Interview with David Attenborough
BROADCAST: Feb. 8, 1985 | DURATION: 00:58:52
Discussing the television program "The Living Planet," with broadcaster David Attenborough.
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David Attenborough "Living organisms are extraordinarily adaptable. Species, far from being fixed and immutable, evolve with a speed that is well able to match most geological and climatic change. Owls, colonizing the far north, developed a thicker, whiter plumage that now keeps them warm and inconspicuous on the snow-covered tundra. Wolves, finding their habitat changing to desert or extending their territory into it, lost their thick fur, and so their bodies do not overheat. Antelope are moving out from forests and grazing on open savannahs grew longer legs and became swifter runners, and so the hazards of living in such exposed circumstances were reduced. Man, for the first few millennia after his appearance as a new species, showed signs of the same adaptability. Eskimos living in the Arctic developed short, stocky bodies, the shape that tends to retain heat. Indians in the Amazonian rainforest have hairless bodies and long, thin limbs, the shape that tends to lose heat. Those people who live where the sunshine is so fierce that it can damage their bodies have dark pigmentation in their skins. Those in cloudy or cooler regions, where sunshine is so feeble and infrequent it's scarcely sufficient to promote the production of vitamins in the body, have less pigment and pale skins. And then, some 12,000 years ago, mankind began to show a new talent. When faced with harsh surroundings, he no longer waited many generations for his anatomy to change. Instead, he changed his surroundings."
Studs Terkel "He changed his surroundings." And David Attenborough reading a passage from his book "The Living Planet", and that passage may contain one, certainly one of the texts of the book as well as this remarkable television series seen in the United States now on PBS, "The Living Planet". In fact, you'll notice some of the critics have written about it, and of course very enthusiastically, as well as the viewers that perhaps this alone, this kind of program with so many doubts about television, and its [end?], this program makes TV worthwhile. It's an exciting one, of course, about our planet. The book and the television program are really related, are they not, as were your -- as was the previous program, "Life on Earth".
David Attenborough Yes, indeed they are. What happened as far as I was concerned is that one did all the research and the thinking, and then you produced, I wrote a television series, and at the same time was writing the book. They're modifying what I wrote for the book by what I discovered during the filming of the series.
Studs Terkel This book published by Little, Brown and Company with the illustrations that you see animated in the sense, alive on the television series that just began in the United States, I'm thinking, you're talking about adaptability. Before we -- before you were saying how, how we evolved. We, not simply the human being, but all other members of the animal kingdom, and now it's how being here, the flora, the fauna and us, and how, how adaptation and continuity. I think -- isn't that also, it's continuity.
David Attenborough Yes, the amazing way in which animals will -- if there's a possibility, the remotest possibility of getting a living, you know, of finding enough to eat to sustain body and soul, animals will move in there and do it. So that the result is in the most hostile environments that you can imagine, there is some little creature beavering away there just earning a living. I mean, for example, if you go on to -- if you go into high snow slopes of, say, Mount Rainier in this country, you wouldn't think anything would live up there. There's nothing but snow and bare rock. And yet in spring, that snow suddenly would turn a blush pink. And that's because there are a multitude of tiny little microscopic organisms which are red and which live in the snow and just manage to get enough sunshine, energy from the sun, and enough nutrients from dust that grows in the snow, and there they are.
Studs Terkel And there in that same region, that's where the penguins adapt, the chinchillas and the vicuna, this is, so now we're talking about -- and a little later on we'll come to the subject of man himself. And you say how he's changed his surroundings for the good, but we have to also ask toward the end possibly for the bad, too, if we don't watch it? But coming back to the other, you know, this is very -- other members of the animal kingdom. Not lesser, but other members, that's -- I know this is one of your credos throughout.
David Attenborough Very much so. We are of course a part of nature. The old idea that we were separate from nature and the even more damaging idea that somehow nature was no more than a [larder? lardo?] and a workshop which we were entitled to go into and just raid, I mean take whatever we wanted from the shelves and because it was put there by an almighty Providence at our disposal for us to use how we wished without any moral consequences, that if an animal was there we had a total right simply to eat it or kill it or do whatever we want to do with it. That idea which might have been appropriate to a tribe wandering in the Middle East 20,000 years ago is not actually appropriate to 20th century man, 20th century man who has so overrun the Earth in such vast numbers that he's put in jeopardy the existence of almost every other living thing.
David Attenborough Well, we are. We are totally dependent on nature. I mean, for all our grandnesses and all our conceits and all our arrogances, the fact is if there weren't any plants on the Earth, we would die tomorrow. We would starve tomorrow. We are totally dependent on the natural world.
Studs Terkel If we can't adapt, now still sticking to that frozen world, and we'll come, we have to come back later to the furnaces of the Earth and the lava and these two great volcanoes that you talk about, one in our time, too. If some animals can't adapt, the auk, you see, couldn't adapt.
David Attenborough Yeah. Animals I suppose you can, you can divide into sort of into those that are -- become so adapted that they will fit only in that one environment because there is a danger in becoming so adaptive that you can only live on a snowfield, for example, because if the Earth warms and the snows disappear, then that's the end of it. Similarly, the great auk, which is extinct and was -- well, was actually hunted to death by man, that was adapted, that lost its power of flight and was living like a sort of northern penguin up in the islands of the Arctic, and that was fine while men were not around to knock it on the head. But losing flight made it very vulnerable. And now that's extinct. Now, those kind of highly specialized creatures, then the generalists creatures which still hold within them the power for adaptability, and man of course is one of them.
Studs Terkel The reason I ask about man is still -- of course, he's remarkably ad-- at the same time gotta ask this question: the dinosaur was powerful. And yet because the dinos-- I suppose the topography, the nature of the Earth was so changing, the dinosaur did not adjust, or couldn't adjust to the change. Isn't that possible in man's case?
David Attenborough Yeah, well yes, except that man now has broken all the rules. Man now has a kind of [evolutional?] future which has not been foreshadowed by any other creature, because as I was suggesting in that first passage which I was reading, man is now technologically so powerful, he's so clever, he knows how to harness so much energy, that he can knock down a forest in a day. He can build a dam and create a lake a hundred miles long in ten years. He can equally spray, just because the whim takes him, spray a defoliant over a forest and cause all the plants to lose their leaves, because he has these fantastic abilities that is how -- at his disposal unparalleled by any other species. He now molds the Earth to suit what he supposes to be his advantage.
Studs Terkel Now, we know there were some good aspects, you talk about those later in the book, the countryside, take a British countryside as an example of something else, that came as a result of pastures and then again it was man's work.
David Attenborough Yes, I'm not, I'm not the kind of conservationist who says that everything that man does is vile. Not so. On the contrary, man can do great things and splendid things, and anyway man has as it were a biological right to exist just like everything else. I'm not suggesting that, that man should exterminate himself, God forbid. Neither am I suggesting that he shouldn't actually grow crops, of course he must. What I'm suggesting is that he shouldn't put everything else in jeopardy in order to do so.
David Attenborough Yeah.
David Attenborough It's, you know, the old idea, the old idea that somehow the natural world is so big, so resilient that you couldn't harm it is a long time a-dying. I mean, you know, you talk about poisoning the sea, you think, "The SEA? That guy talks about poisoning the sea, could never have flown over the Pacific Ocean, the, I mean, how absurd to suggest that you could poison the sea," and yet Thor Heyerdahl, when he sailed across the Pacific on the Kon-Tiki reported that there was no place where he didn't find a trace of some pollution on the surface. And even in, even in the last 20 years, we in Britain and I mustn't speak for others, I speak just of my own country, we actually recognize that the, the chemicals that we were pumping out of our factories and out of our -- were so corrosive with sulfur dioxide and one thing or another, that they were causing people to have terrible lung infections, they were corroding the surface of our buildings and creating appalling smogs, and we said, "How terrible that is. I know what we'll do about it!" And what [pose?] a solution? "We'll build the smokestacks higher! So that instead of actually going into our cities, it'll blow away," and we actually truly thought the atmosphere was big enough to take any amount of that sort of stuff. Of course, now we know that what we were actually doing was poisoning other rain, other people's rain or turning that rain acid, we were responsible for killing forests and making barren lakes in Scandinavia.
Studs Terkel And which of course leads to one of your chapters right there, "The Northern Forests", and you speak how the importance of how, now the northern forests, that's the range from -- what? That goes all across
David Attenborough Yeah, the northern forest is I suppose probably one of the biggest continuous or near-continuous zones in the world, because it goes right across Canada, right across Alaska, right across into northern Europe into Siberia, and right the way around it ends up in Finland and Scandinavia, and that great belt, great stretching around the globe, is extraordinary uniform actually. And if you, if you travel in it, you have to be in a very, very good naturalist indeed to know just where you are, I mean if you were dropped by parachute and you didn't know where you were, if you looked at the birds and it was particularly if it was during winter, and if you looked at, indeed the deer, you'd have to be terribly good to know whether in fact you were sitting in Scandinavia or Siberia or Alaska. In the summer, it would be easier, because in the summer when the grip of the frost and snow loosens a bit, or little visitors come up from North America or from northern Europe and so on, and then you'd know, because of [for?] migrants. But
Studs Terkel But this northern from largest tract of, you know, largest tracts of greenery in the world, really. We know as you said a moment ago, are endangered. And since there's an interdependence of all the beings, the animals that are there, as well as Eskimos, too, among the humans who are there, and how they depend one upon the other for survival, whether it be predator or, or this, the prey, if that's out, then we're affected, too. then there's a break in the chain.
David Attenborough Yes, yes, quite so. The -- I suppose, but I mean there are every kind of reason why you should think that these are valuable things. There are practical reasons we do depend on these wild forms, and if we lose them, we lose things that can be of great value to us. But there is it seems to me also a kind of a moral question. Do we really have the right to, to simply exterminate other living organisms with which we share the planet just because we think we can't be bothered with them?
Studs Terkel You know, we have to come, continue with -- if we just pause for a moment for this message, want to come back to David Attenborough, "The Living Planet" is his book. The book, by the way, we haven't talked about the illustrations are quite remarkable, and the various chapters. We're just touching on this in a cursory fashion, is published by Little, Brown in conjunction with your public television series that we've seen as of this broad-- we've seen the first chapter and how lava, how you speak of beginnings, and we'll talk of that. But throughout this continuity interdependence survival and rem-- marvelous little insights into how other members of this animal kingdom live, too. And we'll resume after this message. [pause in recording] So resuming with David Attenborough, perhaps later on toward the end ask about his experience, too. He was the BBC program director, was a big shot on BBC, but what is it? You gave -- what if even I could ask that. You gave up this job of great responsibility and power because you were a biologist or a zoologist and a curious man. Is that it?
David Attenborough Well, I suppose so. That's a kind of a nice and flattering way to put it, I mean you could equally well say I got very bored with shifting paper from the right-hand side of my desk to the left-hand side of my desk and sitting in meetings. I started as a biologist. I started making natural history programs and then was asked to, to run one of the BBC's television networks, which was a very exciting thing to be asked to do, because it meant that you could devise, cook up all kinds of new programs that nobody else was doing. I don't mean me personally, but I mean as an organization. And then I, then I was moved from that to be responsible for the both television networks, and that was much more to do with finance and politics and unions and personnel and computers
Studs Terkel Well, the fact is you're a natural, by the way, as our cicerone, you are, and you, and the ease with which you make that which may be complicated clear, in the very beginning you speak of certain events, you speak of continuity but also fractures a changing world. There were two devastating volcanoes you talk of. One our time, St. Helens, but in Krakatua.
David Attenborough That was one of the earliest fully documented eruptions that we can now see with the hindsight of biological science. I mean, of course there have been lots and lots of eruptions and from Roman times onwards, but the point about Krakatau, which lies between Java and Sumatra, is that it was not only one of the most devastating eruptions causing one of the greatest losses of life, creating one of the loudest noises in history, in recorded history so that it was actually heard in Australia, and that way down in the Atlantic there was a British captain of a naval garrison on one of those islands who heard a great thunder and thought that there was warships out and set the, he'd set the fleet out, go out and find this, and it was the volcano. Not only was all that known about, but since it took place over, just over a hundred years ago, we have been able to chart what happened to that volcano site, that totally devastated part of the island in the time since, and to chart just how other species have, of animals and plants have got there since from the big islands, from Java and Sumatra, and recolonized it, which is what the program is about, really.
David Attenborough Well they, they are also volcanoes, that is to say, they are volcanic islands, but they are of a slightly different kind. The, the Earth is covered by a series of plates, which are in constant movement, and where they -- lava wells up from the furnaces of the center of the Earth and forms a great crack, and which, and then flows out on either side of the crack, forming like as it were a skin on custard, it moves away from the central crack. Those form islands like Hawaii and islands like Galapagos along with the surface of that crack, but where, where those plates collide with one another, they also get another line of weakness, and you also get volcanoes forming, but they are of a rather more sticky, the lava is much more viscous, so that it actually remains solid when it really wants to as it were release the pressure by explosion. And so it's still the pressure builds up and then you get the really catastrophic eruptions when the pressure builds up because the stickiness of this lava, the viscosity of the lava, and suddenly these fantastic explosions.
David Attenborough Yes.
Studs Terkel You know, one of the delightful aspects, exciting aspects of your adventure, it is an adventure on TV and in this book, is your discoveries, the excitement and wondering what next. Now you yourself, in with the crew, you know -- you connect seemingly disparate aspects. Again we come to the interdependence, and there's a sequence about the jungle, we spoke of the frozen, of the forest and the frozen world and lava, and now we come to the jungle itself. When you say the jungle, that's a generic name for what? For
David Attenborough Well, there's areas around the, around the world, around roughly in the equatorial belt. I mean, it, that's the warmest part there. That's where the sun shines strongest, and in those parts around the equator where there's also high rainfall, you get the most luxuriant growth to be found anywhere on Earth, and this -- I mean, it's like a greenhouse. We know what a greenhouse is like, it is we, everything grows very fast, and that's what the jungle is like. So we've got this tremendous proliferation of life.
Studs Terkel Yeah, but proliferation [a? are?] right not simply on the ground, but now we come to an adventure of yours. But up there. In the canopy, now -- you, when did you notice that, that there's a tremendous life up above at the top of the tree?
David Attenborough Well, I think everybody's known that, everybody's works in the jungle, travels through a jungle knows that, as a matter of fact when one is a kid, you think that the jungle is going to be a place where you're fighting off jaguar, you know, all the time and monkeys are going to come and swing around your head and snakes will leap on every foot. If you actually walk along the floor of a jungle, it's a great disappointment initially because there's hardly anything there. I mean, you can't see anything. You walk for days. You never see a single large creature at all, but you can hear them all right, they're all up 200 feet above you. Crashing through the branches and there's whirrings of wings and there's little peeps and clicks of some insects or some frogs, and you'd simply can't see them, even when they whisk past, they're against the light, you can hardly see what they are. And so working in the jungle used to be very, very frustrating because you could see what was up there. But in the last ten years, really not much more, biologists -- there isn't sufficiently hale and hearty, have learnt from mountaineers. They have learnt rope-climbing techniques that mountaineers evolved for camping up vertical rock faces. They've learned to adapt those to get a rope to the very top of a 200-foot tree. So you can simply shin up the rope with a special harness and clips, you just climb up there. I say "just," I have to tell
David Attenborough But it's quite tiring, and that when you get the top there, suddenly the world is transformed. Suddenly you can see that's where the light is. That's where the sunshine is, that's where the energy is, that's where it all is going on, and there's whole communities that live there 200 feet above the ground, that the poor man walking along the bottom of the jungle floor never, never sees.
David Attenborough Well, if you live up there, the ability to actually to get from one tree to the other by gliding through the air instead of having to go all the way down a 200-foot tall tree, down to down and up another one, obviously flying is the thing.
Studs Terkel As we watched, and I and millions of others watched the first episode of the series on public television here in the United States, was a smash in England, and obviously will be here, we saw you not simply as an observer but a participant. When you were in the high altitude, this was in Nepal, around there, your own shortness of breath and we felt we were with you there, too.
David Attenborough I'm glad you did. I tell you, the point of the, of showing that, was I was talking about that adaptation of human beings and how, that the Sherpas and the people that lived high have bigger chests and bigger lungs and more blood corpuscles in their, in their blood so they can get, they can get more oxygen out of the air. And I was saying that of course lowlanders like me who come from London, we can't, so I panted. But I tell you, I'm infuriated because the press in Britain saw me with that, and a number of correspondents said, "Poor old thing. You know, it's really terrible that the BBC should actually persecute this man. He was once okay, you know, they keep sending him up in this intolerable positions, why don't they pension the old guy off?"
Studs Terkel By the way, you said something interesting here about adaptability. Earlier you spoke of animals adapting, of and trees can adapt too with protective chemicals, you [rather?] come from them, not from man, against being eaten up. And so man, you mentioned the Sherpas adapting, the Eskimos, too, you point out. What does a certain squat -- they're [enabled?] to survive cold.
David Attenborough I mean, the shape, if you're globular, you conserve your heat much better, because you've got less surface area per, in relation to your volume than if you are, if you are, very long lanky legs. So Eskimos in fact are very well adapted to conserving heat by being more squat than people who live in deserts.
Studs Terkel Just this talking about a bitter cold or a frozen cold, which is the animal that it breathes only about one-tenth of the rate that it would breathe, inhale, or the pulse beat is less, the pulse beat is about one, one ten times slower in the cold when it's, when it's hibernating?
David Attenborough It is an extraordinary thing that in the northern regions, the small animals, like chipmunks or squirrels or outdoor mice and indeed bears actually can suspend life to all intents and purposes and drop the various mechanisms in their bodies that would normally keep it working at a high activity, dropping to the very, very bare minimum, so that the heart beat is hardly detectable, and the blood and the temperature of the body drops, so it's almost as cold as the [unintelligible].
David Attenborough Well, the pygmies live in the Ituri forest and are adapted to that in that they are -- big people in forests are clumsy, and have difficulty in getting through, so the people are small and tiny and hairless.
Studs Terkel So just as a vicuna and the fur that protects it up north, pygmy in size, Eskimos in size, whether it be tropical or whether it be frozen, again adaptation you found there, and trees, you also another thing, when old trees fall, seems tragic. And yet that becomes the basis of the new saplings.
David Attenborough Yes. The canopy of the jungle which I was describing is, it cuts out the light so effectively, that one of the great problems of the tall trees have is how on earth the seeds are going to make it to germinate, how they're going to get, how they're going to get the light on which they depend. And so what happens is that the trees produce an enormous number of seeds, and they load them with food so that for the first few years of their life, the little sapling, little seedling is growing on the nutrient that the parent tree provided in the nut, but unless it gets to the top, it's going to die. And a high proportion of them will never get to the top and die. They have, they're actually waiting for the moment when an old tree dies, struck by lightning or loaded by water under a rainstorm, and tears a hole in the jungle canopy, and then suddenly as, as the race is on, the seedlings have to grow with enormous speed zooming upwards, and the one that gets to the top puts out its branches, cuts off the light, and condemns the other losers of the race to
Studs Terkel And that, but it's -- this is the natural course of events. I must tell you this story: I found myself at the Kruger National Park in South [Africa] in 1962 and visitors, one of this bus going through this natural preserves, and we saw a leopard hiding behind a leaf. It was almost like a Rousseau primitive painting, the leopard, and there was an impala standing terrified, and wham! We saw the leopard spring at the impala and strangle, you know, cut it. Tear its throat and then leave it. Then it saw the bus, and it wandered back behind the leaf waiting for the bus to leave. Peering at us, and so that's again part of the natural course of
David Attenborough Yes, the cycle of life continues. The destruction of course is when you actually destroy the whole thing, then you destroy the whole system, and when it's not just the survival of this individual who might live for a year or 50 years or 100 years, it's when in fact you exterminate young and old together, and so actually exterminate the whole system.
David Attenborough Yes.
David Attenborough Nothing else, nothing else. Mind you, a volcanic eruption is pretty, is pretty devastating. But even volcanic eruptions haven't changed the surface of the Earth to the degree and the speed with which man has done over the past
Studs Terkel Just one before we take another break talking to David Attenborough and "The Living Planet" is the theme, the theme, the title and the content and the style of this remarkable book with illustrations that are stunning, published by Little, Brown, it also, this inspired the television series we're seeing on public television. Before the break, one little thing since I, that one member of the kingdom. whether it be among plants or animals, lives in some cases by virtue of the death of another. You point out that it's not neces-- man may do it unnecessarily, the hunter, but the other members they can do it as necessity. You say the lynx chasing a rabbit won't chase it too far. It'll chase a deer further because it gets more -- the rabbit's not worth the long chase.
David Attenborough And that's, the mechanics whereby that happens, how the lynx as it were calculates that the number of calories in the rabbit are so many, and you don't want to spend too many calories on running fast to chase it, how that happens of course is slightly mysterious. The plain fact of course is that the lynx doesn't do that calculation. What it is is a habit which lynxes, which happen to behave in that way, did better than lynxes that actually led themselves into starvation by fruitless chasing. So that that was a built-in instinct impressed into the, into the lynx's behavior by the force of circumstances and by natural selection. But that it happens is of no doubt at all, because research biologists have charted lynxes hunting, and they've noted down in detail the speed, the prey, the frequency, and so they know exactly
David Attenborough That's
David Attenborough Sure. There's no comparison, really, the human hunter for sport, because the human hunter, the sport is out after something else altogether. He doesn't bother a calorie one way or the other, and he doesn't bother of course the cost one way or another by and large when you think of what it costs and all those shells and guns and one thing or another. I actually am not, I'm not arguing that man doesn't have the right to kill. I eat a steak like anybody else, and how can I argue that if I eat a steak? Indeed, I think that we also have -- it's not improper to control the number of rats in our cities, that seems to me absolutely the case. If we have a swarm of rats, we are entitled to trap them and kill them. What I argue for is is that man should actually manage his environment to recognize that he is a major element in it and not to, and to work out a plan for which he is managing the environment, and one of the major elements in that plan I would like to believe is to maintain the rich diversity of life, which this planet has.
Studs Terkel It's pluralism you're talking about, of course, the diversity of life. Again we come to interdependence. It's funny how the implication of that applies to humans too, the diversity of societies and humans in this diminishing sized global village we live in. We're talking to David Attenborough and "Living Planet" is the book, and "The Living Planet" is also the public television series, has met, and message resume, because there are other parts of the planet that we have to explore too, you're talking about now about the desert and the sky itself and of course the ocean, the waters, which most of the planet by far. And finally the human himself after this word or two. [pause in recording] Resuming with David Attenborough. So you want a grass, when you say grasslands there's a sequence called the Sea of Grass. I found myself in, it was called the grasslands of inner Mongolia about three years ago, and there again a long trip from Beijing to inner Mongolia, [Hohhot?] City, then the grasslands, and then suddenly it's a different world entirely from the Gobi Desert aspect.
David Attenborough I wished very much we'd been able to get there. There's one particular animal in the grasslands of Central Asia which is extraordinarily adapted to living on these very, very poor grasslands. It is adapted with almost an elephant-like trunk. It's called the saiga antelope. Did you see any?
Studs Terkel No.
David Attenborough No. [Me, either?] Well, it's a very strange thing that lives only there, and we wanted very much to include it because it's a crucial animal, and we wrote to actually Russia, to the united, the Soviet republics, asking
David Attenborough And the Russians are very nice. They said that they were showing "Life on Earth" and they enjoyed it, and "We would be delighted to help," they said. But in the end it turned out that somehow that urge to help kind of evaporated somewhere along the line in this stream of arid correspondence, and but in the end they did the next best thing, I have to say. They actually filmed these animals for us and sent us the film, and that is in the [series?].
Studs Terkel It is in the series there, and there again, so it's called grass in different parts of the, in different parts of the world different names, isn't, pampas of Argentina, the -- what is it called in different
Studs Terkel Prairie here, of course, yeah. Again adaptations. The anteater in that region; we can't see, can't hear but it can smell. Is that it? And so there's some attribute even though others may be missing that enables that animal to make it in a -- well, otherwise it would be an absolutely hostile environment.
David Attenborough Yes, I mean there -- on the, on the, on the pampas or rather the -- anyway, the grasslands of South America, there are what you might call stationary fossilized antelope. I mean, there are big termite hills about the size of antelope and about as thick as a grazing herd and antelope, and in many way you could consider them the South American equivalent to the herd of antelope. Each one is a community of maybe a million termites, and they are chewing up the grass little by little by little, just as a living antelope would. And what is the biological equivalent of the lion which hunts the antelope? And the answer is, it's the giant anteater, because the giant anteater raids the termite hills, so Studs, a lion, a lion preys on the antelope. So they have a number of advantages; termite hills don't run 20 miles an hour, so the giant anteater doesn't have to move very fast. They don't take flight, so the giant anteater doesn't have to have particular stalking techniques. One thing it does need to have is long powerful claws and powerful front legs to turn open the termite hill, and an extremely long tongue which can flick right inside up to a, to a, two-foot long inside the -- and flick out the insects. So it has the equipment to prey upon the termitarium just as the lion has the equipment to prey on wildebeests.
Studs Terkel Again we have this theme throughout, isn't it, in this, in your series, too: interdependence, adaptability, continuity. These three, somehow these three aspects always come to mind. And how, if that's destroyed by a powerful creature known as man, broken up then we're in big trouble. In many ways. So we come to the desert, and then how much of the world can we come to? The Sahara is, that's the big one.
David Attenborough That's a very big one. The interesting thing of course about adaptability is that if you have a similar problem to solve, it will lead, lead animals and plants even though they're not closely related to similar solutions, the problem, you don't have to be a genius or a biologist to know that the problem of living in a desert is it's very hot, and there's not much water. Now if you are a plant, how do you respond to that? Well, the first -- one of the things they must do is to reduce the evaporation from the surface of your leaves, it will evaporate very precious water, so your leaves by and large are reduced and become little spines, and then you need the capacity to store water for that very rare occasion which may come only once every several years when there's a great cloudburst, and torrents of water are there for maybe a day or two days and you've got to suck it up quick and store it, so you need a very big swollen stem. And of course, the answer is that leads to a cactus, as we all know, that's why cactuses are the way they are. But the interesting thing is that the family, plant family that gave rise to the cactuses, is entirely a New World family. It lives only in the Americas and the offshore
David Attenborough Sure.
Studs Terkel I
David Attenborough And so, but there's another plant family called the euphorbias, some members of which are faced with the difficulty of flourishing in deserts, and which evolved exactly the same thing! They reduced their leaves, they [became?] spiny and they developed very thick green fleshy stems, exactly the same solutions to the same problem, albeit on different continents by different kinds of plants, and the same kind of convergence and superficial similarities occur in snakes, mammals, and so on, all of which live in deserts albeit in different parts of the world.
Studs Terkel And so again I suppose a perfect case in point of adaptability or protective aspect, of course, the camel, I suppose and it's what the camel was so constructed that was made for the desert in its capacity to store water.
David Attenborough Well, it developed, it develops this ability to, a very strange biological ability to actually create water out of fat. I mean, it's a chemical process that you can produce H2O out of fat by certain very expensive in energy terms, chemical processes, so that the camel's hump is not actually soggy and floppy with water, it is actually solid with fat. But if the worse comes to the worst, the animal can convert that fat into a kind of a fluid which
Studs Terkel You know, it's a crazy thought, as you say this, it's connecting because of your works, the book and the television series. Adaptability to an environment: the camel and the storing of the fat, and exactly opposite environment, the frozen north, the Eskimo, the human, and his build and the capa-- and the fat.
David Attenborough Well, the fat, of course fat there is used for a different kind of purpose, because fat is a marvelous insulator, and the fat layer under the skin of the seal, the blubber, is a marvelous insulator, in fact, so marvelous is it that the seal and indeed penguins who have a similar kind of blubber are in danger of overheating very often if they get in some [circumstances?].
David Attenborough Different
David Attenborough Yes, and all animals have different -- well not all animals, but they, they all have curious techniques, some of which are the same, and some of which are very individual. I think my, my favorite desert living animal is one which, which has a absolutely I think unique way of gathering moisture. It gathers it from fog. This is a little beetle that lives in the Namib Desert, and the Namib is in Southwest Africa and close to the coast, and every now and again fog sweeps in from the Atlantic, and when that happens, this little beetle, which is only about a half-inch long, clambers laboriously up, high, to the high crest of a sand dune, and there they all gather in line, and they all stick their backsides up into the air facing the ocean, or not facing, backsiding the ocean you might say, with their heads down, and as the fog sweeps in, it condenses on the tip of these beetles' backsides and then trickles down their sides and down their legs until it gets to their mouth and the beetle goes [lip-smacking sound] and sips up this water, and that's how the beetle gets water from fog. Amazing.
Studs Terkel So we go and we wander, keep going on, on this, on this voyage. Skies. You mentioned earlier about the danger and what's happening to the skies, and there all variety of birds, you speak of aerobatics. Aerobatics.
David Attenborough Aerobatics. Yes. Well, it -- once an animal acquires a skill, it exploits it to the full, and it used to be very old-fashioned to kind of suppose that animals enjoyed themselves, that was regarded as a very anthropomorphic kind of proposition that no responsible scientist would say an animal actually enjoyed doing anything, you see, because you can't be sure that they enjoy it, but if you watch birds, really superb fliers in the air, peregrines, ravens, eagles, you will see them performing the most extraordinaries of dives and swoops and tumbles and so on on occasion, and I cannot but believe that they're only doing that because boy, it's great to be alive, it's good to be alive, and watch me go!
David Attenborough Yes, absolutely. Part of their, part of their display between male and female is that, I mean, there's the, you know, you talk about the circus and that, you know, the great sort of acrobats
David Attenborough Trapeze artist, but and catching one another, but you know part of the aerial display of many birds of prey is that the male swoops underneath the female and catches her claws underneath so that the two are hanging up just like a circus artist zooming through the air, holding claws, I mean it's an absolute knockout.
Studs Terkel One last pause for the last part of the journey, and we got to talk about water, freshwater and oceans, and with David Attenborough who is our guide, more than our guide, he's leading us through a world, "The Living Planet" as he did "Life on Earth", both on the public television series now seen here, as well as in this book published by Little, Brown. It's a marvelous book in itself, too. It's great in conjunction with the series, but also the photography is quite remarkable, various aspects of it. And after this pause, last lap of our around the world, around the planet journey. [pause in recording] And so the last part of the journey with David Attenborough, on "The Living Planet". You say "Sweet Fresh Water", I like that chapter I think, "Sweet Fresh Water". Yes.
David Attenborough Yes. Well, that's what used to be on the pirate -- well, the old nautical charts, you know. Pirates in the 16th, 17th century sailors, would write, write on, on their charts. "Sweet Water Here," which meant that was fresh and drinkable. I've always thought that myself, because in a way it's one of the images of sweetness, certainly, the sweetness of nature that comes from my youth. I mean, it wasn't only Thoreau who sat by a pond. I see that, the gurgling brook and the kingfisher and the bulrushes and the stars of white crowfoot or marsh marigolds or buttercups. That's the landscape I grew up in as a child. As are the ponds I sat by, and so I do think fresh water is sweet.
Studs Terkel So there's the sweetness of nature. So it's funny how, so, and you speak of the salmon. I suppose the salmon of sweet water fish, the salmon seems to have a kind a history, it's mythic, the salmon is in myth a lot, too, isn't it? Why is that? The salmon.
David Attenborough And not surprising, not surprising. That the salmon of course does this extraordinary thing of it hatches and from eggs that are laid in fresh water, sometimes a hundred miles or so from the coast, and the little, the little young survives there for a bit, it changes, it grows, it changes its form, and eventually it swims down to the sea, and while it's in the sea it may, depends on the species how long it stays in the sea, feeding. But eventually it will -- and the period is fixed for the species. All those that were class of -- "Class of '73" as it were, reassemble at the mouth of that river after they'd been swimming all through the oceans getting food. They all turn up again, all from the same, all that were born in that year in that thing, and together, boys, it's the college reunion, we're going back up to that [unintelligible] -- absolutely. And they go up by the thousands, and they actually are able to sense to, as it were, taste the water, with a degree, with a skill of palate that would shame any sort of wine buff and from France. It can tell the very tiny mixture of chemicals that are characteristic of that one particular river where it was hatched, and we know that's so, because if you actually stop up their nostrils of the salmon, it gets lost, it can't do it. So, and then they go all the way up, back up, and when they get there they mate. And they say they excavate shallow little scoops in the gravel, the eggs are laid again, and then the most poignant thing of all, having done that, if it's a Pacific salmon we're talking about, they all die. Every man jack. It's in some ways romantic.
Studs Terkel It's romantic 'cause that's why they're so much part of myth and legends, the salmon, but also you describe the community then go up, there's, it's as though there were a sense of community.
David Attenborough Yes. Yes. I mean, I suppose if I've got to be a sort of bluntly and unromantically scientific, the fact is that you would say that after a certain period of years, the development of the gonads and of the various internal organs is such that it stimulates the salmon to return to, yeah that's a sort of coarse way of putting it. That's the sober way, scientific way of putting it, and that we can be sure is true, but it is nonetheless the case that they all do it at the same time. So what the guys that are turning up and forming these huge shows at the mouth of the river actually are buddies. I mean, they are the year of whatever it was.
Studs Terkel New generation. Again, interdependency, talking continuity, the trees falling for the saplings, and now we come to the ocean itself, don't we? Now we come to the big part of the Earth, don't we? The ocean.
David Attenborough Two-thirds of the surface of the Earth are covered with water. But the -- again the extraordinary thing is that you see we haven't really, it's only Captain Cousteau invented that marvelous invention the Aqualung which has been such a boon in every, [so many eyes?], he only did that at the end of the last war. So it's only since the last war that people have actually been able to travel with any degree of freedom in two-thirds of the Earth's surface, and only now are we beginning to explore what is there, and even now we can't with, with Aqualung here we can't get deep, but we have now got submersibles, which will take us deep and of course we're discovering all kinds of things. In fact, the great discoveries, biological discoveries in the oceans today
David Attenborough Well, the sharks in -- I think they're much maligned creatures, really. They are very ancient fish. But the thing that astounds me about sharks when you watch, you watch them, is that they are most marvelously streamlined, the most marvelously graceful of fish, and the majority of shark species are not harmful to man. You can actually swim among them and they will not harm you. And we did to some degree in making the films. And it's, the shark is saddled with that terrible vision, that jaw is underslung, [waving at the -- from the long kind of?] evil-looking face, you see, and that's a great tragedy for the shark, because everybody thinks they're doing a service to humanity if they savagely beat
David Attenborough Yes.
David Attenborough Indeed.
Studs Terkel Comes to man. This -- so the book leads to that. You speak of this -- come the word sweet comes to my mind, the sweetness of nature, and that's [unintelligible]. The continuity, interdependence, all this comes through in your series and in the book beautifully. Before I ask you to read perhaps the last passage, aloud of your book, a personal matter now. You were the BBC Head of Programs and recently a friend of mine and a colleague of yours, died. James Cameron the doyen of British journalism I guess, perhaps you were -- I know that you were head of BBC Program when he developed programs for that. Your reflections on Cameron, what you knew of him.
David Attenborough James started as a newspaper man. And I think all of us read James because he was a voice of sanity, he was a voice of -- he was against prejudice. James had an extraordinary facility to be where the action was. If it was a war or if it was a natural disaster, James was there bringing his own special kind of humanity and bringing the rest of his readers in touch with these events with a degree of civilized skepticism and open sympathy which could bring tears to your eyes in three sentences, and a laugh on your lips one sentence later, because apart from this marvelous open and honest and unprejudiced character, he was also a marvelously funny man. James, you'd only got to explain, have a drink with James, and before you knew where you were, you were roaring with laughter about something or other, and it stemmed entirely from his marvelous character. And he, he came to television and I was in charge there, and we had a view in BBC at that time that we had to be objective of all costs, and the way out of this, it was a terrible clamping kind of view and the way out we thought would be that if you actually had a man whose sincerity was beyond impugning, who actually said, "Look, this is what I think, I'm fallible but I'm human and I'm honest, and this is why," and now that man preeminently was James Cameron. And so he started a series of personal reports which became a series called "One Pair of Eyes", and which was a major move in British broadcasting. And James was right there doing it, and the -- in his last years he was the most indomitable man, I mean, kind of every appalling physical affliction occurred to him. And he had pacemakers in his heart, he had all kinds of devices. In fact, he very wittily, typical James, he said, "The thing is, you see, that I am actually slowly in the process of becoming immortal," he said, "Because all the little bits that wear out, you know, they're putting new bits in, so I shall end up as being totally mechanical and indestructible." Alas, it was not to be, and James died about three weeks ago. And he was a major loss not only to broadcasting, but human civilized intercourse.
David Attenborough Yeah.
Studs Terkel Thank you very much. We have [removed?] of course the elegance of his style as well. But that was beautiful. David Attenborough is my guest and now we'll return for the last part too, "The Living Planet" to be seen on public television and his book, Little, Brown. The last passage perhaps you might -- of course, you talk of all the aspects of this living planet, and you trust it will not be a dead climate, and perhaps anywhere the last passage or two to read, which I think is a perfect sign-off.
David Attenborough "The natural world is not static, nor has it ever been. Forests have turned into grasslands, savannahs have become deserts, estuaries have silted up and become marshes, ice caps have advanced and retreated. Rapid though these changes have been, seen in the perspective of geological history, animals and plants have been able to respond to them and so maintain a continuate -- continuity of fertility almost everywhere. But man is now imposing such swift changes that organisms seldom have time to adapt to them, and the scale of our changes is now gigantic. We are so skilled in our engineering, so inventive with our chemicals, that we can in a few months transform not merely a stretch of a stream or a corner of a wood, but a whole river system, an entire forest. However we must do our utmost to maintain the diversity of the Earth's animals and plants. It's not just that we depend on many of them for our food, though that is the case. It's not just that we still know so little about them or the practical value they might have for us in the future, though that too is so. It is surely that we have no moral right to exterminate forever the creatures with which we share this Earth. As far as we can tell, our planet is the only place in all the black immensities of the universe where life exists. We are alone in space, and the continued existence of life now rests in our hands."