Friday, February 08, 2008

David Attenborough - On Intelligent Design & Evolution, On Agnosticism

Interview: Watching David Attenborough
Laurie Taylor turns the microscope on to the man who’s brought us life on earth, in the freezer, under the oceans and in the undergrowth


Portrait of David Attenborough by Linda Brownlee...


I suggested to him that this endeavour had had one slightly unexpected consequence.

For although he had never made any bones about his own wholehearted subscription to the Darwinian account of the origins of this diversity, there had been those who used his “ecstatic” revelations to bolster arguments for intelligent design, to suggest that so much beauty and variety could not have arisen purely as the result of blind purposeless adaptation.
One sociologist has even suggested that ambitious, expensive and widely viewed programmes such as Attenborough’s are so committed to the “wonders of nature” brief that they are almost bound to imply that there is some intentionality at work in evolution.

Attenborough will just about admit that a script which says that “an ant-eater has a long tongue so that it can eat ants” can be interpreted as suggesting intelligent design, but maintains that there is quite enough elsewhere in the programmes to show that this is patently not what is meant. And indeed

even a casual viewing of a series like Life in the Undergrowth shows the extent of his evolutionary commitment.
He consistently picks out species that take a particular adaptation or behaviour to an extreme as well as showing the general direction of the species’ evolution. You can certainly watch for the pretty pictures but Attenborough’s words nearly always make it abundantly clear that what is so wondrous about nature is not, say, the plumage of the bird of paradise but the fact that this plumage had an adaptive function, that accident produced such an extraordinary display.

He told me that he had been so pestered by those who saw a divine pattern in nature that he had now developed a stock response.

“I tell them they ought occasionally to think less of beautiful things like hummingbirds and orchids and sunflowers and think of other, less attractive things. They might, for example, think of the parasitic worms that live only in the eyeballs of human beings. Think of that worm boring its way through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa. A worm that’s going to make him blind. Are you telling me that God or an intelligent designer created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball?”

He’d also been around long enough to remember other occasions when an overwhelming sense of wonder had prompted previous incarnations of the ID argument. “When we discovered this tiny little thing called a gene which carried the blueprint of a human being, there were those who said, how could such a complex matter be carried by such a thing? It must be designed. And now we know from work on the structure of DNA exactly how it happens.”

Yet he had never openly declared himself to be an atheist. “That’s right. I’m an agnostic.

In the strict sense that I don’t know. And I don’t know a lot. And I certainly don’t know about the existence of a supreme being or about the existence of an afterlife. The absence of evidence does not mean that there is a god. The absence of evidence means two things. It means that we don’t know but it also means scientifically that it would be interesting to find out.” There are those who accuse agnostics of hedging their bets. But this would quite unfair to Attenborough. His agnosticism is not a way of saying that there might be a god; it is rather a statement about the necessary humility and open-mindedness of the scientific attitude. It is a prescription for action rather than a refusal to enter the argument.

When I pressed him about religion in his childhood he admitted to singing hymns but never for a moment believing in the divine philosophy they sought to purvey. Where was the evidence?

His concern with evidence – there is probably no word that features as heavily in his conversation –
means that he is thoroughly up to date with the new debates in the field of Evo-Devo, debates about the manner in which the evolution of complex new forms, rather than requiring a succession of new mutations and new genes, may be accomplished through changes in already existing genes. He describes this as “fascinating and exciting” and in no way evidence that it might now be the time to doubt the potency of Darwinian theory.


There are some who argue that Attenborough might have made more use of his exalted status. Why, for example, hasn’t he been bolder in his denunciation of the creationists? He explains that he did indeed make a statement back in 2002 opposing the teaching of creationism in state schools, and more recently registered a strong protest when he discovered that a Dutch evangelical TV channel which had bought the Life of Mammals series had doctored the beginning of the first part so as to exclude his opening statement: “We will look at the lives of our closest relatives. And they will lead us to ourselves. Perhaps the most successful variation of the mammal’s winning design.”


As I’m leaving I tell him that Steve Jones recently selected the full DVD set of his television series as the most suitable present to hand to Darwin were he to return to Earth.

When I looked back from the garden path I was delighted to see that he was still savouring the compliment.

Full Article here.

1 comment:

  1. I wish Laurie Taylor had pressed him on this views on agnosticism .. along the lines of the arguements for Atkins (aka Russells) Teapot: