Tuned In: National Geographic's "The Human Family Tree"

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PASADENA, Calif. -- We humans sure are skilled at creating division where none should exist. That's one of the central themes of National Geographic Channel's "The Human Family Tree" (9 tonight), which uses scientific advances to show how we're all connected.

Specifically, the program shows how all human life began in Africa 60,000 years ago and traces the migration of the human species and the adaptive changes that resulted in size, skin tone and facial differences among different groups of people worldwide.

The two-hour program gets off to a bit of a pokey start, pre-hashing much of what's to come, but after about a half-hour, "The Human Family Tree" gets down to business, profiling assorted New Yorkers of various ethnic backgrounds, and, through DNA testing, showing where their ancient ancestors came from and the routes taken out of Africa.

Getting Kevin Bacon -- known for the "six degrees of separation" pop culture phenomenon that carried his name a few years back -- to narrate "Human Family Tree" was a subtle but deft touch.

The program is an offshoot of the Genographic Project, a not-for-profit research partnership between National Geographic and IBM that began in 2005. The five-year project seeks to use genetics as a tool to address anthropological questions on a global scale. (Members of the public can participate by purchasing a $99 kit and donating the results of their genetic background test to the project. Details at nationalgeographic.com/genographic.)

Geneticist Spencer Wells, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, is featured throughout "Human Family Tree" as he talks with participants from Queens who are often surprised to learn about the migration patterns of their ancestors.

Dave Reed, an African-American model, did not expect to learn that he has some roots to Europe.

"The rest of the genome can be completely African," Wells explained at the TV critics summer press tour earlier this month, "but in this case, probably at some point during the slave-trading era, a European male had sex with one of his female ancestors. That's the reason why he has a Y chromosome that's European."

Reed said this new information about his background doesn't change him.

"We all come from Africa originally, but that's just the migration that they took," Reed said. "I just think it's fascinating. I never would have known that until now."

Wells said our differences are explained by adaptation.

"Over that 60,000 years [since leaving Africa], we scattered like the wind around the world and we adapted to different climates and the places where we lived," he said. "People, as they moved out of the tropics, had to lose some of the pigmentation in their skin that they needed to protect themselves from the sun in the tropics. We actually have to let some sunlight through to make Vitamin D. That's the reason people in Northern Europe have lighter skin."

"Human Family Tree" lays out many of the routes humans took out of Africa that explain the world's diversity today. It's a fascinating but easy-to-digest science lesson that's inextricably linked to human culture -- through the ages and in the present day.

Contact TV editor Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. First Published August 30, 2009 4:00 AM


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