Top positive review
79 people found this helpful
Splendid short popular science series
on 2 November 2011
Big, big fan of Dr Alice and her work, and so thoroughly enjoyed this short series of three programmes which explore how human evolution is reflected in the form and function of our bodies today. Learned quite a few new things and admired the clever use of animations to make clear some tricky concepts. However, it's not entirely perfect...
Each one-hour programme traces the development of modern humans (Homo Sapiens) back to ancestors we share with apes and monkeys, some six million years or more. On the way, we examine how significant features were changed over generations by the environment, or allowed us to adapt when other proto-human species died out. The programmes are themed around digestion, skeletons and brains. We look at how, for example, experts can tell from fossilised skulls when humans first learned to stand upright on two legs (it's to do with the angle where the spinal column enters the skull), or why we have (should have!) slender, elongated waists - that is to stop us falling flat on our faces when we run.
The series shows how important cooking was to human survival - you can eat twice as much in half the time and get more energy from food if it's cooked. It reveals how our brains have doubled in size and suggests reasons why, and also points out that our `savage' Neanderthal relatives had brains which were pretty much the same size as ours... so they weren't the dumb cavemen of lore.
The downside to following this kind of narrative thread in separate programmes is that there's a fair amount of repetition, a lot of trotting back and forth on the family tree. The series uses a lovely set of drawings of early humans and ancestors - Australopithecus, heidelbergensis, erectus, habilus and so on, to show the external differences between us.
But this segment is repeated several times in each episode - watch all three in quick succession and you'll feel a little jaded.
Similarly, and as with most modern documentaries, there's significant proportion of programme time devoted to Dr Alice wistfully wandering on the savannah in soft focus. Never quite sure why producers / presenters choose to waste valuable screen time and helicopter shots on this kind of thing; they do it for men as much as women, and if I was Prof Cox, Dr Roberts or Neil Oliver I would want to be a little less windswept and cram in rather more information.
Those are not major complaints, however, and overall this is a very informative series which provided a new viewpoint to a (very) old subject. Dr Alice's explanation, complete with an infant skull and female pelvis, of why childbirth can be both painful and dangerous, was at once blindingly simple and utterly comprehensible. The news that we're currently comparing the human and Neanderthal genomes was another eye-opener. Comparing tape worms (yuk) to show that we've eaten the same food as lions for millennia was interesting - as was the revelation that some human divers have learned to control their pupil activity, and so see clearly under water. Cool.
Overall, there are more than enough `blimey!' moments in this series to make up for the less interesting segments. It's not a comprehensive guide to human evolution by any means, but a collection of intriguing illustrations, designed to get you interested in the subject, I suspect. Dr Roberts is an excellent presenter, too; clear, concise, and at times never afraid to look just a touch ridiculous or burst into giggles at her own situation.