Having decided to enroll in Duke’s certificate program in documentary arts, I was desperate to find the perfect story for a science documentary. I needed a project that was compelling and provocative, yet accessible, timely, relatable, visual, and most importantly, provided an opportunity to capture great characters with an unfolding narrative. My PhD research into the genetic basis of human brain evolution was just too technical in nature, incremental, and impersonal. But maybe that’s just four years of doctoral research talking.
I knew that I wanted to use narrative storytelling and digital media to explore current research in evolutionary biology. I didn’t want to produce the next exposition on Darwin’s journey or explain general evolutionary processes of adaptation. There was wikipedia after all. I wanted to explore how evolutionary thinking could reveal new aspects of the human condition.
I struggled to find a story that was sexy and compelling, an edgy yet relatable story that illuminated the evolutionary processes at work all around us. My friends, family, and random strangers were besieged with an endless stream of project ideas. I vetted stories constantly, obsessively. It was hard to focus on my other responsibilities- I did have a PhD to finish. Every issue of Science or Nature, every NYTimes science piece, every conversation with a research associate provoked an explosion of new ideas. It was dizzying to make sense of it all. I was confronted with the obvious, what did make a compelling science story?
Fortune eventually met up with persistence. Unbeknownst to me, the stage was being set for my first foray into representing science through documentary work. A group of scientist, cultural and evolutionary anthropologist to be exact, were convening at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in several months for a special work group. Coincidentally, NESCent was located blocks from my home in downtown Durham (very literal) . These anthropologists were interested understanding one of the most significant behavioral shifts to occur in human history: the demographic transition.
For decades scientists have recognized that human populations, across cultures and continents, have been transitioning from historically large families, say 8 children per mother, to significantly smaller families, about 2 children per mother. The consequences of this seemingly benign shift are dramatic for the environment and our community social structure writ large. But why this is happening, despite economic development, improvements in health and education proved to be an evolutionary oddity, counterintuitive to naïve evolutionary thinking. The working group of scientists at NESCent had assembled a diverse team of experts that would meet several times over the next year. The scientists were charged with formulating an new evolutionary framework. Future expeditions to field sites across the globe where being planned. New experimental studies were being started. The stage was set for a major advance in understanding human behavior to be documented using digital storytelling.