HORIZON: What Makes Us Human? (BBC2, Wednesday of last
week) is a title arresting enough to save me thinking up my
customary opening gag designed to attract your attention. Professor
Alice Roberts trod again that well-worn documentary topic of what
it is that marks us out from our closest living relatives, the
It was well worth watching, because she came up with a couple of
new and significant insights. One experiment demonstrated that, at
the level of lateral-thinking problem-solving, chimpanzees are more
intelligent than humans.
Another test showed that apes, like human children, can quickly
learn to co-operate to succeed at a task that rewards them. The
unexpected difference was that when the prize was unequally divided
between the two partners, the winning ape gleefully scoffed her
share, while the child shared her winnings with her unfortunate
partner. So much for original sin.
Why are humans born so helpless? Compared with apes, our babies
need years of nurture before they can fend for themselves. The
accepted explanation is that two competing vital human
characteristics force an uneasy compromise: our bigger brains mean
that we have larger heads; and our unique upright stance requires
our hips to be as narrow as possible.
Add these together, and for women to compete in the race of
life, their birth canals must be so restricted that giving birth is
extremely painful; and humans are, unfortunately, born at a far
earlier stage of their development than other species.
But new research challenges all that. Width of hips makes very
little difference to speed of running. Humankind's most unique
feature is its complex social interaction, of which language is
merely the apex. In other words, remaining solitary in the womb
won't work: we have to be surrounded by others while still being
formed. We are born at exactly the right moment.
All this was given personal context by the fact that Roberts was
pregnant while making the film, and continually referred to the new
life growing within her.
A child abandoned by his mother formed the core of
Henry, last Monday's episode of Coming Up,
Channel 4's admirable series that gives emerging writers and
directors a slot to produce a drama. Karen, abandoned by her
husband, despairs of being able to care for her toddler. After a
day of humiliating failure, she gives in to a wild impulse and
leaves him with a well-off stranger, in the hope that he will have
a better upbringing.
This drew us into the pain of her life, thwarted not by ogres
but by circumstances that no one was able to alter. My only
hesitation is that the heroine was too beautiful and well turned
out to be entirely believable; but that is no criticism of her
In Burma, My Father and the Forgotten Army (BBC2,
Sunday) Griff Rhys Jones focused on Britain's shameful post-war
treatment of the West African troops who had achieved "the greatest
feat of arms of the Second World War". It was a fine example of a
programme that starts off exploring one topic, then is taken over
by passion and conscience into another direction.