What Makes Us Uniquely Human?

The other day, I watched a 3 part special about what makes us uniquely human from the rest of the animals on the planet, namely chimps. It was very interesting and I wanted to share it with you. I'm linking to each full length video and then below I will link to Science Talk's interviews with Alda about the show and other interesting things.

Here's some information from PBS:

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 broadcast on PBS in January 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.

Program One: Becoming Us (link goes to full video)
Alan Alda confronts the puzzle of why our ancestors in Africa got the Spark and evolved into us, while the first humans to leave Africa for Europe–the Neanderthals–never did. Why did we flourish, while they changed very little for thousands of generations before eventually dying out?

Program Two: So Human, So Chimp (link goes to full video)
Alan Alda joins researchers studying human children and chimpanzees to discover why we share some skills with our closest living relatives, but have far surpassed them in our most uniquely human capabilities. Though we both descend from a common ancestor and are genetically so similar, why are we worlds apart in our behaviors and abilities?

Program Three: Brain Matters (link goes to full video)
Peer into Alan Alda’s head to find out which parts of our brain are responsible for our most human characteristics. Where do tool use and language reside? And how do our brains allow us to understand symbolism, figure out what others are thinking, and even travel in time? Are insight and imagination what really make humans unique?

Steve Mirsky interviews Alan Alda in two parts for Science Talk, the podcast for Scientific American. You can download or listen to them here. This is how I found out about the series and realized that Alan Alda isn't just an actor. I had no idea he was into science so much.

Alan Alda's Human Spark, Interview 1: Alan Alda, star of stage, screen and science, talks with podcast host Steve Mirsky about his new PBS science series The Human Spark as well as his strong interest in science and long association with Scientific American.

Interview Part 2: Alan Alda, host of the new PBS science series The Human Spark, talks to podcast host Steve Mirsky about his experiences as a fictional physican, a real patient and an amateur scientist.


  1. Fascinating! I've bookmarked those for later viewing.

  2. I hope you enjoy them, Buffy. I certainly did. :)