The Human Spark

Ratings: 8.07/10 from 15 users.

The Human SparkIn the caves and rock shelters of the Dordogne region of France, Alan Alda witnesses the spectacular paintings and carvings that date back some 30,000 years, artwork that archaeologists once thought to be the first record of people with minds like our own.

When this art was created, Europe had already been peopled for hundreds of thousands of years - and thousands of lifetimes - by humans we call Neanderthals.

Alan discovers, from visits to sites where Neanderthals once lived, that Neanderthals were tenacious and resourceful.

But they appear to have lived in and of the moment; certainly they produced no art, and employed a stone tool technology that changed little over millennia. The people who painted the caves, our ancestors, were strikingly different, possessed of what we are calling the Human Spark, capable not only of art but of innovative technology and symbolic communication.

The questions Alan explores: Where and when did the Human Spark first ignite? In these caves, as archeologists have long believed? Or at a much earlier time - and on another continent? 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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27 Comments / User Reviews

  1. Lary Nine

    Alan Alda is so perfectly cast as the moderator for this series because he's so openly delighted by everything. He chortles with genuine glee over the preciousbehavior of the toddler human subjects as they solve tests side-by-side with chimps. He makes wry, witty little comments about life, love, kids and chimps. He's a real attractive personality in this way and probably has been his whole life. This explains why he is so adept at comedic drama---he's big, lovable chimp still fond of the joys of learning in the autumn of his life. I can relate...a human trait.

  2. Ramus

    Thanks very mash for this doc I enjoyed it very mash. If you haven't watched it yet you absolutely mash see it.

  3. Lary Nine

    I think that chimps can't reason about abstract things because they don't have language. To reason abstractly, we humans need to substitute symbols for real things. We have words for 'trees' but the chimp has nothing to substitute symbollically for a 'tree'. How can they possibly reason abstractly if they have no symbollic vocabulary?

  4. capricious

    I can't believe they haven't fixed it so that it doesn't INSIST on going to HD every time it switches to the next part. GRRR youtube... GRRR I SAY!! :(

  5. Buddha

    While watching this video I stretched out my legs to get more comfortable. When I did my foot hit the switch to the power strip to which my computer was connected and to my horror,killed Alan Alda. Being a coward, I didn't tell anyone. I mean, after all, it was an accident. Telling someone would surely bring me more grief than I could handle. But, later on that evening I couldn't believe it. Alan Alda was alive in my den and looking 40 years younger! He was cracking jokes while tending to injured soldiers. He must be a god. I painted his face on the wall of my man cave.

  6. Lary Nine

    Awesome post. Your imagination impresses.

  7. Waldo

    I have seen several docs on here about what makes us human, this one is by far the best. Very interesting and informative- well made- scientifically grounded- 9 out of 10.

  8. Lary Nine

    Agreed, Waldo!

  9. Sky

    Cats, dogs, and numerous backyard pests will all steal food from you when your back is turned. Anyone who's ever had a pet knows that. Or how about the way a seagull will stalk you at the beach, waiting for the moment you look away to steal a mouthful of chips? Stealing food from a bigger animal when they're not looking is a basic survival strategy, not a sign of higher thought.

    The rest of the experiments were very interesting, especially in the hands of the always thoughtful, personable and quick-witted Alan Alda. You can tell he's really interested in the subject matter and is having a great time learning about it.

  10. eireannach666

    Entertaining enough, although i must have caught the second part on pbs, but still watched again. Basic but good.

  11. Ron

    I'm suspicious of any species who assigns itself the position at the top of the heap or above the rest or somehow something more special or unique than anything else. Is that science or ego?

    If we don't soon learn that we need to work with all the other unique and special forms of life on this planet, those unique things that make us human could make us extinct. Its happened before to other unique forms of life that were, well, a bit too unique.

  12. Lary Nine

    @Ron~ You said...
    "I’m suspicious of any species who assigns itself the position at the top of the heap..."

    Well, if it's any consolation, I heard that they're suspicious of you too. :~)

  13. Waldo

    @ Ron

    I am all for respecting the right of all living creatures to do just that, live. There is a huge difference in saying that we posesses higher cognitive processes than other animals and disrespecting other living creatures. Of course we are capable of much more complicated planning and problem solving, that much is obvious. But, just as there is something that makes us uniquely human there is something that makes each species uniquely its self. All this doc is trying to do is deduce what being human really is, and then single out that one thing that seems to truly seperate us from all other living things, the same thing could be done with chimps. In fact much of the data they discuss comes from researchers trying to discover what makes a chimp a chimp. I think you are confusing the statement saying we possess higher or more complicated cognitive processes with the idea that that makes us superior in some way, which was never stated in this documentary.

  14. Lary Nine

    Once again, well said! Your comment was like my thoughts but I was too lazy to write more than a quip.

  15. Fluffy Animal

    @Lary #12


  16. Fluffy Animal


    I agree with Lary, well said. I assume that we all have the right to hunt, as well as being hunted? (appropriately in our case).

    Great White sharks (for example), have a very small 'cognitive' brain in relation to ours, however it is surrounded by an intricate 'supercomputer' like labyrynth of totally alien processing power plants which are that which gives it the superior hunter edge. Well over our own when you get down to it.

    I bloody HATE the Ocean (being in it). Everything in there is out to kill ya, and much of which is pretty damn good at it.

  17. Lary Nine

    Think about a computer. It can't "process" anything without an operating language. Same with operating language, no high cognitive faculties. With monkeys---they're like an old Texas Instrumnet calculator...they can calculate and appear to have limited consciousness, etc. but their BIOS (basic input output system) is very limited and they can't think abstractly like humans because they don't have anything like MS-DOS or Windows. Language is the key to all higher brain functionality--- abstract thought and complex memory. Like the lady said in Part 3.--- The faculty of language is about "symbol substitution" and its subsequent manipulation. It's is a form of mathematics in its own right.

  18. Guest

    may be we lose a lot of higher brain functionality when we trade silence for talking....who is to know what they know that we don't know or no longer know. But you are right, we seem to know a lot more than them specially seen from our angle especially with monkeys that are under human care for observation.

  19. David

    I think it would be fascinating if research were done to chart the rise and development of Neanderthals; trace back their family tree until it is linked to ours. Since God works by way of evolution, Neaderthal certainly did not just spring into being one day! Maybe the better we understand his development, the better we will understand our own.
    Aside: If the Lord created him only to go extinct, what was the purpose? Another of His mysterious ways...Am I a heretic? That's alright, under the Constitution I have the right to believe as I will. Go watch Godspell.

  20. David

    Not tracking fast enough. Keeps stopping. Anything you can do?

  21. David

    Not enjoyable. Hacked sentences. Not able to follow.

  22. jbriggs_87

    there is no lord david

  23. Matt van den Ham

    then why can't we teach apes/monkeys this 'OS'? it's because their 'hardware' isn't equipped for language and symbol-processing. The human brain is unique in that it has evolved for language associations.

    On a side note, I've always wondered how the romantic languages such as Spanish, French and Italian compared to Germanic based language in terms of thinking or brain development. Does invoking emotion in speech and conversation open the mind (i.e. romantic languages), or does the less-emotionally engaged languages (germanic, japanese, english) make one think more deeply? Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but it would be interesting to see which languages spark the most cognitive processing (with MRI etc. ).

  24. Matt van den Ham

    "I'm suspicious of any species who assigns itself the position at the top of the heap or above the rest or somehow something more special or unique than anything else. Is that science or ego?"

    I don't think that is really the proper interpretation of this documentary. They weren't trying elevate humans as the 'superior' specie, they were merely pointing out that we have a strong capability to use logic and reason. Birds have beautiful song and can fly, man can create tools and imagine before acting. Every specie is unique and has their 'advantages' I suppose. Apes are ridiculously strong, Lions are fierce and agile, some trees can live to an indefinite age as long as it environment can support it. etc, to acknowledge that our minds is our strongest asset is really just pointing out the obvious, it's not derived from the ego at all. So yes, it is Science.

  25. Lary9

    Exactly. I agree.

  26. Declan De Groote

    Some of you seem so sure about things you, in truth, know nothing about and in fact cannot know as well as being massively prejudiced. Comparing brains to computers is just ridiculous. Judging intelligence by our standards is as speciesist as you could get. Your narrow-minded approach only serves to prove Ron's point that all you seem able to do is further inflate your own ego's. But I guess it's pointless trying to discuss with people who's minds are already made up; and I'm dying to hear your smart answers...

  27. Vytaute

    So that you know, Lary, apes have their own language. Recommend you to watch documentary about Koko.

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