Ape to Man

6 minute read

OK, we have it on, and I've already had a couple of laughs, so I guess I'll take some notes as it goes.

8:10 They didn't really just say that did they? Oh yes they did: Neandertals had big noses because they had a good sense of smell. Arrrggh!

Evidence: against. Human smell receptors have been evolving to inactivity for far longer than our common ancestor with Neandertals; there's no compelling reason to think their sense of smell was different from our own.

8:12 I'm not sure I would call Fuhlrott a "Victorian naturalist"; he was, after all, a German living in Germany.

8:20 On to Dubois on Sumatra. Is it just me, or does he look like Mr. Bean wandering around the forest? He even talks like Mr. Bean (that is to say, his Dutch sounds remarkably like Mr. Bean's mumbling).

8:24 By this time, this seems to me to have a remarkably low information density. There are many silent moments lacking voiceover. Is it really that dramatic to watch Dubois open a crate? I'll grant that the Dutch argument had some drama, but what does it really accomplish other than to show Dubois was a jerk? They don't really explain allometry, which was Dubois' major innovation. Of course, that's usually left out of the story anyway.

8:26 OK, here's an actor dressed up like Homo erectus. Do they really have to pay new people to do this every time? Or does the BBC use old footage from the last time they dressed somebody up like Homo erectus? It's not like they're different or anything.

And why should Homo erectus be hairier than us? Or at least than people living in Java today? If it's true that they were sweating, which seems likely, then they shouldn't be sporting all that fuzz.

8:44 Piltdown. Now this is possibly my biggest complaint. I understand that this is a show about the history of the field, rather than about what we actually know. But it seems like such a waste.

They're setting it up to look like Dawson is the culprit, by the way.

8:51 Of course the entire point of the Piltdown story is to make Dart look like a hero. As perhaps he should, but I wonder if the story is really so simple. There were plenty of Piltdown doubters, and plenty of Australopithecus believers. We don't hear their story very often.

And this telling is a very British-centric story, having to do with Arthur Keith's influence on the British scientific establishment (although Keith features in the program only in a minor way). The story in Germany is very different, and America presents a blend of the two.

9:02 Ape-woman sniffing at rubber carcass is not engaging me.

9:09 Twenty-five years after Piltdown was found, it was "examined scientifically for the first time." What, anthropology isn't scientific? You have to burn something in chemicals to be science? Sheeesh!

And it doesn't really reflect the history. Piltdown was proved a hoax after more australopithecines emerged in South Africa. The anthropology led here, not the chemistry. I wonder what happened to Robert Broom, by the way, who entered the story to console young Dart, but didn't get to make his pre-Leakey discoveries....

9:16 Nice choice of actor for Louis Leakey.

9:21 "Leakey decides that this was the toolmaker." Only problem: the cast they are showing with the voiceover is KNM-ER 1813, from a different site, a different country, and found fifteen years later. Can we not understand fragments? Or did they just have trouble finding a cast? Their cast of OH 5 is comical, so I guess it's probably the latter.

I wonder if Tobias is ticked about this, since he described both.

9:24 Colin Menter is drawing a phylogeny in the sand. Or...is he starting an episode of "Lonely Planet"?

9:30 Nice choice of actor for Johanson.

Is there supposed to be some suspense about these reenactments? We know they found something, otherwise it wouldn't be in the program. So why is their long, long, long, period of not finding anything in the program? Are we supposed to learn from this? Because I am afraid that what viewers may be learning is that paleoanthropology is bo-ring.

9:38 Bipedal locomotion. Once again, wondering what happened to Broom. Did we know that australopithecines were bipedal before Lucy? Hmmm...I'm thinking Broom would know. If only we could see Broom and his discoveries...then we would know all....

9:40 Traveling back in time through a long, long, long line of ape-people, single file, over hills into the past. Wouldn't that be a ladder, not a bush?

Hey, there has been no mention of bushes in this show at all! My opinion is going up!

9:45 Neandertals again, back "on the scent of red deer." But we saw them rub red deer scat all over themselves. How exactly did they follow the scent, then?

9:47 Wow. Krings worked for CSI!

The thing is, I'm sure most viewers probably believe that genetics labs have this moody coroner lighting (I think it may actually be from a BBC crime drama, can't remember the name). And that the Feldhofer fossils were kept in some kind of cold metal lockup with clanging steel bars (they actually do have a lockup now, but I don't recall the bars and clangs).

Oh, oh...this is looking suspiciously like a bush coming up...

The first meetup between Neandertals and modern humans "was a profound shock". As in, "Whoa, man, what's that plasticine junk on your face"? And why is it that no "modern human" in these shows ever has a superciliary arch? Did they screen out all the tough-looking actors?

9:55 Modern humans "supplemented their diets with fish, spurring their brain development."

Evidence: against. Neandertals had equally large brains. And there's no special reason to think Neandertals didn't eat as much fish as early modern humans.

9:57 They hunted down the Neandertal and killed him! I've never seen that before! Poor Neandertal. I can remember him now: "I'm just a caveman. Your modern world frightens and confuses me."

My opinion

The history is pretty standard. Since this is The History Channel, that's a good thing.

But it's pretty slow. It really makes the field look duller than it is. And it focuses too much on a few discoveries and not enough on how the context of science changed.

I wouldn't show it in class. It's too long, for one thing. And it would put everybody to sleep.

But more important, it doesn't present any alternative views. The best in-class use of video is to show opposing scientists in their own words. The scientists here are good ones, and their film clips don't present any controversial ideas, but there are just not enough of them to give the flavor of the field.

And they would need more historians of the field to give a flavor of the history. You want the Piltdown episode in? Tell the whole story, including the early detractors and the whodunnit theories. Want Johanson to make A. afarensis the common ancestor of Homo habilis and Australopithecus? Then you'd better cover his debate with Richard Leakey.

I don't have a good feel for how much more they could have added, but they certainly could have knocked out much of the reenactment, which featured a lot of fluffy voiceover, or even silence. I think a Ken Burns-like approach could pack in a lot more information; with interviews and voiceover going over video and pictures, and actors reading some original passages from the discoverers themselves.

On second thought, Ken Burns isn't very exciting either, so you'd have to replace the slow photo pans and maudlin music. Maybe opera music?