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Vertebral column

27 September 2013

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AS IT is widely understood that a key element in the sacramental ordination of clergy - at least in the Church of England - is the surgical removal of the backbone, it might seem perverse to report with enthusiasm on Triumph of the Vertebrates, the first part of David Attenborough's Rise of Animals (BBC2, Friday).

It is one of Attenborough's wonderful qualities: still youthful in old age, he is still as eager to explore, to discover and understand something new. He finds much new material in China, where palaeontology is discovering vital pieces in the jigsaw of the evolution of life on earth, including the first creature that, 520 million years ago, developed a structure of internal support in place of the external scales that had sufficed up until then.

He led us through the significant stages: the emergence of the jaw, enabling more efficient catching of food; the first emergence from sea to dry land; the evolution of amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, birds.

He made this colossal story seem easy to understand, and helped us to see how each branch of the evolutionary tree has not been an improvement that entirely superseded what had gone before. Besides showing us fossils, he introduced us to living - and thriving - examples of all these groups (except dinosaurs) that throng the world today. It is as much about the present as the past, and helps us to understand our place within creation.

Science Britannica (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) is another new series with a charismatic presenter: Brian Cox. With a level of enthusiasm and eagerness to communicate which recalls the youthful Attenborough, many decades ago - and with a particularly engaging delight when this or that experiment goes wrong - Cox has swiftly established for himself a TV niche that feels like an evolutionary taxonomy.

In this first episode, he explored the British distrust of scientists, the hazy feeling that they are meddling with things best left alone. This was a bold subject, tackling head-on the aspects of scientific development that cause controversy: the gradual mastery over nature, the ability to control the world, taking over what had hitherto been ascribed to God alone.

He traced the line from Humphrey Davy's proof that all matter is built up from a few chemical elements to genetically modified crops, and from 18th-century attempts to galvanise hanged corpses, to our experiments on animals to produce startling medical breakthroughs.

Both these series ignore the documentary wisdom that states that anything like a diagram must be eschewed at all costs, because it will make the viewer switch over. Attenborough and Cox know better. They know that a well-designed diagram can illuminate instantly a complex point or relationship - Cox even dares to resort to the blackboard, and write out formulae.

I hope that this might be a growing trend; recently we have seen presenters write Ancient Greek and Latin without making the TV set explode. The reality is, of course, that such didactic method does not infantilise the viewer - on the contrary, it treats us as adults, demonstrating that we inhabit the same world as experts, scholars, and scientists.

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