Comment »Posted on Tuesday 3 February 2009 at 5:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Right, Just A Review

If there’s anyone who should be talking about Darwin and the theory of natural selection, it’s Sir David Attenborough. For more than 50 years Attenborough has fascinated and enchanted his audience with the wonders of the natural world. His latest programme is a one-off entitled Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, available on iPlayer until Sinday.

Although everyone is probably sick of being reminded, let’s have it once more for those not paying attention at the back: 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Indeed, I must admit I sat down to watch the programme with a slight thought of “oh, not another bloody Darwin doc”, but my mind was soon changed.

Yes, all the usual stuff was there. Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, his discoveries on the Galapagos islands, and his fear of the world’s reaction to his theory that lead to a delay in publishing, until prompted by rival theorist Alfred Russel Wallace.

Attenborough is a master of his craft however, and not content just to lead us through a potted history of evolution. Everything is explained so clearly and concisely that it is a joy to watch.

In demonstrating how one species can transform into another through the process of natural selection, Attenborough turns our attention to the more familiar artificial selection; namely, dog breeding. All dogs are descended from wolves, transformed by humans as they were domesticated.

Whilst the many breeds are technically still one species, it is clear that the massive Great Dane cannot physically mate with a Chihuahua – although artificial insemination is possible. In a sense, the two breeds are actually different species, and this is after only a millennia. Over the millions of years that natural selection occurs, it is easy to see how a species can become another.

As well as view on Darwin we also get a window into the life of Attenborough. Footage from his previous programmes are spliced into the documentary, and the juxtaposition of a young Attenborough being narrated by his present self is pleasing. In addition, we hear some about some of his time at university and as a young boy looking for fossils. Amusingly, he was once told by a Cambridge lecturer that the idea of continental drift was “pure moonshine” – this is well before the theory of plate tectonics was developed.

The crown jewel of the programme is a marvellous animation of the tree of life, showing how single-cells evolved and evolved to provide us with the diversity of life we see today. The Wellcome Trust have a website devoted to this new vision of the tree, where you can download the video in HD and even get a copy of the 3D models used to create it – all licensed under Creative Commons, meaning they can be reused and reworked by anyone. You can also watch the sequence here:

If you have the time to watch the full programme, you really should. I was left thinking how wonderful it is that science has been able to provide us with the knowledge of where we come from, and looking forward to further Darwin 200 festivities. Attenborough succeeds in every way that Dawkin’s programme last year failed – he doesn’t preach, he doesn’t berate, he merely shares. I’ll leave you with Attenborough’s closing thoughts, and an important message:

“…Darwin has shown us that we are not apart from the natural world — we do not have dominion over it. We are subject to its laws and processes, as are all other animals on earth to which indeed we are related.”


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