This series explores one central question: what makes humans unique? 3.5 billion years of evolution have produced uncountable billions of living species. But only one - humans - can think in symbols; recombine those symbols into infinite meanings; invent a technology to disseminate the message; worry how others might react to it; ponder the past; speculate about the future; and imagine the unknown. This 3-part series is hosted by actor, author and science buff Alan Alda. He travels the world and speaks to a wide variety of experts who share their original thoughts about our most human characteristics. Along the way, Alda forms his own intriguing personal view of what our spark is and where it lies.
Human Spark Previous Broadcasts
Brain Matters (Episode #103)
KQED World: Sat, Jan 4, 2014 -- 5:00 PM
In the futuristic setting of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of California, Los Angeles, Alan gets a highly detailed scan of his brain - which for a man in his early 70s, is in remarkably good shape. This image, projected on a huge curved screen behind him, is the starting point for a search within his brain - as well as the brains of others - for the essential components of the Human Spark; a search informed by what the previous two programs have revealed about the attributes that make humans unique.
One of those faculties is language. Through both functional brain scans and high-tech EEGs, we probe for the language centers within Alan's brain, including those employed to recognize mistakes in grammar - and discover the way language allows us to manipulate symbols in our minds. He also untangles the complex story of a gene called FOXP2, visiting researchers in England and Germany as well as the US who are using FOXP2 as an exciting new window into how language may have evolved. Other functional scans of Alan's brain reveal a fascinating link between two of humans' most characteristic abilities - language and the use of tools.
So Human, So Chimp (Episode #102)
KQED World: Sat, Jan 4, 2014 -- 4:00 PM
We are separated from our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, by only one or two percent of our genes - but also by some 6 million years of going our different evolutionary ways. So when we meet the eyes of a chimp we are reminded uncannily - and perhaps a little uneasily - of ourselves. But we are also aware that behind those eyes is a mind very different from our own. Alan Alda sets out to explore that difference, and quickly finds that the scientists studying chimps and other non-human primates are themselves separated into opposing worldviews. One camp emphasizes the continuity between us - seeing everything we believe to be uniquely human present in at least a rudimentary form in our ape and even monkey cousins. The other camp sees a sharp discontinuity in our abilities, admiring chimps for their superb adaptation to their (rapidly disappearing) forest environment, but also granting to human minds a special status that has enabled us to conquer the planet (and cause those forests to disappear).
In visiting with chimps and those who study them, Alan challenges the arguments of both sides in the debate. Yes, chimps exhibit empathy for others in their group; is that the same empathy humans show for victims of a far off natural disaster? Chimps have cultural practices they pass on within their social group; are those cultures the same as the cultures that can separate humans into "us" and "them?" Chimps can easily tell the difference between heavy and light, but do they have a concept of heavy and light? Chimps use tools, and can be taught that symbols represent objects; does that mean they have technology and language? Chimps can cooperate on tasks that reward them with food. Is that the same cooperation humans employ to build a skyscraper or rescue the victims of an earthquake or even agree to take a walk together? Chimps and monkeys both seem able to judge the intentions of others. Does that mean they wonder, and worry, about who is saying what about whom, and why? And what about that one or two percent change in our DNA? Do those figures mask not a tiny difference but an evolutionary chasm? In short, how much of the Human Spark flared only since we evolved away from our non-human primate cousins, and how much was already there at the parting of the ways?
Becoming Us (Episode #101)
KQED World: Sat, Jan 4, 2014 -- 3:00 PM
In the caves and rock shelters of the Dordogne region of France, Alan Alda witnesses the spectacular paintings and carvings that date back some 30,000 years, artwork that archeologists once thought to be the first record of people with minds like our own. When this art was created, Europe had already been peopled for hundreds of thousands of years - and thousands of lifetimes - by humans we call Neanderthals. Alan discovers, from visits to sites where Neanderthals once lived, that Neanderthals were tenacious and resourceful. But they appear to have lived in and of the moment; certainly they produced no art, and employed a stone tool technology that changed little over millennia. The people who painted the caves, our ancestors, were strikingly different, possessed of what we are calling the Human Spark, capable not only of art but of innovative technology and symbolic communication. The questions Alan explores: Where and when did the Human Spark first ignite? In these caves, as archeologists have long believed? Or at a much earlier time - and on another continent?
Finding the answer involves scanning Neanderthal teeth in a giant particle accelerator to learn about their childhood; reading Neanderthal's genetic code in DNA extracted from 50,000 year-old bones; and discovering and reconstructing the weaponry that made possible - and relatively safe - the hunting of large animals in East Africa. We will also unearth the beads that are the first evidence of our species' fascination with social status - and a powerful new means of long-distance communication; recover from the teeth and bones of both Neanderthals and our ancestors evidence of what they ate; and explore the Great Rift Valley in East Africa with archeologists who believe that it was there that the Human Spark first began to glimmer, tens of thousands of years before it burst into flame in Europe.