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‘The Human Spark’ Featured at Science in Society Film and Lecture Series

Photo: SOC professor Matthew Nisbet, left, leads a discussion on 'The Human Spark,' directed by SOC professor Larry Engel, seated in the center.

SOC professor Matthew Nisbet, left, leads a discussion on 'The Human Spark,' directed by SOC professor Larry Engel, seated in the center. (Photo: Mike Unger)

What caused us to evolve from our Neanderthal cousins? Two million years after people recognizable as human first walked the Earth, how—and why—did we begin evolving into the complex creatures we are today?

Those questions are at the crux of The Human Spark, an award-winning PBS documentary series directed by American University School of Communication professor Larry Engel.

Joined by the National Academy of Science’s Jay Labov and Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that promotes the teaching of evolution, Engel discussed the project and then explored deeper questions about the nature of science at the Science in Society Film and Lecture series February 17.

The Human Spark was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had in my career,” said Engel, who’s been making science films for more than three decades. “It looked at evolution with a slightly different lens. It looked at the different ways humankind has evolved from other species.”

The first episode of the three-part series was screened at the beginning of the event. It features host Alan Alda witnessing spectacular 30,000 year-old artwork carved and painted on the walls of caves in France. The central question is this: What did we possess that the Neanderthals didn’t—and where did it come from? Throughout the hour ancient weaponry that made the hunting of large animals possible is recreated; Neanderthal children’s teeth are scanned in a giant particle accelerator to see how quickly they grew up; Neanderthal genes are read; and beads that are the first evidence of our species’ fascination with social status are discovered.

The series works in part because of Alda’s natural curiosity and ability to connect with people.

“Alan would often begin talking with the scientists before we were ready to film him,” said Engel, who also served as the director of photography. “Alan was engaged, so it truly became an observational experience. I filmed for the length of the tape without turning [it] off.”

Led by SOC professor Matthew Nisbet, the discussion, cosponsored by SOC and the College of Arts and Sciences, touched on several issues surrounding the series and the state of science today.

Scott has been fighting the teaching of creationism and other religiously based views in science classes for years. Often, she said, science is beside the point.

“There are a lot of people who don’t like the idea that they share common ancestors with apes,” she said. “Many scientists are people of faith, many are not. It doesn’t matter because we’re all trying to explain the natural world.”

Often the public does not comprehend the very nature of science, Labov said.

“Science is simultaneously reliable and able to change,” he said. “We need to help people understand that’s the nature of science. We have to help people to understand that we don’t always have the definitive answer.”

The Human Spark provides some answers, but raises many more questions. That’s one of its many strengths.

“For most of my career I’ve heard, ‘you have to dumb it down,’” Engel said. “What I’m trying to do is distill so [scientists] can convey the information and engage the various audiences into thinking about the contexts. I don’t think documentary is a vehicle for facts, it’s a vehicle for narrative.”