Yesterday evening PBS’s NOVA series aired its second of three parts on “Becoming Human.” Entertaining, yes. Enlightening? … no.
Those of us passionate about early man would stop all other work to review the newest Far Side cartoon, and not because we didn’t have good, steady work demanding our attention. It’s just … well, he was so good!
Same with grand productions like NOVA and the BBC. But in contrast to Far Side and last month’s Discovery Channel production of Ardi (see earlier blogs), NOVA’s “Becoming Human” series doesn’t tell us much new and actually takes a few too many liberties in order to make short sentences.
Much of the footage, in fact, can be found in earlier NOVA productions, especially those about Asian and Indonesian early men.
Part II repeated nearly 10 minutes of footage I originally thought was specific to Part I, and the background music sounds like a single-tracked hominid grinding a street organ. Another 5-6 minutes came from earlier NOVA footage of the story of Toumai.
Well, so what, eh? Well… there are a few too many simplicities. Like the near complete ignoring until the end of Part II of Homo habilis, and prior to the admission that this “human” species preceded erectus (the star of Part II), endless repeating that Homo erectus was the “first human.”
Carefully without saying so, the repetitious and too quick presentation of NOVA’s chart of early man could be easily interpreted as linear rather than branching as it really is. This unearths a debate that was put to rest a generation ago.
I can’t wait for Part III to clarify that no, Part II didn’t really mean we evolved directly from Homo erectus.
And then there’s the curious way the producers present a not new theory that evolving brain size was an adaptation to climate change. And how “fast” that climate change was. (One or two or maybe three hundred thousand years.) However you cut it this remarkable simplicity can be easily transformed into acceptance of our current climate change crisis.
Here’s how the NYTimes TV critic, Neil Genzlinger, put it:
“Here’s some cheery news: that global warming thing everyone is so worried about is actually going to make us all a lot smarter. Unfortunately, it’s also going to leave us with heads the size of basketballs.”
Genzlinger goes on to positively review the series, but I think he might also be under the spell of big, public TV.
One really good feature almost redeems the entire presentation: the discussions of aging and dating.
Dating is so crucial to early man finds, and both the graphics and explanations especially of the Afar finds were done masterfully. The explanation of how DNA corruption can pinpoint the time that two species diverge was magnificent.
And for the first time I can recall, the brilliant way scientists study fossilized teeth was described in detail, explaining how a specimen can be aged. My goodness what a blast it was to hear how dental examination showed Turkana Boy to be 8 not 14 years old, and Lucy to be 3 not 12!
The older ages of Turkana Boy and Lucy that have been presumed for years had been derived from more classic anatomical analysis, specifically in the state of fusion between limbs. So what the dental analysis shows was that early man was growing up much faster than had previously been speculated by his slowly growing brain.
This is enlightening. Let’s hope Part III has more of this. So far, though, Discovery 1 – NOVA 0.