The Human Spark

Actor Alan Alda (image source: Wikipedia) hosts a new series about human origins

Last night, I was looking at the TV listings and saw that there was a show called “The Human Spark” on. It turns out it’s a three-part series about human origins and why modern humans have the special, hard-to-define “spark” (intelligence, creativity, etc.) that sets us apart from other primates. I watched the first part and it is very well-done. (Check the PBS listings here or your local listings for repeats of part one and airings of the next two parts).

Alan Alda goes around the world asking questions of experts and seeing first-hand some evidence of human ancestry, trying to figure out why we got that “spark” that makes us human, while other animals (including close relatives like Neanderthals) did not. The premise of the show is thus evolutionary in nature, so I’m sure there are some young-earth creationists out there who aren’t happy. If you’re like me and aren’t an expert in science, but are interested in where we came from (and think it has nothing to do with “Let there be light”), you should like this series.

What drew my attention to the show, I have to admit, is that it’s being hosted by Alan Alda. Alda played Hawkeye on the ground-breaking show M*A*S*H (a sitcom/drama about the Korean War which lasted longer than the Korean War itself did). Hawkeye has always been one of my favorite TV characters (probably because my dad liked him) and I had read that Alda is involved in charity work. I also thought I had read he was an atheist. I checked into it and it turns out he considers himself as “not a believer” but doesn’t like the words atheist or agnostic. According to a piece on the Edge Foundation website (found via Wikipedia)

I still don’t like the word agnostic. It’s too fancy. I’m simply not a believer. But, as simple as this notion is, it confuses some people. Someone wrote a Wikipedia entry about me, identifying me as an atheist because I’d said in a book I wrote that I wasn’t a believer. I guess in a world uncomfortable with uncertainty, an unbeliever must be an atheist, and possibly an infidel. This gets us back to that most pressing of human questions: why do people worry so much about other people’s holding beliefs other than their own?

He did start out as a believer, though. Even though he rejects the labels atheist and agnostic, he has made a conscious movement away from religious belief. Perhaps he is more of a secular humanist, since he doesn’t believe in God or heaven.

For a while in my teens, I was sure I had it. It was about getting to heaven. If heaven existed and lasted forever, then a mere lifetime spent scrupulously following orders was a small investment for an infinite payoff. One day, though, I realized I was no longer a believer, and realizing that, I couldn’t go back. Not that I lost the urge to pray. Occasionally, even after I stopped believing, I might send off a quick memo to the Master of the Universe, usually on a matter needing urgent attention, like Oh, God, don’t let us crash. […] But my effort to keep the plane in the air by talking to God didn’t mean I suddenly was overcome with belief, only that I was scared.

In any case, Alda seems to be genuinely interested and fascinated by this series. As am atheist/non-believer , I also find myself more interested in topics like evolution and human origins than I used to be, so this show is right up my alley. The site for the show has video clips (which aren’t embeddable, unfortunately, but you can view them on their site) as well as other information. The first part in the series will be repeated several times over the next few days, so if you missed it but are interested, check your local listings.

EDIT: The show is airing on PBS, the link was there but I never said it in the text. Sorry about any confusion!

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