There is, we are told frequently, too much sex and violence on the television. Much of it, I am afraid to say, courtesy of natural history documentaries which are too quick to focus on anthropomorphic organisms participating in acts to which humans can relate than on the more prosaic organisms that constitute the bulk of both biomass and diversity in ecosystems. I’ve written about this subject before (see “The complicated life of simple plants”) but a quick analysis of the index for The Blue Planet – the book which accompanied David Attenborough’s series for the BBC – offers some (semi-) objective evidence.
No surprise, for me at least, to see “phytoplankton” and “diatom” on the right hand side of the graph when I ranked organism groups from the most cited to the least. It was a desire to promote the “unfashionable end of biodiversity” that prompted me to start this blog, to raise the profile of organisms that are responsible for half the primary production on the planet (see “every second breath …“). On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to see “kelp” in a strong mid-table position. The Blue Planet book has a beautifully-illustrated chapter on kelp forests, describing the brown seaweeds that live in ocean littoral zones and the organisms that live on and amongst them in detail.
An analysis of index entries in The Blue Planet for major organism groups. Each category contains all page references to the organism group, along with any sub-categories classified underneath this (so, for example, “dolphin” includes references to “care of young”, “hunting”, “sonar” etc.)
Having set out my argument for anthropomorphism as the driver behind natural history documentary programming, I was surprised to see that sharks came out as top of my list of index entries (which, I assume, roughly correlates to the amount of space that the authors devote to these organisms). My explanation is simply that interest in sharks reflects human fascination with the dark and macabre: they are the Hannibal Lectors or Walter Whites of the underwater world.
I don’t underestimate the effort and technical skill needed to get good footage of charismatic aquatic vertebrates, whether sharks, whales or penguins. However, once the footage has been obtained, it is easy to weave stories with which viewers can empathise. Making documentary programmes about microscopic algae carries its own technical challenges but, even when the footage has been obtained, for how long can you hold the viewer’s attention? Or, perhaps more to the point, can you persuade a commissioning editor that you can hold the viewer’s attention for long enough to justify the investment?
Whilst musing on the fascination with the dark and the sinister reminded me of press coverage of an upcoming exhibition on the art and influence of Caravaggio at the National Gallery and, from here, to other great artists whose works often have macabre undertones. Géricault’s Raft of Medusa and Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes were two works that immediately sprang to my mind but you could include almost every crucifixion scene painted from the Renaissance onwards. The Dutch Golden Age stands in stark contrast to these, often focusing on the everyday, the mundane. Every time I look at a Vermeer, I marvel at how he can raise prosaic activities to this higher level, how he can convert a mundane act such as pouring milk from a jug into a transcendent moment (see “A wet afternoon in Berlin“). The analogy between the existential drama that seems to be a subtext for every natural history documentary and the quietly spinning flywheels of nature that convert solar energy to sugars and, from there, power the processes that drive the ecosystems of which the charismatic organisms beloved of television natural historians, are obvious.
I have a theory that television natural history is a prime recruiting agent for undergraduate ecologists whilst, at the same time, presenting a very distorted view of the reality of ecology. The reality is that the bulk of the biomass in ecosystems is in the primary producers – the plants – followed by the organisms that eat these and finally by the predators. The histogram at the top of this article, by contrast, has sharks and whales receiving far greater attention than kelp and phytoplankton (coral reefs are a complication to this argument to which I will return at some point). Students may be entranced by the images they see on television, but the reality of ecology is very different and, dare I say, involves more mathematics than most biology undergraduates want to contemplate.
The point of my diversion on the art of Vermeer was to offer a suggest that the route to greater public understanding of the unfashionable end of biodiversity lies not in trying to hype this up to be something that it will never be, but to appeal to a quieter, more contemplative side of human nature. Algae are not for those with short attention spans, looking for instant gratification, but they are perfect objects for meditating on the diversity of life on earth and, indeed, for the myriad of hidden processes that keep life on earth ticking over …
Byatt, A., Fothergill, A. & Holmes, M. (2001). The Blue Planet: A Natural History of the Oceans. BBC Publications, London.