LIFE LESSONS

The Human Spark
www.pbs.org/humanspark

Watching Alan Alda host The Human Spark, you get the sense that he could teach basket weaving and make it entertaining and relevant. This program, however, aims for a much headier topic—the question of what makes human beings so unique. What is it about our brain that allowed us to take over the world? The three-part series investigates how our ancestors differed from Neandertals and from our closest relatives today, the chimpanzees.

We follow Alda as he meets with archaeologists unearthing stonework from caves in the Dordogne region in southern France and as he participates in behavioral studies on both chimps and children with primatologists at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University in Atlanta. In Boston, neuroscientists scan and analyze Alda’s brain. The whirlwind trip includes many brief lessons on big ideas. Some of these themes deserve an entire miniseries of their own—especially the light treatment of our ancient history, glossed over in the first episode. It’s worth sticking by Alda’s side to laugh with him, however, as he throws a primitive spear at a plastic deer and to share his glee when, in an experiment, a toddler learns to free a block from a container in one go by mimicking an adult.

This passion for teaching and learning may be one of the most unique and important qualities we humans have developed, according to the central theme of The Human Spark. As Alda points out, “we look into our students’ eyes as if to say, ‘Are you getting this? Are you following me?’ Not quite like our nearest cousins whose behavior seems to be implying, ‘Hey, you’re on your own, bub.’ —Corey Binns