Once again Sir David Attenborough presents a mish-mash of scientific fact and fiction, to promote his ideas about the need to clamp down on population growth. In an interview with the Radio Times, he makes the astonishing claim that humans have stopped evolving.
"We stopped natural selection as soon as we started being able to rear 90-95% 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," he tells this week's edition.
"Stopping natural selection is not as important, or depressing, as it might sound – because our evolution is now cultural … We can inherit a knowledge of computers or television, electronics, aeroplanes and so on."
Scientifically speaking this is rubbish. Evolution is not about healthy babies, it is about genes. As evolutionists like Stephen Jay Gould explain, evolution is actually co-evolution. It results not from the strength of a gene, but from the interaction of any organism with its environment.
There are billions of genetic interactions - many more will die out after one two generations than go on to become established in whole populations. But for these interactions to continue, a rich and diverse environment is crucial. After the great extinction following the Cambrian era, 90% of species were wiped out and the evolutionary process moved at a snail’s pace for the next 15 million years.
Evolution is simply alert to the opportunity for adaptation; survival is a by-product, as Dr Ian Rickard explains in his critique of Attenborough's views.
Attenborough claims human cleverness will prevent us from becoming extinct. But that is not necessarily true. There is a fragility to life on earth, and it is entirely possible to reach tipping points where life is no longer sustainable. If the absolute power of capitalist-induced alienation is not ended, we humans can create an environment where we cannot live.
We will not be able to soldier on despite all our technology and cleverness. Some 99.6% of all the species of life that have ever existed on earth are now extinct, and we continue to eliminate more, in what is being called "the 6th mass extinction". We may end up without the genetic material to continue to evolve.
So what conclusions does Attenborough draw from his ideas? Shockingly, that the Chinese Communist Party's enforced one-child policy was probably, overall, a good thing. "There's no question it's produced all kinds of personal tragedies," he concedes, but adds: "On the other hand, the Chinese themselves recognise that had they not done so there would be several million more mouths in the world today than there are now."
Attenborough uses this argument to support his views about “sustainable consumption”. But there is no logic to this argument! During this period of forced implementation of the one-child policy, which held back the population, China actually made the world less sustainable. It became the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the largest polluter.
This population argument is just one more distraction from a recognition of the real cause of the greater ecological crisis – the global capitalist system with its drive for continuous growth. The phenomenal leap in greenhouse cases coincides precisely with the intense globalisation period that was launched 30 or so years ago.
Attenborough is saying we can carry on business as usual if we can only eliminate a few million "mouths". That is a dehumanising claim. It gives comfort to those who are insisting we must endure a period of "destructive capitalism" in order to overcome the current crisis.
While his TV programmes may be fairly illuminating at times, Attenborough’s views on population and evolution are very, very reactionary.