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.
The program is full of vigorously argued controversy, great characters with great passions, and of course the inimitable curiosity and humor of Alan Alda.
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 to be 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.
The Human Spark is a production of The Chedd-Angier-Lewis Production Company for Thirteen/WNET New York. Executive Producer for Thirteen: Jared Lipworth. Executive Producer and Series Producer for Chedd-Angier-Lewis: Graham Chedd. Major funding for The Human Spark is provided by the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family and The Winston Foundation.