Let’s trust the viewer’s intelligence

I’m delighted to see some big, thoughtful personalities arguing as I have done for more intelligent TV. In the past few days Hilary Mantel has complained about poor historical drama, and Sir David Attenborough about TV documentaries in general.

“It is perfectly possible to do good history and good drama,” says Mantel, “they are not mutually contradictory… as soon as you decide this is too complicated for the viewer or history is an inconvenient shape – ‘I’ll just tidy it up’ – you fall into a cascade of errors which ends in nonsense.”

Two or three episode documentaries, says Sir David, are not enough to “deal with something properly… I would like a stronger commitment and a belief in your subject… The general view is that viewers don’t like people coming along and saying they know more about it than you do, so it’s unfashionable.”

“It all stems”, says Mantel, “from not trusting the intelligence of the viewer.”

Photo BBC/Emile Fjola Sandy
Photo BBC/Emile Fjola Sandy

Indeed. So I turned with hope to a new series presented by Brian Cox, who delights brilliantly in trusting the viewer’s intelligence.

In Human Universe, part one, Apeman – Spaceman, Cox posed big questions. What makes us special? How did we become who we are?

“It’s a story that begins in Ethiopia,” he says, “where our story began.”

He meets a troop of gelada baboons. We were once like this, he seems to be saying. Now there is “a huge gulf” – “we have something extra”.

At this point there is a clever little sequence that mimics the moment in Kubrick’s 2001, when a mysterious force implants human thinking into African apes, and the shot jumps from the savannah millions of years ago to a spaceship in the future.

Back with Cox, we are fishing on lake Ziway. “Constructing complicated tools like boats, nets and spaceships is a skill unique to the human mind. And this ability is thought to have emerged for the very first time in the hills around the lake.”

Over a quarter of a million years ago, early humans were attracted by the lake, and by obsidian.

Yonatan Sahle, University of California, Berkeley shows Cox how to knap an obsidian flake. He makes a bifacial “spear point”, like those made there 250,000 years ago, “the oldest of their kind ever found”.

“I can see that this takes an intelligent animal”, says Cox. “It takes concentration and dedication, you need to know exactly what you’re doing, and you need to sit here and do it and have patience, and be able to visualise the shape.”

But that’s just the first stage: then you need to haft the point to a shaft. “You’ve got to imagine something that doesn’t exist”. You need lots of people, sharing ideas, passing things on over generations, improving the technology till it gets to this point. “That requires some means of communication, probably some primitive language.”

He holds up the ancient obsidian point. “This is the earliest physical evidence we have found of minds that think like ours.”

If this hadn’t happened, the universe might still be no more than “a collection of glowing balls of gas and some rocks”.

“But then, around 250,000 years ago, a clump of atoms became aware, looked at a rock, and saw a spear.”

This is the origin of “the transformation from apeman to spaceman”. We are 15 minutes into the first film.

Brian Cox is bright, scientifically informed and a great communicator – the last person you’d expect to patronise TV viewers. So, as I found with the BBC’s two films about Stonehenge, it seems here again a broadcaster thinks we’re stupid. For this view of human origins – beautifully shot and edited, and presented with emotive verve – simplifies beyond any sense. And that’s patronising.

We don’t understand why we are here – why human characteristics first appeared among great apes, why they stayed and why they developed in the way they did. But we have lots of evidence, and we have lots of ideas.

When Cox holds an obsidian spearhead, he describes it as something the pigeons outside my study did a few months ago when they built a nest. The birds “imagined something that didn’t exist”. They shared ideas, passed things on over generations, and improved the technology till it got to this point. But they do not have minds that think like ours.

This is not a human mind
This is not a human mind

As we currently see it, the moment when a hominin first did something that no other animal has done happened not 250,000, but two and a half million years ago. That was when the first stone tool was intelligently knapped.

That process requires a set of skills – the ability to visualise a complex sequence of three-dimensional events, and to exercise mechanical control guided by that intelligence – that has been seen nowhere else.

We have a continually growing respect for the intelligence of other creatures, not least birds and apes. But not even a chimpanzee has been seen to achieve what the least skilled early hominin stone-tool maker did.

You might argue with that, and say Cox was talking about complex, bifacial stone tools, and not simple Oldowan tools that need have no more than one flake removed from a lump of rock to make a sharp edge. The point would be valid: but we don’t see chimpanzees making Oldowan tools either. We see the first bifacial tools – archaeologists call them Acheulean – one and three quarter million years ago. Long ago, in Fairweather Eden, I compared this skill to playing chess, and language.

This is a human mind – Boxgrove, half a million years ago
This is a human mind – Boxgrove, half a million years ago

In evolutionary terms this happens very fast, but we didn’t suddenly appear from nowhere. Something happened when Homo habilis evolved and started bashing out stone tools. And whatever this something was, it continued to happen, as species evolved and brains got ever larger. Acheulean tools were made by Homo erectus and a variety of related species. Homo sapiens appears around 200,000 years ago. We can’t talk about “us” until then, at best. Yet the universe ceased to be no more than “a collection of glowing balls of gas and some rocks” long before that – at least two and a half million years ago.

It is a wonderful, challenging story. You cannot just ignore it if you want to answer, how did we become who we are?

Am I being picky, obsessing over something I happen to know a bit about but missing the wider perspective of those who know nothing? I don’t think so. And I don’t think Sir David Attenborough or Hilary Mantel think they are, either.

Human Universe, part three – dare I watch? Photo BBC/Paul O’Callaghan
Human Universe, part three – dare I watch? Photo BBC/Paul O’Callaghan

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