I’m greatly enjoying Prof Richard Dawkins’s current C4 series The Genius of Darwin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. All pretty basic and obvious stuff about evolution perhaps, but I’ve been hoping for some time now (in this world of lowest common denominator science programming) that someone would come along and just Explain This Stuff to a wide audience. Too often TV gravitates towards only the most controversial or biographical aspects of science, or assumes that everyone knows the basics when it’s sadly apparent that everyone doesn’t. It’s nice to see some basic facts set out clearly.
A lot of people seem to find Dawkins abrasive, but he’s generally at his most self-effacing in the series to date, perhaps because this time around its premise rarely seeks to pitch him into direct confrontation with those who oppose his views (unlike previous series The Enemies of Reason and The Root of All Evil?). I don’t find Dawkins particularly arrogant myself, but that’s probably because I agree with him. He makes few concessions, but although I personally might not call a book on religion “The God Delusion” a) my book wouldn’t sell many copies and b) I find it hard to argue with this title as a basic position.
So far the first episode has provided a whistle-stop tour of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, while the second has covered human evolution, and specifically the evolutionary roots of altruism, drawing on Dawkin’s own work in The Selfish Gene. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that humans are ‘designed’ for small family groupings and that much of our behaviour can, for good or ill, be explained by the rules for living in groups writ large. What’s pleasing is how optimistic a view of human nature Dawkins manages to convey even while explaining biological origins of human behaviour that many might find unpalatable. He’s obviously a liberal idealist who finds himself disgusted by the various political and capitalistic practices to which the word “Darwinism” has been metaphorically attached.
Next week it’s back to the shameless creationist-baiting with a (to my mind much-needed) attempt to examine and rebut the attempts of intelligent design to cast doubt on evolution.
My only source of puzzlement about the series is that the C4 website1 describes it as “polemical”, whereas it’s about as polemical as Earth: The Power of the Planet. It’s not an opinion piece, it’s the kind of straightforward explanation of accepted scientific knowledge that used to be commonplace under the banner of Equinox or Horizon . After all creationism attempts to refute geological wisdom as surely as it does biological wisdom, but we don’t go around calling Dr Iain Stewart a polemicist.
1 The C4 website has whacky floating banners that completely screw up the page in Firefox, but seem fine in Internet Explorer. Or rather, the IE tab plugin for Firefox which is about as close to Internet Explorer as I care to get these days.