In 'Rise Of Animals,' Sir David Attenborough Tells Story Of Vertebrates

In 'Rise Of Animals,' Sir David Attenborough Tells Story Of Vertebrates

1:23pm May 11, 2015
Sir David Attenborough at the Beijing Museum of Natural History with fossil of Juramaia, as featured in the Smithsonian Channel series Rise of Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates.
Sir David Attenborough at the Beijing Museum of Natural History with fossil of Juramaia, as featured in the Smithsonian Channel series Rise of Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates.
Courtesy Smithsonian Channel

Famed British broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough has been lending his calming voice to nature documentaries ever since TV was in black and white.

And the 89-year-old is still at it. His new two-part special called Rise of Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates premieres May 13 on The Smithsonian Channel. It explores new fossil evidence — much of it from China — to trace key evolutionary developments in vertebrates that enabled amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs and mammals to achieve their success around the world.

In his nearly 60 years of making nature programs, Attenborough has explained the significance of new discoveries by reminding us of where we came from. He says he "would like to think that there's actually no difference between education and entertainment."

"I think entertainment which doesn't inform you about the characters that are in it is actually shallow," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. "The greatest entertainment is involved with real depth into and teaches you about human nature."

Interview Highlights

On why most of the new fossil evidence comes from China

Well, the foundation of paleontological science, of course, is in the Western world. And the exploration of the fossils of China didn't take place until rather later. But the Western world constructed the general outline of the history of evolution and inevitably there are gaps. So when China began to be explored in terms of its fossils, it naturally went to those sort of areas. And they produced answers to the stories, the links, that were missing from the original story.

On some of the discoveries made from the Chinese fossils

One of the very, very big debates that became very heated — and personal — in paleontological science in the West, was the origin of the birds. Where did the birds come from? How did they evolve?

And there were really very vigorous debates and lots of books written on the subject, taking different views — but in China they discovered the answer, in an incontrovertible way.

They discovered dinosaurs — a particular kind of dinosaur — that were covered in feathers. And remarkably enough, not only feathers on the arms — which, you can imagine how they became wings — but actually feathers on the legs, which makes you think.

And so there's a very big story to be told there, and those fossils had no equivalent really in the Western world. There was one big one, which was in Darwin's time, called Archaeopteryx — which was the link between reptiles in general and the birds, but which particular reptile was a big argument. But Chinese fossils answered that argument.

On the most surprising discovery in the new series

The most surprising was the earliest mammal that we've ever so far discovered, and it's surprising because it's hardly bigger than the nail of my little finger, and that's its skull. And what's most surprising is how anyone looks at a thing — which is, what, uh, half an inch long? — and saw that it was a fossil skull. You must have magnificent eyesight, because you could — actually, when you look at it with a lens, you can see it's got all these little teeth, and it's got a little socket for its eyes and all. And this is a thing called Hadrocodium, and it is the earliest mammal that we know so far.

On the secret to vertebrates' success

Well, having a body, requires — of any size — requires a support of one kind, and there are two ways of doing it: One way is that you can produce a structure, which you enclose the body, and it gives it a strength. And that's the way the external skeleton — which the insects adopted.

But the problem with it is, it's difficult to grow. For an animal to grow you've got to increase, keep on building bigger external skeletons, and also limits the amount of things that you can do, bodily wise.

The other way of doing it, is that you have a skeleton inside — in fact like a kind of scaffold. And that's what the vertebrates do: They have a backbone, and various things — the limbs and so on — are attached to that. And that can grow and grow and grow. And so it produced huge things, like whales and like dinosaurs.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where I'm standing in one of the rooms where they store a part of the mammal collection. Actually, I'm next to a stuffed lemur. And I'm here with the renowned British broadcaster and naturalist, Sir David Attenborough. Welcome to the program, Sir David.

SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And happy birthday, by the way. How old are you today?

ATTENBOROUGH: I've forgotten.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

ATTENBOROUGH: Eighty-nine - 89.

SIEGEL: Well, well done.

ATTENBOROUGH: It's going on my 90th year if I'm swanking.

SIEGEL: Absolutely. We are here with Sir David Attenborough because he has a remarkable two-part special that's airing next week on the Smithsonian Channel. It's called "Rise of Animals: Triumph Of The Vertebrates."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "RISE OF ANIMALS: TRIUMPH OF THE VERTEBRATES")

ATTENBOROUGH: Of all the animals that live on our planet, one extraordinary group dominates. It has produced the largest - the blue whale - the fastest, the most intelligent creatures that have ever lived.

SIEGEL: Sir David, your show uses new fossil evidence to trace the key evolutionary developments in vertebrates, and a lot of it comes from China. I'm just curious why.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, the foundation of paleontological science, of course, is in the Western world. And the exploration of the fossils of China didn't take place until rather later. But the Western world constructed the general outline of the history of evolution, and inevitably there are gaps. So when China began to be explored in terms of its fossils, it naturally went to those sort of areas. And they produced answers to the stories - the links that were missing from the original story.

SIEGEL: You said that the fossils in China provide answers to questions - in particular?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, one of the very, very big debates that became very heated and personal in paleontological science in the West was the origin of the birds. Where did the birds come from? How did they evolve? And there were really very vigorous debates and lots of books written on the subject taking different views.

But in China, they discovered the answer in an incontrovertible way. They discovered dinosaurs - a particular kind of dinosaur - that were covered in feathers. And remarkably enough, not only feathers on the arms, which you can imagine how they became wings, but actually feathers on the legs, which makes you think. And so there's a very big story to be told there.

And those fossils have had no equivalent, really, in the Western world. There was one big one, which was in Darwin's time called archaeopteryx, which was the link between reptiles in general and the birds, but which particular reptile was a big argument. And - but Chinese fossils answered that argument.

SIEGEL: There are some purists who would say that dinosaurs aren't extinct, they're flying around us all the time.

ATTENBOROUGH: That's correct.

SIEGEL: They're the birds.

ATTENBOROUGH: Yeah.

SIEGEL: What was the most surprising finding for you?

ATTENBOROUGH: The most surprising was the earliest mammal that we've ever so far discovered. And it's surprising because it's hardly bigger than the nail of my little finger, and that's its skull. And what's most surprising is how anybody looked at a thing which is, what, half-an-inch long and saw that it was a fossil skull. They must have magnificent eyesight because you could - actually, when you look at it with a lens, you can see it's got all these little teeth, and it's got a little socket for its eyes and so on. And this is a thing called Hadrocodium, and it is the earliest mammal that we know so far.

SIEGEL: What's the secret to our success, we vertebrates? What do we have over the other life forms?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, having a body requires - of any size - requires a support of one kind, and there are two ways of doing it. One way is that you can produce a structure which you enclose the body in, and it gives it a strength. And that's the way of the external skeleton, which the insects adopted. But the problem with it is it's difficult to grow. For an animal to grow, you've got to increase - keep on building bigger external skeletons. And it also limits the amounts of things that you can do bodily-wise.

And the other way of doing it is that you have a skeleton inside, which acts like a kind of scaffold. And that's what the vertebrates do. They have a backbone and various things, the limbs and so on are attached to that. And that can grow and grow and grow, and so it produced huge things like whales and like dinosaurs.

SIEGEL: I'm curious. You've been making films about nature since you were working in black and white.

ATTENBOROUGH: Yes.

SIEGEL: And this series - this two-part series has some of the most spectacular graphics and animation. A little Hadrocodium fossil miraculously expands into a skeleton and crawls off your arm in the middle of this. Is this more fun to have all of these tools at your disposal, or is the greater demand on your narration more challenging?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, as a matter of fact, it produces a problem which may not be immediately obvious to a viewer, and that is that if you can bring a fossil to life as perfectly as we now can using computers, how do they know that it is not a real animal? And grappling with this problem when I was writing the first script, I suddenly thought, well, one way of doing it is that if you've got a fossil lying on a slab of stone, we could get the bones - using computers, we could get the bones to, as it were, rise up and group together and form once again an articulated skeleton. And we can then get it to move and run around. And I said to the computer boys - I said, look, don't clothe it with fur. Let's leave it like a skeleton. And they said you can't do that. It wouldn't look real. I said, on the contrary, it would look absolutely fabulous, and then people - viewers will know you're not trying to con them. You're not trying to - this is a computer device which enables you to bring the world to life - the extinct world to life in a remarkable way.

And oddly enough, many of the most enchanting things that we with computers are those actually of naked, articulated skeletons running over my hands.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Agreed. I'm just curious. You recapitulate often during these programs. You go back to the timeline and the family tree to remind us where we came from. It looks like a very good pedagogical technique. Do you consider yourself an educator in these things?

ATTENBOROUGH: I would like to think that there's actually no difference between education and entertainment. I think entertainment, which doesn't inform you about the characters in it, is actually shallow. The greatest entertainment is involved. It puts real depth into human - and teaches you about human nature. And similar, the converse - if you are actually dealing with the intellectual basis of human nature and so one, you can actually illuminate that with the sort of comedy and entertainment that you would get elsewhere. The two things should come together. The best are the ones that contain both.

SIEGEL: Well, Sir David Attenborough, thank you very much. And once again, happy 89th birthday.

ATTENBOROUGH: Thank you very much indeed.

SIEGEL: You can see Sir David Attenborough's latest TV series, "Rise Of Animals: Triumph Of The Vertebrates," next week on the Smithsonian Channel. It first airs Wednesday evening at 8 p.m. Eastern. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station