Diane Bell: PBS series by San Diego producers investigates evolution

Narrator Shane Campbell-Staton, l, and producer Nathan Dappen visit Smithsonian Whale Warehouse.
In “Human Footprint” Episode 2 narrator Shane Campbell-Staton (left) and producer Nathan Dappen visit the Smithsonian’s “Whale Warehouse,” home to the largest bone in the world.
(Nathan Dappen, Day’s Edge Productions)

The effect of humans on our planet and our future is the subject of a new six-part science series debuting at 9 p.m. July 5


Nathan Dappen has gone on a rat safari in the urban jungle of America and been pelted by Asian carp in the Illinois River.

He has explored the extensive habitat of the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, the most abundant amphibian on Earth, and has been hunted by polar bears in the Arctic.

Dappen, co-founder of a Point Loma-based production company, is a science sleuth. As humans harness the world’s natural resources to enrich our lives, we are leaving a giant, indelible footprint.

He and his Day’s Edge Productions co-founder, Neil Losin, and their team are documenting the human imprint and its impact.

The result of this ambitious $4 million project, commissioned by PBS, will air in a series of six one-hour episodes beginning July 5 at 9 p.m. and continuing on subsequent Wednesdays.

To gather the footage, Dappen, 40, spent 110 days on the road, visited 44 cities and towns across the United States, Mexico, Mozambique in East Africa, Singapore in Southeast Asia and the Arctic. He and his team interviewed at least 100 people.

Traveling with sled dogs in the Arctic for a PBS segment on domestication of wolves, was Nathan Dappen's favorite adventure.
(Nathan Dappen, Day’s Edge Productions)

He slept in 80 or more beds, on floors, in tents and on sea ice. He dropped 30 pounds and made do with four to five hours of sleep a night.

Of the many documentaries he has worked on over the past 12 years, he considers this series special because of its content, storytelling quality, relevance of its messages and high-grade visuals.

“It’s all so much bigger than anything we’ve ever worked on. It’s so much more important,” he says.

The documentary plot evolves around humans accelerating and driving evolution by their actions and activities, becoming a potent force of change in the world’s plants, animals and the environment — a huge shift in the biological paradigm.

The story is told by Princeton Assistant Professor Shane Campbell-Staton, who specializes in the Anthropocene era of human-driven evolution. Adept at presenting complex topics in understandable ways, he introduced a course that explores the science of superheroes to engage his Princeton students.

Looking like Indiana Jones, biologist Shane Campbell-Staton visits the Nevada desert to witness a BLM wild horse roundup.
(Nathan Dappen, Day’s Edge Productions)

Campbell-Staton isn’t simply a narrator on an adventure. “Shane is the real deal,” says Dappen, citing the evolutionary biologist’s extensive research and publications. Losin says Campbell-Staton’s knowledge, curiosity and humility make him the perfect guide on this journey.

When announcing the upcoming series, PBS V.P. Bill Gardner called it “provocative science content that’s also relatable, relevant and a joy to watch.”

Producers worked to make the series entertaining — an unusual description for a science documentary that includes a segment on grass. Watching grass grow has long been a synonym for boredom. Imagine the challenge of turning that into an intriguing, fun topic.

The team dipped into their bags of high-tech video tricks — using high-speed cameras, top quality lenses, super-fast high-resolution drones and 360-degree cameras.

They embedded vignettes to impart a cinematic feel and incorporated fast-paced delivery with unconventional music. The soundtrack uses rap and hip-hop by composer and artist Adrian Younge, imparting a music video vibe.

In the end,150 terabytes of digital footage was whittled down to six hours of fast-moving imagery and commentary.

What the creators are proudest about is that this series doesn’t tell people what to think.

It poses questions, presents scientific data and evidence and lets viewers come to their own conclusions.

Many of these complicated issues don’t have an easy or right answer. “It’s a good place to start a conversation,” Dappen says.

He admits that even his own thinking changed. He started the project convinced he knew how he felt but came out confused, not knowing exactly where he stood on some issues or what he could do.

He is convinced that people don’t have bad intentions but collectively do negative things. Curiosity, human tinkering to try to solve problems, resolve dilemmas and well-meaning manipulation of the environment to produce food, water, energy, shelter and foster livelihoods affect the environment.

The problem is that humans are shortsighted, unable to foresee or evaluate long-term harm.

  • The Xenopus laevis frog mentioned earlier was introduced around the world because it possessed a unique reaction useful in detecting pregnancy in humans. Now it’s become an invasive species in multiple regions.
  • In 1890, the chairman of the American Acclimatization Society devoted to introducing European plants and animals here released 60 European starlings in New York State. The bird population exploded, eventually harming the ecosystem and economy.
  • Asian carp imported in a government study to control algae blooms in wastewater treatment plants and ponds were released in the Mississippi River basin and quickly displaced native fish and marine life, affecting fisheries and water sports.

By focusing on human-driven evolution, the documentary makers can add many more episodes and hope to be invited to produce additional seasons of the “Human Footprint” series. After each episode’s debut, it will be streamed on the PBS app.
Dappen doesn’t want people to walk away feeling like they got a lecture, but he does want them to step away from what they think they know and have an open conversation about the scientific questions raised in “Human Footprint.”

Campbell-Staton informed PBS that the series led him to a better understanding of the depth and breadth of human impact and how deeply we are connected to the world around us. “I hope this series helps others to see and think about those connections in new ways,” he noted.

“The big lesson I came away with is that human beings can solve any problem. If you throw enough resources and men and women at it, we can figure it out.

“What we don’t do is look at the future and say this could be a better world. Let’s make hard choices and change our behavior.”