For humans, really nothing is more fascinating to us than, well, us. By which I mean vapid celebrities, certainly, but also our own mundane existences. We are all the stars in our own stories (hence the depth of feeling for moments that are ethereal and fleeting, and of no real significance), and even the least among us have at least a vague sense of metaphorical kinship to the sun — a fixed point around which all else rotates.
How did our biology round into shape, though, and how does our collective and individual knowledge (or lack thereof) of that process inform and relate to our relationships with each other, and other animals? NOVA’s engrossing
documentary Becoming Human gets at this nut, bit by bit, exploring how new scientific and geological discoveries are transforming views of
our earliest ancestors. Featuring interviews with renowned scientists,
footage shot as fossils as unearthed and interesting computer-generated
meaty nonfiction special brings early hominids to life in a most engaging fashion, examining how
they lived and how we became the creative, adaptable (and self-centered) modern humans
Comprised of three hour-long sections, writer-director Graham Townsley’s Becoming Human doles out a lot of university-stamped research, certainly — the type of stuff that Sarah Palin would not want to sit and absorb. Pitched somewhere between a general high school-level class and college lecture, this is come-along, heavy-lifting viewing to a certain degree, but not unduly so. If the facts swim together a bit, what will no doubt most connect with viewers are the computerized recreations of hominid life millions of years ago, which do a good job of charting and underscoring individual development as it relates to group social behavior.
Becoming Human‘s first “episode” centers around the amazingly complete fossilized remains of a three-million-year-old female — nicknamed Selam, but also frequently known as “Lucy’s baby” — packed with clues as to why we split from the apes, came down from the trees and started walking upright. Working forward in time, Townsley looks at what forces led to a great African exodus and why certain ancestral cousins (like a three-foot-tall “hobbit” that never migrated from Indonesia) died out, before eventually, in the final hour, getting into humans’ capacities for survival, competition, invention and artistic expression. No word on where Andy Milonakis fits into all of this, though.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Becoming Human comes to DVD presented crisply and cleanly in widescreen, free of any edge enhancement or artifacting. An English language simple stereo audio track more than adequately handles the meager aural demands of the title. There are unfortunately no supplemental bonus materials. To order a copy of Becoming Human, or other NOVA programs, call (800) PLAY-PBS or click here. B (Movie) D+ (Disc)