To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species – and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin – Sir David Attenborough talked exclusively to Fergus Collins about the man who revolutionised our understanding of the natural world – and ourselves.
I’ve just rung Sir David Attenborough’s doorbell and am feeling a slight tremor of trepidation. The first time I met him – a year ago in a hotel in Covent Garden – I was one of a long procession of journalists, each with an hour to talk to him about the series Life in Cold Blood.
This time, I can’t quite believe that he’s invited me to this leafy corner of Richmond to discuss the meaning of life. It’s going to be very different.
The door opens, but it isn’t David. His daughter welcomes me in and shows me into a simply but comfortably furnished living room. What strikes me most is the total peace – there is no traffic noise.
The headmaster's office
Moments later, Sir David appears, full of the headmasterly warmth we’re all so familiar with from his tv appearances. He apologises for being late for our last meeting (something I had long since forgotten) and, as I sit back on the all-embracing sofa and chat with him about the rise of goldfinches and decline of sparrows in his garden, I smile secretly to myself.
But, sadly, I’m not here to talk about garden birds. I want to find out more about Sir David’s role in the BBC’s new Darwin season and, in particular, his programme Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life. This subject is such a well-ploughed field, I’m wondering what angle Sir David is taking.
“Well, what I primarily want to show is that evolution is not a theory. Natural selection is a theory, but evolution – that animals evolved – is not a theory, it’s a historical fact as firm as the fact that William the Conqueror came here in 1066. In fact, even firmer really, because the evidence supporting it comes from so many disparate sources. Wherever you look, the evidence for evolution is apparent.” He chuckles. “I think the producers are getting rather tired of me reiterating this.
Ahead of the times
“What the programme does is show that ever since Darwin, the progress of science has confirmed what he believed. But when he published On the Origin of Species in 1859, there were immediately several objections, which we go through in the programme.
“One objection was that the evolutionary links were missing – well, we now know of the archaeopteryx [a primitive bird species with reptilian features, showing the link between birds and dinosaurs].
Another objection was that there wasn’t enough time for evolution. This was based on the calculations of Archbishop Ussher [the 17th century Irish clergyman who dated the creation of the Earth to 4000BC]. But we now know that our planet is billions of years old.
Paley and the human eye
“In the programme, we also deal with the great objection of William Paley [who argued that the complex structures seen in nature required an intelligent designer ie God]. We consider the example Paley used – that of the human eye.
Paley said that such a highly complex organ had to have been conceived in its entirety – it couldn’t evolve by chance. But, of course, that is standing things on its head. What actually happened is that, first, you have a very simple eye, which then develops a simple lens, which is a bit better than the simple eye.
Then, in addition to the lens, you develop a pupil and iris, which regulate light and focus etc. In the programme, we demonstrate that at every stage there were distinct advantages that were subject to natural selection.”
Natural selection is the key
So, subsequent scientific study has largely proved Darwin right. But, at the time, what enabled his observations and theories to be taken so seriously?
“The theory of natural selection is the key. The notion that things are in some way related was not just Darwin’s idea – plenty of other people had thought of that before, such as Linnaeus [the father of modern taxonomy].
What Darwin did was to demonstrate, with the help of Alfred Wallace, that there was a mechanism that brought about change – evolution – perfectly naturally.
You didn’t have to invoke a Creator who said: ‘Well, I’ve made a chaffinch today, but why don’t I do a bullfinch on Thursday’.” I had to laugh, and suggest that perhaps God fancied a bit more red? “Yes, a bit more red, I’d like it better.” Sir David smiles. “Now, we are not quite sure what a species is anyway. Does it even exist? The concept of a species has got very blurry edges.”