I must confess that what first drew me into David Attenborough's "The Living Planet" were the color photographs of many creatures I had previously encountered only as drawings in the margins of unabridged dictionaries and obscure biological texts.
The capybara (the world's largest rodent, a South American vegetarian the size of a pig), arrow-poison frog (which, in addition to its namesake, is noted for carrying its tadpoles on its back), fennec fox (a large-eared nocturnal predator of the Sahara Desert) and the mudskipper (an amphibious fish of the Malaysian mangrove swamps) are among the creatures that grace "The Living Planet," often in stunning full-page color illustrations.
"The Living Planet" is rare among books in that it places the photographs next to the text that discusses them. Thus a desolate Mojave desert vista with Attenborough standing in the middle of a large ring-shaped creosote bush leads directly to a discussion of the remarkable way this plant (which can live 10,000 years and is believed to be the oldest organism currently living on Earth) obtains precious water from the desert dew. The saguaro cactus (which stores large amounts of desert rainfall in its trunk) and many other natural adaptations are compared and contrasted until -- almost by surprise -- the reader has acquired a pretty good idea of how life is shaped on the desert anvil.
Readers of Attenborough's previous book, "Life on Earth," or viewers of the BBC television series of the same title, will recognize a strong resemblance to "The Living Planet." Format, style and subject matter are common to both, even to the extent that a number of illustrations from one might have appeared as well or better in the other. The main difference between the two is their focus. "Life on Earth" perceptively distilled the story of life's evolution over the last 3 billion years into 150 pages of text and about as many color photographs, which were, as Konrad Lorenz noted, "simply wonderful." "The Living Planet," by contrast, "surveys the situation as it is today," as Attenborough writes in the preface, in about the same number of words and pictures.
Like effective television, Attenborough handles action well and is provisioned with a seemingly endless stock of quick, graphic amazers. That Attenborough's writing should resemble elements of the broadcast media is hardly surprising, for he was for many years an administrator in British television and finally the editorial head of all BBC-TV. His "Life on Earth" was a tour de force: fresh and vivid with incredible variety married to the clear exposition of the mechanisms of evolution. Attenborough conceded in the first book that "the condensation of three thousand million years of history into three hundred pages . . . compels vast omissions," but added that "my method has been to try to perceive the single, most significant thread in the history of a group and then concentrate on tracing that, resolutely ignoring other issues, no matter how enticing."
In "Life on Earth," Attenborough's method worked marvelously, but it is less successful in "The Living Planet," since the omissions here seem at times to include "the most significant thread" in the story at hand. "The Living Planet" is a book about current life on Earth that makes scant mention of the man-made crisis of survival that grips so many creatures. Attenborough's chapter on the jungle does not mention the great destruction man is now inflicting on the Amazon and elsewhere; his discussion of the Pacific salmon and bluefin tuna never gives a hint of the tragedy visited on them. Only in a few cases (which are generally remote in time or setting from the English-speaking world) and in the final few pages of the book does he cast his gaze on the flames.
To really accomplish the task he set for himself in "The Living Planet," Attenborough would have had to take a somewhat different approach from that of the previous book, concentrating more on the hand of man and venturing into what are for Attenborough the hitherto unexplored realms of pressure politics and power. "The Living Planet" is an often fascinating book, but because it resembles the first book so closely, it will, I'm afraid, always be regarded as an able companion to the much more original and provocative "Life on Earth." Since I suspect that David Attenborough is a man whose ambition goes beyond recapitulating a proven book or TV formula, I look forward to his next work.