Sir David Attenborough, the legendary natural history filmmaker revered across the Earth for his contributions to our appreciation of and connection with the natural world, says, “When I first started making programmes, the origin of life and the structure of DNA was unknown. The fact that continents might drift across the surface of the planet was ridiculed. Then, science was something you did in museums and laboratories. Today, that’s very different. Today, scientists travel to the farthest ends of the Earth. As a result of their discoveries, we can now make sense of what, not so long ago, seemed baffling mysteries. And for the last 60 years, I’ve been traveling in their footsteps, trying to translate some of their insights into film.”
So begins the second installment of Attenborough’s Life Stories. As a PBS Nature production, and a coproduction of Thirteen and BBC in association with WNET, our expectations for the three-part series are high—and the show delivers, with this episode illustrating some of the greatest secrets unlocked by science in the last half-century.
[Greylag geese (Anser anser) flying alongside boat. The same species that Lorenz used in his famous imprinting experiments. Loch Lomond, Scotland. Photo Credit: © Mary Lou Aitchison 2011.]
Attenborough presents the episode, introducing us to many breakthrough scientists, including Jane Goodall and Konrad Z. Lorenz, as we consider the mysteries behind the link between fish and amphibians, molecular genetics, DNA fingerprinting, imprinting, animal behavior (including mating rituals, family bonds and communication), the way we are kin to Chimpanzees, and more.
We see excerpts from Zoo Quest for the Paradise Birds (1957), Life on Earth (1979), The Living Planet (1984), Trials of Life (1990), Attenborough in Paradise (1996), Life of Birds (1998), and Life of Mammals (2002).
The editing is a brilliant marriage of computer animation, older footage from many of Attenborough’s documentaries, and new experiences and narration, conveying a dynamic atmosphere seamlessly—at times peaceful, funny, poignant, fascinating, cute, and often beautiful, marvelous and vibrant.
I adore Attenborough’s narration of animal behavior, and his anecdotes. From his description of the mating rituals of the birds of paradise to the sleepy meerkats to the terrifying hunt for monkey meat by seemingly docile chimpanzees, Attenborough matches the mood perfectly. He reports from the Himalayas or a few feet from an active volcano with equal aplomb, and his passion is contagious.
Attenborough ends this episode by saying, “So, in my lifetime, science has solved many of the riddles which, 60 years ago, seemed so baffling. How mountain ranges are formed, why animals are distributed in the way they are, and how they communicate with one another. How a complex chemical molecule can transfer the characteristics from one generation to the next. So now the natural world makes more sense than it ever did, which is why studying it is so rewarding, and so delightful.”
Being in my late 20s, I took many of these discoveries for granted much in the same vein that I know the Earth is round—so for me to learn the historical context of the science, and to observe it coming into light through Attenborough’s eyes, I came to appreciate the truth behind the saying “the miracle of modern science.” This series should be included in the required curriculum of all schools, so our present and future generations can learn the context of science and natural history in a far more tangible—and delightful—way than one could conceive from reading a textbook.
[Tree frog in Borneo. The presence of closely related frogs on different continents was the first evidence that the continents might move. Photo Credit: © Adam Scott 2012.]
Vincent Van Gogh was quoted (from the audio tour of the Norton Simon museum) as considering that “Portraiture with a thought… with the soul of the model in it” was true portraiture. In that spirit, this series is a fascinating portraiture of the natural world, welcoming us into the lives of the smallest insects to our distant cousins, reminding us of connections that are built into our DNA from millions of years ago, rooted in something we don’t always consciously appreciate.
I’m grateful to Sir David Attenborough for dedicating so much of his life to bringing this affinity of our Earth and our natural kin to our present awareness. The next episode, “Our Fragile World”, will be an interesting conclusion to this series as we explore the historical context of the ecological movement, and what hope our present and future world holds.
“Understanding the Natural World” airs at 8/7pm central on Wednesday, January 30th, on PBS. (If you cannot watch or TiVo it, all episodes are streamed online the day after they air. Attenborough’s Life Stories is also available on DVD or Blu-ray.