Monday, September 17, 2012

The Human Spark: So Human So Chimp

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.

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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).

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What is the nature of human uniqueness? Where did "The Human Spark" ignite, and when? And perhaps most tantalizingly, why? In this three-part series, 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. Bringing his trademark humor and curiosity to face-to-face conversations with leading researchers, he seeks "The Human Spark" -- from archaeologists 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.

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PBS Broadcast (2010)

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