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June 1st, 2008
Series Description
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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.

The series premieres January 6, 13, and 20, 2010 at 8pm on PBS (check local listings).

  • sara miranda

    So glad that WNET is bringing back Alan Alda and the Chedd Angier team to public television. The program sounds terrific and I’m looking forward to the cutting edge science, throught provoking stories, and the dry wit this team has produced in the past . Hooray for this vote for excellence at WNET.

  • DEE


  • Celeste

    I am so thrilled to see this kind of research being done on the brain and our development. I am the Mother of a Learning Disabled son (18) who has serious memory, processing, retrieval, language issues that have compromised his “spark”. I have a Mother who is loosing her memory at 89. We are all effected by these mysteries of the brain. There is so much potential in all of us. Can’t wait to see the show. And a huge thank you to Alan Alda for taking this project on.

  • Ming

    This is great news. I miss Scientific American Frontier terribly. Looking forward to this new series.

  • Gary M. Reese

    I read the series description. It’s fine , as far as it goes. It’s full of “clues”, not just of what is, but what is to come. The pattern is there, you just have to “see” it.

  • Lisa

    I have searched everywhere on this site and can not find the dates that these episodes will be shown. Can anyone help me to make sure I do not miss them?

  • Human Spark Online

    The exact dates have not yet been set, but the series will premiere sometime in fall 2009.

  • Cathy

    When I was in elementary and high school, science was a foreign language to me and the way it was taught was unimaginative. Alan Alda and his “team” on PBS has brought science alive for me – in all its uniquesness and awe-inspiring way. Thank you PBS, and thank you Mr. Alda for your dedication and your wonderment!

  • Angelika

    I am looking forward to this series. Particularly the critical network that best functions when doing nothing. It has concerned me that time to do nothing has all but vanished from our lives and perhaps this is to our disadvantage. Can’t wait to learn what this is about.

  • Joy Lumsden

    Looking forward to this; when will we know some dates?
    Alan Alda is one of the few people in the world I will always listen to, probably because he will always be ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce, who was clearly a ‘human spark’!

  • Theodore Gutches

    I look forward to this series.Alda always give an entertaining performance,and with this strong staff suporting him,it has to be enlightening and entertaining.Bring it on!………..I am almost 89,but I still don’t know it all yet..Ted Gutches

  • pablo figueroa

    We are really glad that Alan Alda is back. He brings such a happy and unpretentious spark to the community… Thank You all for this amazing effort…

  • Alonso Robles

    I´m already preparing for this saga into our past, scheduled for January 2010, but is there a chance that these terrific TV series may be seen in South America? specifically in Peru? and, if not, will I be able to purchase an A/V copy from you, after it is released? Please comment on this as I´d be enourmously frustrated if I miss this wonderful opportunity to look into our past.

  • Tom Slexander


    The first females in our lineage, to become sexually receptive year round, changed everything (probably while we were still in the trees).

    A single dominant male fathering most of the offspring, produces a genetically homogeneous population with a small gene pool and is wasteful of non-reproducing males genes and resources.

    Once males no longer had to waste their energy competing for scarce females in heat, they could start cooperating with each other to help provide for their individual mates, producing more child care, survivability and higher birth rates.

    Because the females were now competing for the best available males, this sexual selection by each female for intelligence, strength, industriousness, hunting and running ability etc. rapidly produced a large heterogeneous gene pool. A large variety of sustainable traits in the population then made rapid evolution possible. Female sexual selection made it inevitable.

    As long as life is easy, evolution has little to do. When the African climate dried out and the trees disappeared from the jungle the apes were in trouble. They had no choice but to live on the ground. The few successful surviving species of this challenge rapidly evolved to energy efficient upright bipeds freeing the hands for fighting hunting tool making etc. Like chimps we already lived in large social groups which require larger brains. This helped contribute the extra brainpower for the transition, along with the rapid evolutionary power of female sexual selection.
    Similarly, Bonobos also evolved female sexual receptivity when they also split off from the chimps long after we did. They however, still live successfully in the trees like the chimps and are more peaceful and cooperative.

    Once the Hominids were successful hunter-gatherers on the ground their evolution slowed while they spread out of Africa to Eurasia. Still without language and not yet human, the real evolutionary challenges lay ahead. A couple of long decimating ice ages necessitated further rapid evolution to avoid extinction. With the power of sexual selection in this harsh environment, we evolved larger modern brains capable of creating new technologies on the coast of south Africa by first beginning the difficult exploitation of the sea with shellfish. After the ice ages the new Homo sapiens displaced the old hominid populations around the world and continued to rapidly evolve language and culture to this day, still emphasizing the importance of proper mate selection.

    Few animals other than chimps can see themselves in a mirror like we can i.e. from another chimps point of view (two degrees removed) looking back at himself and know the image is himself instead of another animal. This objective thinking, from an artificial point of view outside of ourself, allows us to substitute artificial mental symbols for the real thing and manipulate them by age three. With language we can think five degrees removed from, chimps two-degree objective point of view.

    We can’t turn our brains off either. They are always doing something. I like to make use of this by asking questions for it to work on while I am busy. I am always amazed by what it finds. It is the source of my most creative non-linear ideas. We owe it all to female sexual selection and hard times.

  • Karen Levine, Boston MA

    Ours IS to wonder why, and to look forward to reaping the fruits of the labor of this fabulous team as they guide and inform our wondering. Can’t wait to see the series!

  • Karen, CT

    Thank you PBS and Alan Alda. With all the mindless shows on TV, I crave quality TV programs that expand the mind. I hope that PBS continues to create programs that explore the wonder and awe of our human bodies and minds as well as the world and universe we live in.

  • Sandy CT

    I am excited about this because my grandson is one of the babies Alan met with..

  • Rose Menajovsky

    So great to see Alan Alda back on tv, a voice which filled our living room every evening when I was growing up (thank you so much for MASH!). Watched the first part of this program with my kids this evening and really enjoyed it! Thank you again PBS, and thank you for bringing that wonderful voice into our living room for my children to hear this time, Mr Alda!

  • Harold

    Very interesting series. I am surprised the scientific community hasn’t solved the question what the nature of human uniqueness, the human spark is. Philosophers have talked about it for centuries. Just connect the dots of both fields :)

  • Chick Mc Kain

    Forgive my ignorance but what is PBS? I am guessing its some kind of free to air public TV.

  • Bob Wilkinson

    In the January 13 show (”So Human, So Chimp”), a number of psychological tests are performed showing the differences between chmpanzees and humans. Have these same tests also been performed on Bonobos; if so, were the results any different than for chimpanzees?

  • John Carter

    An important series, a most worthy question – the human spark may have ignited as a necessity to invent – first to survive, then communicate, and finally to create. That spark could have been generated by a necessity to survive in ways and environments unlike other hominid species dependent upon an arboreal lifestyle. Perhaps as an outcast having a “different” appearance, humans were excluded from a life in the trees. Upright walking, bipedalism, has long been considered a hallmark of the human lineage. Lucy at 3.2 mya and Ardi at 4.4 mya both had an upright posture. However, Ardi has placed in question the validity of bipedal locomotion as a most singular trait of human evolution. Lucy with feet like ours is indicative of a ground dweller, unlike Ardi with grasping feet, typical of tree dwelling. I do not think Ardi is a part of human evolution. Perhaps humans never came down from the trees because we never went up into the trees in the first place. The necessity to survive, communicate, and create in different ways and in a different environment may have generated that initial spark – to think.

  • debbie harford

    Alan Alda’s voice is what caught my attention when I was flipping through channels…started to watch and now I am hooked…just love this man…reminds me of my brother…always questioning things…now my Wednesday evenings have a purpose…No more rambeling through channels for “junk” to watch…thank you PBS, and thank you Mr. Alda for a great show. By the way, I am a confirmed “M*A*S*H-aholic”, have to watch it EVERY day..Makes me laugh no matter how many times I have seen each show…

  • Julie Durrant

    I am a middle school science teacher, with a MA.ED, and a BS degree in Speech Pathology and Audiology. WOW! This was the show for me, from a life science and language perspective, I was thoroughly fascinated with this program, and new research in the area of language acquisition, genetics, and brain mapping! Alan Alda was a perfect host for this show, too. I can’t wait to learn more!

  • Dr. Peter Benedict

    Like cartography, Brain Mapping tools will explode the opportunities for young minds. Congratulations to all who compiled this outstanding series. You given a burst of energy to this young promising science of the brain.

  • Jason

    What is the nature of human unniqueness?

    Ayn Rand got it right: “Reason integrates man’s perceptions by means of forming abstractions or conceptions, thus raising man’s knowledge from the perceptual level, which he shares with animals, to the conceptual level, which he alone can reach. The method which reason employs in this process is logic–and logic is the art of non-contradictory identification.” –Philosophy: Who Needs It

    “Man’s essential characteristic is his rational faculty. Man’s mind is his basic means of survival–his only means of gaining knowledge. . . . In order to sustain its life, every living species has to follow a certain course of action required by its nature. The action required to sustain human life is primarily intellectual: everything man needs has to be discovered by his mind and produced by his effort. Production is the application of reason to the problem of survival. –Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal

    “Man’s distinctive characteristic is his type of consciousness–a consciousness able to abstract, to form concepts, to apprehend reality by a process of reason . . . [The] valid definition of man, within the context of his knowledge and of all of mankind’s knowledge to-date [is]: “A rational animal.”

    (“Rational,” in this context, does not mean “acting invariably in accordance with reason”; it means “possessing the faculty of reason.” A full biological definition of man would include many subcategories of “animal,” but the general category and the ultimate definition remain the same.) –Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology

    “Man has no automatic code of survival. His particular distinction from all other living species is the necessity to act in the face of alternatives by means of volitional choice. He has no automatic knowledge of what is good for him or evil, what values his life depends on, what course of action it requires. Are you prattling about an instinct of self-preservation? An instinct of self-preservation is precisely what man does not possess. An “instinct” is an unerring and automatic form of knowledge. A desire is not an instinct. A desire to live does not give you the knowledge required for living. — For the New Intellectual (quoting Atlas Shrugged)

    “Man cannot survive on the perceptual level of his consciousness; his senses do not provide him with an automatic guidance, they do not give him the knowledge he needs, only the material of knowledge, which his mind has to integrate. Man is the only living species who has to perceive reality–which means: to be conscious–by choice. But he shares with other species the penalty of unconsciousness: destruction. For an animal, the question of survival is primarily physical; for man, primarily epistemological.

    “Man’s unique reward, however, is that while animals survive by adjusting themselves to their background, man survives by adjusting his background to himself. If a drought strikes them, animals perish—-man builds irrigation canals; if a flood strikes them, animals perish—-man builds dams; if a carnivorous pack attacks them animals perish–man writes the Constitution of the United States. But one does not obtain food, safety or freedom–by instinct.” — For the New Intellectual

  • sctrippin

    Wonderful show.. the content could be called edgy. I love the last part of a silent reasoning while concentrated on a small cross, nice touch.

  • NaPua

    I am very sorry I only caught the last showing of this on PBS!!! I really hope they put it on DVD so I can watch it fully & over & over!!! The Human Condition just so fascinating to me!!!

  • Daryl

    A remarkably good treatment of this subject! Thank you WNET!!!!!

  • Zoe

    Fantastic series! I want to see it again. Surely it will re-run??

  • doug

    Why not watch Ben Stein’s “Expelled?” Essentially there the divinity and the human spark is the basis humanity needs to use when evolution has no explanation for morality, moral laws and ethical precepts.

  • Rick B

    I have watched the series and bought the DVD set. I am also studying the development of the Self and trying to make sense of consciousness. This set of shows is a great overview of what we think happened.

    OK. Now how do I get references that lead me to the scientific publications these shows are based on? Especially “The Brain?”

    Also, you might consider a further show on the development of the “self.” Sociologists have recognized since the early twentieth century that a human child is not born with a self. Instead the self is developed from social interaction with those around the child, and the big difference between the human self and that of the other primates is a result of language. (An author to start with is George Herbert Meade.)

    I really want some references. Please!

  • Harlie Llave

    Now that we know somewhat that we are at the top of the ladder (as we know it) the next question that I am very much intrigued is that it appears that we are not necessarily the most intelligent beings in the universe. If there is such a being, I want to know what do they have that we don’t have – what can they do that we cannot do? Is there more than consciousness and awareness? We seem able to know that we are limited somehow while I doubt if a chimp knows that we humans are more intelligent that them. But while we know there are more intelligent beings than us, why can we see them?

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