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How It All Began

Update: 2017-04-147
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In this hour, TED speakers explore our origins as a species — who we are, where we come from, where we're headed — and how we're connected to everything that came before us. (Original Broadcast Date: October 24, 2014).

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before we get started we'd like to share a quick message from host Gator with all the tools you need to build and host your website including templates and twenty four seven expert support to help you every step of the way and right now Ted Radio Hour listeners get sixty percent off by visiting host Gator dot com slash NPR its guy here just let you know back next week with a brand new episode of The Ted Radio Hour but in the meantime take a listen to this when it's one of my favorites it's called How it all began and it explores our origins as a species and how we're connected to everything that came before us even stars this is the Head Radio Hour each week groundbreaking had the Ted Technology Design at Stanford Ted conferences around the world gift of the human had to believe in impossible the true nature of reality beckons just beyond those talks those ideas adapted for radio NPR guy rise a couple weeks ago I got a small package in the mail inside there was a kid it was a couple of plastic test tubes were a few plastics papers some Ziploc bags in my instructions were to scrape the inside of my cheeks up in them for about thirty seconds how was that for you it was great Canada and then send those sticks back to this guy my name is Doctor Spencer Wells and a card caring Explorer the National Geographic Society and I'm the director of the geographic project their third Geographic project and National Geographic has collected cheek swabs from about seven hundred thousand people around the world and in each of those swabs imbedded in the DNA there's a story so so so which find who like what I come from well I'm looking at your results right now ok and so we're analyzing several pieces of your genome on your mother's side your type is tt he wun be three it's mostly found in southeastern Europe in the Middle East and your sub type is more common in Turkey than elsewhere wow you know your dad side you also have a group that's more common in the Middle East so your particular combination is closest to Lebanese and Romanians so again pointing to kind of the region around Turkey so your ancestors would encounter the Neanderthals in the Middle East between forty five and fifty thousand years ago and they bred with you today are carrying two point seven percent Neanderthal DNA wow just slightly higher than average the average is two point one percent you know it's funny you say that because I I do have some characteristics that I think the world curious about our route right and they seem so personal but spent years chasing a much bigger story a story that connects every single one of us to a common origin of this is one of those basic human questions you know like Einstein said I want to know the thoughts of God all else is detail this is one of those deep human questions that I feel like we as a species should be trying to answer now is the only species that in their history the universe as far as we know that has ever evolved the capacity to search to answer these sorts of questions by God we need to be trying to do it the OK challenge accepted a show today how it all began stories and ideas that our origins who we are what came before us and we're going as a species later show Spencer Wells returns to explain how in a very short period of time we left Africa and spread out across the planet but first my name is David Christian and since nineteen eighty nine have been teaching courses on the history of the universe and the place of humans inside that story and I call him because tree are the Christian is an historian and his idea big history is really about our place in the universe and how small are part of the story actually is here you all to exist around this ta do exist on this planet you are a member of the species and all of these part of knowing what you are in the entry of course you'll get to say you are brought up in Australia or in America all of those stories we need we also need to speak story and as long as we don't have to speak stories can be very hard I think for us to understand ourselves as humans so the story David Christian tells begins thirteen point eight billion years ago pitch black darkness here's David on the Ted stage around us this nothing is not even time imagine the darkest and deepest thing you can and cube it a gazillion times and that's what we are and then suddenly the universe appears that entire universe and we've crossed the first threshold the universe is tiny and small of an atom it's incredibly hot it contains everything that's in today's universe its stake in its expanding at incredible speed and at first it's just a blur but very quickly distinct things begin to appear in the pool within the first second energy itself shatters into distinct forces including electro magnetism and gravity else quite magical and the The Fox create protons and let all the food electronics and all that happens in the second now we move forward three hundred and eighty thousand years that's twice as long as humans have been on this planet and now simple items a pair of hydrogen and helium gravity is more powerful with us more stuff so when you get slightly denser areas gravity starts compact in clouds of hydrogen and helium atoms so imagine breaking up into a billion clouds the the beach cloud is compacted gravity gets more powerful as density increases the temperature begins to rise at the center of each cloud and then at the center of each clout the temperature crosses the threshold temperature of ten million protons the I we have a first aw ay from about two hundred million years off to the big bank stocks begin to appear all through the universe billions of universes not significantly more interesting and more complex in all of that wasn't even half a billion years after the Big Bang would take another eight or nine billion years for our solar system and are planted to form and nearly another billion for the first signs of life the most that time of life on earth living organisms being relatively simple single cells but they had great diversity and insight great complexity then from about six hundred to eight hundred million years ago multi cell organisms appear you get fun guy you get fish you get Hans you get amphibians reptiles and then of course you get the dinosaurs and occasionally cost is sixty five million years ago an asteroid landed on the off the Yucatan Peninsula creating conditions equivalent to those of a new clay wall and the dinosaurs were wiped out terrible news for the dinosaurs but great news our mammalian ancestors who flourish in the sch is left empty by the dinosaurs and we human beings apart of that creative evolution repulsed that began sixty five million years ago for the landing of an asteroid the are what you think we need to know the story why do we need to know about origins well if I were to turn the question around and say Why do we need to know about American history what with the OCD I think it would be that we need to be able to place all self story is not right one of the one example of this one wonderful example about this is is my friend Walter Alvarez the geologist he's the person who more or less proved that it was an asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs with an asteroid had been on a trajectory five minutes early or five minutes later it wouldn't point out the dinosaurs and the dinosaurs would almost certainly still rule the planet and we wouldn't be here it's as simple as that so it's a story that in one sense makes us feel very small and very little we inhabit a obscure plan at an obscure galaxy around at the school sock hop on the other hand modern human society represents one of the most complex things we know and still the side of the story that makes us look pretty interesting humans appeared about two hundred thousand years ago what makes humans different is human language we are blessed with a language a system of communication so powerful and so precise that we can share what we've learned with such precision that it can accumulate in the collective memory and that means it can outlast the individuals who learn that information can accumulate from generation to generation and that's why as a species we are so creative and so powerful and that's why we have a history we seem to be the only species in four billion years to have this gift may know I know it sounds like a little bit new a gene that I mean it is a mystery where we come from is a mystery we really don't entirely know what a wonderful man it is a mystery indeed but having said that the astonishing thing is that modern science can open many doors on that ministry not all of them are still doors we call open we don't know what to do with consciousness for example we don't know wall happened before the Big Bang Bar we can tell a remarkably good story about many parts of that mystery that stories got better and better and better in the last fifty is so I hope you agree this is a powerful story and it's a story in which humans play an astonishing and creative role but it also contains warnings are in the very vividly as a child growing up in England living through the Cuban missile crisis for a few days the entire biosphere seem to be on the verge of destruction and the same weapons are still here and they're still wrong if we avoid that trap others are waiting for us with burning fossil fuels at such a rate that we seem to be undermining the Goldilocks conditions that made it possible for human civilizations to flourish over the last ten thousand years so what big history can do is show us the nature of our complexity and fragility of the dangers that face us but it can also show us up our collective learning when you think about our origins and you think about this idea of a unified history of the universe than places like our whole very brief history and into a context in which I can't help but think God not only are we less relevant than we think but we've wasted so much time focusing on ourselves and our on our differences when in fact we are a tiny piece of this huge story I agree I agree and that's one of the reasons why I think the story so powerful because it makes the differences between humans seem rather irrelevant in schools we keep teaching but history is divided into American History and Chinese history Russian history in Australian history with teaching kids that they are divided into triumphs with failing to teach them but we also as human beings share the problems that we need to work together the the the Christian teaches a course called Big History to find out more about it and to see David's entire talk about the story of us had the cop show today how it all began our origins and Guy Roz and this is the Ted Radio Hour from NPR the oral o Hey Everyone Just a quick thanks to two of our sponsors who helped make this podcast possible verse to Merrill Lynch an affiliate of Bank of America who asks What did your future holds learn how Maryland's works with you to create an investing strategy built around your life and priorities by visiting L dot com era Lynch makes available products and services offered by Maryland be here spinner and Smith Incorporated a registered broker dealer thanks also to the Economic Development Authority of FX County Virginia here's President and CEO Jerry Gordon discussing help businesses can succeed in the county Fairfax County is really a place were people can succeed in businesses can succeed regardless of where they came from regardless of their background calling requires his ability perhaps a little bit of luck the great tenacity and you can be success one for more information and Fairfax County e d a r g a quick thing before you affect the shell you may be aware that many of the amazing Ted talks you hear on the show are delivered at the annual Ted Conference in Vancouver and beginning on April twenty fourth you can actually experience those powerful ideas from the Ted stage alive in select cinemas that Ed cinema experience will give you a front row seat to inspiring Ted talks including the Ted Prize event with talks from tennis champion Serena Williams claimed health care reform are up to lvl one to the winner of the two thousand and seventeen Ted Prize Doctor Raj Punjabi plus a major topic from a surprise guest a world figure whose name we cannot reveal until that night to get tickets and be among the first to see two thousand and seventeen Ted talks go to Ted cinema that calm it's the Ted Radio Hour from NPR and Guy rise in a show today how it all began idea is that our origins and the things that came before us so think back here own recent origins when your kid you probably had a favorite dinosaur write the back the rates here acts we tried this question out on some kids at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum here in Washington DC and we found some striking uniformity the facts here the kids were between five and twelve and when you try to pin them down on why and why in the T Rex is their favorite I know the the if you make the higher the the the currents and the the the the the so what is it about these creatures who lives so long before we did that speaks to us about her own origins they're gone and they're very different from anything alive today the This is Jack Horner I'm the curator of paleontology Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman Montana Jack R is like other scientists are trying to piece together parts of our past some of them simulate the big bang inside massive particle Collider others look into space through giant telescopes to see the past and in Jack's case he's also on a quest to bring some of that distant past literally the back to life and it all started the Jurassic Park Tyrannosaurus Rex them in the first movie was just incredibly real looking Jack was an advisor on the film he was even the inspiration for one of the main characters absolutely Doctor Alan Grant is yes the fortunate thing about that is that he didn't get eaten and it was seeing the T Rex so life like on the big screen re ignited something in Jack was one of the things that spark my interest and the actually trying to make a dinosaur just like in the movie Jack Horner wants to make a real life or dinosaur foot one a little friendlier than the T Rex one he says you could actually have as a pet but what kind of adventure would you have one would have taken a source it the a chicken a source actually it's not that different from what Jack's character didn't seriously injure s in part well maybe dinosaurs have more in common with present day birds and they do is read in this scene Doctor Alan Grant is examining a velocity rather facile the pubic bone in fact just like for the vertebrae of the fair sex in the hollows just like a bird and even the word rapture means bird of prey and even if we can make a dinosaur like they did in dress a park could a bird could eat chicken gets closer here's Jack Carter's big idea from the Ted stage the theme of this story is building a dinosaur and saw we come to that part of Jurassic Park This is Michael Creighton really was was the first people to talk about bringing dinosaurs back to life if you want dinosaur DNA I say go to the dinosaur back in nineteen ninety three when the movie came out we actually had a grant from the National Science Foundation to attempt to extract DNA from a dinosaur but we have discovered that dinosaur DNA and all the DNA just breaks down too fast we're just not going to be able to do what they did Jurassic Park were not going to be able to make a dinosaur based on a dinosaur but birds are dinosaurs birds are living dinosaurs so we don't have to make a dinosaur already have I know your years as bad as the six graders write the six graders look at they say no you're in college you can call it a dinosaur but look at the boss or after the loss of Raptors cool the chicken is not fix the chicken so we have a number of of ways that we actually can fix the chicken will call him biological modification tools we have selection we know selection works right then we started out with a wolf like creature we end up with a Maltese that's definitely genetic modification we also have trance Genesis trends Genesis is really cool too that's where you take a gene out of one animal and stick it in another one how people made Blowfish take a gene glow Jean out of a coral or jellyfish and his ticket into the profession the glow I guess we could make a low tech but I don't think that'll satisfy the six graders either the tax solution is to focus on something buried deep in the origin of the chicken for instance every chicken while it is still an embryo actually has a three fingered hand but at some point a gene switches on and it triggers the fusion of Han and so there are genes that have used two fingers together basically to form the way the idea is that if scientists can figure out a way to stop those genes from activating we can get second half is out with a three fingered hand and the same goes for the tales we know that in embryo as the animal is developing it actually adds a relatively long pale but Jean turns on and reserves the tale gets rid of it so that's the other gene were looking for we want to stop that hail from resorting so what we're trying to do really is our check and modify it and make a chicken a Soros can just imagine check and if it had a long ponytail and three fingered hand instead of wings it would be a long ways to looking like out of a loss or after even then wow check you are freaking out a little bit you know when I explain the sort of thing to people and people do get kind of weirded out I tried to take him back to dogs for example you know half was a Chihuahua they've basically bread for an animal that looks like the embryonic walls and so you know if you can be happy without him I surely don't understand why a bird with details going to freak anybody out oh don't get me wrong I will be first in line to see the chicken a source working even though a living breathing chicken a source is still a long Jack says even just the idea of one is one way to get kids closer to our collective past absolutely and it also teaches them about evolution and one of the cool things I think about dinosaurs is that allows kids get interested and and they just soak up all this information about dinosaurs and early on they than their parents and so they really fuel the imagination of kids and even as a paleontologist tired I imagine them fighting I them roaming around they still fuel my imagination when you think about the time periods were talking about such a long period of time has passed since then to study as was kind of put into the human era into perspective for us almost like a flippin time well let me give you a different perspective just don't take any group of dinosaurs like horned dinosaurs the amount of time that horned dinosaurs were on earth and the amount of time they had to evolve was greater than the period of time since they've gone extinct to now so trying to put the blip of time into perspective I mean we have had zero time as far as humans go paleontologist Jack Horner you can find his cock head NPR dot org by the way when we talk to Jack last year he was advising the filmmakers behind the latest Jurassic Park movie Jurassic World it's been on the set so can you tell someone will like it till you won't tell anybody it's a great story it's got a really really scary new dinosaur what kind of like in their feathers and not the Fed does it have really sharp uh the so this whole story about all the things that came before us and how we got here it's pretty hard to wrap your head around because the scale is so huge so how do you explain it I like to use a roll of toilet paper or the way this is the renowned paleontologist Louise likey if you lay out a toilet roll which is four hundred sheets in laying the new year to actually think about whether dinosaurs that everybody's familiar with comes in on sheet from the end of they go extinct on the fifth seat from the end there around for fourteen or so sheets of that toilet roll at that point it gave rise to the mammals and our species homo sapiens only came into being in that very last millimeter of that last she lost two hundred thousand years a millimeter of the four hundred sheet roll of toilet paper that's the whole history of our species in until very recently we didn't even know that much but we do know about our origins is thanks in large part to leisurely Keyes family their story in Africa all started with her great grandparents that were missionaries who settled in Kenya's cuckoo Highlands and that's when Lewis my grandfather was born and he grew up speaking to clue you into alien collecting snakes and animals and finding small little Obsidian flakes is as a child which I think really instilled within him a sense of of excitement the the I think that really so the city was convinced he was going to find the answers to our pasta in Africa rather than outside of Africa which is what the conventional thinking was at that time the explanation here up until really the late nineteen forties most serious paleontologist believed in something called the Out of Asia ferry and basically argued that our species developed in Asia and the fossil record at the time seemed to confirm it Louis leaky was an outlier he was absolutely convinced that humans came from Africa he became obsessed with proving it even though most self respecting fossil hunters were digging in Asia they had fines from Indonesia from China and to to have imagined that you could have found fossils in Africa didn't seem right what they didn't know was the fossils that were farmed outside of Africa were all much younger than the fossils that they would then go on to find in Africa so of course the conventional thinking was that Lewis was looking in quite the wrong place at Louis leaky and his wife Mary persisted they spent decades digging for clues in Tanzania that remote area known as Old Bike gorge the The daughters of the Hot Flash Cafe started on the bed and a right way back to Manila this is loosely key from an old National Geographic documentary and it was at Old by Gore ch was a leak Eastwood I bent the entire field of Killian topology in nineteen fifty nine my grandmother Mary found the skull of xin Jun to PA's Nolasco loves and Jan surface was one of the most significant hunted fossils found up to that point it was one point seven five million old far older than other fossils found in China Indonesia and it proved that our ancestors came from an evolved in Africa so that fine really put Ben Affleck are on the map and made people then turn to Africa changed our entire understanding of where we came from and that find launched a family dynasty of paleontologist their sons Richard and Jonathan and eventually granddaughter Lisa explained her ideas on the Ted stage weekend
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How It All Began

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