David Attenborough on Charles Darwin: Exclusive interview

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. 

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David Attenborough on Charles Darwin: Exclusive interview

 

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 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.

 

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 © adoc-photos / Corbis / Getty

 

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.”

 

A persuasive communicator

I speculate that maybe Darwin’s talent for communication was the key to getting his ideas across.

“Oh yes, anyone can read and understand On the Origin of Species. But it wasn’t only the way Darwin wrote, it was the way he investigated.

Today, we have to build huge colliders to study subatomic particles and so on, which is one kind of science, but it’s not Darwin’s kind of science. He simply sat there in Down House in Kent and looked at his garden. He saw all these things that everyone else also saw, but they took them for granted and never considered them. Darwin was different.

“For example, Darwin picks up some earthworms, puts them in a flowerpot and thinks: ‘I wonder if these worms will be able to hear the noise if I put the pot on a piano’. He wonders whether they are tone deaf or whether they can hear any old noise, or what.

From these kinds of thoughts and observations come the most extraordinary questions – and all the time Darwin produces the most profound answers. “He also recognised the profound nature of what he was talking about. He refused to put forward any theory until he had secured evidence for it from everywhere possible.”

 

 

Down House in Kent, the former home of Charles Darwin © English Heritage / Heritage Images / Getty 

 

Private income

I wonder whether Darwin’s upbringing helped, since his father provided him with the means so that he could devote his life to study. Could any one of us have become brilliant scientists if only we had had the financial security?

“Well, Darwin was a member of the upper class, he was the squire, he had money. He didn’t have to work, so he occupied himself with his studies.” Could such a man, a polymath like Darwin, exist today?

“The trouble is that science has become a huge subject. It doesn’t matter what aspect you choose to study, there are already hundreds of people working on it.

Think of something really obscure, such as fleas – there are hundreds of flea scientists out there. If you look up fleas in the natural history library, the amount you have to read before you actually know as much about fleas as anybody else is enormous! It wasn’t like that for Darwin.”

 

Paving the way

So he opened up almost the entire field for everyone else? “Darwin hopped about – he did corals, he did coral reefs, he did barnacles, he did earthworms, he did expression of emotions. All of these things were just lying there, relatively unknown.”

So it’s a bit like explorers going off in ships and discovering new continents. Darwin’s got all these continents of knowledge just waiting for him to explore… he was a lucky man. Sir David agrees ruefully.

Mischievously, I ask him if Darwin got anything wrong.

“The only chink in Charles’ character that I can think of is that he was a bit neurotic. One of the mysteries about him remains whether he was a hypochondriac or truly had some genuine disease. He certainly believed that he was extremely ill at various times in his life.

If you read his diaries, you find out that he took the most terrible cures – douches of cold water and all sorts of quirky diets and so on. And if he was going to a debate, he got apprehensive and became ill. He was very reclusive – he didn’t like going up to London very much, instead he had [and shared his ideas with] a great many confidantes.”

 

Charles Darwin joined the five-year vorage of HMS Beagle, but also studied a variety of British wildlife including earthworms and barnacles © Time Life Pictures / Mansell / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

 

Resurgence of creationism

I suggest that Darwin was probably under a lot of stress – he was proposing that society should throw out most of its preconceived ideas of man’s place in the world. But he clearly didn’t convert everyone to his way of thinking – today, many people are still sceptical, just look at the resurgence of creationism in America.

I ask Sir David whether Darwinism, the process of evolution and the theory of natural selection can be compatible with religious belief?

“I would give you a slightly guarded reply,” he says. “I sometimes imagine myself looking at the inside of a termite hill and seeing where the queen is and where the workers go – it’s a highly complex society (though it’s also simple in some ways). Termites have no sensory mechanisms that enable them to know that I’m watching them. They are totally unaware of anything outside of themselves.

“Now, I cannot dispel the notion that it is possible that we are in the same situation. After all, if 100 years ago someone had said ‘the air is full of orchestras and pictures’, you would say ‘do me a favour’. It wasn’t until we got one of those [he points at the television in the corner] that we could actually see them."

"Equally, I cannot rid myself of the idea that there may well be things we are unaware of, things of which we have only the dimmest glimmers. So I would like to say that I am an agnostic in the literal sense of the word, in that I simply don’t know.”

 

Make your mind up, David!

You’re open-minded? I ask. “I would say so. Of course, you might say: ‘Well, that’s not good enough. You ought to make your mind up, David, because it may be a question of salvation or hell’. I don’t believe that. I can’t deal with that, sorry.”

I tell him that I was brought up a strict Catholic with creationist views. I recall the nuns at my primary school telling me that Charles Darwin was leading us all up the garden path. “Well, now that I do not believe,” says Sir David fervently. “I’m against that. But it doesn’t mean that I disbelieve the possibility of a controlling deity.”

Why is it, I wonder, that some people just won’t accept Darwin’s views and those of subsequent biologists?

“Because of the power of imprinting. Because you’re taught about religion from a very early age and it takes a great independence of mind to get rid of it. With religion, you know where you are and there’s no question of doubt. There are no intellectual problems.

In a way, I’m sorry that my parents didn’t bring me up as your parents did, so that I could say: ‘Well, there you are, I’ve dealt with that, I’ve looked at it’. But the fact is that I was brought up without any religious faith as my parents thought I should make up my own mind. So I can’t claim great independence of mind at having achieved this position.”

 

Losing faith

I mention that much has been written about Darwin losing his faith when he lost his daughter to ill health. “Yes, there is that. And indeed it seems to be one of the great problems with believing in a benevolent God.

One of the most common things people say to me is: ‘We love your programmes, we think they’re beautiful, but why do you not give credit to the Creator who made all these wonderful things?’ They talk about hummingbirds and roses and orchids and lovely things.

“But I think about the little boy sitting on the banks of a river in West Africa who’s got a worm boring into his eyeball that is going to turn him blind. Now, you tell me that a benign God created every species specifically. But there’s this worm in the boy’s eye, which is certainly a species and certainly can’t live in any other way. Did God create that worm in order to turn that boy blind? I find that very difficult to believe. So I think it better, therefore, to show what the facts are and allow other people to come to their own conclusions.”

 

Naturally selected

Darwin has obviously inspired so many people, I suggest. What about you? “I would never have the pretension to say that Darwin inspired me, no. But I do admire him beyond qualification – he’s just a very, very great man.”

Great indeed – Darwin changed the way we look at the world. But I have a feeling that he would have enjoyed talking with Sir David. Natural selection has, after all, determined that this much-loved tv presenter should be the main conduit between so many people and the natural world that Darwin explored and explained.

A clock chimes somewhere in the old house and I realise that it must be nearing the hour for the Attenboroughs’ lunch.

Time to leave, I decide. I thank my host and wish him well for his programme, and he and his daughter come to the door to see me off. I’m touched and give them a pot of home-made marmalade – evolved from an ancient Collins’ recipe.

 

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine, Fergus Collins is now the editor of BBC Countryfile Magazine.

 

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