Sunday, October 31, 2010

David Attenborough on Human Population Growth, Vegetarianism, and Wry Chimps

Here's an excerpt from an interview with 84-year-old David Attenborough that ran in the Guardian today. It's not a formal interview, rather some questions posed by Guardian readers and public figures:
Jane Goodall, primatologist, asked: I am always being asked my views on the continued growth of the human population. It is a bit of a minefield. What are your views?
Attenborough: The world's population has grown three times bigger since I started making television programmes, and the notion that you could have that vast increase in one species without having some kind of deleterious effect is obvious nonsense. If there are three times as many people, they have all got to have houses. They all want to have food. They all want to have cars. They all want to travel by air. And where does all that space come from? The only place it can come from is the natural world. And it is absolutely evident that this can't go on for ever. So what is going to stop it? Either the natural world will stop it – and the natural world is already stopping it in Africa with great disasters. Or else we do something ourselves. Now, of course, it is a minefield. But nonetheless you have got to tread into it. The one hope is this: wherever women are given the vote, are allowed to be literate, are allowed to have control over their own lives and have the medical facilities that enable them to do so, whenever that happens, the birth rate falls.

Toren Atkinson, singer, Vancouver, Canada: Of all the currently threatened species (or groups of species – ie frogs), which ones in your opinion should demand the most attention to save?
Attenborough: There is no hierarchy. There should be enough people around to care for everything.

Liz Cunliffe, music teacher, Paris: What do you hate most about life in the 21st century?
Attenborough: Crowds, I suppose.

Dave Kempton, retired police officer, Highnam, Gloucestershire: Is there an animal that you think has a sense of humour?
Attenborough: I am pretty sure that chimps do.

Tony Moon, film-maker/university lecturer, Brighton: In cases where a plant is impersonating an insect visually for purposes of pollination, how has the plant "seen" what the insect looks like?
Attenborough: The answer is that the plant hasn't seen what the insect looks like. The insect has seen what the plant looks like, and the closer it comes to the female that it is impersonating, the better and more effective it is so that it is the insect which is carrying out natural selection not the plant.

Michael Steer, student, Barnsley, South Yorkshire: What are your views on vegetarianism?
Attenborough: I think that if there is such a thing as biological morality, you might say that we evolved as omnivores. We don't have long guts like a cow to digest nothing but vegetation. We have molars, which are there to grind up, but we also have canine teeth, which are good for eating meat. So I think that, biologically, we evolved as omnivores and not as vegetarians. However, as I get older, I get more and more distressed about what I discover about the way that animals are killed [for meat]. There are other reasons for being vegetarian as the world starves – you can get much more sustenance from vegetation than from feeding that vegetation to animals and eating the meat. But I am not a vegetarian myself.

Sylvia Greaves, learning mentor in a secondary school, Huddersfield: I work in a secondary school. What one thing would you most like us to impress upon young people's minds?
Attenborough: That we are part of the animal world. We are part of the natural world.
Here's an excerpt from the BBC documentary Planet Earth with Attenborough narrating:



Bix said...

Love what he says about women.

I share his views on vegetarianism too.

I take a slightly different view about natural selection in plants. I would say that the plant is also carrying out natural selection, albeit not consciously, in that those genes that undergo mutation and end up by chance making the plant look more like an insect, get selected, get the chance to reproduce.

Ben P. DaSalt said...

Regarding population, I’ll agree and summarize with this video:

What stops population growth?

As for Attenborough’s views on vegetarianism:

I think that if there is such a thing as biological morality, you might say that we evolved as omnivores.

It’s a strawman to submit that vegetarianism is the suggestion that morality should be biological determined. Sexual dimorphism is inherent in our species, but no one argues that men have evolved to dominate women, therefore men should.

In what other context would anyone submit that morality is best defined by our evolutionary past? We don’t find it acceptable to derive our morality from what we did 200 years ago so why would we derive it from 20,000 or 200,000 years ago? In what other context would we look to what other animals are doing to inform our morality? None.

Attenborough is a non-religious naturalist ( In this worldview we can bar supernatural and dualistic explanations. So morality can only be of biological origin, meaning, evolution gave humans a developed ability to consider behaviors based on more than instincts.

Our concepts of morality evolved, and it’s not exclusive to us, other animals have their own social organizations that include reciprocation and cooperation. Human morality wasn’t handed down from angels, nor did European philosophers invent it. In a certain aspect there most certainly is “biological morality” but not how Attenborough is describing it; we are of nature but we are not beholden to do what we always did.

We don't have long guts like a cow to digest nothing but vegetation.

Why is he even comparing our digestive system to cattle? Vegetarianism isn’t a diet of grass. Humans evolved able to comsume a wide range of diets and most certainly can thrive on plant-based diets of some degree or another.

We have molars, which are there to grind up, but we also have canine teeth, which are good for eating meat.

Our teeth anatomy as proof of meat-eating is silly coming from Attenborough who should know better. Primates have huge canines compared to humans, and don’t rely on meat in their diet. They certainly don’t eat cows or pigs. By this premise, primates should be eating more meat than humans since they have better developed canines. Primate canines have evolved mostly for display purposes, similar to antlers on deer.

The dentation evidence makes even less sense if we consider the giant panda. It’s classified in the order carnivora, with canine teeth that munch on bamboo.

Mammalian omnivores don’t usually hunt bovines, as cattle are prey of carnivores like big cats and wolves. Most bears don’t really bother with herd animals preferring easier to gather food. If we went by this comparative animal anatomy evidence to determine what we should eat, we should eat like other omnivorous primates, mostly fruit and leaves, some insects and grubs and perhaps the occasional small monkey like some of our more aggressive evolutionary cousins.

Anatomical comparison to other animals is poor because we have to contend with our hominid forager-hunter past along with cooking, and other technological (tools, clothing, agriculture) and sociological evolutionary developments.

So I think that, biologically, we evolved as omnivores and not as vegetarians.

He starts with comparing omnivore anatomy to herbivore anatomy. Okay, humans are not herbivores. But then he interchanges the comparison to vegetarianism, a socio-political term. Animals don’t appear to worship Gods, but no one calls them atheists. Animals don’t have big government, but we don’t call them libertarians. Animals don’t get abortions, but we don’t call them pro-lifers. Many animals don’t eat pigs, but not because they are trying to keep kosher nor because they consider themselves vegetarians.

It’s an equivocation fallacy to suggest that because humans did not evolve as herbivores they should not be vegetarians.

Anonymous said...

Recently David Attenborough answered following question in London Metro;

"When you see that sort of intelligence in animals, doesn’t that make you want to be vegetarian?

No. If you understand about the natural world, we’re a part of the system and you can’t feed lions grass.
But because we have the intelligence to choose… But we haven’t got the gut to allow us to be totally vegetarian for a start. You can tell by the shape of our guts and the shape of our teeth that we evolved to be omnivores. We aren’t carnivores like lions but neither are we elephants."

So he says "No. If you understand about the natural world, we’re a part of the system and you can’t feed lions grass." we are part of the natural world...what world is he talking about…one with factories and farms churning out meat for an animal that lives in big cities with almost no fellow animals to be part of the system.

I can understand it if he says this for tribes or people who live in the forest/jungle and be part of the system.

Most of his views are there to support and justify his rich and famous life style...he is a good presenter and that all he is...if he really did think of his place in the system and did what is right, rather than out of sight out of mind ...he would not be in the position he is.
Most of us choose what suites our lifestyle not what suites the system that we suppose to be part of...So David you don’t need justify your lifestyle & habits with mumbo jumbo of science and natural world.