herald

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Thrilling life of a charming species

BRANCHING OUT: David Attenborough's latest documentary was epic television

IT is estimated that there are anything from six million to 100 million different species on Earth, said David Attenborough in Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life. Some are beautiful. Some are not so beautiful.

Some, such as the creatures dwelling in the darkest depths of oceans, are downright ugly. All of them, though, are marvels of natural selection and evolution.

Creationists, of course, love the lovely ones, the colourful ones, like the 350 species of hummingbirds, or the 250,000 species of flowering plants. These, they claim, demonstrate the majesty of God's creation, knocked out in under a week.

They're probably not so captivated by the other ones, like the 200 species of our close relations monkeys, or the 1,000 species of bats, or the 350,000 different kinds of beetles.

Creationist loons have been giving Attenborough a hard time lately. They send him hate mail telling him he'll burn in hell for not "giving credit to God" in his programmes. Darwin had a hard time, too. He waited 23 years after the voyage of the Beagle, all the while gathering further evidence to copperplate his theories, before publishing The Origin of the Species.

He was reviled and ridiculed and demonised by churchmen and some fellow scientists, who clung to the belief that species were "fixed for all time" and couldn't evolve. A lot like creationists, actually.

Attenborough started this breathtaking documentary about his hero by reading from the Holy Bible, which has a line about man holding dominion over all other creatures. "This made it clear that humanity could exploit the natural world as they wished," he said.

Attenborough is an atheist but he's not Richard Dawkins, who uses his atheism as a battering ram against religion. He's always been a gentleman, whether standing before an ancient copy of some people's sacred, supernatural fiction or crouching in the domain of mountain gorillas.

This was a stunning piece of television -- epic television -- that brilliantly pulled together with pin-sharp clarity the different strands of Darwin's awesome, irrefutable discoveries, as though Attenborough were constructing a model of the double helix. It was beautifully made and utterly thrilling.

In some ways, it was as much the story of David Attenborough as of Charles Darwin: practically a summation of his magnificent career and a life spent preaching the true gospel of the world we live in. He reminisced about his time at university and revisited the woods near his old family home, where he spent long, summer afternoons searching for fossils. Most charmingly of all, he flicked through his own, yellowing copy of Darwin's book, "bought when I was a boy for the princely sum of a shilling".

The documentary concluded with a montage of Attenborough's encounters over the decades with just a few of the millions of Earth's species. He's 82 now and, thank Godlessness, still remarkably fit and healthy. But when he eventually leaves us his species will be extinct, because the evolution of television has found nothing to replace him.

Turning to a different species, there was no sighting over the weekend of homo depressus --aka George Lee of RTE. You can be sure he's not extinct, however, but just hibernating.

STACEY'S STARS

Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life * * * * *

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