To millions of people, Sir David Attenborough is literally the voice of nature.
As the writer and narrator of Planet Earth, Life, and dozens of other acclaimed documentary series, he provides soothing voiceovers that have described everything from the flights of majestic birds to the mating rituals of hedgehogs.
Attenborough, who turns 90 on May 8, is still at it. His most recent series — Rise of Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates — premiered in 2015 on the Smithsonian Channel. In it, he tells the 500-million-year story of how a group of small, wormlike aquatic creatures evolved into every fish, bird, amphibian, reptile, and mammal alive today — including humans.
During a visit last year to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to premiere the work, I spoke with Attenborough about the new series, the uneven quality of science television in general, and his viewers' changing relationship with the natural world. I can confirm his voice is even more enchanting in person. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Joseph Stromberg: In the US, when you tell a story about evolution, it inevitably brings controversy — we have an ongoing, very public debate between evolution and views of creation influenced by the Bible. Does that worry you?
David Attenborough: Well, yes. I'm disturbed when people abrogate rational thought. I'm not suggesting that all thought has to be evidence-based, and you may have different philosophical views on things, but if there is a story that has material evidence and you deny it, you're denying your own intellectual process.
"Humanity is a very, very ingenious species. After all, an American president once said, 'Within 10 years we're going to put a man on the moon.'"
You don't have to necessarily say, "This proves that the Bible is wrong." And you certainly don't have to say the New Testament is wrong. But you can say, "The Old Testament involved some myths, because people didn't have the evidence back then. Now we've collected the evidence. Here it is."
Joseph Stromberg: Right now, with the development of HDTV, you're able to bring nature to viewers more vividly than ever before. At the same time, the average person is more alienated from nature than ever. How does this affect your work?
David Attenborough: I think it puts a great deal of responsibility on television. Humans, as you know, are part of the natural world, and we depend upon it completely — every breath we take, every mouthful of food we eat, comes from the natural world.
But the natural world is in great peril. In a democratic society, in order to do something about that, it requires the people telling policymakers to do so. It requires people understanding the costs of not doing anything — if we don't, the temperature's going to rise, sea levels will rise, more parts of the world will become desert, we'll have increasingly extreme weather, etc.
But if, as you correctly say, people are increasingly cut off from the natural world, there's less of a chance to understand it. So that's a huge responsibility for broadcasters. We ought to be keeping people in touch with the natural world, and we can do that through nature programming.
Joseph Stromberg: How'd you come to this realization?
David Attenborough: Well, when I started doing this work, I wasn't thinking about it at all. I made nature programming because I couldn't imagine enjoying anything else quite as much. And back in the 1950s and '60s, to most people in the natural sciences it seemed that the natural world would always be there for us. Who ever thought humanity could extinguish a species?
Then the evidence began to mount. The awareness that human beings, out of sheer carelessness, were exterminating other species began to arise among a certain section of the scientific community. And I was involved in that.
But then soon afterward, we realized it was even bigger than driving certain species extinct. It was whole communities and species, and vast areas of the world being devastated, and the seas being polluted.
Joseph Stromberg: Do you think that as a species we'll be able to solve this?
David Attenborough: Humanity is a very, very ingenious species. After all, an American president once said, "Within 10 years we're going to put a man on the moon." Even now, that sounds like an impossible task. But it was accomplished.
Is it impossible that such a person couldn't say, "In the next 10 years we're going to double how much power we get from the sun"? At any given moment, the sun is emitting 5,000 times more energy than humanity uses in all forms of power. Five thousand times. And you're going to tell me you can't double how much solar power you produce?
There are problems, of course. One is that we haven't got the devices to store it properly. But that's a piddling problem compared with putting a person on the moon. So let's solve it. If we did, we wouldn't have to worry about the carbon we were emitting, because no one would bother to dig it out of the ground in the first place.
So it can be done. But that doesn't mean we can sit back and wait and see if it'll happen. People need to be energized.
What put a man on the moon was that we were fighting the Soviet Union. What we're fighting now is tougher to visualize. So maybe the answer is that the people who see the problem firsthand — perhaps they can make films about it.
Joseph Stromberg: What made you decide to tell this story about our evolutionary history now?
David Attenborough: It's one of the great dramas in the history of Earth. And we've just recently pieced together so much of it.
There were some very difficult gaps — such as the exact origin of the birds — but the Chinese fossils, which have only been available for the past 20 years, gave us so many answers. We'd previously been trying to tell the story primarily with European and American fossils, but that did leave some very, very difficult questions. And the answers were there in China.
Joseph Stromberg: You've done so much work on ecosystems and life forms that exist, vividly, right now. How much harder is it to tell stories that happened millions of years ago?
David Attenborough: Well, the challenge is, of course, bringing things to life, and telling a story in which the characters are bits of bone, or rock, or computer images. It's a great challenge to capture this story with the material available.
But it's fun. If it were easy, why bother?
Joseph Stromberg: Do advances in computer technology make this sort of thing easier to do?
David Attenborough: Absolutely. We couldn't have told the story in as much vivid detail were it not for computer-generated imagery. CGI is now of a quality that would have been unimaginable years ago.
I remember decades ago, I did a series on paleontology and fossils, and there was going to be one episode entirely about dinosaurs, because that's what laypeople think is most exciting.
"If people are increasingly cut off from the natural world, there's less of a chance to understand it. So that's a huge responsibility for broadcasters."
And the standard of dinosaur reconstruction for film was so poor, it was almost comic — they were little cardboard figures. So I decided I'd tell the whole story of dinosaurs without any images at all.
Now you can tell that story in so much more detail. And the computer imaging is absolutely convincing. Jurassic Park, 20 years ago, was pretty good, but we've come so far since then.
Joseph Stromberg: The quality of American science television is very uneven — we have some great stuff, and then things like Discovery Channel's Megalodon, which basically invents the existence of an extinct shark. Do you think this sort of thing is a problem?
David Attenborough: Well, I think television as a whole has a responsibility to tell true stories. I don't suggest that every network has the same responsibility — just that within the whole medium, someone, somewhere has to tell the stories.
At the BBC, we have rather different incentives. We're not supported by advertising. So there's a responsibility, and an opportunity, and I'm happy to say that I think we live up to it. I've spent my whole life there — I joined in 1952. Sure, the BBC has always done popular things, but it also has focused on telling other sorts of stories that are often ignored.
The Rise of the Vertebrates is a successor to another program, the Rise of the Invertebrates. Nobody had told that story — about trilobites, and that sort of thing. No one had told that at all.