The Human Animal (1994–…): Season 1, Episode 6 - Beyond Survival - full transcript

This man is in a very fortunate position. His 7 foot by 7 foot

room is warm and dry.

He doesn't have to pay rent,

or a mortgage.

He's fed three good meals a day, without having to buy

or cook food.

All his basic survival needs will be taken care of for the

rest of his life.

But this man is a prisoner, and prison is one of the worst

punishments society can bestow. Why? Because the human animal

is not satisfied with mere survival.

Our greatest rewards are obtained when we go beyond survival.

I've sometimes been accused of making man beastly, because as

a zoologist, I've concentrated on those aspects of human behaviour

that we share with other animals, such as feeding, fighting

or reproducing. I've done this because I felt we've all too often

ignored our biology and only stressed our great achievements,

the things that separate us from other species. But of course these

special qualities can't be ignored. And in this final program,

I want to take a closer look at our finer moments

and see if we can trace their biological roots.

How can we explain in animal behaviour terms,

strange activities like these.

These performances, whether purely musical, or as in this case, deeply religious,

are quite different from the ceremonies and rituals of the

rest of the animal world.

They're not territorial displays, threat displays or courtship displays.

So what are they?

Even here where there is an element of sexual display,

the interest lies more with playfulness than with sex.

These strange human activities are found in every corner of the globe,

wherever human beings have time to spare from their daily chores.

And it's a deep and ancient part of human nature

to be imaginative and inventive. The human species is biologically

a creative species.

Probably the oldest and most widespread way in which humans

display their creativity is by decorating themselves.

Nowhere is this more evident

than among the tribes people of

Papua New Guinea. Using materials as varied as bird feathers, mud,

correction fluid and sump oil,

they create the most stunning display of body adornment found

anywhere in the world.

They themselves speak of the best displays as being glinting,

shining or flaming. In other words, the opposite of dull and tepid.

Their aim is for maximum uninhibited visual impact.

Body adornment may not be so extreme in the West,

but it's equally important.

Although it's much more restrained, a great deal of time and effort is

nevertheless devoted to achieving the desired effect.

As this view through a two-way mirror reveals.

Sexually, it makes sense to redden the lips.

Exaggerate the eyes. Smooth the surface of the skin and make the hair look

clean and healthy.

But it's not that simple. If it was, every makeup would look

exactly the same.

There are hundreds of lipstick colours to choose from,

dozens of eyeshadows and countless hairstyles. And when choosing

between these, the decisions are not sexual, they are aesthetic.

We may consider these activities trivial, but every time

we appear in public, we're making a complex statement about ourselves,

by the way we groom ourselves, adorn our bodies

and select our clothes.

Clothing is a major source of human display.

Unlike body language or speech, it's long-lasting. A kind of frozen gesture

that we go on making all day. The visual impact of a shaken fist

lasts only as long as the arm is moving,

but the visual impact of a costume lasts as long as we wear it.

This is why, all around the globe, we find the same insistence

on this kind of decoration

in a thousand different forms.

For certain individuals, an even more permanent form of body decoration is preferred.

The possession of tattooed skin demonstrates a willingness

to subject oneself to prolonged pain in order to display a

particularly elaborate form of body decoration.

The discomfort of having this form of adornment applied

is compensated for by the fact that it never has to be reapplied.

It's there for life.

No one can ever steal this shirt off your back

and the laundry can never lose it.

Even in normally fully clothed societies the urge to decorate

the body in dramatic ways is more widespread than one might imagine.

Because it displays the courage to suffer voluntary pain,

and because for some it demonstrates intense, unchanging

loyalty to the group, body mutilation has managed to survive

even in modern Western societies. Beyond tattooing,

there's actual body piercing. The most common form is

ear piercing for earrings.

Although this has recently been joined by the more exotic

nose piercing and even nipple piercing.

Every time we go out on the town, we like to get dressed up.

It makes us feel good.

But why? Why do we go to so much trouble to decorate our bodies?

The answer is that it fulfills a deep-seated need to make

us feel special. But what does this imply?

Here in Africa, the Ndebele people

are renowned for their elaborately patterned homes.

Instead of snoozing in the sun,

they express the complexity of their human brains with creative arts.

They spend hours painting and repainting their houses

with meticulously executed, abstract designs.

They've not merely occupied this territory,

they've transformed it.

The painted surfaces act like advertising hoardings for the

human species, saying we've imposed ourselves on this place.

We've brought order here.

We've tamed the environment. And we've done this with great

effort and skill.

This is a status display not just for individual artists,

but for the human animal as a whole.

Occasionally, even in the modern city, there's a small rebellion against

the dead hand of the city planners.
And creativity forces its

way back onto bleak urban surfaces.

Here in Vienna, an Austrian artist was given the opportunity

to transform an insipid corner of the city into a work of art.

On the Hundertwasserhaus, each window differs from its neighbours.

There are irregular

lines everywhere, defying tradition.

So Hundertwasser is introducing natural curved lines into the

artificial world of the city.

Whereas the Ndebele are introducing geometry into their

natural world. The key to their creativity in both cases is

contrast with the environment.

Wherever you look native crafts reflect this rule. Geometric shapes

being more surprising and therefore more special

when seen against a rugged background.

In the same way, this gentle landscape with its soft natural lines

hanging on the wall of an austere, geometrically designed

city board room is made special by its deliberate irrelevance.

As you move from culture to culture you find the focus of

creativity repeatedly relocates itself. If it's not on the

bodies or the buildings, where could it be? For many societies

it comes to rest on the locals' vehicles. Here in Sicily,

it appears on the donkey carts, which are treated like precious icons.

Every square inch is decorated with elaborate detail

involving many hours of painstaking labour.

On small islands with long fishing traditions,

it's the fishing boats that become the local works of art.

In Malta, the fishermen carefully repaint their boats every year.

The local colour traditions influence the fishermen to

make their boats look similar to one another. But each man

also imposes his own personality on the paintwork.

In fact, when I analysed the colour patterns of 400 of these boats,

I found that no two are exactly the same. This principle

of variations on a theme is one of the most fundamental properties

of works of art.

Sometimes varying a theme becomes an obsession.

Just how exaggerated can you make your variations?

Just how far can you go with a decorated car?

These amazing vehicles are the ultimate expression of the

urge to make the ordinary and commonplace into something

extraordinary and special.

What about more reserved societies?

Well, here in Britain a vivid form of visual art does still exist,

but it's found a new location.

It's shifted to the gardens.

Keen gardeners may not think of themselves as serious artists,

but that's precisely what they are. The skillful design of

their flower beds having as their main function aesthetic display.

So although most of the time we may appear drab,

there's usually a corner of each human life where we rebel,

and strike out with a colourful display. When a peacock displays,

it's obeying what's been called the handicap principle.

The huge tail is a grave disadvantage to the bird, making it

cumbersome and conspicuous. Any male who can survive

despite its tail, must clearly be a very fit and powerful individual.

And this appeals to the females.

It's the same for us. If we take the trouble to display ourselves, like this, we send

out signals saying we can afford to do this.

Ostentatious displays of clothing, hairstyles, cars or houses all help to

emphasize the way we've risen above the level of mere survival.

If we can spare the energy to be special then we must have

the ordinary under control.

Well, you may think this doesn't apply to me.

I like to keep life simple.

I'm not interested in all this arty, fashionable nonsense.

Well, I doubt it. Somewhere in every life, aesthetic decisions

are being made.

Even the most uncolourful male for example,

occasionally has to face the problem of choosing a new tie.

Our hidden camera watched this man trying to select one.

Though the modern tie is an article of clothing that has no practical

function whatever. The difference between

one tie and another is purely aesthetic.

He may not have designed the ties himself, but he still

has to choose one. And in that act of choosing,

just for a moment, he becomes an artist.

In our high speed world today, we often let other people

make the designs for us and limit our own impact to the matter

of selecting from a ready-made range. In a more primitive culture,

if primitive is the right word,

we'd be making the designs ourselves.

But today we're often driven to being artists by proxy.

Mass production may blunt our aesthetic choices,

but it certainly doesn't eliminate them.

It's the same when we choose a car.

We know all about their

technical qualities, but we're still strongly influenced

by tiny differences in appearance. In the body shape, colour

and style. In the aesthetics of car design. And our sensitivity

to these differences often leads to interminable dithering.

Again, when we spend ages studying a menu, what we're really

doing is making aesthetic decisions about aroma, taste and texture.

In fact, if we really stopped to examine our behaviour,

it soon becomes clear that we all make hundreds of small

aesthetic decisions every day.

And the faces of people, as they make these decisions,

show intense concentration.
It would seem that we've all inherited

a deep-seated urge to look for more in the world around us

than just simple practical things. This compulsion is so universal,

it must surely be part of our basic biology. And if it's so strong,

it's reasonable to suppose that it's also very ancient.

But just how ancient? Long before human beings walked the earth

there existed a small ape-man species. Australopithecus.

Often referred to as the missing link between ourselves and other primates,

they lived here. This cave in the Transvaal in southern

Africa was home to these pre-humans a very long time ago.

And it was here that a remarkable discovery was made.

Inside the cave was found the oldest art object in the world.

It's called the Makapan pebble, and it's made of a stone

that's only found three miles north of here.

So the ape men had to carry it all that distance back here

to their home in the cave.

So for them, it was obviously a treasured possession.

Now, this is it.

At first sight it's not very impressive. But to see why they

were excited by it,

I only have to turn it around and then a face appears.

And what's really remarkable is that this wasn't happening

a few hundred years ago or a few thousand years ago,

but three million years ago.

Moving North to the Middle East, to the much disputed

Golan Heights, a startling discovery was made only a few months ago

that has rewritten the history of art. For here was found

the world's oldest man-made art object.

The Makapan pebble was a found art object.

But the three hundred thousand year old Golan Venus has

clearly been shaped by human hand. A flint tool has been used

to make an incised neck and arms. Although crudely fashioned,

this tiny female figurine is a quarter a million years older

than its nearest rival.

To find something more impressive,

we have to jump forward in time to the exciting rock art

that's scattered all over the globe.

For nearly 50,000 years native Australians have been creating

symbolic images on the rocks.

Each season they had to be repainted to renew their spirit powers,

and so that the artists could share in that.

It was thought that this practice had died out. But the tradition

still manages to survive,

although it's not been filmed for many years.

So, as far as we can tell, the phenomenon that we today call art,

has always been part of human existence. As universal

as eating, sleeping or talking. Even our ancient ancestors

who lived the most primitive lives by our standards

spent valuable time creating magnificent pictures.

The fact is that creativity has always been an essential

part of our makeup.

But where did this ancient artistic impulse in human beings

spring from originally? Are we the only animal species with

creative urges? This strange sculpture is built not by a human artist,

but by a bird.

During the breeding season the male clears an area of forest floor

and constructs a remarkable woven hut from sticks and grasses.

Below the hut he makes his garden laying down a lawn

of moss, on which are placed hundreds of carefully collected objects

such as sea shells, bulbs, fruits or flowers.

These are grouped together in discrete segregated clusters

according to shape and colour.

This display may attract a female, but is it creative?

Well, he certainly creates a contrast between the neatness

of his garden and the wild tangle of the forest. But he never

attempts to experiment or develop the theme of his display.

His work may be extraordinary, but it lacks the curiosity

and inventiveness of human art.

To trace the biological origins of human art it's necessary

to turn to our nearest living relatives the apes.

It was back in the 1950s that I began to study the picture

making abilities of a young chimpanzee called Congo.

When offered painting materials, he filled the space available to him,

but did not go beyond that space.

His favorite pattern was a radiating fan shape. Once he'd

invented this, he started to vary it.

He was demonstrating that most essential element of all art,

thematic variation.

If a small square was placed in the middle of the paper,

instead of spreading his lines out, Congo concentrated them

in that region. And this wasn't a one-off accident.

It happened time and time again.

Even more remarkable, if the central square was placed over

to one side,

Congo balanced it with heavier markings on the opposite

side of the paper. And if a square was placed at the top of

the paper, it was balanced with markings at the bottom.

So the chimpanzee has the beginnings of an aesthetic sense.

And it's easy to see from this the primate origins of the

art that we observe unfolding in our own human children.

All over the world, regardless of their background, all children.

enjoy making the same kinds of scribbles. At this stage,

there are a few differences between the art of chimp and child.

The scribbles are visually controlled, but they're

completely abstract.

But then order is brought to this chaos. A clean circle is

distilled from the jumble of squiggles.

It's criss crossed in various ways.

And eventually grows a ring of small radiating lines.

Now something magical happens. A face emerges.

There's a sudden flash of recognition. Something like the moment

when our ape man ancestors first saw that face on the

Makapan Pebble. Faces quickly become people. They develop

arms, legs and bodies and more and more details are added.

A huge threshold has been passed. One that no chimpanzee has

yet managed. Pictorial representation has been achieved.

A whole new world of experimentation opens up.

Human creativity is unleashed.

It's amazing that even at this stage, the images are still universal.

Cultural differences and local traditions have

yet to make their impact. The figures being created come from

inside the child's imagination with hardly any outside influences.

It's as though our whole species is programmed to pass through

this stage of unfolding imagery. Just as we're all programmed to

start developing speech at about the same time.

It's tempting to say that the urge to do these things

is part of our ancient biology rather than our recent culture.

The sequence is always the same. Early lines and scribbles

become looping circles and gradually these circles are refined

and distilled into just one. Then the circle is marked.

It's crossed with lines until they're sprouting out

like the rays of the sun. Small circles and lines are added inside

the big circle and become organized into features. The face

then grows arms legs and a body and the human figure is born.

As the young artists grow older, they devote their energies

to creating more and more lifelike drawings.

They no longer have the thrill of using their imaginations

or playfully taking a lion for a walk. In contrast with their

earlier efforts,

when painting was its own reward. When it was a voyage of

visual discovery, they're now burdened with an arduous new task,

that of copying an object from real life. Art no longer invents.

It imitates. As young adults,

we're trained to make our copies of nature more and more accurate

and we're only rewarded if we can succeed with this new skill.

Most people give up our art all together at this stage

because the childlike joy has gone out of it.

Art's become the slave of historical record.

Over the centuries, great art became more and more the brilliant

work of the elite few.

Ordinary people couldn't compete with this, and the artist

now taken seriously by society became its visual historian.

But then science entered the scene. Photography was invented.

To be followed by film and video. The burden of visual recording

was lifted from the shoulders of the artist.

As a result, 20th century art has gradually thrown off its

representational chains, and little by little, has returned

to the joyous visual explorations of the small child.

But it's done this with an adult maturity and sophistication.

In place of skillful, but slavish, copying there's once again

unhindered creativity.

For some steeped in earlier traditions,

this has been a bewildering change of direction.

But it's merely art returning to its imaginative, playful roots.

And sometimes this playfulness takes an unexpected turn.

Almost all mammals are playful when they're young,

but their playfulness fades as they grow older.

If they're well fed, adult lions, for example, never play.

Instead, they sleep for 16 hours every day.

This is a key difference from humans. Human children are just

as playful as lion cubs, but their playfulness does not fade.

It survives into adulthood.

Individuals that play a great deal when young are better

at surviving later in life.

It's intriguing that so much of childhood play takes the

form of prey-predator behaviour, as though we feel the need

to act out our ancient past.

Early playfulness,

although not a specific training course, gives children

a greater understanding of their personal abilities. The properties

of their environment. For the human child a narrow inactive life

can be a disaster. To be really successful as an adult,

they must ideally be super active in childhood.

And it's their natural playfulness that encourages this

and under normal circumstances ensures that it will happen.

Incredibly, this playfulness begins in the womb.

An ultrasound scan of this human embryo reveals playful actions,

even at this tender age.

The baby is kicking its legs not for any specific physiological reason,

but because it's playing with rhythm and with its body.

So playfulness seems to be very basic to our species

and there are lessons to be learned from this.

One lesson is that, as adults, when we're given a stimulating

environment and a playful atmosphere, we perform at our best.

This may sound obvious, but it's usually overlooked. The management

at this Los Angeles advertising agency has however taken

a drastic step and acted on this idea.

Their young executives are surrounded by

cuddly toys and games of all kinds. Their minds are encouraged to wander,

on the principle that most great ideas happen almost

by accident. Clients are surprised to find the creative stuff

playing basketball while discussing multi-million dollar campaigns.

But these are techniques that, far from interfering

with novel thought processes, foster them.

Unfortunately for most of us the daily routine is far less

novel than this.

We compensate by allowing ourselves an occasional orgy of playfulness.

Special occasions when we dress up and become

unashamedly childlike again.

In almost every corner of the globe

it's possible to find elaborate, time-consuming events

that have little meaning other than to allow for an outburst

of intense playfulness. This Finnish town enjoys

an annual snow carving contest. These ice sculptures take

days to create. And then after they've been completed and enjoyed,

they're simply allowed to melt away.

Each environment dictates its own brand of adult playfulness.

On a Dutch Beach, the world's largest sand castle, towering to

a height of 70 feet has been painstakingly constructed out of

nothing more than sand and water. Here, adults have cheerfully

stolen a typical children's seaside game, and by spending a

great deal of effort and skill, converted it into a kind of faux card.

There's no lasting art object here,

merely an exuberant, ephemeral expression of human inventiveness.

It's the actions, the event that are all important.

Once the goal has been achieved the sand is returned

to its normal condition.

The game is over for another year.

It may seem a shame to destroy it.

But the brevity of its appearance is part of its magic.

All over the world, adults refuse to leave game-playing to the children.

Sport becomes a serious activity, whether as a participant

or as an observer. For millions of people, this has become

the major form of play. Watching, rather than doing.

This is playing by proxy.

Much of human playfulness is testing our potential.

Gaining experience, in as many ways as possible.

In other words, being prepared.

This is important because we human beings are non-specialists.

We are opportunists and have to take any small advantage

that's going. And must therefore make ourselves

well aware of both our environment, and our own abilities.

We survive not by having one big trick, but by having lots

of small tricks. For example, many other species are specialist feeders,

relying on a single source of food, but during our evolution,

we never knew where our next meal was coming from.

We always had to be on the lookout for any new source of sustenance.

In this way,

we were able to adapt to almost any environment.

But this often involved us in taking risks.

For a risk-taking species,

we're not really physically very well-equipped.

We're not protected by a hard shell or a thick hide or

a shaggy coat. Our naked bodies with their soft skin and

fleshy feet are exposed and vulnerable.

But it's amazing what we can make them do.

This little girl's dilemma sums up the human condition.

Under the watchful eye of her father,

she's facing a new challenge. Part of her is desperate to

jump from this high platform, even though there's no special

reason for her to do so

while another part of her is scared to take the plunge.

This conflict is present in all of us throughout our lives.

When to jump and when to play it safe.

For these older children the risks on this raft ride

were a little too tame.

So they deliberately create additional problems.

They always like to raise the stakes just a little bit,

and push the limits just a little further.

Acts of pure danger become the key to excitement

for some people like these train riding surfistas in Brazil,

who risk their lives just for the thrill of escaping death.

Here, one sees the playful face of human bravery and the urge

to satisfy the human need to push experiences to the absolute limit.

And you can't go much further than dodging high voltage

electric cables on top of a speeding train.

In recent years, groups have been formed with the

express purpose of taking risks.

The members of these strange clubs spend a great deal of

time and money trying to devise new ways of risking their lives.

This human catapulter may appear to most of us to

be a weird eccentric.

But in reality, we do much the same sort of thing

every time we risk shooting a traffic light as it changes colour.

For those who fear taking physical risks, there are always

alternatives available. In many countries there are gambling

halls where the minor risk of losing a little money can be enjoyed.

The risk-taking in these Pachinko parlors may seem

monotonous to outsiders, but thousands of Japanese indulge

in this type of dangerous living every day.

Risk taking is not a purely modern phenomenon.

It's been a human preoccupation for thousands of years.

For these Fijian fire walkers, deliberately risking physical pain

long ago became elevated to the status of a religious ceremony.

If a handkerchief were placed on these stones,

it would burst into flames. To this day,

nobody knows how injury to the soles of the feet is avoided

in this ancient form of fire walking.

This is risk taking in its purest and most magical form.

The human species has always enjoyed playing with fire,

but never perhaps quite so literally as this. Surely the strangest

game of football in the world.

There's little risk of handball here unless of course you happen

to be the unfortunate goalkeeper.

The game continues until at last the referee blows up for full time.

One of the most important properties of play is that

it contains an element of make-believe. When a kitten pounces

on a leaf that leaf symbolizes a mouse and the young cat

accepts the leaf as a victim of a hunt and treats it as one,

even though it's obvious that it's not.

When he was asked why he'd written the words

"This is not a pipe" underneath this particular image

Rene Magritte replied "Well, you can't stuff tobacco into this pipe

so it isn't really a pipe at all". The point he was making

is that the image is not the thing that it represents.

We're all capable of making this symbolic equation of letting

one thing stand for another. Of reacting to something as though

we really believe in it, whilst at the same time knowing that

it's only make-believe.

This isn't just the basis of a great deal of human visual art.

It's also the basis of words and literature. The word "dog",

for example, never bit anybody.

And symbolic play is of course widespread in adult life.

Whole industries are based upon it. When we go to the cinema

we're entering a world of pretend. Here, a hidden camera records

the facial expressions of people watching a torture scene

from a violent film.

They know that what they're seeing is being performed by actors,

but they clearly experience acute reactions to

what they're witnessing, as if it were real.

In the past, people have sometimes planned their whole future

on the basis of symbols. In more superstitious times magical symbols

were thought to carry such amazing powers, that complicated

ceremonies were woven around them. Here in rituals that may

last for up to four days, Navajo Indians create sand paintings

with complex meanings.
Every shape, every colour,

every image has a special symbolic significance.

The paintings are made by carefully dropping granules of

coloured pigment onto the sand bed.

Once they've been completed, the individual who is the focus

of the ritual sits in the centre of the painting.

The songs and chants, the magical images soak up her troubles and spirit

them away.

It's tempting to say "but these are only sand pictures.

How can anyone imagine that they have real influence?"

But then how can anyone imagine

an actor in a film is really being tortured.

Once we enter the world of symbolic thinking, we become suggestible

to an amazing degree.

Whole mythologies have been constructed on the foundation

of just a few symbolic equations.
Whether they're true or false

is hardly relevant.

Their importance is in the way

they transport us onto new planes of experience

and release us into the heady world of brain games and mind play.

As soon as our basic needs are satisfied. As soon as we've gone beyond survival,

we're off and running. The naked ape should really

be rechristened the creative ape.

At our best we remain all our lives, childlike adults,

ready at the slightest excuse to indulge in mature play.

To many people our greatest achievements are to be found in the realms

of such pursuits as technology, medicine, politics and economics.

But to me, these are merely means to one of two ends.

Either better human survival or better adult play. If ever we give

this up and all become depressingly earnest pious adult adults,

we'll have betrayed our great biological heritage as the

most exuberant most mischievously imaginative animal on this planet.

Above all else, the lesson to be learned from the

biological study of human beings is that we are part of nature.

We're not above it.
We're an integral part of it.

The human animal in many respects, as we've seen repeatedly in this

series is very much like other animals. But in a few important respects,

we're very, very different, and it's these differences

that have made us the dominant animal on the planet.

Of all the millions of species that have ever lived,

we, the human animal, are far the most extraordinary.

We're the magic combination, the threshold maker, the risk-taker.

The venerable child for all occasions.

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