David Attenborough: “We’re lucky to be living when we are, because things are going to get worse”

"In another hundred years people will look back at a world that was less crowded, full of natural wonders, and healthier”

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There’s something about this picture, isn’t there? We’ve seen David Attenborough with the offspring of all sorts of different animals during his 60-year career. But there’s one species he’s rather overlooked: us.

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Now the 87-year-old is putting that right with a two-part documentary that chronicles the ascent of man. Starting with a tiny wormlike creature that swam in the sea 500 million years ago, Sir David charts the rise and rise of backboned animals – and, ultimately, the most successful vertebrate of all, Homo sapiens.


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To make the programme, Attenborough spent a month in China – where “sensational” recent fossil discoveries have, he says, “answered all sorts of questions” about evolution. And he admits that of all the thousands of species he’s met and studied, the human being is his favourite.

The warmth in his voice as he cradles a newborn baby in a Chinese maternity department is utterly life-affirming. “Well,” he laughs, “it would be very strange if I didn’t think that the human baby was one of the most charming creatures on Earth. I mean, I’ve been evolved to think that. I am an adult Homo sapiens and I am prejudiced in favour of my young.

“But it’s also one of the most extraordinary creatures in the whole of creation. It is capable of such fantastic development in such a short period of time. Just watching one’s child develop the skills of learning – they learn a couple of new words a day – that, by itself, is astounding.”

The baby human appears on screen as evidence of how far backboned animals have come in the last few hundred million years. Attenborough’s final judgement on screen is a simple one: “One thing is certain: the evolution of vertebrates has not yet come to an end.”

So what might come next? How might human beings evolve? His answer is surprising. “I think,” he says, “that we’ve stopped evolving. Because if natural selection, as proposed by Darwin, is the main mechanism of evolution – there may be other things, but it does look as though that’s the case – then we’ve stopped natural selection. We stopped natural selection as soon as we started being able to rear 95–99 per cent of our babies that are born. We are the only species to have put a halt to natural selection, of its own free will, as it were.”

Thanks to medicine, many “weak” babies who would die in the wild, go on to live – and have babies of their own. Meanwhile, thanks to birth control and abortion (especially in the developed world), we can, to a large extent, pick and choose which babies will be born and which will not.

But Attenborough is keen to point out that while physical evolution might have stalled, we are still developing culturally. “Stopping natural selection is not as important, or as depressing, as it might sound – because our evolutionary process is now cultural. Humans have a great cultural inheritance as well as a physical, genetic inheritance – we can inherit a knowledge of computers or television, electronics, aeroplanes and so on. Each generation has got all these books that tell them these things, so our cultural evolution is proceeding with extraordinary swiftness.”

Are all species on an inevitable journey towards extinction? “Not all. There are some species that have existed for 550 million years and are almost unchanged. There’s a little shellfish called a lingula, which is the size of my fingernail and lives in the mud, filter-feeding. You can find it still there exactly the same as it was 500 million years ago.”


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Earlier this year, Attenborough caused a flurry of controversy when he told RT that humans “are a plague on the Earth. Either we limit our population growth or the planet will do it for us.” He argued that we needed to curb our numbers, and stop what he sees as a land-grab of the planet. Otherwise, apart from the damage we’ll do to other species, we’ll face increasing famines of our own. He picks up the theme again now.

“I don’t think we are going to become extinct. We’re very clever and extremely resourceful – and we will find ways of preserving ourselves, of that I’m sure. But whether our lives will be as rich as they are now is another question. We may reduce in numbers; that would actually be a help, though the chances of it happening within the next century is very small. I should think it’s impossible, in fact.”

What about the one-child policy of the country he’s just visited? Is China’s approach an aberration, or could it be argued that it’s actually benefitting mankind?

“It’s the degree to which it has been enforced which is terrible, and there’s no question it’s produced all kinds of personal tragedies. There’s no question about that. On the other hand, the Chinese themselves recognise that had they not done so there would be several million more mouths in the world today than there are now.”

Won’t personal tragedies always be the consequence of such a draconian policy? “Well, except if you were able to persuade people that it is irresponsible to have large families in this day and age, and if material wealth and material conditions are such that people value their materialistic life and don’t suffer as a consequence, then that’s all to the good. But I’m not particularly optimistic about the future. I think we’re lucky to be living when we are, because things are going to get worse.

“I’m luckier than my grandfather, who didn’t move more than five miles from the village in which he was born. I have all kinds of pleasures and luxuries that I appreciate and I’m very, very fortunate. I think that applies to the majority of people – in this country, at any rate. But I think that in another hundred years people will look back at a world that was less crowded, full of natural wonders, and healthier.”

Ah, health. What about Attenborough’s own? In his ninth decade his work rate is extraordinary. For these Rise of Animals programmes, he spent a month in China, three weeks in Australia and also travelled to the United States. For another project at London’s Natural History Museum, he’s just spent a fortnight filming through the night.

In June he had a pacemaker fitted and a few months before that he had a knee replaced. Today, Attenborough projects the stiffest of upper lips. Before the heart procedure he wasn’t in any pain, and he wasn’t concerned for his life. He suggests that the only reason he submitted to the surgeon’s knife was that he’d be refused travel insurance had he not.

“It was no big deal. When you’re in your 80s, your heart gives you a funny five minutes every now and again and they won’t insure you unless you have a cardiologist to say that you can go on a long-haul flight. So I had to have the pacemaker.” And the knee? “Yes. One knee replacement. A year ago.”

A message that he ought to slow down? Work less? Even – shhh! – retire? “I don’t think so. If you’ve got a motorcar and its brakes fail, and you have the capacity to replace them, you replace them. And we have the capacity to replace knees, which is wonderful.

“I don’t ever want to stop work. Sure, something’s going to wear out some time and I won’t be able to do it, but while I can – and people want me to, and people look at the result – I’m delighted to work. If I was earning my money by hewing coal I would be very glad indeed to stop. But I’m not; I’m swanning around the world looking at the most fabulously interesting things. Such good fortune.”

David Attenborough’s Rise of Animals begins tonight at 9pm on BBC2

 


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