The Human Spark

The Human Spark

Fri, 08/05/2011 - 7:00pm - 10:00pm

Pictured: Host Alan Alda


Credit: ©Larry Engel 2008

Tune in for all three episodes as host Alan Alda searches for the origin and nature of uniquely human abilities - the "human spark."

Three and a half billion years of evolution have produced uncountable billions of living species. But only one can write a sentence. Only one species can think in symbols; recombine those symbols into infinite meanings; invent a technology to disseminate the message; worry how others might react to it; ponder the past; speculate on the future; imagine the unknown. Only one species goes to school, donates to charity, wonders why the sky is blue, builds cities, composes music, wages war, wears jewelry… makes television programs. These uniquely human abilities constitute the “human spark.”

THE HUMAN SPARK, a three-part series hosted by actor, author and science buff Alan Alda, airs Friday, August 5 at 7 p.m. on WXXI-TV (cable 524/DT21.2). The series brings Alda’s trademark humor and curiosity to an exploration of the latest scientific research into what differentiates us from all other species. 

“Alan Alda’s fascination with how the world works is infectious,” says Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of media enterprise WNET.ORG. “In THE HUMAN SPARK, he displays his curiosity as he seeks answers to vexing universal questions. We are delighted to be carried along on his journey, and with Alan as our guide, there is no doubt it will be an interesting and entertaining one.”

“What makes this series unique,” says executive producer Jared Lipworth, “is that it crosses into so many different scientific disciplines. Archaeology, primatology, neuroscience, behavioral psychology, even philosophy — Alan makes connections that transcend the normally narrow focus of the experts he meets.”

From the caves paintings of Lascaux to the plains of Kenya, from crucial chimp sanctuaries to the inner recesses of his own brain, Alda, the long-time host of the PBS series SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN FRONTIERS, observes our most defining abilities and examines how they arose. Whether he’s holding a 120,000-year-old skull in his hands, throwing spears at a plastic deer or contemplating his ability to read other people’s minds, he brings with him a warmth and familiarity that put even the most camera-shy experts (and chimpanzees) at ease.

In the series, Alda makes tools as the Neanderthals did, checks out ancient jewelry made from human teeth (and knockoffs made from mammoth ivory) and even has his head examined to see where his most human abilities reside. Pointing out that humans and chimpanzees share 99 percent of our DNA, he takes viewers on a far-reaching quest to uncover why we are genetically so similar, yet behaviorally a world apart.

Alda also participates in hands-on experiments that explore some of our defining human attributes — such as the ability to teach, socialize and cooperate — seeing first-hand how we use these skills to tackle new challenges and solve problems. “The biggest surprise of all for me,” says Alda, “is how close science has come to being able to say, ‘this is it’ … this is the human spark.”