1970s >> 1979 >> no-899-july-1979
Life on Earth
Life on Earth, the recent BBC television scries, was quite excellent. The story began with intelligent guesses about the formation of the earth many millions of years ago, continued through the probable origins of living matter, the evolution of plant and animal species, to human society today. The presenter, David Attenborough, was thoroughly convincing all the way through, until the very last programme, which was — albeit predictably — something of a let-down. But more of that anon.
One very interesting aspect was apparent right from the start. The series was put out by the BBC, which is the official broadcasting body of this still supposedly Christian country. Yet never once did Attenborough discuss, or even remotely consider, the possibility that some god had anything whatever to do with the unfolding of his fascinating story. It is not all that long since the reign of the original boss of the BBC, Lord Reith, and it is impossible to imagine that puritanical, god-fearing man countenancing it. The story of the world was told in a way that reminds one of the answer which Laplace gave when Napoleon asked him where god figured in his picture of the universe: “I have no need of that hypothesis.’’
Workers’ understanding of their position in society is, at present, excruciatingly backward. Nevertheless, one can see that in the course of barely one generation, the religious outlook in which most people were once steeped has altered beyond recognition. If such a sudden and remarkable change can occur in the thoughts of so many people in a matter which had always been considered of such fundamental importance, perhaps we should not feel too despondent!
There was another aspect of the series which is worth noting here, as it gives the unanswerable retort to the religious claim that the world was created and ruled by an all-powerful and beneficent deity. Ask a parson to explain the sufferings of humanity and how it is that their loving god allows it to happen (actually makes it happen, of course) and he will reply that god gives people free will and it is people’s own sinful nature that is to blame. (We won’t bother here with wondering why god gave people their sinful nature.) But Life on Earth blows all this nonsense to pieces, because it is made very clear that pain and suffering among living creatures were occurring on a boundless scale many millions of years before human beings emerged on the scene.
One episode showed how insects developed wings, and then how their predators, the spiders, seeing their prey escaping, managed to construct a vast tailoring industry so that the flies were caught in the sticky web and were eaten alive. The pain and suffering involved in this are all too obvious. Untold billions of flies met their gruesome fate this way without any reference to homo sapiens. (Though I did once read an article in a scientific magazine which argued that spiders were humanity’s best friend, as the billions of insects they consumed would otherwise simply eat humans off the earth.) And it is reasonable to assume that the spiders will go on eating the flies even if the time comes when human beings disappear from the earth.
The suffering in the animal world is too immense to contemplate. The spiders themselves are of course victims in their turn. In that magnificent work, Social Life in the Insect World, Henri Fabre describes how a wasp will sting a spider in its nervous centre, thus rendering it paralysed. It then proceeds to lay its eggs on the living spider so that when the grubs in due course hatch out, they have a ready supply of living fresh meat to hand. (If the wasp mercifully just killed the spider, the meat would be rotten by the time it was needed.) How does god account for his actions to the suffering flies, and the suffering spiders? Are all the endless series of animal life all being punished for their original sin? And will god make it up to all the untold billions in some insect heaven one day?
In the unfolding of his story, Attenborough was able to show us pictures of the fossil record — photographs of creatures which died out millions of years ago. (The scientific method of dating the ages of the rocks in which the fossils are found is no longer challenged by anyone but the most crackpot type of religious maniac.) The Darwinian theory of the evolution of the species provides the most convincing explanation for what has happened. However many gaps remain, the alternative theory of the Great Designer in the Sky is unsupported by any sound evidence. And as Engels put it, if god really did create the universe, then it has been left to its own devices. A very odd sort of creator — one who retired from the scene billions of years ago, and whom nobody has ever seen since. And if god ever turns up again, the spiders and the flies will have a lot to tell it, let alone babies born with cancer.
The last programme dealt with the one animal which, for a combination of reasons that need not concern us here, was able to challenge and control nature instead of being controlled by it. This last programme showed that Attenborough (and the scientists who had helped him devise the scries), having shown such a marvellous understanding of a world long gone and of species that we never knew, was far less sure of his ground in dealing with our own species in our own time. It began with a picture of a crowd watching a wrestling match: the camera dwelt at length on the features of the people there — black, white, men, women. The purpose was to show the amazing range of human facial expressions. But the scientist did not seem to notice that the faces were all extremely nasty. (I was going to say ‘bestial’ but that would be an insult to the beasts like the huge and lovable gorillas Attenborough had been disporting himself with the previous week). It never occurred to the presenters to suggest that there was something unpalatable in the fact that all this evolution had at the end produced the human being — who gloated horribly over the viciousness of paid wrestlers.
So is this what we are all about? Fortunately, the programme also showed us a tribe recently discovered in the depths of New Guinea. These were savages in the scientific sense of the term. They appeared to have not even reached the Stone Age. Not only were their faces and their naked bodies the same as ours, they had the attribute of human speech, though the only word that was intelligible to their discoverers was ‘bayami’ which was apparently the name of the tribe. In the ordinary use of the term, the savages were the modern crowd we saw at the beginning of the film, while these smiling, delightfully ‘backward’ members of our own kind were clearly pleasant and friendly and lovable.
And the great lesson of the whole splendid series was the very one that the producers missed: that the human being in its original state is by no means an aggressive brute. We can be as lovable as a Bayami (or indeed, as a gorilla). We can be as horrible as a screaming fan at a wrestling match. We still live in a jungle: it is called the competitive system — capitalism. When the working class decides to cut the jungle down, the harmonious environment which will take its place will allow the innate human qualities of friendliness and cooperation to flourish.
L. E. Weidberg