1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · News

David Attenborough’s Darwin

04.02.2009

Introduction

Read our review of the opening programme in the BBC's Darwin-fest.

Story

There is a lot of hype about Charles Darwin at the moment, write Dr Catherine Kendig and PhD student Marco Liverani. This year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth (on 12 February 1809), and there are numerous initiatives around the country to celebrate his life and achievements, as well as to stimulate public engagement with science. The list of events is rich and diverse, including conferences, radio programmes, exhibitions, drama performances, and interactive games. The Open University has even developed an online application which allows users to upload face pictures and ‘devolve’ their features back to the stage of the Australopitechus afarensis, the remotest ancestor of man.

As might be expected, the BBC is making the most of the Darwin fiesta. Last Sunday BBC 1 aired the first of a series of TV programmes which aim to illustrate various aspects of Darwin’s scientific ideas and legacy. ‘Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life’, was written and presented by Sir David Attenborough. This was certainly an appropriate choice: not only is Attenborough, who has more than 50 years’ experience, one of the most popular science communicators in the UK, but he is also a passionate Darwinian who has produced several features on evolution and natural history. Indeed, the programme was also a showcase of Attenborough’s remarkable career, integrating clips from some of his previous award-winning works.

In the best tradition of BBC documentaries, ‘Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life’ combined stunning images of wildlife with carefully documented historical narrative. From the journey of HMS Beagle to the groundbreaking publication of On The Origin of Species in 1859, the programme retraced the milestones of Darwin’s scientific development in a vivid and informative way.

The programme began with some statistics on the incredible biodiversity in the world: 100 million different known species by some estimates. What is the cause of this diversity? Attenborough asked. Explanations prior to Darwin included that provided by Christian theologians, that the existence of different species is the result of the individual creative acts of God (or the “divine designer” as William Paley conceived Him). As they are divinely created, species were thought to be fixed entities that were unrelated to one another.

Enter Darwin. As he travelled, Darwin became increasingly convinced that species were not fixed entities. Through his discussion of the Galapagos finches, Attenborough clearly articulated Darwin's insight that small differences between the beaks of birds living in different environments over generations can accumulate to produce dramatic variations in beak and skull shape and feeding behaviours by a process called natural selection. By emphasizing the proofs and evidence Darwin and others since Darwin have gathered, Attenborough explicitly showed how natural selection and evolution are not “unproved theories,” as suggested by proponents of creationism and Intelligent Design.

One criticism that might be levelled at Attenborough’s analysis is not of his presentation of Darwin’s ideas but of his characterization of Richard Owen and Owen’s relationship with Darwin. In the programme, Owen is described as an avid collector and cataloguer of the diversity of life, the man who established the Natural History Museum in London. Although Attenborough noted that Owen initially supported Darwin, he argued that his strong Christian faith prevented him from accepting Darwin’s view that species change over time. In this, and in the closing frames of the programme, Owen’s place in history is, physically as well as metaphorically, cast aside. In a perhaps overly dramatic conclusion to the program, Owen’s statue was shown inelegantly hoisted up by cranes from its usual place on the central landing of the Natural History Museum to make way for Darwin’s, which was swung in to replace it this year in commemoration of his bicentenary.

Although Attenborough was right to highlight Owen’s continued belief in the fixity of species, he neglected to comment on what is considered to be Owen’s main contribution to Darwin’s thinking: the notion of structural similarity in comparative anatomy. Without this notion Darwin would have been unable to compare the anatomical structures of different species of organisms as the “same organ” and to develop his theory of descent with modification—the same organs occur in different species because they are inherited, with modification, from a common ancestor.

Finally, despite connecting Darwin’s insights to those of Mendel, Paley, Owen, Watson and Crick, and Wallace, the programme gave comparatively short shrift to explaining Darwin’s notion of the ‘tree of life’. The relatedness of organisms which results from all life having one origin was illustrated using animation to show the evolution from single-celled animals to human beings. Commenting on this unity, Attenborough concluded, “Above all, Darwin has shown us that we are not apart from the natural world. We don’t have dominion over it. We are subject to its laws as all other animals on earth, to which indeed we are related”. But while stressing that humans do not occupy a special status over other animals, Attenborough didn’t take this far enough. By highlighting the evolution of mammals, reptiles, and birds, he completely neglected the evolution of microbes and plants. This was a shame, as some of the most exciting research and recent data on microbes and processes such as horizontal gene transfer show that the structure of evolutionary relatedness of life may not be very tree-like after all but instead rather web-like, with links that are both horizontal as well as vertical. One project tackling these issues is based here at Egenis - .

Despite its failure thoroughly to explore the notion of the tree of life and its lack of a more critical approach, the programme was a strong portrayal of some of Darwin’s main contributions to natural history, presented with Attenborough’s characteristic passion for the subject.

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