People of Science with Brian Cox – Sir David Attenborough on Charles Darwin


David: People of Science. Take one. Brian: David, why did you choose Charles Darwin? David: He inspires me because he made sense out of the natural world. And not only just physical sense of why animals have antlers or why birds have fine feathers, but to suggest the mechanism which led to all these multiplicity of forms. And that’s a huge change in the mindset. And that’s a huge change in the mindset.
So Darwin is the founding father of really scientific zoology and botany. So Darwin is the founding father of really scientific zoology and botany. Brian: And it’s interesting to look back on his early career and his motivations really or his inspiration. How did he get there? David: He was absolutely mad about collecting beetles
and when you do start collecting things you say, well this one is different from that but is it more different or less different from that? And that means you start building genealogies. And that means you start building genealogies.
That was the trigger which led him to these extraordinary thoughts. That was the trigger which led him to these extraordinary thoughts. Brian: It seems a very pure expression of what it is to be a scientist that it’s actually understanding the natural world is all that matters. David: I am really entertained by a sentence that
he wrote in one of his letters in which he says, “Every time I see a peacock’s tail… …I feel sick.” And he feels sick, because he can’t understand how it could be, that individual bird putting all that energy into growing this vast and immense tail with these complex patterns and colours
and one thing or another, how it could happen. And the thought that he couldn’t understand it was what made him sick. But in the end Darwin explained sexual selection. Brian: Back then that’s a bold statement.
Was he a bold character in that sense? David: He was intellectually bold in himself, but he wasn’t aggressive because I think he knew that the majority of society would’ve
found it deeply blasphemous to suggest that we were descended from simian ancestors. The more you know about Darwin, the more you realise
that he was enormously considerate. I mean, he had these strong, steely convictions but he was gentle with people. He was a courteous, kind human being. He was an extraordinary man. That’s a marvelous portrait of him isn’t it in his old age. Brian: This is 1868. David: And there’s his Beagle. Brian: What was the route that they took? David: Well, they were commissioned to go down to
the farthest tip of South America and do a survey around the Cape Horn but then of course they decided to go home by crossing the Pacific. And so he then on that way calls upon the Galapagos where the moment of enlightenment
strikes him if one is to believe the stories. Brian: What do you think would fascinate Darwin
about the world today? David: Oh, undoubtedly the discovery of genetics. The key that he really needed to have was the physical basis in which characteristics
were handed from one generation to the other. And he postulated things he called ‘Gemmules’ which would do that sort of job, but he had no idea what they were. But to a certain extent you could say he as it were predicted there would have to be a thing like that which we now call chromosomes with DNA,
which carry DNA from one generation to the next. Brian: He was a wonderful writer as well wasn’t he? David: Absolutely so. I mean, this book, this is
a first edition of The Origin of Species and what is marvellous about it is that anybody can read any page and it makes absolute sense to them. It’s not full of jargon, it’s full of argument and observation. And that’s another reason why I admire him so much. “There is grandeur in this view of life with it’s several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful
have been have been and are being evolved.”

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