Nova: Becoming Human Hour Three: I'm speechless.

The first part of this documentary, including the preface and the first several minutes of the main body of the work, should be deleted. The writers and producers who put that part together should be captured, gutted, eviscerated, and their dried and salted remains staked to the front entrance of the Public Broadcasting System as a reminder for other writers and producers. Why? Here's why:

What was said was pure teleology. At some point, sixty million years ago, the path that human evolution would follow was set. Some of the ancestral forms stayed on the path to us, others did not and were thus dead ends. We have always wondered what features made humans special, what constituted this path of evolution, thus causing the extinction of others who were not on this path, and now scientists know the answer to that question. And so on and so forth. That is not a quote, it is a brief paraphrase. Go ahead and watch the documentary and you'll see what I mean.

Shame on Nova. Shame shame shame. It is one thing to get a thing wrong now and then. It is not terrible to occasionally use language that might be improved. But it is absolutely unacceptable to produce a documentary where the first ten or more minutes will require hours and hours of undoing in the classroom setting if the unfortunate event occurs that a student or potential future student actually watches this third installment of the three hour tour through human evolution. Three hour tour.

The rest of the third installment is not so bad. It does make the same mistake the second episode makes in blotting out any possible reconstruction of the history or accrediting of ideas. The Atapuerca story is very well done, and original researchers are talking about what they did. The Max Planck institute DNA work by Svante Pääbo that is documented in this special is well done, and again, the actual researchers who did the work are accredited, as is some of the work shown in South Africa and John Shea's work on Neanderthal vs. modern human tools. So, in the end, there are several good connections made between researchers and actual research. This falls short with the Leiberman and Curtis Marean segments, but at least they do not dominate the script.

Nova botched the ante-Neanderthal and H. Heidelbergensis bit. They actually make the claim that Heidelbergensis evolved in Europe while showing a reconstruction of an African skull which typifies this African species (which did extend into Europe). No, we really don't know where Neanderthals evolved: About half of the Neanderthal skeletons of which I'm aware are Asian, so I'm not quite sure why Europe is given as the likely place of origin, other than there being a strong European bias in most Western television documentaries.

And again, we have Hominids "leaving" Africa a couple of times, although not as earnestly as in episode two.

There is also too much reiteration of the second hour, provided for review no doubt, in this third hour. If you are going to show this in a classroom setting, find a place about 12 to 15 minutes in and start there. That will avoid the not very helpful review and most of the very damaging horrific incorrect and misleading stuff about evolution.

Another major mistake made in this documentary has to do with where things happened. As with the second episode, we learn that the African Rift Valley is the spot where much of the evolutionary changes in the human past took place, as though a rift valley had some special property where evolution happens to the exclusion of other parts of the vast African landscape. The evidence is preserved in the rift valley, but archaeological evidence of the last million and a half years shows us that there is no bias towards activities occurring in the rift itself. This is a Freshman intro course mistake, not a mistake Nova should be making. The same mistake is made with Atapuerca. This important European site is an amazing case of preservation, but it is no more the place where the postulated events happened than my grandmother's kitchen.

We are told that now that the Neanderthal genetic code is being sequenced, we can understand the mystery of who the Neanderthals were and why they disappeared. How does that work? The teleology continues with the Neanderthals when we are told that they were the most advanced humans on Earth until we arrived, which explicitly means that we are the most advanced humans on earth. Are we sure of that?

For a large part of the discussion of the human mind we are subjected to the opinion of a paleoartist who uses clay to reconstruct ancient faces. I want those two minutes of my life back, please.

The remaining discussion on brain and cultural evolution was confused, unclear, and left any observer thinking we don't fully understand this. So that part was good, because that is in fact the state of the art. But, the fact that things are rather up in the air with respect to the length of childhood, language, and symbolic evolution should have been made as a key point not left to be inferred. But, I suppose if one starts a documentary with statements about how scientists now understand everything because we have unraveled the DNA, there is not much room for discussing the ambiguities of human evolution that are actually there, and that actually make this all quite interesting.

Neanderthals ate mostly meat where their remains are studied, with very little variation in that result. This tells us that either the technique is blottoed by background noise (not likely) that the environment across Western Asia and Europe did not vary much (it did) or that Neanderthal culture did not vary as much as modern human culture did. This is in accord with John Shea's work on technology as well. And it is always fun watching my old friend John running around on the landscape spearing things. Reminds me of running over cars after Peabody Museum Friday Beer Hour on Mass Ave.

If this is used in a classroom setting, there will have to be a lab exercise developed to undo the pedagogical damage of Spencer Well's failed jelly bean experiment. Have the pause button ready when you see the jelly beans. Jelly bean experiment FAIL. Why the producers did not redo that, I can not imagine.

My favorite quote of the entire episode was this one by Curits Marean: "You go out to collect shellfish at the wrong time, you're dead."

The rise of the symbolic mind probably preceded the evidence by a very very long time. I am aware of a handful of unpublished tantalizing bits of information in southern Africa suggesting that the human symbolic mind was ticking away, perhaps in first draft form, about a half a million years ago in that region. But the real evidence comes from body adornment or evidence of fit, and arty symbolly looking stuff like the bit of scratched up ocher found at Blombos Cave in South Africa dating to about 70K. We get to see Chris Henshilwood discuss the discovery of that bit.

There is an implication at this point in the documentary that once humans get smart, they get out of Africa. Once again, flog the producers. Next time, have someone look at the script, please.

I liked the fact that they did not manage to stick their head-parts all the way up their butt-parts when discussing Foxp2 language gene. They actually did that bit rather well.

But no, it is not the case that when the Gibraltar Neanderthals died off that modern Homo sapiens was the only remaining humanoid on the planet. Please refer back to Episode II and consider the dating of the latest H. erectus including Flores. Thank you very much.

Please do watch this documentary, but watch it skeptically, and do report back!


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Anne G

I think, J. Derrida's concept of phallocentrism guided what should have other wise been a fair and non biased investigation. I mention Derrida, because you mentioned the documentary focused on folks leaving Africa. Were they just folks in general or were they mostly young male fleeing overpopulation: not enough land and not enough women.

I always thought women were crucial at every stage of evolution. If that is indeed the case, then how can we say that Neanderthals went anywhere but deep inside our own DNA?

So Nova forgot about the importance of gender in evolution? That sucks. Guess we know who's wearing the pants in that house.


Anne, I have thought several times today of what you might think of this particular show. Looking forward to you analysis.

Dagnabbit! You ruined the plot of tonight's show. I was SO puzzled whether H. Sapiens survived!

By NewEnglandBob (not verified) on 17 Nov 2009 #permalink

Hey Bob,

I think the jury's still out as to whether Homo sapiens survives or not. ;^}

I saw a documentary on pbs a while back where a scientist (Spencer Wells?) follows a dna trail from africa to the rest of the world.

Admittedly, I haven't studied the subject, but what exactly has changed that makes all this obsolete?

I also thought the human evolution tree had a few failed branches and that the current form survived while the others became extinct. I don't mind shaming Nova, but why exactly is this wrong?

By ben nguyen (not verified) on 17 Nov 2009 #permalink

What is wrong with "out of africa" ... change the sentences (not all of them,but many of them in this documentary) to, say, the citizens of a country. "The Americans left America and moved to Canada"

If that happened there would be no one in the US. They would all be in Canada.

On a somewhat more subtle level, we have a link between becoming fully modern and then leaving Africa. This implies, or supports the persistent racist (and incorrect) idea of Africans being primitive.

The people who are saying these things in the documentary do not misunderstand, but they are using badly chosen words. And, it matters. I taught intro human evolution to many many thousands of students over the years, and I can tell you that the verbiage in this documentary in this regard results in misunderstanding.

Regarding the lineages ... there are two things wrong here. One is that thre is a preordained path along with any given species (i.e. humans) will follow into the future. That is teleology and is a very slippery slope. The other is the idea that this path is the path of species survival and the other "side branches" are inferior. Chances are, when you have a bunch of roughly similar species and one or a few go extinct and one or more don't, that difference is random, not some special adaptation the surviving species has. Yes, there COULD be a special adaptaiton, but if you listen to the text in this documentary, there is a clear and strongly stated presumption of adaptive superiority of humans vis-a-vis other hominids.

Jelly bean experiment FAIL. Why the producers did not redo that, I can not imagine.

Perhaps they are all color-blind as a result of a genetic bottle-neck.

Greg, I have found it useful to never trust television people to get this quite right.

You need to work on your misanthropy skills.

By Katharine (not verified) on 18 Nov 2009 #permalink

I missed the show, could someone describe this jelly bean accident?

the jelly bean incident is very similar to Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie

when we are told that they were the most advanced humans on Earth until we arrived, which explicitly means that we are the most advanced humans on earth. Are we sure of that?

Right now, yes. Unless you have evidence of extant, non-Sapiens Homo species running around somewhere :)

Seriously, I understand that there is no confirmed evidence of any Neanderthal art. I also understand that Neanderthal technology was comparatively less advanced than that of modern humans. Has there been any recent findings that question the traditional view?

Of course, the real stretch is to assume that this cultural difference was the cause of their demise (or our success).

Greg, you must have watched parts of Ep 3 either more or less carefully than I did (or we watched them equally carefully, but as I'm a layperson, I failed to notice errors, perhaps).

The impression I got re Heidelbergensis is that it was an African species that gave rise eventually to both Neanderthals in Europe and H sapiens in Africa. H sapiens then eventually migrated to the rest of the world including Europe, where they replaced Neanderthals.

Re Neanderthals vs sapiens, on the negative side, yes, there was an overemphasis on sapiens' supposedly superior minds. OTOH, that was backed up at least a little by the reports of non-variation in Neanderthal diet and technology vs. sapiens, and there was a nod to heidelbergensis' symbolic reasoning abilities (the rose quartz hand axe, a/k/a "Excalibur"). And sapiens, far from being presented as inevitable, was shown as quite contingent, hanging on by a thread with a population of 1,000 or fewer individuals.

Re species leaving Africa, the impression I got was not of Africa as more primitive, but of Africa as the font of human evolution, current thought apparently being that all human species we're aware of developed there, with the possible exceptions of Neanderthal and Flores. That these species would then spread beyond the borders of the "home" continent seems to me to be simple inevitability, and did not imply that they needed to leave to advance beyond the primitive.

One additional potential negative was that rapid climate change in equatorial Africa, particularly the Rift Valley, was presented as a primary driver of human evolution, and ISTM that must necessarily be a more speculative possibility than the show made it seem.

On the whole, though, I thoroughly enjoyed all 3 programs.

Ah, well - "De gustibus non disputandum est," and all that.

While I will certainly watch this, I have several documentaries ahead of it.

I am less than surprised that Nova would be somewhat inaccurate and imprecise. While I love Nova, I love it with the understanding that it is all about sensationalism. I have watched a lot of Nova docus in the last few years, because my eldest is very enthusiastic about learning how the world works and Nova often makes even the most mundane concepts really exciting and fun. But there remains the drawback that they make even the most mundane concepts really exciting and fun - not to mention occasionally really, really scary (I almost had to turn off the one on the earth's magnetosphere, as it was rather frightening to eldest)...

All in all, I am willing to take the hype and occasional inaccuracies, because they are usually good at sucking the boys in. We usually end up looking up more information later, so inaccuracies aren't a problem and their presence is actually a rather useful tool for teaching children about trusting authoritative sources of information. This does have the unfortunate side effect of my seven year old occasionally being rather skeptical of claims made by his parents, but I tend to figure that isn't such a bad thing either - as long as he maintains the understanding that he has to listen and obey regardless of his skepticism:) If he wants to argue about it after he complies, that is educational too...

"I always thought women were crucial at every stage of evolution."

As the bearers of the babies (among other things), how could they not be? :-)

I'm an informed layperson as well, and I completely agree with Jud's points. The series was good for the general audience it is intended for.

I don't understand your obsession with the "leaving" bit. I don't think anyone takes this as meaning Africa is now empty or inferior.

I do agree with the Rift Valley bit. Besides the one guy talking about South Africa, the series implies all human evolution happened in the Rift Valley, not that it is where we can find the fossils on the surface because of geology. I didn't get this from the Atapuerca site.

The paleoartist is low on science, but huge on engagement. You know we're hard-wired to attend to faces. The ancestor with the long frizzy hair parted in the middle, I think Heidelbergensis, was riveting.

I have no memory of the beginning "statements about how scientists now understand everything because we have unraveled the DNA." I didn't get the iron-clad teleology either. The ambiguity stuck with me, however.

I know that the jellybean jar was a gross oversimplification, but please explain the reason why you call it a massive fail.

I did have a comment on proper accreditation (don't really care, engaging talking heads are much more important) and some questions from the previous post, if anybody would like to answer them:…

Jud: Thanks for the comments, I'd like to address them. Let me start out by saying that some of the things you got from the show are things they meant for you to get, and that I think are good, but there was contradictory langauge or in some cases it was put poorly in a way that I know from vast experiences, having had tens of thousands of intro undergrads, would utterly blotto any chance of asking, say, objective multiple choice questions about the topic. Not that objective MC questions is the ultimate goal, but it is a useful index. When you sit in teaching meetings and look at what happens, or consider what could happen, with material such as this, it is the sort of pragmatic outcome one thinks of.

I'm glad you got that impression with Heidelbergensis that is was African. You may have also gotten the impression that Heidelbergensis was first identified as a skull found in Europe, and they showed a skull while they were saying this. But the initial Heidelbergensis was very very fragmentary, a piece of a jaw, and the complete skull they showed was from southern Africa. H. sapiens did not migrate to the rest of the world ... H. sapiens range expanded. Migration means leaving one place and going to a another. When the swallows migrate south, San Juan Capistrano has no more swallos. And, we don't know that Neanderthals evolved in Europe. so that whole bit was pretty much borked and now you have to re learn it all correctly!

Regarding the nanderthal vs. sapiens thing ... yes, you could see the overempahsis on sapiens superiority, but... no, it was not backed up by the non-variation in Neanderthal culture. If you look at stone tool cultures across the world for a time slice of, say, 10,000 years to 20,000 ago, you will find huge region where there is very little variation and other regions where there are piles of variation. Then it changes. Anthropologists understand that the amount and locus of variation shifts across modalities across time and space. So the lack of neanderthal variation in stone tool culture does not tell us anything, really.

The point I made, somewhat cryptically in the OP about 0.50 glimmerings of symbolic stuff going on ins Southern AFrica ... that would have been "heidelbergensis", the putative parent species of both N's and H saps.

But yes, they do imply contingency, but the don't actually say it.

Yes, Africa can be seen as on the front of human evolution, in a way, as you say. However, when I think of all those undergrads watching this, I can see the very signficant need for a re-write of much of the language to avoid the racist student (and that's about half of them, honestly) finding what they need to find to walk away with a sense of superiority.

Norwegian guy: I don't understand your obsession with the "leaving" bit. I don't think anyone takes this as meaning Africa is now empty or inferior.

I know, I know, a lot of people think what you do. It seems almost impossible that people would think this. But you have not given 10s of thousands of people the opportunity to demonstrate how they can botch this concept. You may just have to trust me on this bit. And all it takes is a slight change in langauge, from something that is simply incorrect to something that is simply correct. I don't think that is too much to ask.

The thing that annoyed me about the paleartist was not his opinion or that he was interviewed, it was that there is a huge wealth of excellent material out there, outstanding people who could have given a minute or two of their highly insightful thinking on this.

I have no memory of the beginning "statements about how scientists now understand everything because we have unraveled the DNA." I didn't get the iron-clad teleology either. The ambiguity stuck with me, however.

I watched that part three times to make sure it was as bad as it seemed the first time . I refer here to the preamble, before the actual documentary starts. The run-up. I suspect it was not written by the writer of the episode, but rather culled (and butchered) from the script. No matter, they showed it, it is part of the distributed DVD, if you put the DVD in the machine and hit "go" it happens. This is why I recommend starting later, beyond the beginning of the episode.

I know that the jellybean jar was a gross oversimplification, but please explain the reason why you call it a massive fail.

The concept was fine. But a jar with 8-9 colors of jelly beans dumped out and 8-9 colors of jelly beans came out.

The reason it failed is both pragmatic and conceptual. The genes in the staring gene pool were not randomly distributed or pseudo-uniformly distributed (as were the jelly beans). There should have been four or five colors that happened for historical reasons to have been concentrated at the bottom of the jar with no hope of getting through the bottlneck.

Regarding your comment on attribution: Again, I'm mainly looking at this as a teaching tool, and to me it is important to allow for the possibility (even if not every instructor uses it) for linking (engaging) researchers with engaging research. Plus as a scientist, I cringe when I see someone being given credit for ideas that were not theirs. This is something that is hard to get perfect, but this particular documentary demonstrated blatant disregard for it. That sucks.

I think Spencer Wells even had a brief âOh, shitâmoment as he saw the jellybeans spilling out, but then continued on like nothing was wrong. The experiment would also have been more accurate and entertaining if he had eaten all the non surviving jellybean colors.

or if the jellybeans fell on a bunch of twizzlers that then went extinct.

They should have used M&M's. Tan M&M's went extinct with the arrival of those mutant blues. There was an industry-imposed artificial bottleneck (perhaps the machinery only allowed for a fixed number of colors, so the introduction of one meant the demise of another), and the mutant blues had greater reproductive fitness.

Or, in my preferred explanation, blue M&M's are the Devil's handiwork.

Thanks for responding. BTW, I'm MN-born and bred, with a couple of (actual) migrations Out of MN, currently in St. Paul.

I'd like to know more about lice. Really, I would. The show seemed to say that hominids had our own lice and then we somehow picked up gorilla lice that somehow replaced our pubic lice but didn't effect our head lice. What's up with that?

Hey Greg,
Your reactions are similar to others I've heard. The folks who made Becoming Human made a good effort, but I think they tried to cover too much time, too many hypotheses, too many subjects. To many dancers in spandex.
The forthcoming "Human Spark" with Alan Alda is a lot more focused. I hope you will like it. I've done a bunch of TV programs lately, and the people who prepare them have a tough job, steering a middle course between doing something innovative, something educational, and something marketable. When, in interviews, I try to use examples from my classroom lectures , the filmmakers often find them too long. One rarely gets to say more than 10 or 20 seconds at a time.
Keep up the good work with the blog.
John Shea

By John Shea (not verified) on 09 Dec 2009 #permalink

John, I'm actually doing a press conference with Alan Alda in a few days about that project. It sounds good. He was here a few weeks ago (daughter Julia got to have dinner with him) interviewing people at The U.

I liked the second NOVA well enough to use it in a class (with a few bits blanked out).


I'm actually doing a press conference with Alan Alda in a few days about that project. It sounds good. He was here a few weeks ago (daughter Julia got to have dinner with him) interviewing people at The U.

Kewl! I really didn't like him back in the MASH days, but some of his movie roles and especially his work on Scientific Amaerican Frontiers has given me a whole new respect for him.

Man is a symbol using, symbol making creature. We use this abstraction called the alphabet and create words. We string together words and create ideas. We use ideas and create realities. Or am I wrong? If words have no import, why are we talking at all?

By D L Eidsvaag (not verified) on 31 Jan 2013 #permalink

DL yes, I think we are a Symbolic Species, as it were, but reality would exist if we did not. Also, we don't use the alphabet to create words. That has to do with written language which is a post hoc product of language.