Sunday, 1 February 2009

Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life

I've just finished watching the BBC documentary Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, presented by Sir David Attenborough. Overall, it was a good summary of the man's life and his (and Wallace's) theory of evolution by natural selection, with footage of Attenborough in his younger days dotted about between clips of him as he is now in places such as Down House and the Natural History Museum. There was a lot of footage of my darling Museum, which I was glad to see, and was even a bit surprised when I saw Sir Dave talking in the Earth Sciences library where I am currently employed about twenty minutes into the documentary. I noticed the Richard Owen statue was at the rear of the Central Hall at the top of the first set of stairs, where Charlie Darwin now sits, as the two were moved late last year. Towards the very end of the programme, the uprooting of Owen to the dark recesses of the first floor near the Botany department, and his rightful replacement by Darwin was shown.

I noticed one biographical flaw; Attenborough stated that Darwin had studied both botany and geology at Cambridge University before going on the Voyage of the Beagle. It is well known that he had never formally studied any of the natural sciences at university, and learned Theology in Cambridge at Christ's College, which I used to pass near enough every day when I spent my undergraduate years in that city. It is true, however, that Darwin approached professors such as Adam Sedgwick to learn about geology in his free time. It should have been made clear that Darwin had no formal grounding in geology or other branch of natural history, in my opinion.

When Attenborough was explaining the wonders of the platypus, he made the fatal error of saying the platypus is a "primitive mammal". Of course it is not, it is just one which retained the same way of life as its ancestors have done for tens of million years. There was also the fact that the mass extinction of the Cretaceous-Tertiary was mentioned as "catastrophic", but not a single mention of the earlier, much more "catastrophic" Permian-Triassic one. Other than these, the programme was well put together, and Attenborough makes a grand effort at simplifying things for the masses to understand, without oversimplifying them too much. I even learnt a new tidbit of information; I was not aware that neither Darwin nor Wallace were present during the reading of their thesis to the Linnean Society in 1858, as Wallace was still in the East Indies and Darwin was mourning the death of his son.

If you want a free "Tree of Life" poster from the Beeb, you can go to this website, where there is also more information on this programme and the others in the 200th b-day celebrations series. This is not an advertisement for the BBC, they get enough of our money through licence fees.

1 comment:

Raptor Lewis said...

You think that has problems?!! Check out the documentary that Marek Eby was ranting about on his blog: etrilobite.com!!