Joys for the sedentary naturalist

April 17, 1991

The Trials of Life
Channel 2
The Life Revolution
Reviewed by Dave Riley

When someone allocates credit for the widespread resistance to logging of old growth forests, some of it must fall to the television "nature" documentary.

No matter what their age, most people have notched up many quality hours as sedentary naturalists. Television really lends itself to this stuff. The telescopic lens has bred a multitude of highly skilled — and one would assume — highly dedicated wildlife photographers. Forever at issue was the packaging. And the best packager is David Attenborough.

He has been producing this stuff for years. As far back as his Zoo Quest series, Attenborough has been chasing the creatures of the forest, savanna, tundra and desert.

After years of journey formats or studies of a particular locale or critter, Attenborough attacked the big themes in the magnificent Life on Earth (1979). This was something like an Everybody's Charles Darwin — terribly abridged, but sweeping enough to make even Noah envious.

Life on Earth revolutionised the nature documentary by turning it into a lavish mini-series — the struggle for existence from worm to whale, a real epic sponsored by blind evolution. Attenborough's latest offering on the ins and outs of living is The Trials of Life.

Whereas Life on Earth was a comparative study of functional anatomy — lizard to bird, bird to bat, etc — Trials' interest is in behaviour: why creatures do what they do. It doesn't take long to realise that the problem of existence can be solved in many ways — forever logical, always various. For this series, variety is the spice of life.

Herein lies the trap. In its broad sweep, comparing one creature's home life to that of another becomes a flood of titbits after a while. It is always interesting, always beautifully photographed, but it sits like an aperitif: more promised only if you tune in next week.

Attenborough's documentaries share a 19th century fascination with the variety of species. The Life Revolution is devoid of such romance.

Stripped to essentials, all creatures great and small are but different threads of DNA. This ribbon of life is becoming ever more manageable and alterable possible without recourse to natural selection. Variety of species or within species can now be engineered — from super cattle to crops that produce their own insecticide. Whether from altruism or corporate greed, the good, bad or ugly gene is mercilessly pursued.

If you can accustom yourself to talking heads, flashy graphics, test tubes and persistent narration, The Life Revolution is worth the effort. Some weeks it is harder than others to grasp the science y a course in genetics, not to be attempted by the faint hearted. However, thanks to visual and editing skills — and the sometime articulate explanations of researchers interviewed — some of the most difficult concepts seem just a little bit more accessible.

Fortunately, more than scientific interest is pursued. Such power over the double helix not only breeds dilemmas of what to do with the potentials unleashed but also raises the thorny question of who owns what. At its best and boldest, The Life Revolution is a frank exposé of how money manipulates potential.

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