I know when I watch a modern nature show that I’m supposed to view mankind as evil; I don’t. I go the other way and marvel at the wonder that is mankind.
Because of differing viewing tastes in the Bookworm household (and honestly, I do not understand why no one wants to watch 1930s musicals with me), we tend to be reduced to watching what can best be called “lowest common denominator” shows, which means cooking and nature shows. It sort of works for me, although I find that nature shows love to fold virtue signalling into their message. (“Isn’t Nature wonderful? And it’s all going to die because of YOU!”)
The fact that I love cooking shows has always been a bit of a mystery to me, because I hate cooking. I don’t have a creative bone in my body. Moreover, just as my family has different viewing tastes, it also has different dining tastes. I very seldom make food I like to eat, which makes the whole exercise less fun. Still, I do love watching cooking shows, especially America’s Test Kitchen. It’s thanks to that show’s guidance that, while I will never be an inspired cook, my food is edible.
But this post is about nature shows. I’ve watched nature shows as long as I can remember. When my sister was old enough to babysit me, before my parents left my mother would always issue instructions about what we could or could not watch on TV. If there was a nature show, that was required viewing — and, because my sister and I were good kids, we watched.
The show I particularly remember is Wild Kingdom, which ran from 1963 through 1971, with Marlin Perkins taking viewers all over the world to see wild animals in their natural habitat. (It turns out that Mutual of Omaha still sponsors a “Wild Kingdom” webcast and website. Who knew?)
Although it promised to show nature red of tooth and claw, Wild Kingdom was pretty tame. When mammals animals ate each other, they did so from a discrete distance so that blood, guts, and suffering didn’t offend viewers. Mating rituals were allowed; copulation was not. Often the show, in Disney fashion, focused on animals doing things humans find amusing. These segments relied heavily, if I remember, on the ritual dances that birds frequently do to attract mates.
The modern creme de la creme of nature shows is BBC’s Planet Earth. Season 1 was about land animals. Season 2, which is showing now, is about aquatic life.
Planet Earth’s is cinematography is gorgeous. We get spectacular landscape shots and exquisite renderings of animals in the habitats. The colors are lush, the details clear, and the whole thing is eye candy.
The show also works very hard to allow viewers to see the animals do what they do: hunt, avoid being hunted, eat, and mate. When it comes to hunting and mating, graphic is the way to go. No drop of blood or act of copulation goes unnoticed.
The show’s narrator, David Attenborough, has a plummy, husky, very upper-crust voice, that signals loudly that this isn’t Wild Kingdom, with Marlin Perkins’ pure Midwestern speech and his insurance company sponsor. This show is art. This show is a statement, not only about the amazing world of nature that surrounds us, but as Attenborough regularly tells us, about the fact that mankind is an engine of destruction in this earthly paradise. In other words, the show is rich in virtue signaling.
As an aside, the show is also rich in banal clichés and bad grammar, both of which irritate me. “The hunter has become the hunted” was the cliché from the most recent episode I watched. Where have I heard that one before 800 thousand times?
There is no doubt that some of the things animals do are incredible. For example, the broadclub cuttlefish changes colors when hunting, hypnotizing its crab prey. I particularly like the spaceship alien music the BBC employs when the cuttlefish puts on its light show:
There are lots of “isn’t this amazing?” moments in the show. After all, in the kill or be killed world of animals, every creature has adapted in whatever way possible to become a predator if its a carnivore and not to become prey, no matter what it is. The risks animals take to copulate are also pretty impressive, although depressing too. Often, it’s like watching a really bad night at a hook-up bar in the 1970s (I’m thinking Looking for Mr. Goodbar stuff.)
The problem with today’s nature shows lies in the fact that animals’ entire existence has four goals: hunt, don’t get eaten, chew and digest, copulate. That’s it. Sure, young mammals “play” games, but those games are always aimed at enhancing their future survival skills so that they can hunt, chew and digest, avoiding getting eaten, and copulate.
Lions? Watch them hunt. Sometimes they kill their prey, in which case we get shots of blood-drenched muzzles and a zebra’s or wildebeest’s savaged entrails. Then they digest sleepily in the hot African sunshine. Sometimes they fail to kill their prey, in which case you see them limp off, hungry and disconsolate in the cruelly blazing African sunshine. And then they periodically copulate.
Zebras? Watch them eat grass and, when not eating, stand around and digest. Watch them evade the big cats. Sometimes their evasion fails in which case we get entrail shots. Sometimes they prevail, and we see them limp away with bloody, scratched flanks to eat grass. And then they periodically copulate.
Sharks? Same as lions, except underwater.
Minnows? Same as zebras, except that, if a predator catches them, they get eaten. There’s no limping away. And then they periodically copulate.
I always fall asleep during these extravagantly beautiful nature shows because the plot never varies: Hunt, avoid being hunted, chew and digest, copulate. Over and over.
Although these shows have as their purpose showing nature’s wonders, and of course making us feel guilty for being a super-predator, they actually have a different effect on me. When I see them, I can only look in awe at the wonder that is mankind. (No humankind for me, young Trudeau, you posturing buffoon!)
Mankind does so much than hunt, avoid being hunted, chew and digest, and copulate. Sure, we do those things too, but they are just basic survival mechanisms. They’re woven into every aspect of our lives, but they’re also the backdrop to accomplishments no other animal on earth achieves.
Nature shows like to remind us that ants build bridges, wasps build amazing hives, birds dance, and charming little fish make exquisite sculptures in the sand, that elephants care deeply about their offspring, and that animals show compassion for each other and, sometimes, even for other species — all of which is true.
What’s so amazing about humans, though, is that we do all that and more. We build bridges and fabulous cities and rockets to mars. We have created art for the span of mankind’s life on this earth, everything from cave paintings, to sculptures, to the exquisite creations coming from every major culture in the world. We dance, both to mate and, unlike animals, for the joy of dancing. We care deeply about our offspring (even the pro-abortion people mostly care once the offspring are out of the womb). And we show compassion for each other, including (as I gaze deeply into my dog’s loving eyes) compassion and love for other species.
Everything animals can do, we can do too. And if we can’t do it relying on our own puny flesh and bones, we build machines that see us move faster on land than a cheetah, faster in water than a dolphin, and faster in air than a falcon. We make clothes so that we can don every kind of protective coloring and meet every climate. We can even make cuttlefish clothes that change color. I’m hard put to think of anything animals can do that we can’t do as well. We may not do it with charm, it may not be instinct in our minds and bones, but we do it.
One of the most interesting books I’ve ever read is Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. His theory, which he develops at great and credible length, is that when mankind captured fire, it gained the ability to release food’s nutrients. Instead of huge jaws, claws, and stomachs, a necessity for surviving because raw food means extra time and energy investments in breaking up and digesting food. Because we can easily chew and digest our food, we are allowed the luxury of huge brains. Our unchanged time and energy, combined with the benefits of unusually large brains, mean we can touch the stars.
Yes, nature is fascinating. But the more I look at it, the more mankind’s greatness impressed me. Lest I sound like an anti-environmentalist, I do understand that part of our greatness must mean living as much as possible in harmony with other lives on the planet.
I’m no vegetarian, and I’m comfortable with the fact that Nature is not vegetarian, but I believe life deserves respect. We don’t kill for pleasure, we don’t waste, and if we raise our meat, we should treat the animals decently during life and (if possible) kill them painlessly at the end. Modern man also understand now, something we often missed before, that our world is interconnected. If we throw the balance off too much, we too are affected, usually by losing food and water. Aesthetically, too, the earth is a gift and we shame ourselves if we destroy its beauty.
But none of the above makes me a true virtue signalling, social justice, modern environmentalist, one who denigrates mankind and worships before the altar of a natural world stripped of the wonder that is mankind.
Those are the deep thoughts that help me stay awake while watching endless hours of banal TV as part of “family time.”