Most any presentation on the life or work of Charles Darwin is forced to consider the religious implications, and invariably will tiptoe around such a minefield to avoid losing a potential audience. This approach is steadfastly avoided by the sublime David Attenborough work Tree of Life. Consider this a crown upon his prior reviews Life of Mammals, Life of Birds, Life in Cold Blood; just as Darwin’s theory unified the whole of life with an origin and direction, this looks back upon his life’s work where past becomes present along the expansive arrow of geologic time. In the introductory passage, Attenborough starts by regarding a painting of the moment of creation, and reading from the Holy Bible. It is important to meet the controversial aspects of Charles Darwin head-on, as this controversy stems from a lack of understanding of what science is and what it attempts to explain.
There was a time when the Bible, being a book, was one of the few sources of information whereby people could understand their world, and consider the meaning of life. As scientific methods were developed, and experimentation allowed hypotheses to become theories, a body of knowledge was painstakingly crafted to answer a multitude of increasingly large questions. Theories became unassailable facts with time and the careful pressure of scientific challenges. Meanwhile, the Bible remained static, and its proponents less able to grapple with what they saw as competition. Ultimately, those who have a problem with the Theory of Evolution do not have an intellectual quibble with the body of evidence via natural observation, ribosomal and chromosomal studies, and direct experimentation with evolution in micro- and macro-organisms. The problem is with a potential explanation for how we came to be that does not come directly from one’s chosen religious text. And this is why there will never be an acceptance of evolutionary theory by those who shun it – it is a rejection of information at the root of Creationism. Attenborough elegantly alludes to this without any smug underlining – information is on his side, so there is no need to rub it in. The Creation myth did just fine as an explanation until better information came along.
Tree of Life reviews the life of Charles Darwin, his educational influences, and finally the arduous work of cataloging the species that led to his theory of how they are all connected. The visual symbol was that of a tree, drawn by Darwin with the most humble footnote “I think?”. To a Creationist, this would be a damning indictment of the entire body of knowledge that resulted, whereas a scientist would agree that all theories and facts are just that initially – a thought. It is unfortunate that Creationism has such a dim view of human capability, that the power of thought should be a source of shame, forever to be visited upon the children of Adam after that whole apple incident. Darwin realized the strong reaction that would result if he went public, and so he spent the next decade shoring up his theory, obtaining additional observational evidence, until finally unveiling The Origin of Species to massive simultaneous acclaim and hatred.
It is easy to overlook the genius of Darwin’s conclusions asthey become the underpinning of our most basic understanding of how all living things relate to one another, how we came to be, and our relationship to geologic time in the Earth’s 4.6 billion year history. The first evidence of life can be found early during the Cambrian period, as soon as the planet began to cool into the temperature range compatible with life. The implications of this are staggering in that any planet with similar conditions not only could support life, but is highly likely to develop life forms that evolve. The theological ramifications should be irrelevant, and this documentary treats them as such. It is as though Attenborough et al acknowledge ‘your beliefs are your own, but evolution is a fact as long as we are here to realize it’.
There is no better way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the development of the theory of evolution than with the world’s foremost naturalist. Tree of Life effortlessly weaves through scientific theory, the history of Charles Darwin and the circumstances of his discoveries, and finally a beautifully rendered animation of the Tree of Life as it continually grows. If you wish to supplement your background, Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution is an excellent source, as well as the original Origin of Species by the master himself.