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David Attenborough: A life measured in heartbeats

For 60 years, David Attenborough has brought the wonders of the world around us to TV viewers hungry for science and natural history. In an exclusive interview with Brian Cox and Robin Ince, he talks about the BBC, Darwin and what keeps him moving.

Robin Ince writes:

No other individual is held in such awe by as broad a group of people as Sir David Attenborough. On seeing him, one eloquent friend felt he must say something, and so he bounded up, blurted out “Thank you”, then scarpered. I have seen people held in high regard reduced to gibbering fan-kids on finding themselves in the same room as him. After 60 years in broadcasting, a career that has included commissioning Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, as well as astounding investigations into the varieties of life on this planet, he continues to work every day of the year with the occasional exception of Christmas Day.

The landmark series Life on Earth was my introduction to the theory of evolution and the work of Charles Darwin, a man who increasingly fascinates me the older I become. The writings of Darwin convey a mind restlessly ­attempting to understand the life he sees before him and driven to explain why it seems to be as it is. David Attenborough has allowed us to stay in our armchair and dwell on the complexity of living things on this small but densely populated planet. As Carl Sagan once wrote when contemplating the seeming rarity of life in the known universe, the earth is “a meadow in the sky”.

Whenever the case against television is brought up, the work of Attenborough is called by the defence. In the television world, where so much is required to be fake, from the smiles to the feigned interest of the interviewer, Atten­borough conveys passion, a wish to communicate not defined by pay packet or celebrity. He is not making a film about tribal art or bowerbirds or environmental crisis because it’s a job; he is doing it to share ideas, convey wonder and to learn for himself. This is not a tired academic going through the rigmarole of explaining life one more time; this is someone able to capture the excitement of the adventure because he is still on it. Where cynicism and ironic distance can seem the way of the 21st century, here is an unashamed enthusiast. As he leaned forward during this interview and told us of seeing the hasty and flamboyant mating ritual of a hummingbird slowed down so each intricate detail could be examined, he reminded me that it is criminal to feel bored in a world so rich.

Of walking in the Brazilian jungle, Darwin wrote: “The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind. If the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butterfly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect, one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over . . . The mind is a chaos of delight . . .” David Attenborough has helped stimulate minds into that state of chaotic delight.


Brian Cox How has the public perception and presentation of science changed over the 60 years that you’ve been involved with it?
David Attenborough I suppose there was a mystique about science and also a certain sus­picion of it. I went to grammar school: if you were very bright, you did classics; if you were pretty thick, you did woodwork; and if you were neither of those poles, you did science. The number of kids in my school who did science because they were excited by the notion of science was pretty small. You were allocated to those things, you weren’t asked.

This was in the late 1930s/early 1940s, and schools are better about that now. But it’s indicative of the way people thought about science: they didn’t really connect science and technology – “OK, yes, that’s how you mend a fuse, but that’s not science”– which of course is nonsense. Science was seen as something more remote and less to do with everyday life. Since then, our society has become so technologically based that you really can’t be a fully operating citizen unless you understand basic science. How are you supposed to make judgements about the health of your children if you don’t believe in science? How are you supposed to make a judgement about a generation of fuel and power if you don’t believe in science? You can’t operate as a sensible voting member of a democratic society these days unless you understand fundamental scientific principles to a degree.

BC And yet, today, there seems to be a politi­cisation and a polarisation of ideas. There’s a certain camp that distrusts science, particularly when we start talking about vaccination policy or climate change.
DA I’ve never known a time when scientists weren’t hypersensitive about not being understood by the rest of society. Whenever I come across scientific institutions, unless they are absolutely remote, sort of dealing with little pockets of independence – as hobbies, really – they never think that society as a whole understands what they are about. But I think it’s not as bad as many scientists now believe; I think it was worse 50 years ago.

BC Do you think the presentation of science on television has a role to play?
DA Yes, and the BBC can be reasonably proud there. In 1952, when I joined, there was a chap whose responsibility was “science” and he was a physicist. The head of the department where I worked – rather absurdly called Talks – was an Oxford geneticist, and she was extremely keen on science.

One of the great achievements of the 1950s and 1960s was a series called Your Life in Their Hands, which dealt with medical science. It presented the scientific evidence for the connection between tobacco and cancer, against the entrenched opposition, all of which you can quite easily imagine.

In those days, the doctors concerned were not allowed to use their names – it was against medical practice and ethics – so he was just called the “television ­doctor” and he presented the evidence of the connection between the two over and over again on television. A lot of people tried to stop it, but he carried on. It ruined his career, I suspect, in the medical sense, but he stuck to his guns. It’s one of early television’s badges ­of honour.

BC Do you feel you have become more polemical recently? Because I know you have written that the real delight you find is essentially in observing nature. Have you become more a campaigner?
DA It’s OK for you – you are a scientist. I am not a scientist.

BC You are a fellow of the Royal Society.
DA But I’m an FRS for popularising science and I don’t have a right to go out and talk about the details and physics of the upper atmosphere. I only take it from what other people say. I respect researchers who do that sort of work and can make some degree of assessment as to whether they’re cranks or not.

If you appear as frequently on television as I do, looking at bunny rabbits or whatever, it’s very tempting to think people notice what you say, because you’re the one person they see and hear on the subject of science, so they think you’re a scientist. You are not a scientist. I’m a television journalist and mustn’t become so intoxicated with my own intellect that I suddenly believe that I discovered these things or I have a privileged position to assess them.

All I can do is use what scientific education I have to say: “Look, listen, I know this about this, just look at this graph.”

In the early days of dealing with climate change, I wouldn’t go out on a limb one way or another, because I don’t have the qualifications there. But I do have the qualifications to measure the scientific community and see what the consensus is about climate change.

I remember the moment when I suddenly thought it was incontrovertible. There was a lecture given by a distinguished American expert in atmospheric science and he showed a series of graphs about the temperature changes in the upper atmosphere. He plotted time against population growth and industrialisation. It was incontrovertible, and once you think it’s really totally incontrovertible, then you have a responsibility to say so.

Robin Ince With Frozen Planet, there was some hullabaloo over the editing-together of footage of a polar bear birth. And journalists turned that into: “Can you trust anything in this series?” Do you ignore that kind of thing?
DA No, you can’t ignore it and you shouldn’t ­ignore it – because people are reading it, so you should respond.

With that, I wouldn’t say it’s mischievous, but you know, the fact that it was shot in the zoo was made clear by us to start with. If the programme had shown me, or anybody, saying, “Here I am, trudging across the Arctic, and I am going to see if I can find a polar bear den and then crawl through snow and then put it in a shot” – well, that’s a lie.

But if you are trying to create a sequence in which you are making a genuine attempt to explain the biology of bears, one of the key things is that the young are born in the middle of the hibernation period. Unless you understand that, it doesn’t make sense of the life cycle. You are doing a dud programme if you don’t include that sort of thing.

So we didn’t do the drama of showing me crawling around. We said: “This is the polar bear’s life.” I think I got one letter saying that was wrong, and all the rest – several dozen letters – were from people saying, “What do they take us viewers for? Do they think we’re stupid enough to think that every shot you’ve ever taken is exact?”

RI Your new Sky series is about Galapagos. Was your first visit to Galapagos with Life on Earth?
DA Yes.

RI It’s seen now, in terms of biology, as almost a mystical place, because of Charles Darwin. He used to talk about his mind being a “chaos of delight” there – did you find that, too?
DA Yes, before I ever went, if you talked about the Galapagos and Darwin, most biologists and naturalists would think of finches – and quite right, too: that’s what clinched the thing as far as Darwin was concerned.

But it wasn’t the finches that put the idea [of natural selection] in Darwin’s head, it was the tortoises. The reason he didn’t use the tortoises [in writing On the Origin of Species] was that, when he got back, he found he didn’t have localities on the tortoise specimens. Here the great god, the greatest naturalist we have records of, made a mistake. His fieldwork wasn’t absolutely perfect.

That was quite entertaining to start with, but also it’s much more comprehensible for the audience that [in Life on Earth] we went with the tortoise and the length of its neck rather than less dramatic changes in the shape of the bill of a sparrow-like finch.

RI Now that you have been making shows for 60 years, are there still moments when the natural world still flabbergasts you?
DA Things flabbergast me all the time. I wasn’t involved in filming it, but a friend of mine was up in the Andes filming the courtship display of a particular hummingbird, a high-altitude hummingbird. The female was trying to advance, and the male was coming and going, “prrrrrrt”, and then it was gone.

You think, “Oh, that’s OK” – but then my pal had the wit to shoot it at 250 frames [a second] and you suddenly saw the complexity of the display. It was astounding, all at this very, very high speed.

The moment you say that, you think of the timescale of hummingbirds, the speed of their hearts and the temperatures at which they operate. Their timescales are quite different. You suddenly realise your own limitations: how your sensory perceptions are governed by your heart rate.

I thought that was so exciting, and it taught you so much, not only about how complex nature is, but about how impoverished your perceptions can be, governed as they are by your human condition.

BC I suppose you would use “impoverished” in terms of not being exposed to these ideas and not being able to see the behaviour of these animals. So how important do you think broadcasting, and specifically public-service broadcasting, is to the fabric of the country?
DA I think you and I know, because we’ve ­spoken together before. You and I feel the same way about this. It seems to be a fundamental responsibility of a broadcaster to make these things apparent.

As we were saying earlier, how can you be a competent member of a democratic society, with a right to vote, and have no conception of or no basis for understanding the technology on which the whole of your society is built, from the food you eat and the schools you go to, to the way you move, the way you communicate, the way you look after your kids, the way you read at night? All these decisions are fundamentally scientifically based.

Now, if a public-service broadcasting organisation has any responsibility, then it must be in these areas where it doesn’t necessarily make a financial profit to talk about it.

Science is an obvious example. We spend a lot of time saying, “Oh yes, it’s very accessible and very exciting” – but it’s not always accessible, it’s not always exciting, and it’s quite easy to be boring about. It is the job and responsibility of the broadcaster to deal with these problems and make sure it’s available to everybody. I really feel very powerfully about that. If the BBC as a public-service organisation allowed its scientific output to dwindle, then it ought to be a national scandal.

RI Is there a danger of underestimating the public? Is there a worry that television producers get so worried about viewing figures that they begin to think their audiences are more stupid than they are – and decide to give them more dance shows, cookery, or whatever?
DA It’s certainly a danger, there’s no question about that. Perish the thought that the BBC as a public-service organisation should suppose that the only criterion for success is audience size. That would be absolutely dreadful.

In my view, the proper attitude of a public-service broadcaster is that it should attempt to cover as broad as possible a spectrum of human interest and should measure success by the width of those views. There shouldn’t be all that large a number of gaps in the spectrum; and a major element in the spectrum is scientific understanding. The fact that it doesn’t necessarily get as big an audience as cookery is of no consequence.

BC We touched on this at the start – over the time that you’ve been in television, making natural history programmes and science programmes, it’s very tempting to see a degradation in their quality. You read that a lot in the newspapers: “It’s not as good as it used to be.” So are you optimistic or pessimistic? Do you think standards are improving or declining?
DA I think that standards vary and there will be cycles. There were in my time, and it was certainly the case when ITV came into existence. I was at the BBC when it was a monopoly – and we assumed that because viewers had nothing else to look at, they would watch us and we were doing OK.

It came as a great shock to us that this wasn’t the case – that when ITV came into existence, suddenly lots of viewers who had the choice moved elsewhere. That was a very salutary lesson. You have to recognise that you don’t just put programmes out there to the poor public, who are supposed to regard themselves as privileged to have it put in front of them. You’ve got to do better than that, you’ve got to proselytise, if you believe that the standards of civilisation, of our society, are worth purveying.

BC Now you are working with Sky. Did you think you’d ever move to a commercial station?
DA No.

BC Does it hearten you that a commercial station will make these programmes and put this amount of money into them?
DA The division that happened in 1954 when ITV came into existence seemed very clear, and it was exaggerated on both sides. We were way up in the ivory tower and didn’t give a damn about what the audience thought, and we thought the other side were just muckraking.

Well, the broadcasting landscape has become much more complex, much more sophisticated than that. There’s no longer a duopoly; there are lots of us doing all sorts of things and I would never have thought, for example, that the BBC would take advertising.

You would say: “It doesn’t, does it?” But the fact is that it does. UKTV, in which the BBC has a 50 per cent share, takes BBC programmes and puts advertisements in them. The first time I saw that done to one of mine was a bit of shock. I thought, “I didn’t sign up for this.”

ITV is not as black as it was painted, and the fact that Sky is prepared to do a 3D programme and one of the first important things based on vertebrate palaeontology – that’s not bad.

RI In your 60 years making programmes, was there a moment when you thought “the childhood me could not imagine that I would be in such a situation”?
DA Oh, yes. Quite a lot, really. It occurs over and over again. But I remember one particular occasion in northern Australia. We built a hide on a big billabong and got there at about three o’clock in the morning, a couple of hours before sunrise. And the sun comes up, and you see this billabong thronged with magpies, geese, herons, cockatoos, kangaroos, coming down to drink, marine crocodiles.

You had a vision of the natural world, a Rousseau-esque kind of thing. You suddenly held your breath, because you were in a strange, godlike thing; you saw the world as it was without humanity in it. And then suddenly something happened – I forget what it was, someone made a noise or something – so the whole thing was gone. But that was a moment of perception which haunts you.

BC This edition of the New Statesman is a celebration of reason, and I think maybe science is on the rise again. Are you optimistic or pessi­mistic about our country’s scientific future?
DA I would have thought that, among the younger generation, the dominance of tech­nology is now such that you have to engage with realities of science. Just by working with some of these technological devices you are learning binary mathematics, you are learning logical processes which you didn’t have to do when you were considering what Ovid wrote or Plato’s arguments.

I begin to hope that this aspect of technology will lead to a rational approach to thinking about problems we’re going to face. That will be very important to instil in the kids. Do you think the same?

BC Yes, to an extent. Although earlier I asked the question about polarisation – because there is a polarisation and a politicisation, particularly on climate change, I’m thinking. There are people you may credit as being intelligent, people who we don’t have to name – we’ve got Nigel Lawson, for example . . .
DA But you’re missing one element, because you’re talking as if the playing field is even. It’s not. The playing field is in trying to see things as they are and, on the other side, trying to see things as you wish they would be because that would give you a bigger profit. Then you test the veracity or the strength with which you believe in rational thought.

So yes, two and two is four, but if saying two and two is four and a half would be worth a couple of hundred pounds, then you say it. That said, the theory of numbers itself is very, very interesting. [Laughter] It’s a generalisation in many ways. If you look at it from one point of view, it could well be four and a half.

BC Do you think we have a chance as a society of becoming so rational, or at least so respectful of science, that we will be able to address those challenges?
DA I hope we will, but you know the problems. As with the tobacco industry that we were talking about before – the leaders, were they all absolutely duplicitous? Or did they say, “I’ve become a multimillionaire as a consequence of this, and it’s not actually proven, this connection between cancer and nicotine. A lot of people love it, and the third world, what would they do without tobacco?”

You fudge it out of self-interest. I must be careful, because there are some people who genuinely believe it; quite a lot of people find it easier, happier, softer, more comfortable to believe than to face the awkward reality.

“Galapagos 3D with David Attenborough” is on Sky 3D and Sky1 HD on New Year’s Day (7pm)

You can read a summary of all the New Statesman's writing on David Attenborough, spanning 60 years, here.

Correction: the print version of this piece did not attribute the quote "a meadow in the sky" to Carl Sagan. This has been fixed.

Brian Cox is a broadcaster and professor of physics at the University of Manchester. Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. Together, they guest-edited the Christmas 2012 issue of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit