In this lesson, students will use selected videos from the PBS series The Human Spark to investigate the differences and similarities between the respective social dynamics of humans and our closest primate relatives and what they may tell us about what—if anything—may make us uniquely human.
In the Introductory Activity, students are asked to brainstorm what the basic building blocks of human society are, and asked to consider whether any of these are indeed unique to humans, or if they may also be found in the animal world. Inthe Learning Activity, they will watch a series of excerpted clips from The Human Spark comparing and contrasting the social and individual behavioral tendencies of humans and primates along three main themes: altruism/helping/cooperation, laws/rules/power/politics, and learning/teaching. In the Culminating Activity, students will divide into groups to compare the observations they have made throughout the lesson on their student organizers and make brief presentations to the rest of the class.
This lesson is best used as an introduction to (or supplement to) a unit onanthropology or sociology.
Students will be able to:
- Outline the essential elements of human society
- Describe the basic dynamics of chimpanze society
- Define a relationship in anthropological terms
- Provide experimental examples of an innate human tendency to cooperate
- Compare and contrast the learning and teachingbehavior of humans and primates
- Explain why the extent of our ability to cooperate may constitute a “human spark” distinguishing us from animals
(Two to three) 45-minute class periods
Chimp Politics Video
How We Learn Video
Monkey See, Monkey Do Video
Social Networks and the Spark
Please note: This video is found on the Human Spark website. It is NOT downloadable.
Part I: Introductory Activity
1. Ask students how they would define “society” in the most general manner possible. (Accept all answers, but explain that for thepurposes of this lesson, society can be defined in very broad anthropologicalterms as a community of individuals bound together by custom and function forcollective benefit). Ask students what they think the common, fundamental elements of all human societies might be. In other words, what qualities or behavior is required of individuals to make societies work? (Answers will vary.) Write all answers on the blackboard or whiteboard and continue to solicit suggestions until your list includes some variation on the following:
2. Ask students if they think any of these elements of human society can be found in the animal world. (Accept all answers.) Is there anything on the list they think might be uniquely human—anything that might, in fact, define what it is to be human? (Accept all answers.) Tell students that this is not a “right or wrong” question. Explain that the areas of anthropology, sociology, and psychology that this lesson will touch upon are all highly theoretical and occasionally hotly disputed; for the most part, they will be focused on observing scientifically conducted experiments and understanding one interpretation of their results, but other interpretations are possible.
3. Distribute the Social Skills Student Organizer. Explain that in this lesson, the class will be watching video segments from the PBS series TheHuman Spark, hosted by Alan Alda, exploring the similarities anddifferences in social organization among humans and our closest primaterelatives, and what they may tell us about what it is—if anything—that makes usuniquely human. Tell students that they will be focusing in particular on theorganizer’s three themed groupings of social attributes:
4. Explain to students that as they proceed through the lesson, they should keep notes of anything the observe in any of the video clips that pertains to these three themes as they apply either to humans or primates, and that the class as a whole will be returning to the organizers at the conclusion of the lesson.
Part II: Learning Activity
1. Ask students what they think “politics” is in its simplest form. (Accept all answers.) Explain that politics, broadly defined, is a process by which groups of individuals make collective decisions. Do students thinkthat this is a uniquely human activity? (Accept all answers.) Frame the firstsegment from The Human Spark by telling students that they will be looking at how researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta,Georgia are observing some basic principles of politics in the behavior of chimpanzees, including two “alpha-males”—Stewart and Skip. Ask if anyone can explain what an alpha-male is. (An assertive, powerful male holding or aspiring to a position of dominance.) Provide a focus question by asking students to pay attention to how Stewart and Skip react differently to the female chimpanzees’ entreaties to share their food. Play Chimp Politics.
2. Review the focus question: how do the two alpha-males in the video —Stewart and Skip—react differently to the female chimpanzees’ entreaties to share their food? (Stewart doesn’t share, but Skip does.) How do the females made their request known? (They surround and pester the alpha-males.) Which is the more politically astute chimpanzee, and why? (Skip,because he recognizes that the goodwill of the females will help him in hisnext power struggle with Stewart or any other alpha-male.) Ask students if Skip’s power is based on physical strength. (While Skip’s initial viability as an alpha-male may be based on his physical strength, it is his awareness of others—even weaker others—and the importance of their perception of him that makes Skip more likely to prevail in a future contest between himself and Stewart.)
3. As Yerkes scientist Franz de Waal notes to Alda in the video, cooperation and alliances—“keeping score, trading favors”—are necessary in both chimp and human society. Ask students if cooperation, alliances, the asking and doing of favors, and remembering who’s done what for whom are ever important considerations in their own lives. If so, how? (Accept allanswers.) Frame the next video by explaining that part of “keepingscore” in relationships is simply keeping track of them all in the first place,and that scientists are making interesting discoveries about the relative abilityof chimps and humans to do so. As they watch the next video, ask students tofocus on how Oxford University anthropologist Robin Dunbardefines a relationship. Play Social Networks and the Spark.
4. Pause at after Alda says “Robin notes that the threefold increase in group size, from 50 in chimps to 150 in humans, fits in nicely with the three times bigger brains we humans possess.” Review the focus question: how does Robin Dunbar define a relationship? (When two people know each other as persons, know where they fit into each other’s social world, and are willing to do favors for each other.) Ask students approximately how many relationships they think they have, according to Dunbar’s definition. (Accept all answers.) Suggest to students that new technologies have made it easier than ever to quantify the number of relationships we have; can anyone guess what some are? (Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, and other social networking sites.) Tell students that Dunbar’s figure of 150 real relationships is very close to the average person’s number of Facebook friends (120). Many people have more than 150 Facebook friends, and some number their Twitter followers in the thousands or even millions, but how many of these would fit Dunbar’s definition of a relationship? (Accept all answers, but suggest that any one person probably has fewer “real” relationships than his or her social networking profile would indicate.) Suggest to students that even as technology allows us to make at least superficial connections with a virtually infinitenumber of people, the amount of time—and brain power—we can spend onrelationships remains stubbornly unchanged from what it has always been.
5. Working within these limitations on the quantity and quality of our relationships, how do we choose who we will develop as our closest friends and allies? (Accept all answers.) Putting aside personal interests, beliefs, appearance and all the other subjective qualities that draw us to (or repel us from) other people, what is a fundamental quality that anyone is looking for in someone else? [Hint: Skip understood this, and Stewart didn’t!] (Cooperation.) Explain that both individual relationships and greatsocieties depend on the same thing: the expectation that others will be willingto work together, to give and to take in the inherently shared enterprise ofhuman relations. One-sided friendships don’t last long, and uncooperativesocieties disintegrate. Ask students if they think the impulse to cooperate issomething we’re born with or something we learn. (Accept all answers.) Frame the next clip by explaining that it will demonstrate how deeply ingrained the principle of cooperation is among humans. Provide a focus question by asking how psychology professor Karen Wynn interprets the results of the experiment shown in the video. Resume playing "Social Networks and the Spark."
6. Review the focus question: how does psychology professor Karen Wynn interpret the results of the experiment shown in the video? (She believes that it reflects our hard-wired nature as cooperative social beings, who must be able to distinguish cooperators from non-cooperators.) Ask students why it would be so important for us to make that distinction. (Cooperators make much better mates, friends, and allies than non-cooperators.) Tell students that many scientists and researchers have indeed come to see cooperation as humanity’s primary evolutionary strategy—the “secret weapon” that has enabled us to develop faster and further than any other species. Ask students why cooperation would be an evolutionary asset. (Unlike most other animals whorely for their evolutionary advancement on individual attributes like speed orstrength, humans’ greatest evolutionary assets are other humans, with whom wecooperate to accomplish things—the hunting of large animals, for instance, orthe invention of the computer—that would otherwise be beyond the abilities ofindividuals.) Frame the next clip by explaining that it shows another series of psychological experiments with both human children and primates, this time at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig,Germany. Provide a focus question by asking students what similarities and differences they see between human children and chimps with regard to their tendency to cooperate. PlayHow We Learn.
7. Pause segment after Alda says “humanchildren are eager to help with all sorts of troubles, and what’s more, theyseem to enjoy it.” Review the focus question: what similarities and differencesare there between human children and chimps with regard to their tendency tocooperate? (Both children and primatesoffer help to others in reaching objects, but the impulse to help is muchstronger in human children, extending to a greater range of actions—e.g.opening and closing closet doors—and it appears to give them actual pleasureand/or satisfaction.) Ask students why they think children seem to getpleasure from helping others. (Accept allanswers.) Do they think children offer help for political reasons? In otherwords, do children help because they feel they have something to gain by doingso? (Accept all answers.) Or do they think that children’s impulse to help is genuinely altruistic? In other words, is helping someone else its own reward? (Accept all answers.) Explain that while it is an age-old philosophical debate whether or not altruism is truly “selfless” or only “enlightenedself-interest,” what is certain is that both human children and adults tend toderive pleasure and/or satisfaction from helping others, which in turn tends tohelp them establish and promote themselves within the social web of humanrelationships. Provide a focus question for the remainder of the video segmentby asking what the similarities and differences are in learning methods betweenhuman children and orangutans. Resume playing "How We Learn" through to the end.
8. Review the focus question: what are the similarities anddifferences in learning methods between human children and orangutans? (Humans learn by observing and imitating others—especiallyif the other is older and more skilled—while orangutans tend to do their ownthing, even after observing a different method.) Which method do studentsthink would be more effective? Why? (Observing and imitating, because it allows for knowledge and experience to be more effectively and efficiently transmitted among individuals, as opposed to each individual “re-inventing the wheel.”) Could this be described as a more “social” approach? (Yes.) Explain that an approach to learning which emphasizes observation and imitation of others capitalizes on the human tendency for cooperation and social behaviorthe class has been discussing. Frame the next video segment by explaining thatit will be examining how chimpanzees learn. Provide a focus question by asking students what the similarities and differences are between how humans and chimps learn. Play Monkey See, Monkey Do.
9. Review the focus question: what are the similarities anddifferences between how humans and chimps learn?(Both species learn byobserving others,but while chimps tend to “passivelytolerate” those observing them, humans “actively engage” in the “mutuallycooperative” process of teaching and learning.) Ask students if they thinkchimp behavior is closer to our own than orangutans. (Yes.) Why might this be? (Chimpanzees are much closer relatives to us than orangutans, having diverged from us on the evolutionary tree 6 million years ago, compared with 15 million for orangutans.) Have the researchers in the video segments been exhibiting active engagement in teaching their subjects? (Yes.) Ask students if they can think of an instance in which the human subject of one of those experiments stepped into the teaching role. (The video in which the young boy was shown the “right” way to push a cube off of a platform—i.e. assembling a tool and using it to push a cube—and then attempted to teach the polar bear puppet to do the same.) How did the boy react when the polar bear puppet attempted to complete the task using the “wrong” method (i.e. tilting the platform)? (The boy tried again to show the puppet the right method, scolded the puppet for not using it, and finally attempted to physically prevent the puppet from using the wrong method.) Assuming that this behavior is typical among other children—and research has shown that it is—what conclusions might we draw from it? (That humans tend to prefer—and occasionally insist—that others do things as they’ve been taught.) Do students think that this is a healthy social impulse? (Accept all answers.) How might it be healthy? (It encourages an orderly and efficient transfer of knowledge.) How might it be unhealthy? (It could discourage individual creativity and initiative.) What if the “wrong” way to do something is in fact the better method? The puppet’s solution to the problem, for example, bypassed the need to construct a tool. Could that be considered an innovation? (Accept all answers.) Ask students if they think humans would ever have become humans in the first place if they always did what they observed others doing, or did things as they were taught. (No—we might even still be chimps!)
10. Return to the list of a society’s basic elements the classcompiled in the Introductory Activity, and discuss which elements are beingdemonstrated in the experiment with the boy and the puppet? (Accept all answers, but keep prompting until someone offers the response oflaws/rules.) What happens to a society without them? (Chaosand anarchy.) What happens if a society has too many laws, rules, andenforcement? (Authoritarianism andrepression.) Explain that just asindividuals must find the balance between following established precedents andstriking out on their own, a healthy society must find the balance between lawsand liberty, between tradition and innovation. Explain that there is adistinctly human quality which enables this social balance to be struck, andthat it may in fact be the foundation of all uniquely human endeavors—what isit? (Accept all answers.) Provide a focus for the next clip by asking students to be looking for what it is that Alda suggests may be “the human spark” which ultimately distinguishes us from primates and other animals. Play Cooperation Over Competition.
11. Review the focus question: what is it that Alda suggests maybe “the human spark” which ultimately distinguishes us from primates and otheranimals? (Our ability to get along and work together, even with individuals wedon’t know.) What does evolutionary psychologist Mike Tomasello call this? (A sense of “we-ness”.)
Part III: Culminating Activity
1. Dividestudents into three groups. Allow 15-20 minutes for groups to compare andcontrast the notes they have been keeping throughout the course of the lessonon their Social Skills Student Organizers. Watch the videos multiple times for comprehension. In addition, have each group select ONE of the elements of society compiled as part of the Introductory Activity that is NOT one of the organizer’s three themed groups, and find examples of it in the video excerpts. (Each group should select a different element.)
2. After groups have completed their discussions, have each group make a brief presentation to the rest of the class, citing examples in the video clips and explaining any conclusions drawn about ONE of the three themes on the organizer PLUS the additional “element” which they selected to watch for in the video clips. After each presentation, encourage contribution and discussion from the rest of the class. Do they agree with the presenting groups conclusions? Why or why not? (Accept all answers, and note that the “answers” given on the Student Organizer Answer Key are not comprehensive or definitive, but rather examples of possible conclusions.)