writer Neil Shubin received an honorary doctor of science at York University’s convocation ceremony for graduands from the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change and the Faculty of Science.
Among graduating students, Shubin addressed convocation by stating that “we all stand on the shoulders of giants,” recognizing the role of family, teachers and friends who help make moments like graduation possible.
Recognizing the journey to the finish line was no simple task, Shubin acknowledged what the students have achieved despite the disruptions presented during a global pandemic.
“It’s not merely congratulations, it’s congratulations squared,” he remarked.
Shubin led his address by reflecting on his journey and sharing what lessons he has learned throughout life and his career. He began by explaining that he spends an inordinate time looking at rocks from both North and South Poles, along the roadside of Pennsylvania, the deserts of Arizona, Africa and more all in the service to find skeletons of long dead fish.
“For me, the best kind of rock is one with a fossil fish fin sticking right out of it. I realize that’s the last thing you’d expect from a commencement speaker, but there you have it,” said Shubin. “While this may seem an utterly bizarre goal, three decades of staring at rocks in the ground have given me perspective on life and the universe. They have revealed to me nothing less than our place in nature. They have helped define for me what it means to be human. And, importantly, they define and continue to teach me ways to strive to be a better human.”
Shubin has conducted landmark research on the evolutionary origin of anatomical features of animals. He has conducted fieldwork in much of North America, including Greenland, as well as China, Africa and Antarctica. One of his most significant discoveries, a 375-million-year-old fossil called Tiktaalik roseae, is an important transitional form between fish and land animals.
Shubin has also written two popular science books: Your Inner Fish, which was made into an Emmy Award-winning PBS series and The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body.
Shubin graduated from Columbia University in 1982 and received a PhD in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University in 1987. Shubin noted the time he was in graduate school; he had joined a team during his first year in the program as an invitee on one of their field expeditions to the deserts of northern Arizona to find over 200-million-year-old fossils and some of the oldest mammals known to human record.
Shubin recalled shadowing Chuck, one of the seasoned veterans on the team, who was no stranger to field expeditions. What started off as a frustrating experience filled with questions and contemplation, turned out to be a successful expedition rooted in a key life lesson.
“Where Chuck saw bones, all I saw were dirt and rock,” he said. “Then, one day I saw it – a brilliant piece of bone that sparkled in the light. Suddenly, it was as if the entire desert floor opened up in front of me. My fossil turned out to be a jaw of an ancient mammal-like animal that was partially embedded in the rock. This was the first time I had seen bones on the surface, but actually, I’d been looking at them for weeks. What was mere rock to my eyes just days before, was now fossil bone.”
It was at this moment that Shubin realized the thing that changed, was his ability to see. He learned to find fossils by seeing objects that surrounded him in a new way.
“Seeing, of course, is much more than optics and vision. What led me to the Arizona deserts and other remote places in the years since is a much more profound way of seeing,” he added.
Shubin explained this way of “seeing” derives from the ideas that shape the ways people learn and interpret the world. “At any given time, our own seeing is derived from thousands of years of humans learning to look at the world in whole new ways,” he noted.
He explained how the British nationalist Charles Darwin, best known for his contributions to evolutionary biology, proposed how species are not fixed, but evolve and eventually go extinct. “The Darwinian way of seeing is a powerful way of seeing ourselves. The basic structure of our bodies, including the DNA that builds them, is seen in fish, worms and flies,” he said.
Shubin described how animals are good models to understand human bodies in health and disease and continues to reflect some of the major findings and discoveries that support health and medicine today.
“I like to think that as we discover cures to everything that ails us – from Alzheimer’s to various cancers – the breakthroughs that will improve our lives will originally be derived from work on worms, flies and fish. I cannot imagine a more powerful or beautiful statement on the importance of our connection to the rest of life on our planet than that,” he said.
Shubin explained it is more important than ever for humans to find the ability to look at collecting and evaluating evidence to make decisions, while also confronting human limitations. He added how experiments have shown that cognitive biases mask ideas, concepts, and opinions, affecting the ability to see things clearly.
One lesson Shubin notes he has taken away from science that has carried him through his work is to have humility, as it is key to learning new ways of seeing and exploring the unknown.
“A cold look at evidence requires humility – the kind I needed to learn from Chuck, the kind that comes from knowing how blind were are. Humility that there is always a better idea, a new approach, or a different perspective to be had and found. Humility that our own human limitations may inhibit finding them. Humility to face, and most importantly to recognize, what we don’t know about the universe, what we don’t know about other living beings, and, importantly, what we don’t know about each other.”
He concluded his address to the graduating class by hoping that their time at the University has cultivated their appreciation for the importance of evidence; that it has enhanced their ability to see what is important to them, to understand the meaning of what they see, and most of all, to nurture their humility so they can learn to see.