Ps put this on while reading:
“Metaphysics must flourish. He who understand baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” Charles Darwin
The seemingly irreverent, joking quote of Darwin rang incessantly through my mind as I watched the whole of BBC’s Planet Earth II series from beginning until last Sunday’s Desert episode. It’s a phrase of surprising importance, depth and profundity from the founder of modern biology. It speaks of something few people understand. Neither the lay people that think that an interest in nature is a hippie, far-out discipline. Nor do the nature-loving hippies, those ragged political animals themselves seem to understand.
It’s a fact I am constantly reminded of whenever I hear Sir David Attenborough’s soothing, intellectual voice: the study of nature is the most profound and noble pursuit available to a thinking man. From it stem all the other great achievements of our species. And when you watch Planet Earth II, you are profoundly and intimately aware that you are watching it as a refined animal – but an animal nonetheless.
A sloth swimming like you’ve never seen a sloth swim, all to find a mate. Islands episode.
From the early Zoo Quest series that launched him to Blue Planet and Planet Earth II – David Attenborough’s half-century career has extolled the virtues of nature in a most Victorian of manners. Attenborough is, I think, the last of the great naturalists that stretched from Aristotle, to Darwin and Russell Wallace to him. By naturalist I mean a natural historian who extrapolates a plethora of crucial meaning from careful study and often naked-eye observation. Darwin may have spent decades researching the potential mechanisms of natural selection, but he would have never conjured up the magnificent theory had he never travelled around the world on the Beagle.
Attenborough, unlike Darwin, never settled down, never stopped travelling the world – much to the ennobling of humanity. His films have elevated natural history into the echelons of great human endeavours; on par with music, science, art and architecture. His films, indeed his views and raison d’etre, are nothing like the ambitions of most “nature lovers” – people who simply replaced a belief in god with a belief in a somehow supernatural Gaia!
Nature doesn’t need to be supernatural to be awe-inspiring.
That is the message David Attenborough has always belaboured to deliver, and to ignore it, would be detrimental to the nobility to which we must aspire. And so, here is why I think Planet Earth II matters. In truth, why all of Attenborough’s films, and all truly artistic natural history programmes, matter.
As Darwin mentioned, “metaphysics must flourish”! Even in an age to self-absorbed to be interested by the self, the realm of philosophy and existential thought, has been elevated by the natural sciences. Thanks to Darwin’s research, we now know why there is life and how it evolved into complexity. Thanks to work in evolutionary psychology we have a better grasp of our innate behaviours. And in no small part thanks to the ethological and molecular sciences, we now understand how truly connected we are to nature (I mean this in a molecular, biological way, not in a pseudo-spiritualist manner). As Desmond Morris famously stated we are not fallen angels, but risen apes.
In Planet Earth we are shown moments which help us understand the universal biome we inhabit. Watch the following clip:
Is there not more meaning and beauty in this struggle than there is in all of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche? The cruelty and elegance of existence, the tension, the barbarity; they are all entwined. In this, perhaps, the video is very Absurdist in nature. Albert Camus would have appreciated it: the hopelessness of the iguana’s struggle, the desperation, the impossible odds, and yet still, it fights on, because it must – just as Sisyphus must roll his boulder yet again, knowing full well, in the end, he will fail, just as most iguanas have failed.
Truly, there is grandeur in this view of life.
It’s after watching, and listening, to Planet Earth II and its soundtrack that I was reminded of the true, utterly mysterious, power of music. It is the noblest of art forms – and I say this as a practitioner of the sister arts, literature. No other art form can so move us, indeed, music can orchestrate our very emotions, embed us in melancholy and free us into the Parnassus of serenity.
The score of Planet Earth II was largely composed by German composer Hans Zimmer – a darling of Hollywood soundtracks – along with Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe . And to hear such immense symphonies, classical in structure, timeless in overture, married with the sights and dramas of earth’s most spectacular places, is a high no wonder-drug or orgy could match. I mean, just listen to this, and make sure everything else around you is silent, and you really take it in:
These are proud moments to be human. Even as the bombs fall on Aleppo and the neo-Fascist crowds swarm again, you can still be proud of your species.
This is as close as I’ll skirt on the borders of political eco-landia. Though the public face of nature-loving and protection has been taken over by eco-terrorists such as PETA and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) conservation remains an important façade of 21st century life. More than that: it is a necessity.
David Attenborough has only recently made his iconic voice the voice of conservation. In the past, his films were apolitical, non-preachy, works of art. They were simply there to stun people into appreciation. A film like Life On Earth was meant to show you the bittersweet beauty of the world we inhabit. It left it as a corollary of human logic to take it a step further, left it for us to reason: if the world is so awe-inspiring then naturally we should preserve it, even if, for nothing else, for the sake of its beauty.
Attenborough’s films then had an understated approach. Planet Earth II in a way returns to that more awe-dependent narrative. And it helps transform the challenge of conservation from a political statement to an artistic one.
Who could live in the knowledge that in our lifetime, our actions have made a natural phenomenon such as this snow leopard a thing of the past:
All truly great art in the history of our species has grappled with the questions science cannot answer. Or can it?
Questions like, what is the meaning of life, why are we here, is there a purpose to existence… science cannot answer these questions, but it can certainly, and uniquely, provide us with the facts we need to extrapolate an answer.
The facts of evolutionary biology, genetics, astronomy, physics and even zoology, provide us with the scattered pieces of the puzzle of truth. Throughout most of human existence it was religion that laid claim to being the sole owner of the truth – the only thought-process that can piece together the elusive puzzle. But now we know that literature and art and music provide us with greater answers than all of spiritual philosophy.
Writers like Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Eliot and Dickens, painters like Van Gogh, Gauguin, Botticelli and Caravaggio have more to tell us about human nature than all the saints combined. For these were artists who studied man, studied nature, studied the inter-relation of both – saints merely studied the politics of the heavens. Artists like these, and Bach and Haydn, combine in their masterpieces, beauty and truth. Neither thing, neither beauty or truth, is wholly objective, but an artist, a true artist, unites them in a way no other natural process can.
And Planet Earth II is the latest in a long line of these masterpieces; where beauty, truth, playfulness and study, hope and despair, are all brought together through the medium of art. I hope that the film will serve as an inspiration to artists yet to come as much as it does to conservationists and children alike.