It is certainly not the best of times, but it is not the worst. There is no end to the epidemic. The world is warming, the seas are rising and polar bears are on the verge of extinction. The 9-to-5 workweek, taxes, and the renewed threat of nuclear war are included.

The Tiktaalik, a fish that has been around for over 350 million years, was the culprit as people looked for something to blame. If our ancestors had left the water, our modern problems would not have existed. The four whispers of feet made the fish easy to catch.

The National Science Foundation paid for a scientific illustration of Tiktaalik. The depiction of Tiktaalik as a pensive-looking fish poised to leave the water has become the foundation for a flood of meme.

The fish is met with medieval polearms and premonitions, if you see a Horrid Beast evolving.

When she first saw the meme about her Tiktaalik illustration, she felt like she could commiserate.

Alice Clement, an evolutionary biologist and paleontologist at the University of South Australia, said that scientists may never know why fish with four limbs moved onto land.

Their legacy is huge. The group of fish that moved onto land gave rise to almost half of all animals today. Julia Molnar, an evolutionary biomechanist at the New York Institute, said that an animal like Tiktaalik was a direct ancestor of humans.

If we hold Tiktaalik accountable for the chaos it sowed, it might be an expression of love.

ImageScientists looking for Tiktaalik fossils on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut Territory, Canada.
Scientists looking for Tiktaalik fossils on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut Territory, Canada.Credit...Ted Daeschler
Scientists looking for Tiktaalik fossils on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut Territory, Canada.

In 2004, skulls and other bones of at least 10 individuals were found in ancient stream beds in the Nunavut Territory of the Arctic. Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago, Ted Daeschler of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and Farish Jenkins of Harvard University were part of a team of paleontologists who described their findings in two Nature papers.

Tiktaalik is a large freshwater fish that lives in the shallows in Inuktitut, and it was given the name by a local council of elders. The fossils were returned to Canada.

For decades, scientists have been searching for a fossil like Tiktaalik, a creature on the verge of limbs. Tiktaalik's obvious anatomy made it the perfect icon of evolution, situated squarely between water and land.

The case of a trial in Pennsylvania that ruled against teaching creationism as an alternative to evolution in high school biology struck a popular nerve after the fossil fish. To Dr. Shubin, society's desire to throw Tiktaalik back into the water is a bit of a relief: You would want to chuck the fish only if you believed in evolution.

The back half of Tiktaalik was a mystery when Ms. Deretsky illustrated it, as the derrire was submerged in water. In the years since, scientists have seen more of its body, including its skull and hind fin.

Scientists in Dr. Shubin's lab have been able to see the bones inside of rock with the help of computed tomography scans. 3-D models of Tiktaalik's unseen parts were created from the scans. The scans showed that Tiktaalik had big hips like Thicctaalik. The fish appeared to use all four fins to get around, like a jeep, instead of dragging it with only its fore- fins.

The delicate bones of its pectoral fin were revealed in other scans. Tiktaalik's fin bones were asymmetrical, which allowed the joints to bend in one direction.

A 3-D model of Tiktaalik’s pectoral fin.CreditCredit...Thomas Stewart/University of Chicago

Tiktaalik's fins hold special appeal for researchers looking at the genetics of our hands. The ideal image we want to create in our lab is the illustrations of Tiktaalik's fin that were hung in the lab.

The existence of Tiktaalik was ideal in other ways. In the Late Devonian, the climate was pleasant and the seas were full of fish. Dr. Daeschler said that Tiktaalik may have spent its days cruising around the swamps and stream banks.

Ben Otoo, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, said that the era on Earth was a goofy one. The land legs of the animals were still getting used to it.

The Late Devonian was a place of mental peace because it was a time before self-awareness and embarrassment.

Yara Haridy said that Tiktaalik's flat head made it perfect for gazing above the water.

Other land-curious fish were just as ridiculous. Panderichthys used to swim in the shallows before Tiktaalik. Acanthostega had a suite of limbs. The line between fin and hand was blurred by Elpistostege, a fish similar to Tiktaalik.

If modern humans want to blame Tiktaalik for our problems, they should blame all the other land-dwellers who have yet to be discovered.

Image“It’s very muppety,” one researcher said of Tiktaalik’s unusual head.
“It’s very muppety,” one researcher said of Tiktaalik’s unusual head.Credit...Ted Daeschler
“It’s very muppety,” one researcher said of Tiktaalik’s unusual head.

Researchers hope to discover other earlier stages of the fish's life history, such as whether it undergoes a transformation.

It would be fun to find a bunch of babies. He said that true babies wouldn't ossify into fossils because their bones are too small. The juvenile Tiktaalik might have survived if it had a burpless cucumber. Who would blame a baby for anything?

The adult Tiktaalik had no plan to colonize land.

It's a stretch to say that the aquatic fish walked on land. Tiktaalik was exploiting new ecological opportunities at the water's edge, according to Dr. Daeschler.

Would-be Tiktaalik-bashers should be aware that a stick may not have been enough to deter an adult. Thomas Stewart, an incoming evolutionary and developmental biologist at Penn State University, said that the fish was as large as a person.

Art doesn't need to mirror reality. Tiktaalik meme are not just a scapegoat for modern malaise. They want us to imagine a different past, present and future. What would happen if we were able to revisit the course of evolution?

It is a powerful thought, and I don't believe there is anything inevitable about the path evolution has taken.

If Tiktaalik means regret, it also means radical possibility. The fossil reminds Mr. Otoo that Earth has had many former selves and will have many more.

We tend to think of the natural world as being static and unchanging. 300 million years ago the continents were all in one place. Earth can be changed with time.

Mr. Otoo said that if Earth can change, so can humans.

The descendants of a Tiktaalik that never left the water would have created an underwater world where polymetallic nodules are taken from starfish and crabs have to pay rent on their shells. Greed can be found below the surface.

Mr. Otoo told them not to hate Tiktaalik.