What Makes You Human?

BlogHer Original Post

Do you ever feel that we spend too much time talking about how we're different? Some of us spend a lifetime dissecting others by race, gender, nationality, culture, and political leanings, and so it's refreshing to see a documentary that asks what makes us the same: What do we all share in common? PBS answers that question in part with a new documentary series, The Human Spark, produced by WNET, which airs tomorrow night at 8 p.m., January 6, part two on January 13, and finally part three on January 20 on PBS (CST).

I had the opportunity to pre-screen this series and I liked it. It could be that by nature, I, like many other writers, am a closet anthropologist, but this three-part series intrigued me the same way The Real Eve documentary intrigued me in 2002. It could also be that I still love Alan Alda, who guides us through the series. Anyway, I watched it to see whether we've learned anything new since 2002.

Part one begins with "Becoming Us," and you may watch a clip at the Human Spark site. Here's a preview.

In that preview, you'll hear a reference to our Neanderthal cousins. What pricked me throughout the series' discussion of Neanderthals was Alda's repetition that they didn't change. They kept doing everything the same way and that may be the reason they ceased to evolve and are now extinct. I wondered if this was Alda's political message to the world or whether this aspect of Neanderthal failure personally intrigued him the way it intrigued me since I've been grappling with personal evolution and the ability to change.

In addition, I watched the segment on what dogs have in common with humans the same way I watched a documentary on dogs last year that told me some dogs can be taught to count up to five. I can't remember if I watched it on Animal Planet or Discovery, but the information riveted me to the TV, and of course, I did something that only a human mother can do. I turned to my children and told them it was their fault our dog, Bolt, only excels at stealing food, including moving cups of coffee without spilling the contents, and begging for attention. He's neurotic when it comes to needing attention.

Throughout the Human Spark series you'll see Alda ambling along from scientist to scientist asking why we've evolved to be what we are when there are other species on the planet with DNA not that different from ours who do hardly any of what we do. I especially enjoyed the segments comparing human children to chimps. One segment illustrates how easy it is for human children, age 3, to grasp the concept between heavy and light. While chimps can be taught to sort for heavy and light, it takes them far longer to learn how, and they never seem to get the concept behind the difference, such as a heavy ball is more likely to roll down a ramp faster.

In addition, humans show more of a desire to help than chimps even though chimps also instinctively seem to help with tasks. For instance, both a chimp and a human child would help you if they saw you couldn't reach an object that they could reach. However, humans will help pass on knowledge more readily, help other humans who don't seem to do tasks in the most effective way or "the right way" by teaching them the correct way, at least the way they were taught to do it. The section on chimps is called "So Human, So Chimp," and it airs January 13.

In some ways, documentaries are reality TV for thinking people, and it's the chimp section that is possibly the most like a reality TV segment. Alda seems unnerved by one ape, Hondo, who keeps jumping up and hitting the glass where Alda sits. Hondo boldly lets Alda know that he's encroaching on his territory. It seems like it took all of Alda's strength not to leave each time Hondo hit the glass.

The documentary further explores ape politics. How chimps negotiate for food teaches us a similarity between apes and humans. As a female, I was especially intrigued by how female chimps persuaded male chimps to share. They can't use physical strength, so how do they do it? They use political pressure of the female group with penalties later for males who don't share.

Hmm. That's similar to humans, isn't it?

Whatever apes do, however, humans move it to the next level. I lean toward this difference between us being explained by our development of complex language. Our language skills let us negotiate with subtlety life's politics. Through it we may move from subtle negotiation to starting a world war or calling for peace after Human Hondo starts slamming against his side of the glass. The question remains why did we develop complex language while species with less than a two percent difference from us in genetic code did not.

It's possible I've been interested in how chimps differ from humans ever since I saw Planet of the Apes as a child, and so, I'll sit still for documentaries on the differences between apes and humans. Consequently, I feel like I've seen documentaries similar to parts of The Human Spark with similar conclusions over the years elsewhere.

Part three explores "Brain Matters," which airs January 20.

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. (PBS)

Yes, Alda has a beautiful brain. The brain of a 40-year-old, a doctor tells him.

As with the chimps section, I felt a lot of this final segment was familiar. I think that this series, while sending Alda to various corners of the earth to ask scientists questions, still presented information of which I was already aware; however, it did so under the topic of "what makes us human," which was good, as far as I'm concerned. It pulled different aspects of anthropology, archaeology, and neuroscience into the context of the what makes us be us, and yet it gives more--more detail, new facts, and a little controversy with dueling scientists.

Certainly I liked The Human Spark more than this guy, Stephen Compson at ScriptPhD, who gave it a "D" because he thinks it has too many long-winded responses and only 40 minutes of good material. It bored him. Maybe I don't know enough to be that critical. I think Alda's rambling, his sort of Columbo way of asking the scientists questions, makes the information seem more accessible to the rest of us. You're left feeling you can understand what makes us human too, possibly, even without a Ph.D.

K. Kris Hirst, About.com's archaeology guide, viewed the series more as I did, favorably, and even called it engaging:

Produced by WNET and presented by the amiable actor Alan Alda, "Becoming Us" is an engaging presentation of the complex issues reexamined by scholars just this past decade. Contributing researchers include Alison Brooks, John Shea and Randall White, with appearances by Ian Tattersall, Svante Paabo, Daniel Lieberman, Shannon McPherron, Veronica Waweru, Michael Richards, Tanya Smith, Harold Dibble, Adrian Briggs, and Dennis Sandgathe. Archaeological investigations featured in the program include Olorgesailie (Kenya); Cap Blanc, Roc de Marsal and Abri Castanet (France); Skuhl Cave (Israel); and the Bodo Cranium (Ethiopia), as well as many others referred to but not specifically named, most likely Pinnacle Point in South Africa, Grotte des Pigeons in Morocco and Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar, the last refuge of the Neanderthals. (K. Kris Hirst)

And it won't be all scientists talking, PBS hopes.

When Do Human Babies Have the Spark?

The network's launched on its Human Spark website a piece to make experiencing the series more interactive with a social media campaign that's explained at INOMommy.com, but officially announced at PBS.org.

In The Human Spark, Alan Alda travels the world trying to understand one central question: What makes humans unique? ... Now, it’s your turn to Share Your Spark! What do you think makes humans human? Send us your photos, artwork, videos or text—we’ll post them on the Human Spark Web site. (Send in your proof)

The network reached out to bloggers earlier with this "Share Your Spark" concept as a preface for submissions:

We’ve all had that experience with our kids when they reach toddlerhood: you are talking to them as you have been doing since they were infants and suddenly, you realize that they comprehend you. They aren’t just speaking, they really understand! It spurs a comment to your spouse or friend, sometimes bittersweet: “my baby is growing up!” (PBS promo)

With that in mind, Vera at INOMommy wrote:

I am going through that right now with my youngest son. It’s a bit surreal and I am glad that we are finally on “speaking terms” – but what happened to my little boy? ... (Submissions to PBS should) capture ... what it is to be human. Perhaps it’s your child speaking on a video or a picture that is explained in a very funny way by your child. (Vera)

The concept also appealed to Mama Cheaps:

This is really neat- and something that I can totally relate to. If you're a parent, you have most likely been talking and singing to your child since he or she was first born. After so very many months of receiving maybe a smile or a giggle, one day, almost out of nowhere, you realize- my child understands me! This has been happening a lot at our house lately. Lily Bean has gone from barely comprehending to actually demonstrating that she has a clue as to what's going on- amazing! (Mama Cheaps)

So far I haven't seen a blog post discussing an actual submission. Nevertheless, there's a Share Your Spark Flickr group with about 11 pictures so far.

You may be intersted to learn that Elizabeth Spelke, a professor in Harvard University's Psychology Department who appears in part three of the series, tells Alda that in the first three years of life there is nothing in particular that makes a human child fantastically different from infants in other species in terms of behavior. (Remember, for instance, that dogs, chimps, pigs, and dolphins are pretty smart.)

So, Spelke says, "I don't think the human spark ignites early in development." Her theory is similar to mine, that it's language that makes the difference. However, she's a Harvard Ph.D., so I'm sure what she thinks after research has a more clout than what I feel after walking around a bit and watching other humans, my dog, and my cat. Regardless, not everyone agrees with Spelke's assessment.

This is where you look at your child or your little niece or the next door neighbor's baby and ask, "Are you human yet?"

If you have something to add that helps answer this question, remember to let the folks at PBS know with your video, essay, photo, or artwork. And here's a link so you can see when it airs in your area, TV Guide.

Nordette Adams is a BlogHer CE & you can find her other stuff through Her 411.

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