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With ‘The Human Spark,’ Alan Alda Dives Into What Makes Us Unique

Three-part PBS program takes beloved actor and science advocate on journey to investigate the fine line that separates humans from other species

Larry Engel/AARP illustration

Larry Engel/AARP illustration

Larry Engel/AARP illustration

When M*A*S*H signed off in 1983 with what remains the most popular episode in television history, Alan Alda, 84, could have disappeared into the proverbial sunset. Instead, in addition to more acclaimed acting work, he built a side career as a lovable, curious science advocate.
Since 2009, he’s helped train more than 15,000 scientists to share their work with clarity (and, OK, a little drama) at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. This month, AARP is running The Human Spark, a three-part PBS documentary series Alda hosted in 2010. It asks a deceptively simple question: What sets humans apart from all other creatures? We checked in with Alda to see how the answer is developing.

It’s been a decade since The Human Spark first aired on PBS. How did the series shape your approach to science?

Alda: I had done 11 years of interviewing scientists on Scientific Frontiers on PBS before we did The Human Spark. So, I already had a lot of thoughts about communicating science in the most vivid way. But one of the striking things scientists made me aware of on The Human Spark was how the ability to communicate in general, as well as we do, probably enabled us to become who we are as humans.

How did the science from the show hold up? Are we any closer to finding the “human spark” that makes us unique among all species?  

Alda: I think an interesting development in science since we did the show is the growing interest in data that indicate the Neanderthals seemed capable of symbolic representations. And that we didn’t just outlast the Neanderthals: There’s evidence that we actually killed some of them. So, for me, the news sounds a little better for Neanderthals than it does for modern humans, which pleases me because I have a good dose of Neanderthal genes in me.

Continuing the conversation

With podcast, Alan Alda remains obsessed with the power of science

Alan Alda’s current podcast, Clear + Vivid With Alan Alda, teams him up again with Graham Chedd, the producer of The Human Spark. The podcast, which launched in 2018 and features such megawatt guests as Tom Hanks and Paul McCartney, hinges on communication.

“It’s just two people really listening to each other for 45 minutes,” Alda says. “It’s great fun to be working with Graham again. For 12 years on the science shows we climbed mountains and wrestled sharks together. Well, maybe we didn’t actually wrestle sharks, but I got closer than 6 feet, which is my new limit for how close I get to things that can kill me.”

Paying subscribers can watch videos of Alda and Chedd reminiscing at Patreon.com/clearandvivid. “It’s fun to revisit those adventures — without the chance of getting eaten!”

 

You are a tireless advocate for improving the way scientists communicate. There are so many competing messages out there when it comes to science. What’s your advice on making sense of it all?

Alda: It may sound like science has competing messages because we’re still not used to the idea that a scientific study doesn’t answer all questions for all time. It just pushes knowledge a little farther ahead — and a later study, looking at the same question from another angle, can seem to contradict the prior study. Or it might actually contradict it because a new tool for observing gives us a clearer look at a process. The most dangerous conflicting messages are those coming from science on one side and guessing, or wishing, on the other. We’re going through a period now when science is regarded by some as just another opinion. I’m hoping communication by scientists that’s as clear and vivid as possible helps us all understand the scientific process better than we do now.

Episode list of The Human Spark

Becoming Us
Alan Alda visits one of the sites where Neanderthals once lived, in the caves of the Dordogne region of France. We learn that Neanderthals were resourceful but produced no art and used simplistic stone tools that didn’t change much over millennia. Our ancestors, however, were very different — painting caves, creating evolving technology and using communication — and possessing the human spark.

So Human, So Chimp
While only a small percentage of our genes separates us from chimpanzees, there are two very separate groups of scientists studying our nearest relatives. One side sees similarities while the other sees a clear discontinuation between humans and chimps. Where along the way in evolution did the human spark show up?

Brain Matters
Diving personally into what makes humans unique, Alan undergoes a detailed scan of his brain at the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of California, Los Angeles. Probes search his brain and others, leading us through discoveries into how we use language. Research takes Alan to Oxford, England, to learn about social cognition and how humans bond with others, perhaps finding the human spark.

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