Report: Sir David Attenborough on 'Beauty in Nature'

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Sir David Attenborough’s public lecture on 28 January 2016 was a big event. The hottest ticket in Leicester since Kasabian’s homecoming gig in June 2014. This also was a homecoming, not just to Leicester but to the University campus where David and his brothers grew up, their father serving as Principal of University College, Leicester.

By half past four there was a solid flow of students, staff and public making their way across the back of Victoria Park from the University to De Montfort Hall, where the event had been moved after even the most expansive expectations of interest had proven overly conservative. Every seat was taken, the audience a mixture of formal business/evening wear and casual student attire. Just after 5.00pm the University Chancellor, Lord Grocott, took to the stage to “introduce a speaker who needs no introduction.”

Belying his 89 years, Sir David walked across the stage and delivered an hour of fascinating natural history in that distinctive voice which we know from his television work. His topic was ‘Beauty in Nature’ and it tied in conveniently with Sir David’s other reason for visiting Leicester, which was the opening of a new art gallery at the University’s Attenborough Arts Centre, named after his brother Richard. The appreciation of beauty, in art or in nature, is generally seen as a distinctively human characteristic. But is it?

Sir David is not the only famous naturalist with a Leicester connection and he began his talk by recounting the adventures of Alfred Russell Wallace who came to the city as teacher in 1844. After spending four years collecting specimens in South America then losing them all in a shipwreck, Wallace travelled to south east Asia where he became the first European to witness the mating displays of Birds of Paradise. Pondering the birds’ overly extravagant plumage led Wallace to develop a theory of evolution by natural selection. He corresponded with Darwin, who had of course developed the same idea but not yet published anything, and the two men agreed to have papers read at a learned society together.

However, explained Sir David, there was one subject on which they privately disagreed. Darwin theorised that the extreme plumage of a male bird of paradise or peacock helped the female choose the best mate. Wallace could not accept this idea because it implied that the birds differentiated and graded the quality of the plumage of potential mates; in other words that they could appreciate beauty.

Towards the end of Darwin’s life a new discovery was made which strengthened this particular theory. Male bower birds build extraordinary structures and decorate them with flowers, feathers, fruit, snail shells and anything else they can find, in an attempt to impress females. Sir David noted that when filming bower birds he and his TV crew needed to get footage of a successful mating so had to set up their cameras beside the bower most likely to attract a female. They chose the ‘right’ one – the one that the female bower bird selected – suggesting that the bird’s concept of ‘beauty’ was not greatly different from human standards.

David Attenborough giving a lectureSir David’s talk, which was illustrated with fascinating (and sometimes very amusing) clips from his BBC wildlife documentaries, expanded beyond birds to include the extraordinary peacock spider and the  amazing patterns made in the seabed by a Japanese species of pufferfish. He then moved onto other forms of beauty including sounds such as birdsong and the dances that form part of mating displays. He explained the anti-Darwinian view that the use of such things to compete for mates is simply a measure of fitness and hence a way to pass on the best genes. But he argued, using examples such as the superb lyrebird and the parotia bird of paradise, that this is not the case and that the available evidence supports Darwin’s idea: that animals can appreciate purely aesthetic, non-practical factors which do not directly convey any benefit.

Listening to Sir David talk was as enjoyable as watching one of his programmes, but even more so. His delivery was not only natural (if he had notes on the lectern he barely glanced at them) but enthusiastic and joyous. He watched the video clips of incredible animals just as attentively as the audience did.

The President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Paul Boyle, thanked Sir David on the University’s behalf and there was just time for questions from three competition winners before the audience trooped happily out into the windy Leicester night.

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Video clips

Some of the BBC documentary clips which Sir David used to illustrate his talk are available on YouTube. Click on an animal name in the text to watch the clip.

"Meeting Sir David was one of the most memorable experiences I have had. Being in his presence was a great privilege and it dawned on me that I had met one of the greatest naturalists alive. His lecture opened my mind to the world around me and his answer to my question demonstrated the huge amount of wisdom he has." Taran, competition winner

"What an honour it was to be able to meet and pose a question to Sir David Attenborough! Such an inspiring, informative and at times, moving, talk. His work is so important to everybody, but especially when it comes to helping the younger generation appreciate the beauty and importance of the natural world. This was certainly an occasion that I will never forget!" Lucy, competition winner