Sir David Attenborough Lecture
Beauty in Nature
Chancellor’s Distinguished Guest Speaker Lectures
De Montfort Hall, Leicester
Thursday 28th January 2015, 5pm
I was a lucky attendee of a special lecture given by Sir David Attenborough at De Montfort Hall entitled Beauty in Nature. David’s appearance coincides with the opening of the Attenborough Arts Centre, named after his late brother Richard, as well a couple of documentaries for the BBC; The Great Barrier Reef and Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur. This marks a very bust start to 2016 for him, and considering he is celebrating his 90th birthday in May, he is showing no signs of slowing down. David says he has no plans to retire as he is a very lucky man to swan around the world visiting beautiful places and witnessing extraordinary things, as evidenced recently in the unearthing of the biggest dinosaur ever discovered in Patagonia. And we wouldn’t want him to retire either!
After the short introduction by the University Chancellor Lord Grocott, David begins by asking if appreciating beauty is a prerogative of just the human race, or are animals capable too. He recounts how Alfred Russell Wallace, a British naturalist and former University of Leicester master, set sail for the Amazon in 1848, and after losing 4 year’s worth of work in a shipwreck, he became the first European to witness the ‘birds of paradise’ in Asia. After this, he introduced some academic debate between Wallace and Charles Darwin about the theory of evolution by natural selection, which was published in 1858, prior to Darwin’s famous Origin of Species the following year. Taking the example of a peacock and it’s plumage, Darwin concluded that the female peacock would choose a mate depending on the display and plumage shown by a male peacock, which Wallace disagreed with, as there was a lack of evidence to support such a claim. Wallace was convinced that appreciating beauty was unique to humans. With this argument in our heads, David proceeds to show examples which seem to confirm Darwin’s theory, with beauty shown through vision, sound, dance and a combination of all three.
Here are a few excerpts from his lecture;
In reference to a video clip of a male bird repeatedly jumping and pecking at a female bird to get her attention for the prospect of mating | “It looks rough, but presumably she likes this sort of thing…”
“Even today we are discovering all sorts of creatures with an appreciation for beauty.”
Vogelkop Bowerbird chooses different colours and design in his attempt to attract a female bird who inspects the creation that the male has created | “Birds with a passion for interior design.”
“He’s not only a thief, but a vandal” | the bowerbirds not only built spectacular decorations for females, some of them would steal decorations from other birds to add to their collection, before vandalising the remainder of the nest. Seeing the Vogelkop Bowerbird for the first time was “unbelievable” for David.
“There are many other sources of beauty than vision”
The Lyrebird can master complex songs, is able to copy birds and other sounds around them. Not to mention chainsaws, camera shutters, car alarms, local foresters and it can fool the birds that he mimics.
The Parotia bird uses dances as a display of beauty | “Males of all kinds go to such lengths to simply please the female.”
“Beauty is indeed present in the natural world, but we are not the only ones who appreciate it,”
Here are some extracts from the lecture from the University’s YouTube account |
After an hour of absorbing natural history delivered in his distinctive and well-known style, the “nation’s grandad” answered three questions from the audience.
Q1 | Can we change quick enough to overcome environmental damage that we have created?
He wish that the answer was yes, but we can not turn the clock back. “At best we can slow down the damage”
Q2 | Should we allow certain species to die out naturally or should we step in?
David references the Giant Panda in China, that needs massive amounts of bamboo to survive, though he can’t see what effect it would have (if it were to die out), but it would be a great shame to let it die out. It would be a terrible shame to see species die out just “because we didn’t care.”
Q3 | When and where he felt most threatened and by what?
He has never felt threatened as “the natural world is very good at telling you to lay-off”, before finishing to say that he “would certainly avoid a King Cobra” due to the fact it can rise up to 2 metres and attack while injecting venom into any creature.
In the Chancellor’s closing speech he mentions a remarkable fact, that David holds the record for the most honorary degrees at any British universities and he is also an honorary fellow at the University of Leicester. A considerable achievement! The following day (Friday 29th January) he opened the Attenborough Arts Centre, and here is a poignant photo of David looking at a portrait of his late brother Richard Attenborough, known to most people as the award-winning director of Gandhi and for his roles in The Great Escape, Miracle on 34th Street and Jurassic Park.