Review: Film

14th January 2011 at 00:00
Evolution gets reality check

Who Do You Think You Really Are?

Natural History Museum

Admission free; school bookings via 020 7942 5555

When Private Eye editor Ian Hislop lost a particularly high-profile libel case, he stood on the steps of the High Court to declare: "If that's justice, then I'm a banana." It may have come as news to Mr Hislop, but this seemingly preposterous comparison is actually not too far from the truth.

Humans and bananas share a significant amount of DNA, although this perhaps should not seem so surprising given that all life on Earth has a common ancestor. And it is the journey from modern humans back to that ancestor that is the subject of a new interactive film at the Natural History Museum in London.

While screenings of Who Do You Think You Really Are? are open to all museum visitors, the film has been put together with school pupils very much in mind. Abigail Tinkler, head of schools at the museum, says the film has been drawn up in collaboration with teachers, whose involvement included checking the script and matching it to the requirements of the science curriculum. Ms Tinkler says it also aims to address areas that teachers report finding difficult to teach, such as on how science works.

Narrated by David Attenborough, appropriately enough for a film shown in the museum's Attenborough Studio, it is a 45-minute examination of how natural selection has dictated evolution over hundreds of millions of years.

As you would expect, the film looks at the similarities and differences between modern humans and Neanderthals and between humans and chimpanzees, while speculating on a common ancestor. But it goes much further than that, comparing humans with dinosaurs. Both share a basic limb structure, including a single bone in the upper arm and a five-fingered hand; a body plan that can be traced back to a tetrapod that lived about 375 million years ago.

Dinosaurs prove to be just a staging post in this journey back in time, however. The search for shared characteristics goes back even further: tracing the evolution of the skeleton and jaws in fish, as well as forelimbs, characteristics passed on to all subsequent animals; and further still to the nervous system, bilateral symmetry and digestive tract that we all inherited from worms about 500 million years ago.

The film makes effective use of augmented reality - blending computer graphics with real life - through the use of suitably hard-wearing hand- held screens. Users can tilt the screens to scan particular branches of a tree-of-life graphic or follow a computer-generated dinosaur as it roams the studio. The screens also allow users to highlight material for more information, or just to recap on what they have already heard. Quizzes provide the interactive element and, once back in the classroom, pupils can log on to the museum's website to review their answers.

Interspersed with the graphics are interviews with some of the museum's resident scientists, whose contributions lend a suitable air of authority. The scientists present the audience with virtual "gifts", evidence of natural selection in the form of fossils, bones and animals material. These sections of the film provide an effective demonstration of how scientists use evidence to back up a theory. Again, all this can be reviewed later in the classroom.

"If pupils come here and see scientists going through the same kinds of processes and using the same kinds of skills that they use in the classroom, we hope that will give them confidence and inspire them," says Ms Tinkler.

Although the film is suitable for secondary level, it is particularly designed for key stage 4 and post-16 students. Information is delivered in easily digestible chunks without ever seeming to dumb down, while the interactive element helps it to sink in. The film makes use of a range of technologies, but content, rather than form, is key.

The film has two daily showings and can be booked for school groups on Mondays and Fridays during term. Sixty-four places are available for each one.

Most schools groups would combine the film with a visit to the museum itself. One option could be the Cocoon in the Darwin Centre, a research and collection unit that allows pupils to see scientists at work. But the film is a draw in itself. Who Do You Think You Really Are? is a prime example of how a notoriously tricky subject can be brought to life and delivered in an accessible and appealing way.

The Verdict: 8 out of 10.

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