The Human Spark

Expand/Collapse The Human Spark


What makes us uniquely human? In a three-part series originally broadcast on PBS in January 2010, Alan Alda takes this question personally, visiting with dozens of scientists on three continents, and participating directly in many experiments – including the detailed examination of his own brain.Through this collection of lesson plans and video resources, students join Alda in searching for the answer to this question. In the process, they explore human evolution, prehistory, child development, the human brain, and more.

  • A Day in the Life of a Neanderthal

    What was it about our Neanderthal cousins that prevented them from evolving? In this video segment from The Human Spark, host Alan Alda searches for the answer to that question at the excavation site of Roc de Marsal, a collapsed rock shelter in Southwestern France and former home to the Neanderthals. It is there where Alda discovers how the Neanderthals' inability to be innovative contributed to their extinction.

    Grades: 9-12
  • A Matter of Size

    This video adapted from The Human Spark compares the size of a human brain with the brains of a chimp, a monkey and a rat. Robin Dunbar, from Oxford University, believes that primates have larger brains because of the complexity of the societies they live in.

    Grades: 5-12
  • A Social Network

    Why, if we came from the same background as the Neanderthals, were we able to change while Neanderthals weren't? In this video segment from The Human Spark, host Alan Alda and Randall White of New York University discuss the reasons why modern humans were able to supersede the Neanderthals.

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Art Spark

    In this video segment from The Human Spark, host Alan Alda ventures to Southwestern France where it is believed Neanderthals first made their homes in rock shelters. The crew makes their way to Cat Blanc, one of the rock shelters speculated to have sheltered not only Neanderthals, but also early humans. Horse carvings made from fifteen to twenty thousand years ago by early humans indicate that they brought with them something the Neanderthals lacked — “the human spark.”

    Grades: 9-12
  • Being Human

    Using segments from the PBS program The Human Spark, students explore the question “What makes us human?”

    Grades: 5-8
  • Beyond the Present

    This video from The Human Spark briefly discusses humans' ability to reflect on the past and think about what might happen in the future. In contrast, other animals focus only on the moment. It is this ability to think beyond the present that makes us uniquely human.

    Grades: 5-12
  • The Brain in Action

    In this video segment from The Human Spark, host Alan Alda undergoes a series of cognitive tests to demonstrate how quickly the brain reacts, and in which location of the brain the reaction occurs.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Chimp Politics

    In this video from The Human Spark, Alan Alda and scientist Franz de Waal observe the politics of two alpha male chimps who decide how they will share and distribute watermelons among female chimps in their group. While Stewart ignores the females’ request, Skip wins “political” clout by sharing his watermelon. De Waal notes that “keeping score” and “trading favors” are as essential in chimp society as they are in human society.

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Community of Symbolism

    In this segment from The Human Spark, host Alan Alda explores the significance of jewelry made by early humans eighty to ninety thousand years ago. Pierced seashells, soapstone, and teeth provide evidence that human societies had advanced beyond simple survival, allowing themselves to engage in the time consuming creation of jewelry. These ornaments which were worn by early humans were symbols extending a sense of community and a network of cooperation to a larger group of individuals than would otherwise be connected.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Cooperation Over Competition

    On his journey to identify the human spark, host Alan Alda learns about one significant difference between humans and chimps: humans are motivated to interact with one another. This video from The Human Spark shows that while chimps can do many things that have been thought to be exclusively human, humans split with chimps in their capacity to get along with others in a social group setting including people who they don’t know.

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Developing Brain

    Due to the limitations of the human body, babies are born with immature brains. This means that most of the growth of the brain will occur after birth as the baby develops from infant to young adult. This video from The Human Spark examines the growth of the brain of the modern day child from birth to adulthood, with most of the growth taking place in the brain case. In contrast, the early ancestors of human beings experienced growth in the face and jaw.

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Developing Child

    Students explore the stages of development children experience from birth the age five including brain growth, language development and what shapes their views on right and wrong.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Digging for the Truth

    In this lesson, students will use videos from The Human Spark to learn how archeologists discover and examine physical evidence and use it to formulate theories explaining how and why humans were able to advance beyond our now-extinct cousins.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Experimenting with Experiments

    Using segments from The Human Spark, students learn how to design and critique experiments with living subjects.

    Grades: 5-8
  • Freak-Genomics

    In this lesson students will enter the world of the genome, learning about human history and evolution by using video segments from The Human Spark.

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Garbage of Everyday Life

    In this video from The Human Spark, host Alan Alda visits Abri Castanet — a collapsed Rock Shelter which housed the Neanderthals and early humans. Among the findings are the garbage of everyday life, engravings on the collapsed ceiling stones, and the teeth of ancestors which were worn as ornaments.

    Grades: 9-12
  • How We Learn

    The Max Planck Institute tested children and chimps in their willingness to cooperate in helping another person with a task. This video from The Human Spark shows that while chimps were as willing as children to help in reaching tasks, children helped with a wider range of tasks and seemed to enjoy participating. Children also differed from chimps as once they were taught how to perform a task, not only did they teach others, they insisted the task being performed in the exact way they were taught.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Human Nature

    This video segment from The Human Spark looks at the ways in which monkeys, chimpanzees and apes are similar to humans, not just biologically but mentally and socially. Yale University psychologist Laurie Santos sees monkeys as a way to study the evolution of human nature. Her research with monkeys suggests that they have a glimmer of awareness of others’ minds. Research with chimpanzees and apes shows that these distant cousins engage in a type of social scheming that suggests that at a very basic level, they are also aware of others’ thoughts. It gives us insight into the major difference between us and chimpanzees – our much greater ability to read and manipulate each other’s minds.

    Grades: 5-12
  • Human vs. Chimp Thinking

    This brief video segment from the PBS series The Human Spark highlights the differences in the ways humans and chimps think. Daniel Povinelli, the Director of the Cognitive Evolution Center at the University of Louisiana, sees the essential difference between humans and chimpanzees in the human ability to think abstractly.

    Grades: 5-12
  • Humans vs. Chimps

    This video segment from The Human Spark looks at four different experiments that make direct comparisons between the skills of young children and apes. The experiments cover a wide range of tasks which asses the ability to deal with the physical world of objects as well as social skills. The similarities between chimp and human behavior suggest that these skills were most likely a characteristic of our common ancestor.

    Grades: 5-12

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