Created: 05-01-2003
Last update: 05-01-2003


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Winners, indeed

What follows below is the virtually unedited text of a letter in which I expressed my disgust at the first part of "The Life of Mammals", which I had just seen. I want to make it clear that it is not an invective against David Attenborough personally; he has narrated many nature documentaries that don't ooze mammalian chauvinism, there have been series without him that similarly married watch-worthy footage to intelligence-insulting commentary, and when the mammal-glorifying intro is over, he goes on to do what he does best: give a guided tour of Nature. It rankles, however, that precisely this, the most overblown "we are the champions" nature series I've ever taken the trouble to watch, should be presented by the respectable face of British nature programmes, who doesn't even bat an eye at its false assumptions, the obvious subjugation of science to the human ego (having resigned itself to being "animal", humanity wants to prove that it's the "best" animal around) and the outright inaccuracies, the latest boo-boo being the suggestion that hyenas are canines. I'll charitably assume that he didn't write his own lines and that all this really does serve to pay the expensive camera equipment. Meanwhile, he did play a great part in this project, and it is to this part that my criticism applies.

As it turns out, the gibe of a new "Life of..." was a fairly accurate prediction; apparently his next project is a similar series on invertebrates. It sounds promising, because, as I wrote to the same person who received the first missive: at least he won't be putting those at the apex of evolution, or it will make an interesting watch if he does.

Last Wednesday I interrupted a German nature/geography documentary about the Auvergne (which I've visited once or twice) to catch the first episode of David Attenborough's "Life of Mammals", another one of those grand projects that takes years to film and promises unique footage and a soundtrack so artistic that it's sold separately on CD; not without regret, as the German science/nature programmes, even if (as is often the case) they are translations of old BBC material, typically offer civilized, informed, and informative commentary, as opposed to the hysterical fearmongering in "Killer Beasts" programs on Discovery or the pompous, pointlessly emotive speeches of Lorne Greene in his Wild! Wild!! Wild!!! World of Animals! An odd thing considering it was Germany that spawned the Nazi scientists who claimed the world was destined to be conquered by an inherently superior Master Race - which race they conveniently belonged to.

The transition was unsmooth. Animals around the world are vying for the title of Most Succesful Species Ever! Boldly inhabiting the most Extreme of climates where no Animal has Gone Before! All for that greatest, most sought after honour: to have David Attenborough stick a probe in their hole, pardon, burrow. Thus, the most ancient and, judged by Man's competitive spirit, least succesful mammal families had their privacy invaded in the first episode, titled "A Winning Design".

It got interesting; but only after the introductory blurb full of glaring errors that I had to sit through. The ones I remembered: mammals are the only animals to have hair. So what grows on a bee's bum, or are insects no longer animals? Have the phylae been reshuffled while I was out? Even plants have hair, as Attenborough might recall from his own six-parter "The Secret Life of Plants". Mammals have diversified themselves into more forms than any other animal family; well, it's a good thing insects aren't considered animals any more, but even so mammals still face stiff competition from fish, molluscs, single- and double-celled organisms, invertebrates as a whole and, if I may count the prehistoric species, reptiles who diversified themselves into many, many forms, two of those being birds and mammals. Finally, mammals conquered the world! Yes, after a presumably meteor-caused catastrophe conveniently wiped out the dinosaurs.

Britain seems to be taking over US hysteria on more subjects than just Iraq. Now, biological studies have always served the social agenda; "Walking with Dinosaurs" already infused British family values into prehistoric species which may not even have lived in groups. But lately, people want to feel "winners", and in their extolling of animals who live in (to humans) inhospitable regions (and who would probably be very miserable anywhere else) biologists display their ignorance of the difference between "survival" and "survivalism". In making mammals a "winning" class of animal, humans are unsubtly blowing their own trumpet in a way very reminiscent of those Nazi scientists, who appear not to be a local product of Germany after all.

It'll never happen, but we can dream: David Attenborough interviewed by a critical person.

CP: Today we have a very special guest: the driven biologist, the wildlife expert, the Simon Schama of the animal world: David Attenborough!

[Cheers from the audience]

DA: Thank you, thank you.

CP: Mister Attenborough, I understand that in addition to the usual sexism and anthropomorphism that characterizes British animal series, this series features self-important, fascistoid claptrap.

DA: Oh, that! That's just the opening speech. To stop people from zapping, you see.

CP: Doesn't it offend you professionally that nature documentaries are beginning to sound more and more like soccer matches?

DA: And what's wrong with soccer? I'd play it more often myself if I wasn't always climbing trees to poke monkeys. But the fact is, many watchers just don't have the drive to explore and discover that I do, and so I also try to appeal to--

CP: The slobs sitting on their arses guzzling beer and watching soccer matches.

DA: Precisely.

CP: Ah.

DA: One has to think of one's ratings, you know. All this expensive camera equipment doesn't pay itself.

CP: So the quality of the programme has to be adjusted downwards to the level of the nation's population. Rather ironic, really, when the premise is the successful nature of the mammal family as a whole, including humans... I couldn't help noticing you included footage of Indians and Inuit to make that point.

DA: Yes, white people do tend to see coloured people as animals. Of course we are all animals, ha-ha, but there is that subtle shade of difference. Besides, you can't really call mammals a winning species and then film a bunch of Brits.

CP: Yes, I can see a critical audience wouldn't swallow that... Speaking of critical audiences, you made a number of quite obvious errors in your introduction. And you repeatedly spoke of mammals as having "conquered" the world. Since you were talking strictly about their geographical spread, isn't "infested" the word you were looking for?

DA: That's such a negative word. I doubt people who watch a series about, basically, themselves, would like the connotations.

CP: Sticking to "conquered", then... haven't insects and micro-organisms conquered the world more effectively than mammals in general and humans in particular?

DA: Absolutely. As I'll be stating in my next great project, "Life of Insects", followed by "The Secret World of Micro-organisms".

CP: Ah-ha. Mister Attenborough.

DA: Yes?

CP: Given the obvious errors, the self-contradictory statements in and between your programmes and the general popular appeal you seem to be going for - do you still expect anyone to take you seriously?

DA: Why not? Many people take the Iraq Dossier seriously. But, in all earnest; I am a man of science. Science is not, however, the best-paid of careers. I therefore have to make concessions, offering amusement to the ignorant, slipping in a fact here and there and counting on the truly interested to sort the gems from the dross. That way, everyone is satisfied.

CP: For instance, you think that people with a genuine interest in animal life are quite prepared to sit through a load of intelligence-insulting bullshit just to watch the first ever footage of a duck-billed platypus feeding her young?

DA: Why not? You did.

CP: And more fool me. Well, let's hear a warm applause for Mr Attenborough!

[DA leaves amidst loud cheering. A chimp waves a "We Love You" banner.]

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