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…