Attenborough on Darwin

Now this is worth reading. Inevitably (and both understandably and quite correctly) there is a deluge of Darwin and Origin related stuff heading our way this year, and I do fear that the good will likely be swamped by the mediocre in the media as everyone jumps on the bandwagon desperate to have a say, make a sale, join in and not be seen to be missing out. However, there will of course always be room for important, intelligent, informed, interesting and articulate people to  use the opportunity when it comes to say interesting, intelligent, informed and important things in an articualte way.

David Attenborough is one of those people and in The Times, he speaks out (something of a rarity in itself) on his work as a presenter and Darwin’s legacy as well as evolution and creation. Go and read the words of one of the UK’s best loved personalities and someone who has both the standing and respect to make a difference, and I’m delighted to see him doing so.

8 Responses to “Attenborough on Darwin”


  1. 1 eIm Model 28/01/2009 at 1:51 am

    Atteborough is good, its about time he gets some press for his tireless work

  2. 2 Nathan Myers 28/01/2009 at 6:35 am

    When they asked him, “Of those branches that ended in dead ends, representing extinction, what would he most like to have seen continue, so he could have witnessed the species?”, he said “dinosaurs“.

    Troubling on three counts… first, obviously, the pterosaurs would be much more interesting than the oh-so-jejune dinosaurs.

    Second, he’s got dinosaurs making a racket waking him up in the morning, and knocking airplanes out of the sky. Who needs more dinosaurs?

    Third, he went on to show off his pleiosaur and ichthyosaur fossils. This suggests that he was probably using the popular definition of dinosaur that includes T.rex, brontosaurs, pleiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and probably pterosaurs, but excludes birds.

    When you can’t get David Attenborough on your side, you might be better off picking out a new word to mean “saurischians, ornithischians, and a few allied genera, not excluding birds”, and leave “dinosaur” to the rabble.

  3. 3 David Hone 28/01/2009 at 7:51 am

    Nathan, you are massivly overinterpreting there. He shows off an icthosaur fossil to a journalist after having talked about dinosaurs therfore he is calling them a dinosaur? What!? I am sorry but that is just crap. You are putting words into his mouth and of course such pieces are reconstructed after the even and orders of little things like that are deliberately mixed up to make the piece more readable 9this ould have been the first thing that happened). To suggest he thinks plesiosaurs are dinosaurs based on that ‘evidence’ is silly.
    Furthermore, I don’t have a huge problem with people calling ‘non-avian dinosaurs’ ‘dinosaurs, in fact this is something I commented on recently that it is a very difficult issue in terms of paraphyletic groups. You will also note that he specifically mentions that birds are dinosaurs anyway, so he’s hardly ignornat of the evidence and does not consider birds as not dinosaurs, and is simply using ‘dinosaur’ to mean ‘non-avain dinosaur’. Nowhere in that article does he refer to plesiosaurs, ichtyosaurs, pterosaurs, mammoths or anything else as dinosaurs so your inferences are based on nothing at all.
    My beef has always been with journalists misrepresenting the science being given to them, and with the massive respect that Sir David (FRS) deserves, he is not a palaeontologist (even if he does have a scence background) so if he is unaware of the dinstinction between ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘non-avian dinosaur’ that is not the journalist’s fault. Nor do we know what else may have been said thatwas not recorded in this piece – I only rail against ones where I was involved or I know the researcher in question so I can check what was said and what was passed on and compare it to what was written. Sir David may well have gone on in depth about the differences between the two terms but it did ot make the article, we don’t know. This may have been missed out, or indeed misrepresented anyway – the journalist himself admist he knows nothing of science and the pice appeared in the ‘entertainment’ section of the Times, not the science section or even culture – it’s a TV / interview journalist writing a piece as such, he may have got things wrong.
    Finally while he is certainly the voice of wildlife in the UK (and far further broad) this is the first time I think he has ever mentioned dinosaurs in and interview and has never made a program or series obout them (Archaeopteryx got a brief mention at the start of ‘The Life of Birds’) so it’s not like he is associated with dinsoaurs in the public eye, or regulrarly talks about them or mis-uses the term.

  4. 4 Nathan Myers 03/02/2009 at 11:19 am

    I have no doubt that Sir David understands all these details perfectly. He also knows his audience.

    But really, he would have done better to regret the loss of something specific, such as late surviving pterosaurs, viz. azhdarchids.

  5. 5 David Hone 03/02/2009 at 5:00 pm

    But that is not what you said before “This suggests that he was probably using the popular definition of dinosaur that includes T.rex, brontosaurs, pleiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and probably pterosaurs”. You say ‘he knows his audience’, but agin you utterly fial to deal with the act that all of this has gone through a journlaist (and a non-scientist at that), you are sill attributing a commnet to him he never made, and if Sir David is one thing, he is an educator – he will correct and enlighten, not pander to ignorance and perpetuate misconceptions.

    And surely his personal choice over what he wants to see is just that, Are you really admonishing him over personal preference to see dinosaurs over pterosaurs?

  6. 6 Nathan Myers 04/02/2009 at 7:06 am

    I am not accusing him of pandering. I just don’t think he was interested, at that moment, in making taxonomic distinctions among saurischia, ornithischia, and other more or less contemporary orders. He knows better than you or I how and when to educate.

    “Dinosaurs”, though, even restricted to “saurischia, ornithischia, and certain allied genera” is simply too broad. Which dinosaurs? If he’d had more time to think, I expect he would have been more specific.

    My recommendation of azhdarchids was meant as a nod to my host.

  7. 7 David Hone 04/02/2009 at 6:21 pm

    I still don’t think he ever siad things you attribute to him. The buffer of an interviewer in this context is colossal. I imagine he *was* spcific (if it came up, he was supposed to be talking about Darwin) but it did not make it into the piece (which was supposed to be about Darwin).

  8. 8 Dave Godfrey 05/02/2009 at 1:50 am

    Attenborough’s programme “Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives” is entirely about fossils. Ichthyosaurs get a good proportion of one programme devoted to them.

    From the interview it seems clear that the subject has moved on from dinosaurs to fossils displayed from his personal collection. I don’t have a problem with people using “dinosaur” to mean “non-avian dinosaur”, after all when you say “dinosaur” to the public, even the ones who are interested in palaeontology don’t immediately think of Tweety-Pie. I’m not convinced its the first image to enter professional palaeontologists’ heads either.

    Now personally I think tetrapods are overrated, and would like to have seen some armoured agnathans survive.


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