________________ CM . . . . Volume I Number 14 . . . . September 15, 1995


Episode Four: "Science and Fiction."
Arts & Entertainment Network. 52 minutes

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Duncan Thornton


For many years the thought that's been most difficult for everyone to come to terms with, and agree about, is that evolution hasn't been working toward creating us: we just happened.

This is the final part of Cable in the Classroom's presentation of the A&E series on the development of the human species, APEMAN. (Part Three, "It's All in the Mind," was reviewed here last week.)

Host Walter Cronkite wraps up the series with a program that considers the history of archaeological thought itself, and how cultural attitudes have moulded our understanding of the fossil record. (I should mention here that though the series treats creation accounts with great respect, it is straightforward about presenting evolution as a scientific fact in roughly the same category of certainty as the orbit of the Earth around the sun.)

This is really an intellectual history then, and so lacks a little of the appeal of previous episodes, but it remains smooth and fascinating. It lays out with excellent examples (early silent films about Neanderthals, for example) how our interpretation of the fossil record has changed with the times.

Thus Neanderthal remains were misinterpreted as being more ape-like and stooped than they actually were because the notion that these relatively recent and brutish creatures could be our ancestors was unappealing. Surely our real ancestors must have been smarter and more human far earlier? Thus the world was ready to be taken in by the famous Piltdown Man hoax, where a modern human cranium and an orangutan jaw were fit together to "prove" we were smart -- if not lovely -- millions of years earlier.

Similarly, the "Killer Ape" view of early hominids seemed quite plausible, somehow even an explanation, after the savagery of the Second World War. But it now seems clear that early hominids were really the hunted -- prey of sabre-tooth tigers and other large carnivores -- more than the hunters.

Finally, after probing the ways our prejudices have skewed understanding of the fossil record, the last few minutes of "Science and Fiction" moves to an area even more speculative than pre-history, as anthropologists discuss the plight of this hunter-gatherer species living in a technological world we have not fully adapted to, and speculate on the future of humanity, or its descendants.

It's interesting, but sketchy, and a little disappointing after the promise to examine the subject at the end of Part Three. A better treatment of the problems our technological evolution has led us into could be found in Gwynne Dyer's NFB series The Human Race, (part one of which, "The Bomb under the World" was reviewed in volume I, number 3 of CM). Actually, showing the Dyer series after APEMAN would almost constitute a good eduction by itself.

But in all, a good finish, showing the intellectual problems behind the story the series has told. Worth setting the VCR for.


Duncan Thornton is the Editor of Canadian Materials.

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ISSN 1201-9364