Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life
Sunday 1st February, 9pm, BBC One
From the Guardian
The Tree of Life is one of Sir David's most personal programmes. It is the “fabuloso” story of how Darwin changed “the way we see the world and our place in it”. Sir David leads the viewer gently through Darwin's journey to the Galápagos Islands and his observations in his garden at Down House in Kent that formed his theory of natural selection; that all life forms originated from a common simple beginning and evolved through mutations that created new species and led to the extinction of others over hundreds of millions of years.
We are taken on Sir David's own journey, too, as he returns to the rocks where he hunted for fossils as a child in Leicestershire, and shows us his own well-thumbed copy of Darwin's work, which he encountered for the first time at 18. “I didn't read it cover to cover. I read chapters. But it is very readable.” He starts quoting the exquisite conclusion to the book, which describes “an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds...”
The book didn't transform his life because he was already aware of evolution. “I rather wish I'd been brought up a creationist who had a Damascene moment: ‘Yes! Now I see it.' But it always seemed clear that we were related to monkeys.”
Darwin wasn't exactly his hero - “hero somehow implies somebody with a sword having a battle” - but “he was the epitome of wisdom. You knew he had the answer to most things.”
Darwin's theory shocked and appalled a Victorian world in which almost everyone believed that God micro-managed the Universe, creating each species. What thrills Attenborough is that Darwin's theory is being bolstered by modern science of which Darwin had no inkling, such as genetics. “DNA happened after I left university!” he exclaims. “I walked past the lab daily but Crick and Watson hadn't done it then. The recent proof of these things is so exciting.” He loves the fact that “there's an awful lot about evolution that we don't understand” and that there are whole university departments churning out new research.
He believes that Darwin changed the world in a way very few others have done. “Copernicus, perhaps. The Sun becoming the centre of the solar system. That's fairly life-changing.” I say that to the layman it is still quite hard to get your head round evolution. “The theory that the first woman was made out of the rib of Adam - now that is quite a difficult one to believe,” he counters.
Of course, Darwin does not theorise on the creation of the Universe, and many Christians have made their peace with him. “The Pope has. The Archbishop of Canterbury has. They all say , ‘Yes, of course, the Book of Genesis is only a myth, a creation myth. Come on, grow up'. That's what civilised religious people say.”
His beef is with those who want to teach creationism or its offshoot “intelligent design”. A recent survey found that a quarter of science teachers in state schools believe that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in science lessons. “That is terrible. That is really terrible,” says Attenborough. Richard Dawkins has said that it is a national disgrace. “I don't know about national; it's a human disgrace that you don't recognise the difference between these things,” says Attenborough.
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