On Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough, the famed BBC naturalist, has caught my attention twice in the past day. First, Sir David has said some unkind things about mankind—namely, that we aren’t so good for the planet. Marcus Roberts at MercatorNet has a response here.

Since others are taking on the job of responding to the substance of Attenborough’s comments, I want to look at him from a slightly different angle. This brings me to second time he has caught my attention today, which is in tonight’s episode of Nature, which I am watching as I write this. The next few episodes of the show will be focusing on Attenborough’s career as a naturalist-presenter for various nature programs over many decades.

I’ll confess to being a fan of Sir David as a nature presenter, if not as a deeper thinker. My wife and I have spent many hours watching and rewatching our copies of his series, along with others in our extensive science documentary collection. What Attenborough and many other science popularizers do so well is present the delight of science well. What they do poorly is philosophy. I am reminded of Walker Percy’s comments (which I’ve posted here before) on Carl Sagan, who like Attenborough was someone else whose philosophy and theological understanding was poor, and whose delight in science was genuine. Percy wrote:

“Yet one is not offended by Sagan. There is too little malice and too much ignorance. It is enough to take pleasure in the pleasant style, the knack for popularizing science, and the beautiful pictures of Saturn and the Ring Nebula.

Indeed, more often than not, I found myself on Sagan’s side, especially in his admiration for science and the scientific method, which is what he says it is — a noble, elegant, and self-correcting method of attaining a kind of truth — and when he attacks the current superstitions, astrology, UFO’s, parapsychology, and such, which seem to engage the Western mind now more than ever — more perhaps than either science or Christianity.

What is to be deplored is not Sagan’s sophomoric scientism — which I think better than its counterpart, a sophomoric theism which attributes the wonders of the Cosmos to a God who created it like a child with a cookie cutter — no, what is deplorable is that these serious issues involving God and the nature of man should be co-opted by the present disputants, a popularizer like Sagan and fundamentalists who believe God created the world six-thousand years ago. It’s enough to give both science and Christianity a bad name.

Really, it is a case of an ancient and still honorable argument going to pot. Even arguments in a college dormitory are, or were, conducted at a higher level.

It is for this very reason that we can enjoy Cosmos so much, for the frivolity of Sagan’s vulgar scientism and for the reason that science is, as Sagan says, self-correcting.”

Something similar can be said of Attenborough. His scientism is sophomoric; his love of his scientific subject is genuine. And that delight is something that those of us who are concerned with the question of the relationship between religion and science would do well to note. Christians, rightly or wrongly, often approach science with the defenses already up. The result is that we too often end up focusing on the apologetics and the arguments, rather than the substance of the science. It’s similar to what may often happen in Christian art and fiction: by trying too hard to be “Christian”, it sometimes ceases to be art.

So, too, do many find in Christian treatments of science all Christianity, and no science. To clarify, I do not mean that we need to try to use more science to prove Christianity. What I mean is that we need to get into a habit of giving science its due. When Sagan or Attenborough are honestly delighted by nature, our response should first be, “Yes, it is wonderful!” and not, “But you’re a dumb atheist!” Rather, as Percy says, let us enjoy the beauty that we both, atheist and Christian, can see and acknowledge in nature. Only then, by acknowledging the real substance of scientific beauty, can we use that beauty and delight as a pointer to something more—and lay the ground for a defense of the human prerogative from the misguided ideology of Attenborough’s latest remarks.

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Video: Nature/PBS

7 comments on “On Attenborough

  1. Janet says:

    You’re spot on about David Attenborough. Such a perfect combination of boyish enthusiasm for the natural world and sophomoric philosophy.

    But he’s not alone in this. Pretty much every science book I read has this kind of philosophic nonsense in it.

    Thanks for alerting me to this. I’ll be watching.

  2. [...] Baruzzini of “The Deeps of Time” posts on Sir David Attenborough’s recent comments on humanity as a plague. In his post he talks about “someone else whose philosophy and [...]

  3. [...] Baruzzini of “The Deeps of Time” posts on Sir David Attenborough’s recent comments on humanity as a plague. In his post he talks about “someone else whose philosophy and [...]

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  5. Joseph Moore says:

    Wish I were as generous as you and Walker Percy – Sagan, it seems to me, was a snake in the grass. Percy died before Sagan published Demon-Haunted World, which is a model of half-truths and insinuation used to defame Religion, by which he of course means Christianity and specifically Catholicism. A man with that much raw brain power could not write such a book in innocence, it seems to me.

    Perhaps Percy would have read it with that same sort of long-suffering amusement he often brought to otherwise appalling subjects, I don’t know. I can’t.

    Love Attenborough as a nature guide, don’t know him as anything else, and I guess I’ll just keep it that way.

    • Administrator says:

      I could be falsely optimistic, and I haven’t read Sagan exhaustively; I haven’t read Demon-Haunted World. Nor would I claim that his motives are innocent in every instance. I do, however, detect what does seem to be a current of innocent wonder when he discussed science. Additionally, at least in the instances that I have read of his discussions what he thought were traditional religious/philosophical views, it’s clear he just didn’t understand what he was talking about, whatever admixture of bad faith may have been in there too.

      Percy seemed to have a clear view of the fallenness in everyone, which seemed to give him a certain genial graciousness in response.