Updated Mon, Jul 2, 2012 1:37 pm
After some three and a half billion years of life’s evolution on this planet – and after almost two million years since people recognizable as human first walked its surface – a new human burst upon the scene, apparently unannounced.
It was us.
Until then our ancestors had shared the planet with other human species. But soon there was only us, possessors of something that gave us unprecedented power over our environment and everything else alive. That something was – is – the Human Spark.
What is the nature of human uniqueness? Where did the Human Spark ignite, and when? And perhaps most tantalizingly, why?
In a three-part series originally broadcast on PBS in 2010, Alan Alda takes these questions personally, visiting with dozens of scientists on three continents, and participating directly in many experiments – including the detailed examination of his own brain.
Alda is uniquely qualified for this role. As an actor and author, and as the long-time host of the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers, he has a passion for both the humanities and science. He is bringing his trademark humor and curiosity to face-to-face conversations with leading researchers seeking the Human Spark, from archeologists finding clues in the fossilized bones and tools of our ancestors; to primatologists studying our nearest living relatives to explore what we have in common and what sets us apart; to neuroscientists peering into his mind with the latest brain scanning technologies.
In the first program, Alda witnesses the dazzling (apparent) debut of the Human Spark in the spectacular 30,000 year-old artwork carved and painted on the walls of caves in France. He explores the world of our predecessors in Europe, the Neanderthals, who until we came along had done just fine. The central question of this program: What did we possess that the Neanderthals didn’t – and where did it come from? Did the Human Spark really burst into life in Europe, as archeologists have long believed? Or did it originate earlier, on another continent? Finding the answer involves research as disparate as exploring why long distance running gave us large brains; reconstructing the weaponry that made possible – and relatively safe – the hunting of large animals; scanning the teeth of Neanderthal children in a giant particle accelerator to see how quickly they grew up; reading Neanderthal genes; and discovering the beads that are the first evidence of our species’ fascination with social status – and that provided our ancestors with a powerful new means of social communication.
In the second program, Alan joins researchers studying our fellow apes – mainly chimpanzees, our closest living relatives – to discover both what we share with them, and what we have that has evolved since we went our separate ways. Alan observes and participates in experiments that reveal chimps’ immense skills but also a striking indifference to how things work. He sees how chimps use tools and have culture – but also how those tools and cultures are very different from ours. He witnesses chimps showing signs of empathy and cooperation, but also sees how limited these characteristically human qualities are. And, in an unexpected twist, he visits a “dog lab” in Germany where he participates in experiments that show how, in many areas of social understanding, dogs – separated from humans by tens of millions of years of evolution – are considerably more advanced than our nearest relatives.
In the third program, we literally peer into Alda’s head with a variety of high-tech imaging techniques to see if we can find his Human Spark. We discover the unique circuitry that provides us with what is our most prized ability, language, and with the insight provided by a family whose members have profound problems with speech, we untangle the complex story of the FOXP2 gene, which appears to have provided us with at least some of the brain mechanisms needed for language. We find out what areas of Alan’s brain allow him to use complex tools and understand the minds of others, both essential human attributes. Alda will participate in tests of babies as young as three months for their ability to make moral judgments. And we’ll discover in Alan’s brain a critical network that works best when he’s just doing nothing and which, ironically, may in fact be a critical repository for the Human Spark.