It may not come as news to female readers that men are wetter than women, but I’ll confess that it came as a bit of a surprise to me.
I learned this fact from Professor Brian Cox, recently nominated as successor by the incumbent Pope of Scientific Pantheism, David Attenborough, and thus not a man whose pronouncements are to be lightly questioned. Though strictly speaking he didn’t actually pronounce it at all – this detail appearing in one of those curiously satisfying on-screen labels that Wonders of Life employs to give its images a twist of encyclopaedic authority. The scene was a Mexican town and the footnotes ran as follows: adult female 55 per cent water, adult male 60 per cent water. Male supremacists hoping to give a positive spin to this odd anomaly may point out that the human brain is 77 per cent water. Feminists hoping to counter them may like to know that a dog is 70 per cent water and a baby 85 per cent.
In the last of his series, Cox addressed himself to what makes the planet home, not just to organisms advanced enough to make five-part television programmes about the mysteries of life but to everything else as well, including the microbial descendants of our common ancestors among the Prokaryotes. And water was one of the most critical components. Extremophiles have carved out a kind of life without sunlight or oxygen – two of the other elements of homeliness that make the planet so congenial to us – but nothing, according to Cox, had managed to do without water. And, as in preceding episodes, his explanation was a captivating combination of introductory-level chemistry and physics and reverence for the facts of the world. He may have dispensed with God as an explanatory necessity in his cosmology, but the strain you can hear in the background is “All Things Bright and Beautiful”.
Apparently, the really clever trick that made the planet habitable for us is not easy to replicate. As anyone even slightly versed in repudiating the arguments of creationists should know, flight and eyesight – notional stumbling blocks to evolutionary theory – have actually evolved in a number of ways over the years. But life has to date only come up with one form of oxygenic photosynthesis, the process that means we actually have something to breathe. Back there, in the mists of time (I think water was a precondition), some Bacterial Eve put together two molecular machines that had previously been unconnected, and the greening of the planet could really begin. Tellingly, Cox closed the series with a reading from Genesis by one of the Apollo 8 astronauts. I think by the end he felt his own creation narrative had nothing to fear from a scriptural predecessor.
That life can get by with very little water was demonstrated by Wild Arabia on Friday night, a new series that supplies more evidence for the tenacity of the evolutionary process, which can establish outposts of vitality in the least hospitable surroundings. Attractions included the horned viper, which looks like the Genesis serpent personified, and something called the sandfish, a polished kind of lizard that can disappear into the sand as cleanly, and quickly, as Tom Daley entering a pool. I was also impressed by the external scent organ of the scorpion, a kind of broom affair that it sweeps over the sand to detect its prey.
As usual, the pictures are extraordinary but the prose is a bit more difficult to take, alternating as it does between bombast and misapplied cliché. Describing the escape strategies of the jerboa the narrator said this: “He has one last trick up his sleeve... hairy feet!” Not really up his sleeve, surely, even if jerboas wore jackets? Just once it might be nice to see the “making of” sequence that now concludes many natural-history films feature someone sweating away at a word processor and trying to get the commentary to match the quality of the images.