The Human Animal (1994–…): Season 1, Episode 5 - The Immortal Genes - full transcript

No species on Earth has such a huge parental task as the human animal.

But when do we first become aware of the intensity

of our parental feelings?

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We love our children of course, but sometimes it takes

a traumatic incident to bring home to us

just how much we love them.

It's little wonder really that we should feel so strongly,

because biologically, they represent our immortality.

Few moments in life crystallise with such clarity, the strength

of the emotional attachment that exists between parent and



offspring, as when a child goes missing at a big event.

Somewhere among a vast crowd of 30,000 people at a country fair

desperate parents had become separated from their children.

Horrors flash through their minds. Injury, kidnap or worse.

Nothing seems too outlandish.

The body language of distress is everywhere. A mother nervously

clasps her face. An unconscious act of self comfort. If there's

nobody else to caress us or embrace us, we do it to ourselves.

The relief of reunion is overwhelming. As with many animal species,

human parents would willingly risk their lives

for their children.

And these parents have just experienced a protective passion

within themselves

so powerful, that it's left them deeply shocked. Now only tight embraces



and loving caresses can help them back to a more relaxed

quietly loving condition.

The first day at school is almost as bad.

Here, the separation is not accidental. Society demands it and both

parent and child have been anticipating it. For both of them

it feels wrong, unnatural and yet they know it has to happen.

For some, the ordeal is almost more than they can bear.

Our animal relatives would find the threat of such a separation

a terrifying prospect. Any young ape or monkey would panic

at the prospect of being distanced from its parental protection

in this way. And the young human feels much the same.

It takes a patient, loving parent to provide convincing reassurance

that all will be well.

The boy's movements are reminiscent of a caged animal,

anxious to escape. At last, the father guides the child over the threshold

and into the new phase of its life cycle.

And this is what they're missing.

All the tender moments they enjoy spending together when embraces,

hugs take them back to the earliest days of their relationship.

The joyful times of close physical contact when, through the

body language of soft smiling facial expression, casual relaxed

gesture and gentle contact, the parent signals to the child,

I am here to protect you. And the child signals back,

I feel safe. At the end of every school day when parents come

to collect their children,

one's reminded once again of the strength of the parental bond.

But why do we devote so much time and energy to raising

our young? Our species has the heaviest parental burden of

any animal on earth.

Why are we so selfless when dealing with our children?

To find the answer, we must begin at the beginning. At birth itself.

Other animals

give birth very easily.

We do not. If we look at the old-fashioned way of delivering

a baby, several facts stand out. The posture of the mother,

her anxiety, and the clinical strangeness of the room accentuated

by bright lighting that all serve to destroy the intimacy

of the moment.

The newborn baby lies screaming on a table. Out of touch with

its mother's body, wildly grasping the air as if trying to

make contact with her.

For months inside her womb, it's been wrapped snugly by her body.

Now all that physical intimacy has been lost.

The natural reaction at this point would be

to put the baby into the embrace of its mother's arms,

but here in Russia,

in St. Petersburg,

it is instead offered the embrace of swaddling clothes.

Bound and encased until it looks like a little Russian doll.

This close binding does of course stop it crying

because it's reminiscent of the
tight enfolding of the walls of the womb.

But it also isolates the baby from any intimacy with its mother.

Swaddling of this kind has been

practiced for thousands of years and has always

succeeded in quietening the infant because of the firm sense

of bodily security it gives.

The mother

herself is also isolated not only from her baby but also

from her family. They, for reasons of strict hygiene are not permitted

to enter the maternity hospital for seven days.

The mother must endure the drama of the birth without their

familiar faces to reassure her.

From now on the mothers may only see their babies briefly

for breastfeeding when they are wheeled around the hospital on

a trolley like so many tiny human skittles.

Eventually when the mother is ready to go home, her baby is gift-wrapped

for the brief presentation ceremony. After the clinical atmosphere

of the hospital, the sentimental use of pink for a girl,

or in this case blue for a boy, seems strangely incongruous.

When the father sees his child for the first time,

he must then start to make his bond with the child.

Neither he, nor his wife

have been given the chance to develop a true

intimacy with her offspring.

This old-fashioned approach to giving birth is far more widespread

even today than most people imagine.

In sharp contrast, a return to a much more natural process is now favoured.

Birth in familiar surroundings, in the company of loved ones,

is found to be far more relaxing. This mood of relaxation

prevents her brain from flooding her body with special chemicals

that would slow up the birth. Watched by her daughter and

helped by her husband and a midwife,

she gives birth with comparative ease.

When the moment of delivery arrives, the natural position

for the human female is not lying on her back working against gravity,

but standing or squatting to use gravity to help

the baby emerge.

This is the posture employed by tribal societies all over

the world.

And again, it makes the birth much easier.

Once the baby's been born,

it's not immediately whisked away, but kept in direct contact

with the mother's body. Again ensuring a mood that is as calm

and relaxed as possible. Delivered naturally in this way,

the baby doesn't start screaming in panic.

It lies quietly against its mother's flesh.

The emotional bond between mother and infant is already beginning

to form and the baby, completely at ease, is already beginning

to practice a few gentle kicking and stretching movements.

For some mothers, this type of home birth is the ideal solution.

But others may feel more relaxed in a hospital context,

with all its advanced medical equipment on standby.

Whichever scenario makes them feel most at ease will be the best.

Newborn babies love to explore the exciting world in which

they now find themselves.

Providing the protective figure of the mother is close at hand,

they'll happily swim in warm water,

sticking out their tongues to prevent swallowing and beating

bravely with their stubby arms and legs while they stare

intently at the strange sights

they see before them. When their swimming ability was discovered

back in the 1930s.

It was explained away as nothing more than an automatic return

to the womb. But it's more than that.

The swimming baby actively suppresses its breathing.

This didn't happen in the womb because the baby had not then started

to use its lungs. Also, the swimming baby shows better coordination

of movement in the water than it does on dry land at this age.

And as this behaviour of only 10 days shows, the human

infant can swim before it can crawl. This automatic swimming

ability lasts for several months after birth. It then begins

to decline, to be replaced later by learned swimming.

Swimming isn't the only surprising ability of the newborn human.

Thanks to the research of a psychologist on the island of Crete,

we now know that the human baby is capable of imitation

just 15 minutes after being born.

When he makes a particular gesture or facial expression the

baby watches closely, and then copies him.

He makes a movement with his hand.

The baby's hand performs the same action.

Now he tries a completely different kind of action,

slowly sticking out his tongue. The baby fixates him with its eyes,

registers what he's doing, and after a pause for its newly

active brain to take it all in, then does the same.

Until this was filmed, many experts refused to believe that

such responsiveness was possible in the newborn, but it's

here for all to see. Every baby stays wide awake during this

first hour after birth, before dropping off into a deep slumber,

and it's during this time that it normally makes visual contact

with its mother. A crucial moment in the formation of the

parent-offspring bond.

For most people it's the arrival of the first born that marks

the moment when they begin to question the whole business

of human parental care and the human life cycle.

For me, it arrived a bit earlier, when I found myself acting as the

foster mother for a young chimpanzee like this one.

In no time at all,

the little chimp was reacting to me exactly as though I was its mother

and I found myself experiencing very strong parental feelings

towards the animal itself.

I became fascinated by the similarities between the baby

chimp and a human baby.

And also by the differences. The key difference was that the

little chimp was able to cling onto my coat very firmly.

Much more so than a human baby.

In the wild, chimpanzees can walk or run or climb without

worrying too much about the safety of their clinging offspring.

But human parents have to employ all kinds of carrying devices

to make sure that their babies can be safely transported

as they go about their business.

This baby is being rocked to and fro. Another human speciality

performed in the same way all over the world.

If a baby feels ill at ease, it sounds the human alarm call.

It starts to cry. The parent responds by rocking the baby

back and forth. An intuitive reaction performed at roughly

heartbeat speed in every culture.

The human baby, if it's not held against the mother's body

as she walks along, finds that the comforting movements

it knew inside the womb are missing, and it's this that sets off

the crying, which then needs the rocking to calm it.

The heartbeat speed of this rocking action suggests that

the rhythmic sounds heard by the fetus inside the womb have

a lasting effect.

In hospitals, there are sometimes too many babies being looked

after, for each one to be cuddled and rocked individually.

The solution is to place a crying baby in a mechanically

operated cot that rocks with precisely the right motions

ingeniously recreated here with swaying movements that mimic

the locomotion of a pregnant woman.

This soon calms the infant and lulls it off to sleep. As with

ordinary rocking, the mechanical rocking rhythm

that's most effective, is one that copies heartbeat speed. Roughly

72 beats per minute, which spells peace and security.

For both mother and baby, breastfeeding is more than just a milk supply.

It's also a time of great intimacy.

There's close eye contact during these moments, and the baby's

vision is fine-tuned to focusing at this distance from its

mother's face.

It's an amazing fact that after only 45 hours of close contact

following birth,

the infant is capable of identifying its mother solely by

her personal scent, and the mother also unconsciously learns

the individual scent of her own baby. In the old-fashioned

hospital, where strict routine demands that babies are fed

only at set times, and with the minimum of body contact,

the mothers have to postpone the moments

of intimacy until they're allowed to take their babies home.

Fortunately, babies and mothers are resilient, and the loving

bond will probably survive this severe discipline reasonably well.

But nobody knows just how much emotional damage is

done by these unnatural restraints.

One of the great advantages of personal freedom where breastfeeding

is concerned, is the possibility of feeding on demand,

rather than by a strict schedule. The female breast and the baby's

stomach are both designed for unrestricted demand feeding

and both suffer

if a rigid time schedule is imposed. As time goes on, if nature

is allowed to take its course, the milk supply will be regulated

by the baby.

During these early

intimate moments,

there's obviously much more going on between mother and baby

than mere feeding.

The sensitivity of the female nipples ensures that a deep

sensual pleasure is derived from this activity, aiding the

attachment process and creating a bond that sets the seal

on years of intense love.

Before there was baby food,

human babies were weaned by mouth feeding.

This is rare today, but among the Maori of New Zealand,

the baby is still given solids that have been masticated

by its grandmother and then passed with a feeding kiss into

its own mouth. And this incidentally reveals to us the origin

of adult kissing.

What is it that makes the human infant

so appealing? Careful tests have shown that we adults have

an automatic inborn response to the basic pattern of the

baby face. And that we can't help feeling protective

whenever we see big eyes, a large forehead, a button nose and

rounded cheeks. If we watch the young face growing up

we can see how these baby features are gradually lost

as the time for personal independence comes closer.

In the world of cartoons, animators too have exploited the

appeal of the babyface. Here at Warner Brothers

Animation Studios in Los Angeles,

this famous character illustrates the point extremely well.

His head is a combination of rabbit features and babyface features.

The rabbit features are the long ears, the whiskers

and the back teeth. The baby face features are the domed head,

large eyes

with big pupils, the soft jaw line, the chubby cheeks,

the tiny nose and above all the flattened face.

It's this magic combination that gives Bugs Bunny his special appeal.

So powerful are these babyface signals, that we respond

to them even in our pet animals.

These dogs have been selectively bred over the centuries

to make them more and more babylike.

The faces have been flattened, their eyes enlarged,

their bodies made more rounded and their coats softer to the touch.

The result is a perfect child substitute whenever, for whatever reason,

a human infant is absent. These pets weigh the same

as babies and are held like babies.

The interactions with these dogs contain many of the elements

of ordinary maternal care, and the intensity of the loving

involved is similar.

And when these owners talk to their dogs,
even the high-pitched voice is the same.

Observations of babies have revealed

that in one particular way,

they're strongly sexist.

From birth, they prefer a high-pitched female voice to a deeper male voice.

And it's intriguing that

many fathers intuitively fight against this by adopting an

unnaturally higher pitch when talking to their babies.

There's a strong parental compulsion to chatter to babies.

This is the babbling stage when babies all over the world

are experimenting with the same kind of sounds. The development

of speech from these early sounds has been captured here in

a video sequence that shows in one child the two-year process

reduced to a single minute.

This unfolding of speech is an inborn character

of our species, common to every one of us regardless of the

particular tongue that we learn to speak.

Learning a language is only one of the

social skills

we must master. With our parents when they're very young,

we're often allowed through their love for us

to have our own way.

When we first encounter other children of our own age,

the situation suddenly changes. Everyone wants his or her own way.

And if there's a special toy that can't be shared,

mayhem can ensue.

Competition is more ancient than cooperation in the evolution

of our species, and this soon becomes evident in the toddler's playground.

For the loser, there remains the comfort of a momentary

return to the security of early infant behaviour.

As a way of introducing order into playground chaos,

adults impose rules, like picking your team for organised games.

Being favoured as a teammate is a signal of social status

and group acceptance. If there's an odd number,

someone gets left out.

Although this may seem trivial to us, to the boy concerned,

it's a moment of acute rejection and is hard to bear.

Human beings are social animals

for whom one of the worst punishments is isolation.

Another of the hard lessons to be learned during childhood.

Left to their own devices, the growing children soon start

to experiment with their bodies, finding out what is possible

with balance and rhythm.

In its own good time, the human urge for cooperation starts

to enter the scene. The children themselves amicably organise

their games, as here in rural China, where these children play

the traditional game of elastics.

Genuinely helpful acts occur, of a kind that are rarely

observed in the young of other species, but are remarkably

common at this stage of human development. Soon a new process appears.

Systematic learning.

In our species, sexual maturity is delayed for a full decade

while we program our complex brains with an astonishing mass

of information using a remarkable variety of techniques.

Our passage through childhood is punctuated by special events.

The ritual of blowing out the candles on a birthday cake

proves our vitality, and shows our complete control over

the flames representing the forces of nature.

When young birds become adult, they lose their

juvenile plumage and adopt adult colours. When young humans

become adult, the boys grow broader shoulders. The girls wider hips.

But in addition to these biological changes,

different cultures all over the world have added their own echoes of

these changes. Special rites of passage, in which ceremonies

take place to demonstrate a shift from one level to another.

And very often there are symbolic steps, which the young

people go up rising to a higher level in their life cycle.

One of the essential features of this type of ceremony

is that the children must perform on their own?

There's no parental hand to guide them. Society is making

a takeover bid for them. Weaning them slightly away from

the family, and more into the body of the tribe.

They're becoming individual members of society who must now

stand up for themselves. Now it's society, and not the parent,

that feeds the young. Although, because they're socializing

the young, most rites of passage are communal affairs like this one,

some are more private and personal.

In rural Italy, this boy is coming of age. His grandparents have split a sapling

in two and pass him through it, as though he's being born

a second time. To emphasize this symbolism,

he must strip naked like a newborn.

Once he's been passed through the birth passage of the split tree,

it's carefully bound up again so that it will continue

to grow.

Now, tree and boy will mature together.

The strangeness of the act will leave its mark on the boy's

memory, and impress upon him that he's now reached a new phase

in his life cycle.

His body will grow like the trunk of the tree into strength

and maturity.

These rituals, these rites of passage take many forms.

Each society has its own rules and its own procedures.

Precisely what they are is not especially important, But they must be

there to add a sense of shared status.

These are essentially acts of tribal induction

when public uniformity momentarily takes over from

privately developing individuality.

Special salutes, emblems, badges and regalia all help

to mark the occasion as one of social significance. And the symbolism

of the occasion is marked by a symbolic leap, away from childhood,

and towards adulthood.

On a more personal scale, there are minor rites of passage

that go almost unnoticed. With the arrival of puberty the

body undergoes changes that inevitably and automatically

alter the social status of those approaching adulthood.

The boy's first shave, or buying the girls first bra may seem

trivial events to the outside world, but not to those involved.

For them,

this is a moment of biological maturing that's more profound

than any of the more artificial rituals imposed by society.

Eager to move on to the next phase in the life cycle,

these events are often premature.

The boy's chin doesn't need shaving and the girl's breasts

hardly need support. But these facts are ignored in the rush

towards active sexuality.

Each society is fully aware that the next generation

will want to change things. If only because of the creative energy

of our species. The older generation welcomes a little change,

but not too much. Not enough to destroy the old order that

they have worked hard to establish and maintain.

Over and over again

they impose ceremonial conformity on the young.

With the use of music and dramatically staged ritual they

attempt to endow the old order with an aesthetic appeal that

reinforces its authority. Some of these young adults will rebel,

but many more will be sufficiently impressed by these

occasions to want to continue the status quo.

The success of any society depends to a large extent,

on the balance it manages to achieve between innovation and tradition in each new generation.

The problem with cultural indoctrination

is that it can exploit the inherent tribalism of the young,

and direct them towards activities that may sometimes be

more destructive than creative. The willingness of the young

to follow group discipline can lead almost anywhere.

The susceptibility to group attachment inherent in the maturing

young can be turned into loyalty that's constructively inventive,

or, with almost equal ease, into loyalty

that's potentially violent.

Good afternoon, gentlemen, take your seats.

These particular children have been trained as expert killers.

There's a vacant blankness on their faces. The complete absence

of any sense of joyful childhood.

And this 13 year old boy has already gunned down his first adult enemy.

An achievement for which he's congratulated incongruously

with a motherly hug.

Wherever there's the possibility of the need for military

support, the usual familiar devices, bands and marching and

smart uniforms are employed to add glamour to the enrollment

of the young in the status games of the old. The synchrony

of the marching helps to synchronize the moods and minds

of these adults. And the rhythmic beating of the drums impinges

directly on their physiology, as if it's an echo of their

excited heart beats. Everyone enjoys a parade, and almost unnoticed,

the enjoyment tightens the social bonds and reinforces

the local cultural traditions.

Despite all the attempts of tribal elders to mould the young

in their own image, the creative spirit fights back.

Time and again the young rebel, sometimes despairingly, sometimes joyfully.

The childlike nature of our species can only take just so

much conformity and uniformity before it demands a new toy,

a new direction, even If eventually after an exciting period

of innovation, the rebels themselves become as predictable

as their forebears.

As youth comes to an end, and family life beckons society

stages one more ceremony of indoctrination. This time into

adulthood itself.

Womanhood demands a display of healthy skin, shining hair

and firm breasts. The universal signals of female health and fecundity.

The young adults are carefully prepared for the event

with all the specialized trappings of their particular culture.

These trappings vary in detail, but they all play

the same role. That of emphasizing that these individuals

are now available for pairing up and for setting up their

own family units.

Yesterday's children are about to become tomorrow's adults.

In the years that follow, the human animal is at the peak

of its physical condition. Couples are now preoccupied with

establishing a pair bond, a family territory and producing

offspring of their own.

So vital is this stage, that we're loathe to see it pass.

When we arrive in our forties,

we attempt for the first time to slow down the life cycle.

We suddenly take an interest in partners who are much younger

than we are. For some, this is a phase of harmless fantasy.

For others,

it can lead to a full-blown midlife crisis.

This is essentially a phenomenon of advanced Western society

where the human life cycle has been increasingly extended

creating a gap between the young parental phase and the older

grandparental phase.

This gap has to be filled with activities that delude the

middle-aged into thinking that they're younger than they really are.

Into denying the aging process.

This 85 year old has just completed a full marathon run of

26 miles. And fills us with admiration because he gives the

rest of us the hope that the aging process can be defeated.

Everywhere the elderly refuse to accept that their bodies

are in a state of physical decline, and continue with the

activities of their youth. But although avoided in public,

the subject of mortality now becomes a private preoccupation.

It may sound like a harsh question,

but why do human beings live for so very long?

Why is it that we live on past our reproductive age?

Biologically it doesn't make much sense. But it does make sense in a very

special way, because unlike other species, the human animal

has such a huge parental burden, that a child not only needs

parents, but also grandparents and the grand parental role

has been important in our species for probably a million years.

Biologically, human beings are unique in having what we

might call a serial litter. The young arrive year after year.

So that human parents can face the problem of caring for

whole batch of children of different ages all at once.

For this, they do need as much help as they can get.

And this is where the grandparents can be of enormous assistance.

They can teach the young the old traditions of their culture.

They can even teach the subtleties of Italian gesticulation.

They can sit quietly with their grandchildren acting as family guardians.

Playing their part in the protection of the offspring

that contain their genetic material. In this way active

grandparents, far from being useless, become an essential part

of human reproductive success and much loved in the process.

But I wonder whether there's an additional deeper reason

for this extraordinary devotion to our offspring. In my exploration

of the human life cycle,

I'm reminded of one peculiar quality of the human animal.

Other animals live in the present, but we can contemplate

the future.

That means that we can also contemplate our death and as

we grow older this becomes a rather frightening prospect.

So we have to protect ourselves in some way against it.

And the way we do this is to conceive of an afterlife.

To make it as attractive as possible,

we decorate our tombs and there's an Etruscan tomb here which

illustrates this perfectly.

All over the walls of this tomb, artists have depicted with great accuracy everyday objects.

There's a coil of rope here, a knife, a pickaxe, a drinking vessel

a belt of some kind hung up on a realistically depicted nail.

The reason that they've done this so carefully is in

order to make this tomb feel like home.

This is a replica of an Etruscan house. So that the bodies

lying in here can enjoy an eternal life as pleasant as the

one they knew before. It gave them an afterlife that they

could understand.

We have no scientific evidence either for or against the

existence of an afterlife. For those who gain comfort from

the idea, it acts as a valuable de-stressing device and all

around the world religious

organisations are present to supply this comfort.

In this role, religion plays an important function, but it

can go too far.

If it suggests that people must put up with a miserable existence

in this life in order to enjoy the next one, then it's become

a confidence trick. And if it goes further and says that rival

religions are wicked, then it's strayed into the wasteful

world of Holy Wars and sectarian violence. When this happens

many people seek other answers.

In recent times, the human urge to defeat death has taken

on a new dimension. Here in a cryonics facility in Southern

California, the containers behind me hold 10 bodies

each of them at a temperature of minus 196 degrees Centigrade.

They're suspended in liquid nitrogen. And there they will stay

until perhaps one day they can be revived.

Now the people who've had themselves treated in this way

hold the perhaps slender hope but nevertheless

a real hope that one day they can come back,

but these people are hoping to return not in another place,

but at another time. For some people the only way to treat

the subject of death is with cheerful celebration.

In Mexico, the annual Day of the Dead is looked upon

as a joyful reunion with departed friends and loved ones.

By giving them this lively fiesta,

it's felt that they'll join in the fun,

if only in spirit. It's believed that the souls of the dead

can be led by a trail of petals into the houses to participate

in the feasting. This gives the living the hope that they'll

be able to enjoy a similar

happy occasion in their afterlife. But for me, as a zoologist,

the only guaranteed form of afterlife is through our genes.

Through our children, our offspring who carry our genetic material.

That's the real immortality. Through our immortal genes.

To our genes,

we individuals and our children and their children are merely

temporary containers. With each generation passing on the

baton of life.

As parents, caring for our offspring, we do our best to ensure

that there's no break in this amazing evolutionary journey.