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.
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).
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.
PBS Broadcast (2010)