Human Universe: Apeman – Spaceman


I am a fan of Professor Brian Cox. I think his layman’s approach to science mixed with an obvious passion for what he believes in, and speaks of, has made physics, chemistry and biology much more accessible to the common man. On that basis, I have been looking forward for some time to his new series on the BBC entitled Human Universe (I didn’t cancel my TV licence in the end – due to this up-and-coming series and my son’s participation in a well-known Channel Four melodrama over the coming months), and last night saw the first episode “Apeman – Spaceman” (oddly there was no reference to Albert or Albert II – the first rhesus monkeys in space – probably due to their sad demise on those maiden voyages).

Although I had not seen any trailers for it, I got the general feeling that this was going to be an updated Ascent of Man, which was a remarkable insight into our own physical (but not spiritual) evolution from Dr Jacob Bronowski via a series of essays-cum-broadcasts. Brian has already explained (via the “Wonders of the Universe/Solar System” series) in quite majestic parlance, his “beliefs” on how and when the Universe was created, delving into easy-to-understand chemistry and physics, giving anyone who wishes to gain knowledge of the machinations of matter a solid foundation, before entering the often mind-boggling realm of quantum physics should they decide to make that quantum leap.

One of the key things for me for this series was to determine whether Cox was a materialist reductionist, and whether this series would address the who and the why. From what I understand of the man, he is a “confirmed” Athiest, but I’m yet to find out whether or not that is on the same scale as Richard Dawkins, I sincerely hope not. For me, this is an opportunity for Brian to reach out to the consciousness question neither asked nor answered during his previous broadcasts, and to hopefully bring out new theories like Everett’s Many World Interpretation, M-Theory and the likes. It is also an opportunity to see exactly where he as a man stands on what consciousness is.

And so to last night’s episode, in short for me, abit of a damp squib. The opening scenes were very familiar; with Brian setting foot (and forth) on the Rift Valley, Ethiopia where it all allegedly began. I know that dumbing down science to make it more marketable to the masses is the general approach, but last night’s episode went a little too far for me.

Following on from the plains of Ethiopia where he attempted to replicate the first spear heads and signs of a marked change in intelligence, the most interesting part of the show for me was his reference to the increase in brain size which seemed to coincide with the Earth’s most elliptical orbit around the sun two-hundred thousand years ago, which in turn brought about the most extreme changes in Earth’s climate.

According to Cox, the development of human intelligence was a response to rapid climate change, and it was the precise geography of the Rift Valley East Africa mixed with the precise precision of Earth’s orbit in the solar system, Earth’s spin axis, and the influences of the climate at that time which made our ancient ancestors physiology respond in such a way, increasing our brain size, increasing our intelligence. I think this was his attempt at describing “the missing link” although the exact phrase was “missing” itself.

That in itself seems just as likely as believing in God, given the fact that it seems an absolutely incredible coincidence at ridiculously long odds that everything that could forge that birth of consciousness just happened to fall into place rather nicely on Wednesday afternoon in Africa. I guess that is the main reason (at this point) why I am a nailed on Agnostic (with spiritual tendancies) in terms of whether God does or does not exist.

Brian then travelled north to Jordan and with-it came a high-level explanation on how the first civilisations were born, through agricultural revolution and trade routes, again something much better described by Dr Bronowski many decades earlier.

In concluding, his parting shot for Episode One was thus:

“After almost fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution, and some four billion years of life on Earth, the Universe became conscious, and in just two-hundred thousand years, we humans have transformed ourselves beyond all recognition”.

So from his point of view (citing my own interpretation), this was the birth of consciousness, implying that consciousness is in fact an epiphenomenon* of an evolving brain, something which I have just asked him about on Twitter (still awaiting a response for).

The graphics and scenes from the show are superb as usual, a stunning high definition vista of Earth and beyond, and like I said to a friend, the show is still ‘light years’ ahead of watching such drivel as X-Factor and The Jeremy Kyle Show.

I will stick with the series to see if anything else develops, I sure hope it does…

* Epiphenomenalism: A mind–body philosophy marked by the belief that basic physical events (sense organs, neural impulses, and muscle contractions) are causal with respect to mental events (thought, consciousness, and cognition). Mental events are viewed as completely dependent on physical functions and, as such, have no independent existence or causal efficacy; it is a mere appearance.

Fear seems to make the heart beat faster; though, according to epiphenomenalism, the state of the nervous system causes the heart to beat faster. Because mental events are a kind of overflow that cannot cause anything physical, yet have non-physical properties, epiphenomenalism is viewed as a form of property dualism.

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