Charles Darwin and The Tree of Life Review

Fortunately for the modern passion for decimal anniversaries, Charles Darwin chose (reluctantly) to publish his magnum opus On The Origin of Species when he was 50 years old. This means that now, in 2009, we can celebrate both the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of what is undoubtedly the most contentious piece of scientific literature ever published. Even today, the debate surrounding the theory and mechanisms of evolution remains undiminished and burns even brighter now that the prospect (horrific to some, including myself) of the nonsense known as Intelligent Design being taught in British schools has become a reality in certain privately-run high schools. This is the 21st century! Next thing you know kids will be taught the earth is flat and that the sun orbits it.

To mark the dual anniversary the BBC ran a season of programmes devoted to Darwin and his theories earlier this year, led by this flagship documentary by the colossus of natural history television, Sir David Attenborough (now 82 years old). The point of the programme is to explain Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection in accessible layman’s terms (while also specifically refuting Intelligent Design) and to place it in the context of Darwin’s life and times, which it achieves in an effortlessly elegant manner. Attenborough brings his formidable experience to bear and has produced (by contemporary standards) a restrained and masterful documentary assisted by the BBC’s formidable archive of natural history footage. Extracts of his TV series over the decades liberally pepper this one-hour programme. A cynic may argue this helps to keep the cost down but I believe it also usefully establishes Attenborough’s credentials. It’s as if he’s saying ‘Look, I’ve been doing this since the dawn of television so I know what I’m talking about and here’s the evidence’. It is also quite touching to see his present physical frailty compared with his earlier vigour. It gives an almost valedictory feel.

The Tree of Life referred to in the title is taken directly from Darwin’s notes in which he imagined the divergent development of new species to resemble the branches of a tree. This has been brought vividly to life by some spectacular CGI work and forms a visual background to the final summarising of The History of Life on Earth So Far which wraps up the programme.


As you would expect from a flagship BBC documentary the images and production values are of the highest quality. The archive footage from Life on Earth in 1979 is well integrated and is noticeably grainier than the contemporary footage but doesn’t appear to have lost anything by being cropped to fit a widescreen ratio.


Unlike most contemporary BBC nature documentaries, the omnipresent majestic music doesn’t dominate or even irritate. Sir David’s onscreen and offscreen commentary is nicely foregrounded in the mix, probably as much due to the noticeable deterioration of his speech since the 1970s (but nowhere near as bad as Patrick Moore these days) as the importance of what he’s saying. I was watching on my old stereo CRT telly and I had no problems with the clarity of the mix.


English only but excellent. An exact transcription.


As a companion piece, the BBC has included another quality one-hour documentary from the same season entitled Darwin’s Struggle: The Evolution of The Origin of Species. This is a deeper, less populist piece delving much further into the personal and social circumstances in which Darwin formulated and then published his book. It uses the now-standard recipe of mute re-enactments (mostly of domestic life at Down House), an authoritative voiceover narration, actorly readings of Darwin's written words, expert talking heads filmed against artistically-lit backgrounds, conceptual visual aids and much archive footage plundered from the BBC Natural History Unit’s archive. A great deal of it graphically illustrating the predation of cute little creatures by other and not necessarily bigger creatures. This programme chooses to emphasise the latter part of the full title of Darwin's publication – On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in The Struggle for Life.

This makes an interesting counterpoint to Attenborough’s piece and deepens it by contextualising, in an occasionally critical manner, Darwin’s work. It’s interesting to note that although Darwin’s theories were radical they were by no means unique and he was only pushed into publication by the threat of Alfred Wallace stealing his thunder. As with the Attenborough piece, the production values, both audio and visual, are of the highest calibre.

I enjoyed both of these. Anyone who wants a good basic introduction to Darwin and evolution could do a lot worse than spending a couple of hours with these documentaries.

However, anyone who thinks these might be a bit old-fashioned and ponderous for them may want to try out a series produced by the Beeb in 2005 called Journey of Life fronted by the then-ubiquitous poster boy and former TV vet Steve Leonard. This is a flashy 5-part layman’s guide to evolution and the history of the development of life on the planet and uses copious computer graphics and extensive location reportage around the globe while exploiting the physical charms and everyman persona of its athletic presenter. It’s a hefty big-budget series and would normally have received a primetime Sunday evening slot. However, when first transmitted it was buried in a late night midweek slot with no publicity and was then released surreptitiously on DVD and is still available to buy. Is it a coincidence that this was around the time when the Intelligent Design debate began to rear its ugly head? Hmmm. But it makes a useful comparison with how Attenborough’s clout and living legend status can result in his programme being aired at primetime amidst a fanfare of publicity.

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