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!