Good day all creatures great and small. Today's specimen is a fascinating one, and we shall be seeing it right in a natural habitat, a room in a cluster of such rooms called a hotel.
It is a robust example of late-20th-century Homo sapiens, this particular one being more than 6 feet high, with blond cranial hairs and an ingratiating smile. It is called a David Attenborough. (The second name denotes family; the first, individual: That is, "David" is a zoologist-turned-television executive-turned naturalist. It has a brother, "Richard," who is a movie actor.)
The David Attenborough is an industrious creature, but has made neither a web nor a nest. Instead, it has made a 13-part television series called "Life on Earth," a history of nature from the primordial slime of 3,000 million years ago to contemporary times.
Why? We cannot be sure, but the theory is that millions of years ago, when men first emerged, some of them made television series, and some did not. Those who did earned the respect of their peers and got the best food, and so won out over those who didn't. This is called natural selection.
We have today a rare opportunity to hear an Attenborough talk. If we are to understand our fellow creatures, it behooves us to listen.
"Yes, audiences in England were delighted with 'Life on Earth,' I think just because it's in our nature to wonder about the world around us. But I do still get asked, 'What use is a frog, really?' That sort of thing stems from a view of the world as a sort of larder for man. It isn't, of course, and the series tries to give some perspective on the unity of it all.
"After all, what use is a colorful flower? People tend to assume flowers are on earth to be pleasing to us. But flowers are colorful because insects have color vision, not because we do. And they've been here for 15 million years.
"The frogs tell us a lot, you know. They evolved from fish, but they had problems. They had to develop a fascinating variety of techniques to continue to provide water for eggs and tadpoles on land. One of the most interesting solutions was by the Darwin Frog, so I wrote it into a script and we went down to Tierra del Fuego to film it.
"Most frogs fertilize their eggs and then just sit around looking at them in that dotty way frogs have. But the Darwin Frog put the eggs in the male's vocal sack, where they could develop in fluid even on land. The tadpoles grow in there, and after awhile the whole male frog wiggles. Darwin concluded that they must be born out of the male frog's mouth, but no one had ever seen it.
"We found the frogs, all right, but they wouldn't hatch. So we brought a male back to Bristol, our production center in England. A cameraman and his assistant watched the frog continually for 210 hours, until finally the frog coughed, a tadpole flew out and we got the footage we wanted of the 'pregnant' male giving birth."
Some life-forms may be thinking, what use is an Attenborough? Except perhaps to bite, infect, devour or keep out of the way of. Well, it is undoubtedly a nosy organism, having traveled to 100 locations in 30 countries and shot 1.25 million feet of film to pry into other things' lives.
The Attenborough's purpose, on television and in a companion book, has been to trace nothing less than the evolution of life on our planet, from unicells to multicells; from sea to land to air; from coldblooded to warm, from primate to human. Throughout, the examination is characterized by a sense of curiosity and a uniform of short pants.
In this way the human resembles the cat, except of course that a cat will not wear short pants. A lichen or a turtle or a mountain goat will characteristically be perfectly content with a rock and a bit of sun and is not likely go ga-ga over that condition. But when scratching for information about the natural world, the human Attenborough is like a cat in a closet, moving through the darkness from one curiousity to the next and grinning happily whenever the light strikes his eyes.
"The whole history of the world, you know, has been toward a more intense occupation of the world. For 80 percent of its history, the earth was absolutely lifeless. But now, the forces of evolution are so diversified that there are insects which live their whole lives in the tear duct of a hippopotamus.
"I confess, since you ask, that space exploration, trips to Mars, leave me a bit skeptical. I never really believed in the canals. But on the other hand, I am, of course, interested to see if there is a building block other than the carbon atom. Or, by the way, if a creature that moves ought always to have the sense organs in front. I mean, we take for granted that most of us eat at the front and defecate at the other end. But could it be done another way?
"Yes, I have been all over. Always wanted to travel. There is a great range here on the planet. At the South Pole you find mostly Americans and emperor penguins. Very little else, because, of course, it's frozen solid.
"But some forms are very adaptable. There are algae within rocks which use crystals to focus light upon them. They live between the plates of rock and are warmed by the crystals. You see them as a pink blush on the snow during the polar day.
"There are lichens in Antarctica that form a sort of microforest. In the microforest live tiny mites, two kinds of them, and they are continually at war with each other. One mite is harmless and slow. The other mite is faster and hungrier, so it chases the first mite. Ha ha. Of course, this happens very . . . slowly."
Despite a certain tendency to anthropomorphize, the Attenborough seems to have its heart in the right place. Few creatures of the jungle, sea or plain, however, will sympathize much with a sentimentalized vision of earthly evolution. We all remember the disruption of various furry amphibian habitats caused when the man Walt Disney filmed "Beaver Pond" some years ago, and since then numerous exponents of the Merry Veterinarian school have appeared to set forth adventures in Bafutland, wipe the tears of dogs or crouch with time-lapse movie cameras over embarrassed flowers while the music of Ferde Grofe' exhales in the background.
The Attenborough, who as a television executive launched the series "Civilisation," is, of course, well experienced in dividing our world into 13 parts. But did the temptation to sentimentalize evolution ever come up?
"Oddly, not. The main idea in something like this is to have a story, with problems to overcome. True, if you're doing a segment on rabbits, the temptation is to have Mr. Bunny and Mrs. Bunny. But we didn't have that problem, because the life story of evolution has its own drama.
"And, of course, we have been doing this for some time at the BBC. I was the controller of the BBC-2 at the time it was going to color broadcasting. We had to make a choice about what to put on. Would it be a comedian in a scarlet shirt? I said, no, let's go out and film the most beautiful creations of mankind. What to call it -- why not, 'Civilisation'? Then they got Lord Clark, and he and others did a wonderful job. We announced that it was so good we would show it again. But of course, the real reason was, we didn't have money left to fill the time any other way.
"Anyway, I became bored with being in London. I really wanted to be in our production center in Bristol, where we had 12 or 14 people doing nothing but natural history.
"That's how 'Life on Earth' came about. I wrote the scripts from research, and then we broke them into sections and farmed them out to two dozen or so cameramen. I was traveling continuously. One crew would be in Madagascar, and I would arrive there, talk into the camera, then hop a plane and fly off to the Great Barrier Reef so I could pop out of the water and say something else.
"Yes, I did come to a conclusion after all of that. It is that the real threat to human life is not iron-faced extremists, but the failure to plan our use of the environment. At the moment, we are engaged in destroying our own planet."
That's all for today, class. Homo sapiens is always an interesting subject, balanced awkwardly on two feet and mad to discover why, when and where it happened.
As a matter of fact, I believe you will learn more about them by watching "Life on Earth" than they have learned about us. Make copious notes, for there will be a final examination -- although at the rate the human race is going, Attenboroughs notwithstanding, it may not be around to take it.