The birds of paradise, David Attenborough, and science education

Last night I was in the airport hotel in Auckland, and was excited to see, among the many dire offerings on my room television, a one-hour BBC show on the birds of paradise featuring the wonderful David Attenborough. The photography was fantastic (see clips below), and of course Attenborough, who first documented these birds on a trip to New Guinea in 1957 (the young Attenborough looks and sounds very different!), was terrifically engaging, He is our finest natural-history commenter, but I found the program problematic in one way: to a science teacher, a serious way.

After showing the amazing plumage and even more amazing displays of the males (see below for some video), I was waiting for an explanation of how these costly male traits evolved. But that wasn’t even mentioned until 10 minutes of the hour were left, and then it was just described as “sexual selection” in which females “admired” the traits of certain males. Nothing else was mentioned save this “aesthetic preference” argument, which of course was Darwin’s own view of sexual selection—beyond Darwin’s male/male competition “law of battle” explanation, which is surely correct for male armaments and weapons.

Although I didn’t expect Attenborough to give the gory details of various forms of  non-combat sexual selection like the bird displays, he could have alluded to a few—like the “good genes” or “handicap” arguments.  But he didn’t. After spending nearly an hour showing a panoply of amazing outcomes of evolution, he completely neglected to describe the various theories scientists have proposed to explain these outcomes.

Granted, in very few cases do we really understand how sexual selection works—why the females prefer certain traits more than others—but Attenborough could at least have alluded to that mystery, for it’s one of the great unsolved puzzles of evolution. (It’s likely, of course, that sexual selection will operate in different ways in different species.)

I then realized that though I haven’t seen much Attenborough (his shows aren’t available in the US), he seems popular more for his amazing visuals and his genial personality and narrating style than for his scientific explanations. I would have preferred a bit more of the latter among the wonderful “gee whiz” stories.  Had Richard Dawkins done the same show, you can bet you would have heard at least a bit about the nature of sexual selection.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Attenborough and the clips I have seen. And I may have missed some of the science in other shows. But I wonder if he’s had a history of overlooking the evolutionary explanations in favor of showing the wonders of nature. In the end, those wonders are products of evolution.

And now that you’ve endured my rant, here are a few clips of these fantastic birds. How can you not marvel at these displays—but also wonder how they evolved?

Attenborough on the making of his show:


  1. alexandra Moffat
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    have you or will you please suggest a few science magazines – for the lay reader ? I have subscribed for years to New Scientist but just read the latest opening page on religion and atheism. As you say, “oy vey”.

    Thank you

    • Posted April 16, 2017 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      There really aren’t any good ones any more. Even the NY Times science section is deficient. Stay far away from New Scientist, and Nat Geographic deserves a pass, too. Sci Am is mediocre, but I haven’t looked at Smithsonian in a while so can’t say.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 16, 2017 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

      @Alexandra Forget Science mags – most of the writing in mags is by journalists who [mostly] are poor at their trade!

      I sub to personal blogs hosted by scientists [& the better writers]. Many of these blogs ‘shout out’ other blogs in the left or right margin of their home pages & that way you’ll quickly have your RSS feed full of choice stuff. I’m a bit biased to physics & cosmology, but these are my main sources…

      Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong

      Jerry Coyne, Sabine Hossenfelder, Peter Woit, Sean M Carroll [hubby to Jennifer below], Matt Strassler [gone missing of late]

      Good ‘aggregators’:
      Jennifer Ouellette’s [Cocktail Party Physics] weekly links post Has a range of mainly scientists contribhting articles regularly [no biology that I’ve noticed]

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 16, 2017 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      @Alexandra Things I’ve just remembered

      Google used to have a search feature JUST for blogs & blog posts, but they got rid of that [Google keeps dumping superb features, inc those gaining momentum, if they can’t figure out how to monetize]. So now I go to this:

      Ignore the sponsored stuff at the top [you’ll see why!]. If you type in “evolution” as an example, you’ll see WEIT is 3rd – judgement required re search terms or you’ll turn up entries on the evolution of home decor etc

  2. dabertini
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Just another example of evolution being brushed aside. Pity.

  3. Steve Barnes
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Very much so – the extent of Attenborough’s explicatory efforts are typically to drop the occasional inference about animals’ more immediate intentions or feelings; otherwise it’s largely just “look – isn’t this all splendid.” That’s the inspiring first step that people who think science is boring or obscure seem to have missed, so I’m glad he’s so good at that.

    But he seldom dives deep into calculating exploration of the mechanics of the evolutionary machinery like Dawkins (and I think you) would, and that even more keenly cuts through that veil of obscurity. So even if people love the spectacle, people can leave thinking there’s a barrier of understanding they shouldn’t try to cross as non-experts.

    I think that’s a principle Dawkins’ books convey so well, though he never really just says it: for its seeming complexity and inaccessibility, science is just the same everyday process of finding something out, merely with non-everyday focus.

  4. Posted April 16, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    It’s a fair point, though Attenborough is only one part of the editorial team. These shows are made to go out on prime-time BBC which means — in order to appeal to the masses — as much stunning photography as possible and as little science as they can get away with. I would guess that Attenborough himself would prefer to include more science, but he may not have the option.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted April 16, 2017 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

      Yeah. It’s always seemed to me that the Attenborough documentaries are about getting the wider public to love and appreciate and get involved in the great outdoors. In NZ at least, Dawkins documentaries are restricted to pay-TV channels like the History Channel and BBC Knowledge. It was while watching a Dawkins documentary that I first realized I was an atheist and always had been – I suspect that side of his commentary is what keeps him off prime time TV.

      • Mike
        Posted April 18, 2017 at 7:08 am | Permalink

        So is Attenborough,He realised ,I believe when he observed the actions of the ichneumon.

  5. Posted April 16, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Attenborough basically defined the nature documentary in its current form, half a century ago – with the truly spectacular photography for which the BBC seems to be known. The purpose is to outline the topic to a general TV audience who might not necessarily be exposed to the field at all otherwise. He’s done other documentaries on evolutionary development, including the origins of life on the planet. He’s also still making them – aged 90! He’s a real treasure and the science behind what he says is absolutely solid, even if the tone of the show – geared for its specific audience – isn’t suited to long explanations. I am a huge fan.

    • johnw
      Posted April 17, 2017 at 6:55 pm | Permalink


  6. nurnord
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, as a Brit, and life-long follower of David Attenborough (and more broadly, the entire output of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, the best on the planet), you are correct. The general brief is very much exploring and displaying the wonders of nature, rather than the nuts and bolts of how and why. There are moments here and there in which the science is looked at, but only in a lay-public manner, the great majority of DA’s output is as you speculate.
    Him and Richard would make a great tag team to redress the balance !

  7. Randy schenck
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    The great thing to me as an American, to remind others here in the U.S., this is what is possible on TV and an example of what it could be doing much more. The best television in the world, the BBC and guess who runs it.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted April 16, 2017 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

      And in case USians don’t know the answer to that question, the GOVERNMENT.

      • David Harper
        Posted April 17, 2017 at 12:00 am | Permalink

        I’m afraid that’s wrong. The UK government does not run the BBC, nor does it have any control over what the BBC does or what programmes it makes. The BBC is most emphatically *not* a state broadcaster.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted April 17, 2017 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

          I was making the point that the government can own something without it becoming a state broadcaster. The BBC news doesn’t feel obliged in any way to say positive things about the government.

          It’s the same in NZ. Our most watched news channel is owned by the government but is completely neutral, and there’d be an uproar if they tried to interfere with editorial content.

          In the US the opinion of many is that the government owning the news makes it biased (which of course it does in many places) but the US has Fox and MSNBC, for example.

          My point is that the government owning a broadcaster is not necessarily an indicator of editorial bias or quality.

          • David Harper
            Posted April 18, 2017 at 1:08 am | Permalink

            But the BBC isn’t owned by the British government. The closest analogy would be Britain’s public universities. Like the BBC, they are self-governing organisations established by royal charter, and like the BBC, much of their funding comes from government. And yet nobody would assert that they are owned by the government.

  8. Posted April 16, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    I have actually had the honour of meeting Sir David Attenborough and briefly conversed with him in a group of people. He was keen to discuss the behaviour of some animals he had recently seen.The essence of his thoughts seemed to be questioning the how and why as a scientist would.
    I suspect, as others have said, that he needs to keep the complicated stuff to a minimum for a mass audience.

    • Posted April 16, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

      I don’t believe that the audience couldn’t absorb some stuff about sexual selection. I know I could talk for a few minutes about the various theories without going over people’s heads. Our job is not to cater to ignorance, but to remove it!

      • Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

        However, I think that we’d better not stress on unsolved puzzles, because this is exactly what the enemy is waiting for: “See, evolution theory cannot explain this and account for that!”

  9. Graham
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Attenborough was responsible for the magnificent “Life on Earth” which, although almost 40 years old now, remains to my mind the gold standard of natural history programme making. It told the story of life on earth, its variety, and how that variety came to be – evolution by natural selection.

    Here he is reading Darwin last year:

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted April 16, 2017 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

      This is a good reminder. It has been an age since I have seen episodes from that series, but I do remember it gave good emphasis of evolution.
      As for the present narratives, I don’t know what to say except perhaps the scripts are not his.

  10. Jim Mattila
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Naturally one understands another lamenting a lost opportunity to educate the public about a subject for which they each may hold great passion… Nonetheless here I think the oversight is of limited importance because indeed the particular aspect discussed is admittedly so poorly understood.

    It’s kinda like insisting that a Shakespearian play be presented only with a caveat as to what the various interpretations of the Bard’s life may place upon it, and indeed how all the subtle Elizabethan politics may come into play likewise. This could well cause folks to look past the wonderful action and language on the stage if you follow, and sadly dull the play where it shines most bright.

    Likely the Producers just felt that devolving the wonders that these creatures exhibit into various aspects of evolutionary theory would merely weaken the grandeur of the very lesson they were trying to provide overall.

    Besides lol perhaps we all would do better to get our science unadulterated by so much distracting and visual beauty so that it may be ever appreciated for its own specific and intellectual wonder.

    For indeed sexual selection is found in many ways which appear to be rather mundane in comparison to the birds in question, and so the process should not be overlooked amongst the fabulous to be sure.

    What the producers provided was more than enough for its own sake I feel, and besides it took great effort to pass along regardless.

    So I for one am grateful for Sir David’s work period, and frankly enjoyed it immensely just as it is!

    • Posted April 16, 2017 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      Excuse me? How can you say the process is more mundane than its products? Mundane, seriously? The process only enhances the visuals, and I’d guess that Dawkins would agree with me.

      You can educate people with great visuals AND explanations–as many science popularizers do.

      So you can say what was presented was fine, but I disagree.

      • jim mattila
        Posted April 17, 2017 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t say Dr Coyne that the process of sexual selection was mundane lol, in fact just the opposite for pointing out its specific wonder. You may have my pardons however if it appeared otherwise.

        What I was saying however is that the education you seek to promote is often found in aspects which in comparison (to the birds of paradise) can be quite visually mundane.

        Surely you agree that many dull and obscure features which are the result of mating choice are every bit as significant in an evolutionary sense. It’s a lesson therefore which need not rely upon the extravagance of the birds shown, and indeed is something spectacular to consider on its own through the mundane.

        In any case, explaining the above concept(s) properly could have sidetracked the presentation to some extent I feel, and it seems entirely reasonable that the producers just decided to share the gorgeous avian beauty put on stage, and not dilute their display with possible explanations which (as you yourself point out) may not be entirely accurate as to how precisely said wonder came into being.

        But I’ll agree that things with high aesthetic appeal can make for better education in most cases, only it doesn’t mean lol everything one finds wondrous needs to be so used whenever it is shared.

        For instance I myself find it utterly appalling to say hear a tune by The Beatles used to sell some product in a commercial… And while you aren’t suggesting anything that crass whatsoever, the producers may have felt that kind of diminishing effect may have been at play had they oversold the evolutionary tale so to speak.

        At least they made clear that these displays are the product of evolution via sexual selection, and perhaps it was even their own understanding that after some editing they found that very notion would have been ill served by going into all the details who knows?

        And respectfully to address another point, I myself don’t know that the stunning beauty of those birds is actually enhanced in an aesthetic sense by pondering how it came into being anyway… For I think the grandeur there is something intrinsic, and is just as it is seen at that period. Indeed beauty in THAT sense is entirely a product of OUR OWN evolution and socialization regardless, or don’t you agree?

        And seriously lol do you really want to claim that the displays in question are beautiful merely because they are traits which have evolved via sexual selection? I have to ask because after all it’s rather akin to a faulted creationist argument that they are only so because God made them.

        And so while I do agree that the evolutionary process is a fascinating aspect of the birds in question, it would seem the producers decided the needs of the general audience was different than either of our own intellectual wishes absolutely.

        And frankly I have to trust their judgment as to what best they could accomplish, and again have to take note of the fact that they obviously took a LOT of effort to deliver what is seen.

        I’ll finish saying that I likewise enjoy all the wonderful pics of cats and other interesting animals that you Dr Coyne also share, with sometimes (gasp) no explication either as to how exactly evolutionary processes may underlie…

        Because (yes) folks sharing the beauty of nature is always fine by me, and oft times with no explanation needed whatsoever!

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted April 17, 2017 at 6:00 am | Permalink

      I don’t agree. I think that with a bit of subtle scriptwriting the evolution message could easily be got across, if there was the will to do so. But these days Sir David is often narrating scripts that others have written about scenes that others have filmed. And the BBC no doubt pull their punches somewhat in the interests of selling the product as widely as possible.

      Still, they do miss some tricks. The first episode of the recent Planet Earth II was “Islands”, and could have done much more to show the compelling evidence for evolution demonstrated by the flora and fauna of such isolated ecosystems (as set out so clearly in WEIT). But it didn’t. I complained to the Beeb but never got a reply.

      • jim mattila
        Posted April 17, 2017 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

        Well Steve I’m not saying you (or Jerry) are totally wrong (especially going beyond the production in question) but do see ways in which you perhaps are not right in the belief that adding something would have been easy or indeed effective without diminishing what was actually delivered.

        Point is I KNOW what was provided was awesome enough as is, and I am not so sure they could have done better… Fair enough?

  11. Jenny Haniver
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m enchanted by birds of paradise and by these videos. The history of how these exquisite and amazing birds were hunted and the lore that grew up around their exploitation and extermination to satisfy the caprices of European millinery is worth learning about and and remembering. For instance, the dead birds arrived in Europe without their feet or wings, which had been cut off and it was imagined that they somehow flew ceaselessly toward the sun.

    When I watched the courtship dances, I was agape and moved beyond words (also laughing at the funny face the blue markings made when the bird’s wings were extended). Then I realized that the movements and display reminded me of strikingly similar movements displays in Peking Opera of warriors, the movements, even to their costume, which has bobbing thingies, and there’s a lot of boing-boinging from the orchestra. No “cultural” appropriation” here, just a crazy coincidence.

  12. Jenny Haniver
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Trying to correct myself, I think I’m speaking of the “Jing” (“Painted face male”) role, mainly the acrobatic type. They also duel with impossibly long pheasant feathers, which are like antennae; and they do a lot of exaggerated splay-foot sideways walking, just like the bird of paradise. They can be bedecked with a variety of penants which are like wings. Every movement, everything about the dance, as ritualized as the dance of the bird of paradise.

  13. busterggi
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Heck of a show – just amazing birds.

  14. nicky
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    I always saw DA as a film maker, not a biologist. His films are exquisite and often stunning, and his narrating voice is kind of soothing. Indeed, as suggested above, with, say, RD on the team it might have been even more monumental.

  15. Stephen Caldwell
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Quite a few of Attenborough’s shows are on Netflix in the U.S., and several of his special are available for purchase through iTunes. And, of course, there is always YouTube.

  16. Frank Bath
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    I have to agree with Jerry’s criticism of our BBC TV shows. Too often they are just that – shows. Yes I sit and watch and marvel, which is what I’m asked to do, but I always feel a little cheated because they are incomplete. Where is the deeper understanding? The science? Not there.

  17. rickflick
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    I think Attenborough’s approach has to do with a certain spirit of conservation which stresses showing the public how wonderful nature is in the hopes that they will support conservation efforts. It is educational only in a rather narrow sense.

  18. marktmaultby
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    The Attenborough shows range in their science quality. For the much more scientific end of the spectrum, please try these three:
    – his three-part series on the Galapagos.
    – his two-part series on vertebrates, Rise Of Animals
    – his three-part series on the rise of flight, Conquest Of The Skies

    These are excellent.

  19. Charles Sawicki
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    These videos are low resolution and quite blurry. To get a much better look (1080p) with a bit more science search on youtube “birds of paradise cornell ornithology lab”. The lab has been studying these birds for decades.

  20. William Piel
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    If you watch early Attenborough (e.g. “Trials of Life”) you’ll get a lot more biology. In recent years this has taken the back seat in favor of pure eye candy entertainment (with some exception, e.g. the “Natural Curiosities” series). Attenborough himself bemoans the pressure to dumb down programming at the BBC in favor of entertainment (e.g.

  21. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    I’d just refer to Attenborough’s groundbreaking series, Life on Earth. It was screened in 1980, but it was a huge leap in the standard of photography and presentation for natural history programmes. And it was all about evolution.
    There was an accompanying book, and I’ve just checked my copy – it was indeed all about the development of modern species from their most primitive ancestors. Plenty of copies on Amazon – here’s the start of their blurb:
    “In this unique book, David Attenborough has undertaken nothing less than a history of nature, from the emergence of tiny one-celled organisms in the primeval slime more than 3,000 million years ago to apelike but upright man, equally well adapted to life in the rain forest of New Guinea and the glass canyons of a modern metropolis.”

    I’d guess that, coming from a British background where evolution is considered as part of the natural order of things, Attenborough doesn’t feel the need to keep reminding his audience any more than he needs to keep reiterating that the earth goes around the sun.


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 17, 2017 at 6:29 am | Permalink

      And, there’s a pretty full synopsis of each of the 13 episodes at


    • Posted April 25, 2017 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      Yes. I think that you can usually take it as read that an explanation of evolution is accepted on this side of the Atlantic by most people, without it being overtly stated. I never considered that it would not be the case – growing up many of the children’s books I had that were about the natural world, would have a tree of life.

      • Posted April 25, 2017 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Though I take the point with this particular programme…

  22. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    I have seen that show – it is amazing. One of those shows where you ask yourself how you could be this old and still there is something you haven’t seen.

    I wouldn’t hold too much against Attenborough – remember that your criticisms are more toward the producers, marketers, editors, etc…. was Attenborough in any of those roles?

  23. Cameron
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Many of Attenborough’s shows end up on PBS Nature. BBC also released an app that is clips of Attenborough documentaries from throughout his career. Very good!

  24. David Bradford
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    The BBC has just aired a 3 part series on the Galapagos Islands which intentionally focused on the scientific work being undertaken there. In a review in the Daily Telegraph the reviewer complained that there was too much science and not enough wildlife spectacle!

  25. peepuk
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    To his credit David Attenborough is not afraid to bring awareness to the underlying cause of global warming and other environmental challenges:


  26. Alec
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    There is a fascinating conversation with Attenborough here (I was lucky enough to be there in person). He is very insistent that he is a naturalist, not a scientist, but he is very passionate about the importance of getting people to connect with the natural world.

  27. Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:09 am | Permalink

    I think there is a big difference in scientific content between the series David Attenborough writes himself, and those written for him which he narrates (usually making minor editorial changes).

    The ones he has written (all the “Life of” ones like Life on Earth, Life of Birds, Life in the Undergrowth”) are by far his best work, and the best nature documentaries I’ve ever seen. Whereas the ones he just narrates (like Planet Earth 1 and 2) often feature more spectacular footage, but are more fluffy and shallow.

    I can’t work out whether he wrote the script for Paradise Birds himself, but I suspect he didn’t…

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