The Human Spark

PBS is running a new three-part series about “what makes us human”, called The Human Spark. I had to look around to find a review, here’s one from The Oklahoman:

With Alda participating in many interviews and demonstrations, the program details scientific views of traits that set the human race apart from the worlds other species, including chimpanzees, which have most of the same DNA as people. The creation and use of a spear is one example used to survey the levels and extent of human thought and yes, Alda does make and throw a spear in the show. "With only five minutes of working on the tool, I was up to the Neanderthal ability, the veteran of "M*A*S*H and "The West Wing muses. "They had a couple of million years to work on it. I mean, I thought that was pretty swift.

The show has a nice website. My favorite feature is the blog (OK, big surprise) because it includes some entries by the experts interviews on the series. So far, archaeologist John Shea and Veronica Waweru have made appearances.

Biggest surprise:

Filming The Human Spark with Alan Alda led me to question some of the assumptions we make about the evolution of human uniqueness the metaphorical spark in the title of this series. Most anthropologists assume that the qualities that made humans unique evolved recently and only among members of our species, Homo sapiens. But what if this assumption is an accident of history? Might the things we think make us unique actually be characteristics we share with other hominins who are now extinct? A spark can be the beginning of a fire, but it can also be the last ember of a conflagration. What if our spark is not the start of something new, but rather the culmination of a long-running evolutionary trend?

Did Alan Alda made John Shea into a multiregionalist? Well, no, the rest of the thing is all about how our tiny sparks kept us alive while all those other species died out.

I recommend Waweru’s entry. Best line:

100,000 years ago, long before Hammurabis law or the Ten Commandants were in place, ancients may have had an unwritten albeit tempered Second Amendment.

Those are my kind of hominins.