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Insects on display

21 July 2017

BBC/Windfall Films

“Marvellous”: Chris Packham, the presenter, and the team examining flora and fauna in The British Garden on BBC4

“Marvellous”: Chris Packham, the presenter, and the team examining flora and fauna in The British Garden on BBC4

FOR the best knockdown argument for refusing to believe in a benign God of creation, I refer you to the lifestyle of the hoverfly lava. Using a sticky secretion it captures a group of aphid larvae, then, while they are still alive, sucks out their nutritious insides as they struggle and squirm.

The British Garden: Life and death on your lawn (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) was full of such nuggets. It examined in detail what most of us look at day by day but never actually see. A team of naturalists descended on five suburban plots on a single road in Welwyn Garden City, ranging from manicured perfection to completely wild, and spent a year examining what lives there.

Your impression of this 90 minutes’ examination will depend on your mindset: most viewers will remember the astonishing beauty and delight revealed in the plants and creatures: I saw a chronicle of sex and murder, of partnership between species entered into only to ensure survival. We assume that God gave us flowers so that we can be charmed by their colour and beauty. Fools! Such displays have evolved only to attract pollinating insects, to guarantee propagation.

Setting aside anthropocentric moral judgments, it was marvellous. The range and number of species is astonishing: the average garden supports 170,000 earthworms alone. They found, for example, 48 species of moth, and a grand total of 683 species of creatures, not counting the plants.

The evidence points to a Creator not cosily benign but something far more exciting: a God of limitless fecundity, of careless prodigality, daring to sustain a universe of free evolution whose creatures may explore their liberty as they will.

A key evolutionary moment was captured in Dippy and the Whale (BBC2, Thursday of last week). David Attenborough told us how the Natural History Museum has replaced the central exhibit of its great central hall. Out goes the much-loved Dippy the dinosaur, and in comes the blue whale skeleton.

I assume that the Archbishop of Canterbury is behind the change, as it so clearly mirrors his vision for transforming our beloved Church. Out goes an extinct fossil, in comes a living creature: the world’s largest ever species. In place of a static behemoth, the whale is exquisitely posed as she actually lived and moved through the waters: dynamic, the great jaws open towards the visitors, welcoming in one and all.

There are further resonances for those with the wit to see them. Dippy is not even a genuine fossil, but merely a plaster cast. The blue whale is stupendous; but, as the survival of her species is now threatened by human depredation, her display in this place of honour will effect a poignant plea for human stewardship of creation.

Some viewers will consider that a whole company of fossils is on display in The Windsors (Channel 4, Wednesdays). Harry Enfield leads this disgraceful parody of our royal family: every cliche and stereotype is seized on and ratcheted up to stratospheric heights. It is not for the fainthearted, but, if you can stomach, say, the reality of a suburban garden, then, like me, you wi­­ll find it shockingly funny.

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