Daytime TV: Nature of the beast

Gary Day writes on David Attenborough versus God, Lord of the Flies Mark 2, and newspaper survival

February 12, 2009

So far, there have been no programmes celebrating the bicentenary of Darwin's birth on ITV. Does this mean that it is better adapted to the viewing environment than the BBC?

In the battle for ratings, Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life (BBC One, Sunday 9pm) and Darwin's Struggle: The Evolution of The Origin of Species (BBC Four, Monday 9pm) may not have the pulling power of Dancing on Ice, but they offered a respite from the fighting; an opportunity to reflect on companies red in tooth and claw and why barnacles have such big willies.

David Attenborough took on God, or at least the author of Genesis, who declared that the Almighty gave humans dominion over "every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth". No, said whispering David. We are part of nature. What happens in the marriage bed goes on in the garden bed. He was taking up where Darwin left off. The great naturalist called Christianity a "damnable doctrine".

David is more restrained. But he can afford to be. The evidence for evolution is incontrovertible. Let the creationists rant. They say there are no fossils to prove the existence of intermediate species. David says, look at the archaeopteryx, whose skeleton shows that it is a link between birds and dinosaurs. The creationists say that organs like the eye are irreducibly complex and could not be the result of natural selection. David says, "Oh yes they can." We start with light-sensitive cells. They form a small patch. So now the creature can detect a shadow. Very useful if it wants to avoid predators. A depression occurs in the patch, narrowing the point through which light enters. The result is a blurred image. Inside, cells secrete mucus, which eventually becomes a lens. All this over millions of years. It takes a long time to see things clearly, if ever.

Professor Simon Schaffer casually suggested, in Darwin's Struggle, that the young voyager's visit to the Galapagos Islands was not really important for the development of his theory of evolution. Of far greater significance were the writings of Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith. Malthus said that a growing population would put pressure on the food supply and Smith that the division of labour increased productivity. It was from them that Darwin drew his ideas about nature as lethal confrontation and gradual modification.

Never mind the facts. Evolution will triumph over religion because its central premise, the survival of the fittest, complements free-market economics. But there's a twist in the tale - and it's not just the credit crunch. Recent research suggests that we are hard-wired to believe in divinity. In which case I've got a faulty circuit. So if there is an intelligent designer, s/he's clearly not a competent one.

Darwin used his children as experimental animals, comparing their expressions to those of the family dog. So he would probably have approved of Boys and Girls Alone (Channel 4, Tuesday 9pm). Except that it wasn't clear what the programme was trying to achieve. Was it a sociological investigation, a welcome holiday for the parents or just voyeurism?

The boys and girls are living separately in two villages without adult supervision. The boys spent the first day having a water fight. The girls decorated their rooms. Charley's mum told us what a lovely girl her daughter was. She must have got a shock. Asked if she regretted terrifying the eight-year-olds, Charley's answer was a resounding no. This was Lord of the Flies - the female version.

The boys were not so vicious. They even formulated some rules. No swearing. No bullying. But there's always one, isn't there? Ryan thought the rules were "boring". He tore them down, thumped Jason and defied the rest to punish him. They retreated in confusion.

After two days, the boys wanted their mums. Especially Sid, the son of a champion boxer. His mum tried to persuade him to stay. Despite her best efforts, he was soon lugging his suit-case out of the house. Sid may not have learnt anything, but his mum did. "It's my fault he couldn't cope," she said. "I do everything for him. We need to change as parents." Let's hope Charley's mum was listening.

In the media, the struggle for existence has led to a lot of blood being spilt (Media Revolution: Stop Press?, BBC Two, Thursday 7.30pm). Some of it seemed to have splashed on to the presenter Janet Street-Porter's hair.

Newspapers are losing readers and advertisers are taking their business elsewhere. "We must adapt or face extinction," remarked Rupert Murdoch, who seemed to take up an awful lot of the programme. People wanted choice. And the owner of goodness knows how many newspapers said that with a straight face. But only the naive would believe that truth matters in the fight for survival.

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