The best Darwin programs

2009 was filled with programs about Darwin and evolution on various television channels. Some of the best were produced by the British network BBC.

Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind: there are very few networks that can compare to BBC when it comes to TV-production. And there is no comparison when it comes to nature programs. As early as in the beginning of January, broadcasts on both television and radio were everywhere. In fact, there were so many that even the hungriest Darwin enthusiasts should have been satisfied. But the quality of the programs was very varied and not all of them were equally as good.

The great Attenborough

There is no mistaking David Attenborough. For more than 50 years, he has been the voice of nature on BBC and for all of us around the world. We know the tone, the pronunciation, the accent, and his way of breathing and it is quite simply impossible not to love him. It was only natural that he should have his own program. And so, here they are: Attenborough and Darwin. England’s two great narrators of nature, together, for one intense hour which passes in a flash.

Attenborough is knowledgeable, sincere, and like no other capable of sharing his enthusiasm. Regardless of how much or how little you know about Darwin, you become utterly entranced by his fascinating and very personal stroll through the world of Darwin. You cannot help but feel a little honoured and very privileged that Sir David, now 82 years old, still has time to visit us in our living rooms. Not one minute watching this program is wasted. It is grand, relevant, and something not to be missed. However, surprisingly, he is not the best of the lot.

The happy farmer

The biggest surprise of the Darwin season is the three-part series by Jimmy Doherty called Darwin’s Garden. Doherty is a pig farmer. But do not be fooled. He utilizes his love of nature – as well as his extensive scientific knowledge obtained through a PhD in entomology (the study of insects) superbly.

The idea is to explore the roots of Darwin – quite literally. Finally, here is someone who takes the many years of meticulous experimental work of Darwin seriously. Using Down House, which was Darwin’s home for the majority of his life as well as the place where he wrote On the Origin of Species, as the backdrop, Doherty invites viewers to join a rarely empathetic and completely amazing rendition of many of Darwin’s experiments.

I have never experienced Darwin and his theory of evolution through natural selection being communicated in a better way on television. It is exiting, tangible and Doherty is so charming with his happy, curious, and well-qualified enthusiasm that everyone is carried away by him.  Darwin’s Garden is quite simply the best program series ever to have been made on the subject.

The last program of the series left the whole family completely engulfed. As parents we saw how Doherty communicated evolution in a way that not only made the children understand it but they became as enthusiastic as the happy farmer himself.

The blarney reporter

Completely different and serious, is Andrew Marr who as the host of the series Darwin’s Dangerous Idea was meant to give the adult audience a greater perspective of Darwin once the children had been put to bed. Marr is one of the most popular and celebrated political commentators on British television. He made the stiff political life at Westminster relevant, personal, and engaging and to many Brits, he represents the face of political television in the 21st century more than any other.

However, in his Darwin programs he is practically unbearable. With blarney complacency, he spends the BBC licence fees by travelling the world and projecting one great myth after another accompanied by an array of journalistic effects which focus more on harsh punch lines and the black and white conflict than on the historically accurate story. It is so exaggerated, artificially dramatic, and at times so completely hysterical that you are left as a gaping spectator of Marr’s wild gestures and begin thinking about other things such as how many leatherjackets he actually owns rather than understanding Darwin’s ideas and their meaning.

If Marr in fact has understood Darwin and evolution, he keeps it to himself. In any case, after forcing yourself to watch Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, you will not have gained any additional knowledge on either subject.

Peter C. Kjærgaard

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Want to know more?

Here you can see BBC's own presentation of their Darwin programs of 2009.