Isn’t Life Wonderful?

January 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

lifeonearthLife on Earth (Attenborough, David)

Picture this. You are taken into a chamber of the Gomantong Caves in Borneo. The atmosphere is hot and airless, and you can’t see a thing without your flashlight. You shine it up at the roof of the cave and you see tens of thousands of bats hanging from ledges. Every single one of them is eyeing you nervously. There is a pyramidal dune of bat dung that rises 30 meters from the ground all the way to the roof. You decide to clamber up the fetid fecal mess to get a closer look at the bats. As you haul yourself up the bat-poo, you notice that the surface of the guano that you are walking on is completely covered with a moving, glistening mass…of cockroaches. Mmmm, crunchy. As you reach the top, the bats panic, and all hell breaks loose. Ten thousand bats start flying around the small chamber in wheeling circles, shrieking at a pitch that you can barely register, their leathery wings brushing against your face, their dung spattering you all over, the heat of their bodies making the air even more unbearably suffocating than it was to begin with. All this while, the thought that is running foremost in your mind is this:

Q) How many tons of mosquitoes and other small insects must this colony eat in a day to account for this volume of dung?

Gripping television? I totally agree. But this isn’t one of the more extreme episodes of Fear Factor. This is Life on Earth. You are David Attenborough, and there are no prizes waiting for you at the end of the experience, except for the pleasure of having had the experience firsthand. And if so, in my opinion, you may be reasonably accused of harboring bats in your belfry as well as in your cave.

Attenborough describes many strange and scarcely credible life-forms in this book – and I am counting De Brazza’s guenon, with its white beard, blue spectacles, orange forehead and black cap; the freshwater flatworm that, if fed another of its kind, will instantly assimilate knowledge that its victim learnt; the axolotl that, on a steady diet of thyroid extract, loses its gills and grows lungs; the sooty tern that stays in the sky for three years once it takes off for the first time; the vervet monkey with the startling blue genitals – but of all these creatures, on the evidence of the Gomantong Caves experience and others like it in the book, David Attenborough himself surely ranks as one of the most extraordinary ones. I cannot dream of doing the things he does, nor conceive of having the thoughts he has while he does them. The overwhelming emotion is fascinated wonder – with Attenborough, and at him.


Not as strange as Attenborough…(Cercopithecus Neglectus, or de Brazza’s Monkey, courtesy Wikipedia)

There is only one thing that I would like to point out – hesitantly – as slightly jarring, and perhaps some kind reader who is better acquainted with natural history and/or Attenborough can set me right on this. Attenborough declares his Darwinian beliefs right at the outset:

…the driving force of evolution comes from the accumulation over countless generations of chance genetical changes, sifted by the rigours of natural selection. In describing the consequences of this process, it is only too easy to use a form of words that suggests that the animals themselves were striving to bring about change in a purposeful way … there is no objective evidence of anything of the kind and I have endeavoured, while describing these processes in a reasonably succinct way, not to use any phrases that might suggest otherwise…

Unfortunately, I believe, he hasn’t endeavoured hard enough. Here he is, describing the evolution of apes:

One group of lower primates was increasing in size. This brought a change in the way they moved through the trees. Instead of balancing on the top of a branch and running along it they began to swing along beneath it. Swinging successfully involves physical changes. Arms lengthen, for the longer they are, the better they can reach; the tail can no longer play a part in balancing and so it disappears; and the musculature and skeleton of the body changes in order to support an abdomen that is no longer slung beneath a horizontal backbone but strapped to a vertical one as to a pillar.

And again:

Elephant dung … still contains a great deal of twigs fibres and seeds that have remained virtually untouched. Some plants that have been stripped by elephants for millennia have reacted to the treatment by coating their seeds with rinds thick enough to withstand a prolonged soaking in the digestive juices.

Doesn’t the language suggest a Lamarckian intentionality to the evolutionary change that is contradictory to what Attenborough believes? There are many such examples in this book and in its sequel (which I had blogged about, here).

But we’re talking about theory, and Attenborough’s strong suit is fact: the fact of life. David Attenborough, perhaps more than any other natural historian I have read, is a high priest of life, and his books and TV shows are hymns to his deity. He loves all life, without exception, from the tiniest single-celled organism to the largest redwood in California, from the ancient Anarcestida ammonites to Homo Sapiens. His love is Spinoza-like, universal, both intellectual and spiritual, and based on a formidable foundation of near-encyclopaedic knowledge. My own enthusiasm for natural history is superficial and purely of an armchair variety – I draw the line long before cockroach-infested bat droppings come into the picture – but I have nothing but the deepest respect for Attenborough. My idea of a good time may be different from his, but I am certain that life on earth would be poorer without people like him.



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