What Does David Attenborough Really Think of Darwin?

A casual viewer of nature documentaries—or anyone who hasn’t heard of or seen the film Attenborough wrote called, “Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life”—might surmise that the man was hired to narrate the scripts merely because he’s got a great voice. Photograph courtesy Johann Edwin Heupel / Flickr
The name “David Attenborough” has, to me, always been an enchanting but disembodied voice narrating the hidden struggles and splendors of the natural world.

By Brian Gallagher | NAUTILUS

In the last few months I’ve seen several of his documentaries (out of the 23 I could count on Netflix) from start to finish—Life, Africa, and Planet Earth. They’re mesmerizing, and some segments can be heart-racing, some distressing, and some morally confusing, as you feel your sympathies tugged in opposite directions (quite often, the offspring of one creature is taken as food to feed the offspring of another). Attenborough doesn’t take sides—the cruelty of necessity in nature is a spectacle he dramatizes neutrally.

What Attenborough doesn’t do in his nature documentaries is discuss Darwin and his theory of natural selection. Sure, every so often he’ll utter the word “evolve”—it’d be cumbersome not to, especially when it’s, say, birds with specialized, elongated beaks that he’s describing. But, watching these shows, you’ll rarely hear him mention genes or sexual selection, even when, for instance, ibex males, with their massive horns, are shown ramming each other in fights for access to females. “Losing one,” he says, “might mean never getting the chance to breed…ever.” Anyone curious to know what effect follows from females only mating with the winners of these contests won’t be gratified with an answer.

“That was the trigger which lead him to these extraordinary thoughts.”

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