Myth and wildlife documentary

The Daily Telegraph today reports some criticism of David Attenborough’s new blockbuster series on Africa. It’s the old complaint about anthropomorphic treatment of animal life, in this case the heart-rending mood music and scene-cutting surrounding a mother elephant’s leaving the herd to stay with her dying calf until all life was gone.

Older readers (surely that’s all of us here!) will remember that the same criticism was levelled by serious naturalists about Walt Disney’s 1950s True Life Adventures, and not without justice: they were inspiring entertainment rather than scientific reportage. Similarly, it’s been noted that the American viewer, for other than dispassionate scientific reasons, appears historically to have insisted on lots of predation-scenes in his nature documentaries, to the extent that in the past at least, this has partly guided the BBC’s film-making priorities. So there is a long history of presenting nature as-edited-for-effect, rather than literally as-in-the-raw, the latter being usually far less dramatic and, therefore, less watchable over a TV dinner.
I thought I’d written before (but can’t find it if I did) about the fact that the scientific documentary, ostensibly TV’s most factual genre, is in fact riddled with fictional conventions, such as scientists jetting back and forth between archaeological sites in search of new discoveries rather than, as the reality would be, reading the published literature in their university library and arguing their own position in print.

Anthropomorphism in wildlife stories is one of those conventions. Indeed, seeing wildlife in story-form is also an artistic convention, because animals themselves do not tell stories. The elephant example comes closer to truth than most, since there is at least some evidence that elephants display an analogy of human mourning. That’s hardly new, since tales of elephant graveyards have existed at least since colonial times. But beyond observing the fact that an elephant will sometimes stay with its dying, or dead, fellow, we can know nothing about what it means to the elephant, any more than we know about what being Nagel’s bat is like. The editing of the event in the style of a human deathbed scene is pure projection, and not scientific even before adding the music and narrative commentary.

The story-telling in other situations is even less valid – I’ve commented before, regarding another BBC documentary, about the pure fantasy of a polar bear’s anxiety over the noisy play of her cubs when she is in search of scarce prey. Is there actually evidence that bears worry about possible future starvation, still less that they project that on to their cubs, like a father shouting at his kids to behave in the shop in case they lose customers?

So is science education the priority, or is it story-telling entertainment, even in prestigious BBC documentaries? In the DT article Dr Anthony Seldon of Wellington College (whose link to the series was not made clear) said:

 “I am all for anything that is going to help people identify more with the plight and the lives of animals, and I think there is a significant degree of insincerity about the critics,” he said.
“You cannot do films with animals without having emotions there, whether it is 101 Dalmations at one end of the spectrum or this at another.”

That’s an interesting comparison. 101 Dalmations is unashamedly an anthropomorphic children’s tale. The dogs themselves are portrayed as surrogate foster-children to the human protagonists, and the villain is a human being intent on stealing the pups for fur-coats. In reality there never was a married dog and bitch who agonised with each other about how to prevent a human plot to kidnap their brood. Neither was there a cunning canine rescue attempt in any case where it happened … but I needn’t elaborate. The dogs in the story display purely human feelings, with no understanding whatever (even as far as humans can understand) of the real canine condition. Good for teaching truth about human empathy – not for teaching truth about dogs.

Those actually most familiar with creatures in the wild tend to have a less sentimental view of wildlife, witness the local hunt that’s due to ride past here within the next half hour (necessitating a more rapid dog-walk than usual). Country people observe wildlife closely, but without editing and incidental music. They anthropomorphise a lot less. Sometimes, human nature being as evil as it is, familiarity breeds contempt – the poachers who hunt elephants purely for their ivory know their ways well, and are even aware (like the documentary-makers but unlike the elephants) of their endangered status. They, it seems, have constructed a different human story to justify their actions, but who’s to say it’s any more untruthful than Attenborough’s?

What matters about the documentaries is not that they are telling a human story rather than a true animal one, but that the tale-weaving is given the authority of science. David Attenborough expects us to accept the documentary as scientific fact. And yet according to his brand of evolutionary theory, what happens to elephants is purely what they evolved to deal with routinely – lions were hunting their primitive ancestors, and this number of offspring, raised in that way, is what ensures elephantine success. On that model even the concern over a dying fellow-elephant is either part of an adaptive strategy or an adventitious behaviour that doesn’t harm survival. It cannot be a tragedy, because nature doesn’t (if blind and purposeless) do tragedies. Nature may be indifferent, but it cannot be cruel.

Yet tragedy in the human documentary format is supposed to produce action through sympathetic emotion: we learn about sex-trafficking or police corruption from a truthfully and skilfully told story, not to be entertained but to be moved to political or practical action. But what is the result of our strong emotional response to what happens in nature documentaries? Not to be educated into mere knowledge and appreciation of nature – if that were so, there would not be music, and the many hundreds of days in which the mother elephant had lived contentedly without losing a calf would be given more weight.

No, it would seem the response to which we are being guided is to rail helplessly against the implied cruelty of nature, which in the hands of many secularists enables both the dismissal of God and a condemnation of his character at one and the same time. That, of course, is a religious goal rather than a scientific one. Even apart from any anti-religious agenda, we are intended to feel unhappy about our world, and yet impotent to change it.

Historically, as I’ve commented before, Christians agreed that God’s natural creation was, and remains, good. It was a world in which we ought to be content. Augustine, watching a modern nature documentary, would be acutely aware of being manipulated. He would challenge the ability of the film-makers to know either the feelings of animals or the mind of God. Yet even in these days when the (in my view mistaken) theology of a fallen creation has come to predominate, the appropriate Christian reaction would be to see nature’s harshness and be driven to contrition for being the moral cause of it. Instead, we are led, blindfolded by our failure to perceive human artifice, into putting God in the dock. “How could he allow such suffering?”

The skeptical Catholic jounalist and commentator Malcolm Muggeridge once said provocatively that television is a medium incapable of telling the truth. If we are talking about high-quality nature documentaries, and about scientific and theological truth, then his words appear to be on the mark.

There’s no sign of the hunt yet…

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to Myth and wildlife documentary

  1. Hello Jon! My first comment on your blog, though I have been following it for a while.

    No doubt Attenborough has a mixed agenda in programmes like Africa. Similar criticism could be levelled at last week’s Stargazing Live (Brian Cox & co) … assumptions about the origins of the universe and of organic life … we can do away with God perhaps.
    Nevertheless, in both cases lots to learn and lots to commend.

    I didn’t notice a God-blaming sub-text in calf dying episode. Cleverly put together, as you say, but more than anything else I was left with an impression of the raw realities of life and death during a season of drought.

    Much of nature’s harshness appears to me to be independent of of human activity, past or present, so for the time being I will reserve my contrition for my own behaviour.

    Best wishes,

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Peter

    Thanks for dropping by. I wasn’t really suggesting a deliberate anti-religious slant in this (and similar) documentaries, but more a general feeling for the nature of reality that colours ones view of God’s character (or leads one to reject belief in him on the grounds of that character).

    My point was really that “raw reality” is a subjective experience, which is actually very different for humans watching than for the animals involved.

    The point about contrition was based on the common view that natural evil is the result of the Fall, rather than any suggestion that mankind produced the drought. But the bigger theological question, it seems to me, is whether natural evil is evil – that hasn’t been a Christian assumption during much of the Church’s history.

    Thanks for comments, anyway. I’ve missed Cox’s series so far. He seems to be quite a laid back kind of atheist (and of course a brilliant educator). TV being what it is, though, chances are he could spout nonsense and still be the popular face of physics, because of his charm!

  3. Avatar photo sy says:


    My first time here, as well, though I have followed your comments on Biologos. I think you have eloquently expressed my own thoughts on nature documentaries. But I would go further. In the US, a major theme of such programs is often the evil nature of humanity, in addition to, or superimposed on the inherent evil of nature.
    In these cases, after a more or less scientific or quasi scientific treatment of something, like forests, or arctic wolves or whatever, the audience is invariably treated to a sermon on the immense destruction of what we have just seen at the hands of man. This is another required convention, and it can pop up even when there really isnt that much nasty to be said.
    I agree with you there there is an underlying political message here, which may be seen more benignly as pro conservation and environmental protection, but is often simply anti human. Again, in many cases, there is not much that can be done, and the goal seems to be to get people to think about how much “better” off the world would be if we pesky humans werent in it.
    I agree that ultimately this is an anti Christian message, since it doesnt take into account at all the possibility of redemption, does not identify the source of this “evil” as springing from the Fall, but as simply an inevitable consequence of the greed and inherent evil nature of humanity.

    Now that I have discovered this blog, you can expect to be annoyed by my comments on a more regular basis.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi there Sy

    Very pleased to be annoyed by your comments, as I’ve always been impressed by yours at BioLogos.

    Yes, I concur about the “see what a mess we’ve made of everything” strand of nature documentaries too. There are of course some valid points to be made in that repect: an excellent series on tigers in Bhutan is on here at the moment, which breaks most of the conventions by just following the members of an expedition of bright and talented naturalists as they survey the tiger population with a view to a conservation project. In that context, the bemoaning of persecution of disappearing tigers for Chinese medicine makes perfect sense. But in others there does seem an agenda to offer you the wonders of God’s world just before saying, “But you can’t have them because you’ve been naughty.”

    Nevertheless, I must just add in the vein of Peter’s comment above that it’s worth wading through the polemic to appreciate the patience and skill of the guys (and girls) who clearly have such dedication to the created world themselves. Witness the Scottish entomologist picking giant leeches off himself yesterday as he said sincerely (if through gritted teeth), “They’re all God’s creatures.”

  5. Cal says:

    Haha, this reminds me of a Nova documentary on Chimps. They slowed down the frame-rate, turned on mood music and showed a chimp splashing water. The commentary: Was it in this action we see the emergence of religion?

    After some reflection, I wish I had stood up and said (in the middle of a class no less): “What?!”

    Anyway, some of the popular scientists who put together these sorts of things and are atheists are doing a good job. What do I mean? I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it subtly (or not so subtly) expressed that god is a non-entity, we need to grow up, seize the stars and become better humans (more evolved even!). I like the work their doing.

    What work is that? Iconoclasm. Every argument is against the big-man, abstract omnipotence that has populated (particularly American) folk religion as God with a capital g. They say: we don’t need the cranky moralist/architect in the sky, we’re done with that god, we don’t want a watch maker.

    Amen. The Lord is shaming us Christians who have clasped hands with a generic Theism to go along our ways of apologetics. It was not the god of the philosophers who created the Heavens and the Earth but the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.

    That’s my rant for today,

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    In a way, Cal, taking moral lessons from the animal world may be quite legitimate. It was the whole business of natural history before the Enlightenment, from the proverbs of Solomon through the parables of Jesus to the mediaeval bestiaries. Everything was there to teach us about our own place in the Universe and our relationship to God. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard…”

    The difference, I suppose, is that this anthropomorphism is done in the name of materialist science, and not to point to animals as lessons for us, but to suggest that animals are us.

    Anyway, I was glad to see someone here suggest that one of the guys who did the tiger documentary, Gordon Buchanan, may be “the next Attenborough”. That would be good, in that he simply represents what is before his camera with awed appreciation for what it is.

    Also in the frame is Brian Cox, who has no background in zoology but does have more of an agenda according to an interview in the Radio Times, along the lines of “Those of us who don’t believe God did it need to show what did.” Maybe that confirms some of the suspicions I raise in the above.

  7. Cal says:

    Oh I don’t disagree that you can’t take moral lessons from the animal world. The question is whether it is a learning exercise like a fable or a parable or just a general story, or whether what you’re describing is actually happening.

    So an example may be that if you’re traveling in a group, you could say: “Don’t be the easy target like a gazelle being picked by a Cheetah as weakest in the pack” but that doesn’t mean gazelles consider their fitness/weakness or that cheetah’s consciously decide to get the easiest prey.

    I have a love/hate relationship I suppose. I’m quite glad to see an Attenborough type go and let the wilderness just be wilderness. However, the materialistic opinionating may detonate idols and raise questions “Why is the world the way it is?”. Maybe it leads them to the cross.


  8. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I have to add for the record that I first avidly watched David Attenborough’s TV series in Paraguay around 1959, and his series on Galapagos a year or two later fed into my love for zoology – I remember actually writing a story at primary school in which the Galapagos figured largely. I subsequently devoured his Zoo Quest books along with Gerald Durrell’s in the same genre.

    Should have ended up spouting evolution on TV instead of doing medicine, I guess!

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