TV Review: Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life

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David Attenborough's contribution to the BBC's Darwin bi-centenary season (‘Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life', 1/2/9) was a masterly defence of the theory of evolution, delivered with Attenborough's customary ability to convey complex scientific ideas using straightforward language and copious, beautifully filmed illustrations, and with his usual infectious enthusiasm and respect for the natural world.

Placing Darwin's ideas in their historical context, Attenborough brought out the subversive implications of the theory of evolution by natural selection, given that the scientific establishment that Darwin was forced to confront was still, in the 1840s and 1850s, deeply influenced by a static view of nature in which species were created once and for all by divine decree, and in which the vast expanses of Earth's past history were only beginning to be revealed by developments in the study of geology. Attenborough showed very clearly how the force of this new forward-step in man's awareness of his place in nature carried Darwin along, despite his reluctance to offend his devout wife and to cause a scandal in polite society; the simultaneous formulation of a theory of natural selection by Alfred Wallace was, apart from being a potent personal spur for Darwin to finally publish his findings, testimony to the irresistible power of the evolution of ideas when the conditions underlying them are ripe.

In taking up the contemporary objections to Darwin's theory, Attenborough did not treat them with contempt; he merely located them within their own historical limitations and demonstrated with utter conviction how new finds in palaeontology and zoology demolished their foundations - enjoying with particular relish the opportunity to recount the story of archaeopteryx and the duck-billed platypus, transitional forms between reptile and bird and reptile and mammal which provided a solid answer to the question: ‘if species evolve, where are the missing links?'

Of course Darwin was the product of a bourgeoisie that was still very much in its ascendant phase. A clear sign that this phase is long behind us is the fact that, today, in the 21st century, highly influential factions of this ruling class - whether the Christian Right in the USA or the various Islamic parties around the globe - have regressed into the most literal version of Biblical and Koranic creationism and continue to vilify Darwin despite the mass of evidence in favour of his basic ideas that has accrued in this past century and a half. But, as Pannekoek and others have pointed out, the bourgeoisie's tendency to take refuge in religion and to abandon the bold, iconoclastic views of its revolutionary hey-day was noticeable as soon as the proletariat overtly affirmed itself as a dangerously antagonistic force within capitalist society (above all after the uprisings of 1848). And by the same token, the workers' movement immediately cottoned on to the revolutionary implications of a theory which showed that consciousness can emerge out of the unconscious layers of life in response to material circumstances and not through the mediation of a Director from on high: the obvious implication being that the largely unconscious masses could also come to self-awareness through the struggle to satisfy their own material needs.

Of course it is not true that the whole of the bourgeoisie has sunk back into creationism; there is also a bourgeois consensus which sees science and technology as progressive in themselves and which, by abstracting them from the social relations that allowed them to develop, is incapable of explaining why so much of scientific research and so many technological breakthroughs have been used to make a total mess of society and nature. And it is precisely this reality which has driven large numbers of those who do not profit from the present social system to look for answers in the mythologies of the past. The same phenomenon of repulsion also applies to the vision of man's place in the universe put forward by so many bourgeois ‘defenders' of science, an outlook that is unremittingly bleak because it gives vent to a deeply alienated conception of man's essential separation from a hostile nature. But Attenborough cannot be put in this category. Marvelling at birds in flight or laughing at chimpanzees at play, Attenborough concluded his presentation by reminding us of another implication of Darwin's theory - its challenge to the Biblical view of man as a being who has ‘dominion' over nature, and its confirmation, instead, of our deep relationship with the rest of life and our total inter-dependence with it. At this point, Attenborough sounded not a little like Engels, in that passage from ‘The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man', which contains a warning against hubris but also a perspective for the future:

"Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature - but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly".   

Amos 6/2/9


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