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David Attenborough — not over, not out

At 84, Britain’s favourite naturalist says that, with BBC2’s First Life, he has made his last major TV series. Yet he shows no sign of losing his love for fossils . . . and life.

Picture the scene: it is the late 1950s, and in an English field a young David Attenborough and 16-year-old Richard Dawkins are hunting for tadpoles. "We had wellington boots on, and we had little fishing nets," says Dawkins, "and we spent the whole day tramping around through ponds and ditches." He had met Attenborough through his uncle and aunt, who encountered the presenter when he was making a programme in Sierra Leone.

It is easy to imagine the pair of them trawling through the mud, because that is how we have seen Attenborough on our screens for nearly 60 years: exploring and explaining the behaviour of animals in their natural habitat. He has become part of our collective imagination, his voice a soundtrack to British television. Yet Attenborough, when we meet, is wary of his public image. "If you appear on the box, people think you know what you are talking about, and it's patently not so," he says.

This is modesty; he reads all the latest zoological literature, and his documentaries, according to Dawkins, don't just show "things the world hasn't seen but that scientists haven't seen either. You can think of it as a very fertile part of scientific work, of scientific research." Attenborough, 84, won't have it, describing himself as simply "a chap from the television".

When I ask him if he ever regrets not becoming a scientist, he shrugs. "I am not a specialist, and I can't pretend to be a specialist." He is keen not to be cast as a figurehead, or a champion of a cause. Environmentalists often try to recruit him, and in films such as State of the Planet he has spoken out on the subject, yet he "fights against being put in that situation when people say, 'So, what's happening to the climate?' I say, 'I don't know. I'm just looking at the scientific world, and this is what the majority of scientists say. It's no use attacking me. I'm a reporter.'"

Perhaps it is understandable that a figure so widely celebrated should wish to underplay his achievements. He does this to an almost comical degree, improbably describing himself as someone who is "by nature rather idle, sitting in a bath chair watching it all going on around me". He avoids aligning with any political party (he votes, but "secretly"), saying carefully that he appreciates the progress all the parties have made in taking the environment seriously.

If he has a "cause", it is overpopulation, which he believes is "at the root of almost every affliction that the world faces today". He advocates female emancipation - where there is good education and free medical care for women, they choose to have fewer children. The Catholic Church, and its opposition to contraception, must anger him, I suggest. "You're telling me!" he says. "Yes, absolutely."

Religion carries no weight in Attenborough's life. Many believers write to him, criticising his failure in his films to acknowledge the role of a divine creator. "You're never going to silence them because the fundamental problem is accepting what evidence exists," he says. "They say, 'It's written down on this page and what is there is beyond argument and it was put there by God.' If you believe that, well, I'm awfully sorry, but there's no point in us discussing it."

This is the pragmatic and tough-minded side of Attenborough. He makes programmes because he thinks "the way a spider weaves its web is breathtaking" - but he has no desire to preach. As he says, "I have a certain compulsion to tell people stories, but I don't have a compulsion to persuade them. I'm not one of them."

Fossil fuelled

Attenborough's first love was the fossil. He was born in 1926 and brought up, together with his brothers Richard (the film director) and John on campus at the then University College, Leicester, where his father was principal. As a boy, he would spend hours searching Charnwood Forest for specimens. "They are just gorgeous, and so you become intoxicated by them," he says now. "You have to be pretty stolid and phlegmatic not to be thrilled by the perfection of the fossil."

That intoxication led him to Cambridge, where he studied natural sciences, specialising in zoology and geology. When he left, he joined the navy for his national service, hoping for adventure but ending up on a Reserve Fleet aircraft carrier in the Firth of Forth. The disappointment continued as he joined a London publishing house that produced science textbooks, a job he found so dull that he thought the clock on St Paul's Cathedral had stopped, because he checked it so often.

Attenborough wanted to be out in the world, bringing the facts to life, not limiting them to paper. So, in 1952, he applied for a training course at the BBC and joined the talks department, where he made his first natural history series, The Pattern of Animals. He was eager to show the animals - trapped and frozen in the bright studio lights used on the show - in their natural environment. That brought about Zoo Quest (1954), a colonial-style adventure with Attenborough, dressed in a safari suit, accompanying the curator Jack Lester on a mission to capture wild animals for London Zoo's collection.

Their first quest, in Sierra Leone, was for Picathartes gymnocephalus, the white-necked rockfowl. The programme was supposed to be presented by Lester, but he fell ill after the first transmission and Attenborough was drafted in to replace him. Zoo Quest was exceptional for the time: filming in the wild, the team travelled to seldom-visited parts of the world. Attenborough later led missions to South America searching for anteaters and anacondas, remote Indonesian islands for the Komodo dragon, New Guinea and Paraguay for birds of paradise and armadillos. Some were never caught. Others - parrots, monkeys, pythons and bushbabies - he brought back to live in his house in Richmond, Surrey (where he still lives), cared for by his wife, Jane, and studied in wonder by their two children, Robert and Susan.

To boldly go

Attenborough's success pushed him through the ranks of the BBC. In 1965, he became the first controller of BBC2 and in 1969 director of programmes across BBC TV. But he was trapped behind a desk again. As he says: "It was very nice for me running a network for a few years, in the sense that it was very flattering for one's ego. But it's not much fun." So he resigned in 1973 and took up programme-making again, starting with a series in south-east Asia and research for Life on Earth, the first of nine Life series for the BBC that would shape the next 30 years of his career.

Alastair Fothergill, the former head of the BBC's natural history unit, was a teenager when Life on Earth was broadcast in 1979. "It was like the most gripping drama; I just had to watch next week's episode. I absolutely remember deciding that was what I wanted to do." Fothergill went on to make Trials of Life and Life in the Freezer with Attenborough, as well as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth (both of which Attenborough narrated).

After nearly six decades inside and outside the BBC, Attenborough has a better sense of the organisation's trajectory than most. "I think the BBC has strayed from the straight and narrow on a number of courses at the moment," he says. "The sails need to be trimmed and [it] needs to be refocused." And, in a rare flash of indignation about the politics: "But it is crucially important in our society and [represents] the highest aspirations of our society. I'm appalled anybody thinks otherwise." His warning to the government is clear. "If you remove the licence fee, it would be gone in a decade, finished," he says. Still, when I ask what he would be doing if he were back behind a desk at the BBC today, he replies, half joking: "Resigning, I think."

As it is, he has never stopped working. In 1997, he was filming a series in New Zealand when he received a phone call telling him that Jane had suffered a brain haemorrhage. He returned to Britain and was with her in hospital when she died. As he reflected later in his memoir Life on Air, he felt the focus of his life was gone. Jane had looked after the children and the animals, had met every flight he took home. She had made his career possible: "Now, I was lost." Work steered him through grief, and he has immersed himself in new projects ever since.

A hallmark of his career has been his desire to push back the boundaries (he introduced colour television to Britain on BBC2 in 1967). Now he is experimenting with 3D. On Christmas Day he appeared in Sky's Flying Monsters, squashed into a hang-glider as an animated pterosaur - a giant winged lizard, 65 million years extinct - whirled around him. "I was thinking, 'Gosh, a national treasure's going up in a glider,'" says Anthony Geffen, the show's producer. "And the helicopter with the rig was flying literally within feet of the glider to get him to speak to camera. It was hair-raising." But Attenborough, says Geffen, is always game. "He just goes in and likes to think the best will happen, and that nothing bad will happen." That adventurous spirit has never been quelled, nor has his work ethic. "David is rigorous," Geffen says. "He wants to get it right and he will get it right . . . He doesn't suffer fools gladly. If you get it wrong, you'll certainly know about it."

Yet he is also fun. The pair recently worked together again on First Life, a series on fossils. At the end of a day's shooting the crew would return to the hotel assuming that the presenter would be tired and retreat to his room. Far from it, Geffen says. "When we get back he's fired up and wants to go out and talk and drink red wine - and we're up till pretty late and off again very early." Attenborough will talk about anything, Geffen says; he reads extensively. "He's a very good partner in Trivial Pursuit, because he answers everything."

Not long after I met Attenborough, I went to hear him speak at the Institute of Education in London. The hall was packed, and even though it was a cold Monday evening in November, in the middle of term, the rows were full of children shuffling in excitement. At the end of the talk, their hands shot up to ask questions. He has always had this effect on children, has never lost what Dawkins describes as his "boyish enthusiasm". Perhaps that is why people can be overcome with affection for him. He is a voice and a face from our earliest years, when we sat too close to the television as a grey-haired man crouched behind a bush and explained something extraordinary about nature.

Stars in his eyes

Dawkins says that Attenborough's longevity and undimmed energy have made him arguably the most respected person in Britain. He quite seriously imagines what would happen if we had to elect a monarch: "David Attenborough would be the one person the whole country would unite behind. Attenborough for king!" Not that the man would relish the adulation. Geffen had to persuade him, when they made First Life, that the public would enjoy an additional film about Attenborough's life ("He didn't really want to make it because he likes to concentrate on what he's filming").

Eventually he agreed, and they took an extra crew on location for First Life to shoot Attenborough's Journey, tracing his lifelong passion for fossils. At the end, the presenter sits on a beach in Australia and muses on the circularity of choosing the very earliest creatures as the subject of what he says will be his final big series. "In that curious way, the end - of making my last series like this - is my beginning."

As Geffen says, this was unusually introspective. "He doesn't sit there, reflecting like that in a sentimental way, very often. He's not fundamentally sentimental about himself. He is very, very modest . . . but it's a rare chink we got out of him and quite a big moment: the final element of the whole strand of programming he's made for years and years." That this was as difficult to capture on film as a snow leopard in the wild reflects Attenborough's lack of self-interest. (Fothergill notes that, in Attenborough's films, he never says "I" - "he is clear that the stars are the animals".)

His boundless curiosity is instinctive. "That's what being alive is about," Attenborough says. "I mean, it's the fun of it all, making sense of it, understanding it. There's a great pleasure in knowing why trees shed their leaves in winter. Everybody knows they do, but why? If you lose that, then you've lost pleasure."

He seems uncharacteristically sombre for a moment. Then he says: "I feel regret that there are some people who've never even savoured it. It never occurs to people to wonder why a hummingbird and a hummingbird hawkmoth do the same things. It's a delight. So I suppose there are some people who don't do these things and are very happy and have perfectly happy lives. Who's to patronise them? But all I can say is that the pleasure of it all is not virtue, or high morality. It's just fun."

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the NS.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge