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: