David Attenborough on large families: A wolf in safari clothing?

This week the TV naturalist sounded a population warning, announcing "Things are going to get worse" if we have large families
  • @oscarquine

Attacking ‘national treasures’ is no way to make friends, but here goes.

There is a monster in our midst. A wolf in sheep’s clothing (a pair of khakis and a spume of cotton wool hair, to be precise). Many of us invite him into our home weekly, sometimes more (should we own any of his DVDs), and allow him to preach a message to our families imbued with deep social intolerance. Who is this predator, you ask? His name is Sir David Attenborough: one of the most influential conservative ideologues of our time.

Following comments in January that humanity is a ‘plague on earth’, the Blue Planet presenter has, in this week’s Radio Times, expressed qualified support for China’s one-child policy, saying that people should be discouraged from having large families. It’s a point he’s made before as patron of Population Matters, a charity concerned with population growth and family planning. And in gloomy tones, he concludes that, should his warnings not be heeded, "things are going to get worse".

So unnatural is humanity’s rampant progress, Sir David asserts, that we have burst free from the evolutionary constraints that govern all other animal kind. "We stopped natural selection as soon as we started being able to rear 95-99 per cent of our babies that are born. We are the only species to have put a halt to natural selection, of its own free will, as it were.”

His preponderance with controlling humanity’s procreative behaviour shouldn’t come as a surprise, though: his documentaries have long held a deep socially conservative message. From the mess and melee of the animal kingdom, carefully crafted from hundreds upon hundreds of hours of footage, Attenborough always arrives at the same neat narrative. It’s the story of a tight family unit, fortified through life cycles and tests of mettle. Sir David’s BBC documentary stable mate Adam Curtis points out that his message of ‘static conservatism’ is intensified by the backdrop of the seasons and their cosmic inevitability (‘spring returns and the first green shoots force their way through the melting snows’). Attenborough’s design is presented as the one by which lifeforms have always lived, and always should live.

He’s keeping us away from the best bits, though. We don’t see much of the liberated sex of bonobos (they do it all the time: not just to procreate but to regulate social tensions), the homosexual killer whales (90 per cent of them are at it, apparently), and the female hyena’s sexual dominance (she takes her pick, shags, and leaves). Through Attenborough’s superlative storytelling, the rich and diverse animal kingdom is made to mirror his worldview: life is to be spent building one’s home, finding one’s mate, and replicating the cycle.

Great Sunday night family viewing, sure. But his programmes aren’t just warming antidotes to the weekend past. They’re laden with the idea of a natural harmony which can be attained, but only if we play by the rules. Ergo, deviation is bad. Need it be said, as a nation, we have a soft spot for our ‘national treasures’. But when Sir Dave starts spouting off about curtailing people’s reproduction and the like, let’s not just roll over and take it, dutifully, like a docile old sealioness. As ever, it’s best to question what we’re told; even when it comes from one of the oldest and most respected in the pack.