David Attenborough the vitalist

David Attenborough is by far the greatest populariser of evolution this side of the Atlantic – far more so than the Gnu posterboy Richard Dawkins – and I suppose, because of the sheer quality of BBC documentaries, perhaps he is on the western side as well. But what kind of evolution does he actually believe? It’s pretty clear from interviews and pronouncements on the subject itself that he’s a fan of Darwin, and doesn’t depart in any important respect from classical Neodarwinism. But the stuff he prepares for popular consumption – that by which he has become a “public institution” – paradoxically preaches a quite different doctrine. And that actually seems to be a kind of vitalism.

His latest series, The Rise of Animals began screening here last week, and the first episode (still available on BBC i-Player as I write) described the history of the vertebrates up as far as what I take to be his main focus, the mammalia. In this programme, I was struck by the way that it not only employed teleological motifs, but was actually drenched in design and engineering language throughout, in a way that would earn someone like Stephen Meyer the label of “Creationist” had they used it.

Attenborough’s designer, though far more explicit than that in any ID literature, is not God. And it is most certainly not Dawkin’s blind watchmaker or his selfish genes. Instead it is the plucky organisms themselves, not content with their lowly lot, intent on self-betterment, and inventive beyond belief, as I shall now document.

This doctrine begins just ten minutes in, after the necessary introductions, when Attenborough talks of “the challenges the first vertebrates faced.” Bear in mind that biologically speaking, those challenges involved nothing more than being either lucky enough to survive to reproduce or not. But that is not what David has in mind, as we find at 12.25:

“If the early vertebrates were going to take advantage of the variety of food that was available in these early seas, they were going to have to develop a much more complex and powerful form of eating machinery.”

Here we have an intellectual goal: the observed abundance of food that is beyond reach. We have an imperative challenge: vertebrates have to act to bring that goal within reach. We have the identification of the shortcoming: it’s a technical problem with the eating machinery. And we have an engineering solution: the design and manufacture of something more complex and powerful. All these ideas may not show irreducible complexity, but they demonstrate irreducible teleology: primitive vertebrates conceive a purpose, which they will to overcome technologically by building machinery. How ID is that?

That is only the start, for the same narrative is offered for every “key stage” (as the intelligent biased observer would interpret it post hoc) in the evolutionary path leading to mankind. So around 16:28 is this:

“In order to collect food you have to find it, and that led to an improvement in swimming.”

“That”, the efficient cause of the improvement in swimming, according to Attenborough, is the desirability of collecting food. That must lead to goal-setting, which in some mysterious way triggers evolution. For those who may be distracted or ignorant of Darwinian lore, the actual theory suggests that, happening to acquire better swimming, some vertebrates fortuitously gained better access to food, and so produced more offspring. But that aspect is completely absent from Attenborough’s account. Instead, we get this at around 20:10:

“These bony fish could subject their skeletons to the greater forces that come with increase in speed and agility. They added mobile fan-shaped fins, and assumed a multitude of different forms.”

I don’t know about you, but the picture I get is of Andy Murray, keen to subject his body to ever-greater forces, but constrained by lack of bones. Once those arrive by mail-order, he can choose all the accessories impossible without them. Attenborough refrains from describing all those early boneless fishy heroes who snapped their notochords just trying too hard with the fan-shaped fins … but he also omits the more prosaic Darwinian account of chaos with some ultimate gradual trends.

At 21.40, regarding the colonisation of the land:

“Here were rich pickings for any vertebrate that could reach them.”

It’s the American west, isn’t it? “There’s gold in them thar hills.” You can stay at home and starve on potatoes, or show courage and ingenuity and make a fortune. But you’ll do nothing unless you understand and believe the traveller’s tales of untold riches out there, and make a plan. Less than a minute later:

“To achieve this remarkable feat, they would have to make a major modification … building the railroads. To move around on land without the support of water these fish needed a way to lift their bodies up from the surface of the ground. They needed limbs.”

At 29:25:

“The arrival of life on land had stimulated a surge of life in and around freshwater swamps, and this created new opportunities for the fish that lived there.”

Darwinian reality check: some plant life-forms happened to survive on land, and some animals that wandered into freshwater swamps and didn’t die from osmoregulatory problems therefore didn’t die of starvation either. Now maybe that could be described as “stimulation” and “opportunities”, but wouldn’t you say language is being stretched a little, and misleading the listener into the bargain?

By 34.30 we’re on to Tiktaalik‘s limbs, and are told that this limb:

“…became the driving force behind one of the most spectacular events in evolutionary history – the arrival of the first vertebrate animals on land.”

Now, there are evolutionists who believe that evolution is driven by natural selection, and others who stress random mutations. Vitalists (such as Attenborough’s script has unwittingly promoted so far) have the idea that life itself is its driving force, and of course many ID people and some TEs put God in the driving seat. I almost omitted self-organisation theorists, who see progessive forces somewhere deep within the physical processes of nature. All these are worthy of discussion. But Attenborough has a new take on things altogether – it is the phenotypic organ – the limb – which is the driving force not only of Tiktaalik itself, but of subsequent evolution on to dry land. How, one might ask? And the reply might be, “It’s just a figure of speech.” But when it’s the only explanation given in what is supposed to be a science programme teaching what drives evolution, something is surely missing.

One last example, just to get us on to a firm surface, from 35:38:

“To survive on land, [amphibians] had to solve a new challenge. They had to be able to extract oxygen not from water… but from the air.”

Fortunately, Tiktaalik’s immediate successors had also taken the opportunity afforded by freshwater swamps to evolve gas-exchange engineers… the second half of the programme continues in the same vein, suggesting (a) desirable goals for lifestyle progress, (b) having existing vertebrates appreciating, and then solving, the engineering solutions required, and (c) then celebrating their success by a burst of creative exploitation of the new territory. As Attenborough appreciatively contemplates another fossil, he doesn’t actually have to say, “You wouldn’t believe this little fellow was such a clever blighter, would you?”, but the message is there, intended or not. So the question is why?

I have to add that the scientists doing voice-to-camera are usually a lot more on-message regarding evolutionary theory. There is much of  “those with these adaptations were at a considerable advantage…” talk, and so on, using non-teloelogical language. But it is not they, but Attenborough, who is the programme’s front-man, and science’s spokesman and populariser. So why does he allow a narrative of courage and initiative dominate a narrative that, in methodologically correct scientific terms, should be to do with random change, fortuitous occupation of niches and, strictly, no notion of such misleading ideas as progress, let alone purpose?

One answer might be that it would make for a very boring story – that despite the intrinsic appeal of exploring our own past, the fantastic scientific discoveries, and the gorgeous BBC graphics. There’s a part of me that wonders if selling the lay-public a theory of vitalism, instead of the evolutionary processes Attenborough actually embraces, is too much of an educational price to pay to make a good TV show.

But that can’t really be a valid reason, or it would be true of other science programmes too. You can’t imagine Brian Cox talking about the evolution of the solar system and saying, “If the solar system was going to be able to keep its inner planets intact, and maintain the chances of life devloping, it was going to have to sweep up all the dangerous debris left over from its formation. Building the gas giants as a gravitational filter was the answer.”

Something more subtle is going on – probably, I suspect, quite subconsciously on the part of David Attenborough and the scriptwriters. I’ll put out just a couple of general feelers – maybe readers might be able to develop them or add more.

The first is that the fundamentally recognisable characteristic of life, and particularly of animal life, is its self-determination: what Aristotle called the sensitive soul, responsible for mobility and sensation. Animals manage their lives actively – which is the deep mystery of biology – and to any normal human, that is their major characteristic.

If the story of evolution were told in the purely passive terms of traditional Neodarwinian theory, I suspect it would lead to a huge public credibility gap. One can identify with even a primitive fellow-creature – and so have a sense of awe in handling its fossil remains – but one cannot have any fellow-feeling with a selfish-gene’s reproductive machinery. Indeed, once one drew the obvious conclusion that one was oneself only such a victim of, and not a participant in, evolution, much of the popular appeal would vanish.

The second point relates to a similar, equally powerful, instinct. And that of course is the universal conviction of design in living things. Properly speaking, documentaries about evolution should be pushing the message that such design is illusory – or at least, getting across the “key” message that it is design without a designer, either outside or inside nature. Instead, because I believe the wider public would simply reject evolution if this were stressed, Attenborough has hidden that message by talking in design terms throughout, and attributing that design to the entities (or those he’s prepared to admit) with the most public credibility – that is, the organisms themselves, as the “sensitive souls” he’s already painted them to be.

Is the target audience for the series naive enough to take this representation as science, rather than as an anthropomorphised folk tale? Will they see through it as helpful packaging and assume the mundane undirected and undirectional processes of mutations random with respect to fitness, and natural selection? Ask yourself which spokesman for evolution is most popular amongst ordinary people – Attenborough or Dawkins? People are being told what they want to believe.

Should either of these two be allowed to be studied in science classes, though? It’s a serious question, worthy of conducting court cases, at least in the US, where they thrive on such things. Dawkins is mainly a propagandist for an unscientific metaphysical religion of materialism. His science is outdated.

Attenborough, though is a spokesman for a simple-minded anthropomorphic vitalism, and doesn’t really cover evolutionary theory at all. ID is hard science in comparison.

Jon Garvey

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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