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Darwin season on the BBC


merman
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To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the BBC has a series of programmes across all channels talking about the theory of evolution.

Last night on BBC1 was "Darwin and the Tree of Life", presented by David Attenborough. This is precisely the sort of programme we pay the license fee for - informative, beautifully put together (including some nice CGI to show the progress of evolution) and not patronising.

It was also good to hear them put across the fact that it took a long while for Darwin to publish his theories and some of the opposition he met.

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Every school child in the country should watch it. Absolutely fantastic television. The CGI 'origin of life' was so well done, I don't think I've ever seen a programme quite so bravely speculate on the very beginnings of life like that.

Attenborough was entertaining and persuasive and authoritative and confident - without once being patronising. Much as my angry young self loves him, I know that Richard Dawkins could do with taking a leaf out of his book.

Or maybe one of his own. The Selfish Gene for instance is about as unpatronising as you can get, without ever being less than authoritative, confident and persuasive. Thirty years ago. :)

It has a brilliant section describing a possible beginning of life that Attenborough skipped completely as well (there would have been a lot more going on before the first cells formed), but then that wasn't really the point. While it didn't offer any new insights, it was a wonderfully affectionate account of Darwin's work, and put forward the science in a way that literally anyone could understand, without oversimplifying anything. I've never seen or read anything that described the evolution of the eye so clearly and succinctly. The Tree of Life bit was brilliant, and strangely exciting, and it's always great to see Attenborough on screen. :)

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Or maybe one of his own. The Selfish Gene for instance is about as unpatronising as you can get, without ever being less than authoritative, confident and persuasive. Thirty years ago. :)

I think even his biggest supporters would admit his personality could sometimes get in the way of his message even then, though. I'm not sure that's ever been the case with Attenborurgh.

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It was excellent. I'm studying evolution at the moment and it says everything about the programme that even though I knew it all already, and it most definitely did oversimplify stuff (impossible not to in a popular science programme), I still wasn't bored or patronised. Attenborough is just incredibly good. His entire body of work is never less than brilliant.

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I think even his biggest supporters would admit his personality could sometimes get in the way of his message even then, though. I'm not sure that's ever been the case with Attenborurgh.

Not in The Selfish Gene at least, but fair point.

It was excellent. I'm studying evolution at the moment and it says everything about the programme that even though I knew it all already, and it most definitely did oversimplify stuff (impossible not to in a popular science programme), I still wasn't bored or patronised. Attenborough is just incredibly good. His entire body of work is never less than brilliant.

I don't think it ever actually oversimplified anything. There wasn't anything I noticed that couldn't be easily expanded upon without changing the meaning altogether, unlike what I recall of my GCSE biology. :)

Actually, all schools should be forced to show this at the start of GCSE biology courses. Any kids who stuck to their creationist guns could then be forced to endure private screenings in isolation until they changed their minds.

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Not in The Selfish Gene at least, but fair point.

There's so much in the Selfish Gene that's confusing or misleading due to Dawkins' rhetorical intensity he had to spend the first four chapters of his next book apologising about it.

Anyway, it sounds like this programme is precisely the sort of thing I was about to complain about not existing in an article. I don't know whether to be happy or sad that it's come along.

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I don't think it ever actually oversimplified anything. There wasn't anything I noticed that couldn't be easily expanded upon without changing the meaning altogether, unlike what I recall of my GCSE biology. :)

It wasn't a criticism. As I said it's impossible not to oversimplify stuff, it's an inherent part of getting people to understand science. You have to simplify at best and lie at worst in order for anyone to get to the stage when they can understand things in more detail.

The eye stuff was very much glossed over, for example. There's still no firm consensus on whether eyes have evolved more than once or whether it was a unique event. And it's not really true that we can construct a fully accurate 'tree of life' with "real confidence". A lot is still unknown.

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The eye stuff was very much glossed over, for example. There's still no firm consensus on whether eyes have evolved more than once or whether it was a unique event.

I think that depends on what you mean by "eyes have evolved more than once". I'm fairly confident in saying the idea that the structure of eyes has evolved repeatedly is widely accepted, even though they may all be using homologous and singularly evolved mechanisms.

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I think that depends on what you mean by "eyes have evolved more than once". I'm fairly confident in saying the idea that the structure of eyes has evolved repeatedly is widely accepted, even though they may all be using homologous and singularly evolved mechanisms.

Yeah, but it isn't universally accepted that they are homologous.

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The thing that got to me was just how recent many of these discoveries are. Plate tectonics for instance, was only generally understood in the 1960s.

The entire show was brilliant, brilliant stuff. The next time some arsehole complains about the licence fee, just show them that.

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Here's a link to the amazing CG tree of life sequence from the Attenborough documentary. Very Rez Area 5! :)

The documentary also used a brilliant clip from The Life of Mammals which showed a chimpanzee wading through water. Does that mean Attenborough agrees with the "aquatic ape" hypothesis of human evolution?

I think that depends on what you mean by "eyes have evolved more than once". I'm fairly confident in saying the idea that the structure of eyes has evolved repeatedly is widely accepted, even though they may all be using homologous and singularly evolved mechanisms.

There's a bit in one of (IIRC) Dawkins' books that explains that the type of eye that evolved in mammals is actually really inefficient (badly designed!) because the rods and cones face backwards rather than forwards, and that this arrangement was introduced at a very early stage of the eye's development. I can't remember what example he gives of a species whose retinal cells are the other way round - cuttlefish maybe?

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There's a bit in one of (IIRC) Dawkins' books that explains that the type of eye that evolved in mammals is actually really inefficient (badly designed!) because the rods and cones face backwards rather than forwards, and that this arrangement was introduced at a very early stage of the eye's development. I can't remember what example he gives of a species whose retinal cells are the other way round - cuttlefish maybe?

Funnily enough it's in his book I just read, Chapter 5! Human eyes grow with the nerves for the photosensitive cells point back into the eye, into the path of the incoming light, which isn't a universeal thing.

As far as can be determined eyes evolved independantly about 40-60 different times in nature.

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