Desmond Morris is an English zoologist, ethologist, broadcaster and author. He has a zoology degree from the University of Birmingham and a Doctorate from the University of Oxford on the reproductive behaviour of the ten-spined stickleback. In the 1950s he present Zoo Time on Granada ITV, and in the 1960s he wrote and presented the programme Life in the Animal World for BBC2. Morris brought animal behaviour to television audiences, as opposed to simply showing live animals in studio settings, where behaviour was difficult to capture. He returned to television in the late 1970s with a series The Human Race, which went beyond the traditional notion of animal behaviour to look at human behaviour.
Earth in Vision Project
My name is Desmond Morris. I am a zoologist by training and I moved into television in 1956, having left my researches here in Oxford to do so.
Wildlife: my first memories
As a child growing up in Wiltshire I spent a lot of time in the countryside. I was very lucky because my grandmother owned a lake and I was able to build a raft to float on this lake. I didn’t want to catch the fish; I wanted to watch them, I don’t know why that happened but I had this raft and I would lie on the raft and put my face as close to the surface of the water as I could and just watch the fish and I knew where all the fish were… I knew where the pike was lying in wait and I knew where the perch were and the roach and so on. As a child, there I was, lying on my raft… I couldn’t swim by the way, I don’t know how… <chuckles> it was very risky! But this private lake at my grandmother’s where nobody else went, it was my private world, and not only the water birds and the fish but there were newts and toads and frogs and it was a place where I spent a huge amount of time. I was an only child, I never suffered from loneliness, I enjoyed solitude and I loved being there entirely on my own just watching the animals. And I became a watcher from a very early age, and I hated the idea of catching fish, because I knew the fish too well and the idea of putting a hook through their mouth didn’t appeal to me at all. But I was starting… and this was when I was very young.
Then something important happened. I discovered, in the attic, in a trunk, in the corner of the attic, my great-grandfather’s microscope, a beautiful old, brass Victorian microscope. I took it downstairs and I got some pond water and put it under it and I was just blown away by the complexity of what I was seeing under the microscope. These microscopic organisms were so complicated and their lives that were playing out under my vision were so extraordinary, I just got carried away by this and I started to get very interested in the smaller forms of life, in insects and small marine creatures.
I then, at school, got very interested in zoology, became hooked on zoology and that’s what I really wanted to do. My parents wanted me to be a doctor but I wasn’t interested, I wanted to be a zoologist and that’s what I did, and to cut a long story short, I eventually went onto become a professional zoologist. But it was really the Wiltshire countryside that triggered it. I think if I’d been… I don’t know, I was lucky to grow up in the countryside in the thirties and to see… natural life at close quarters.
My studies in animal behaviour
Back in the 1950s I was working here in Oxford with Niko Tinbergen as a comparative ethologist. I was working on animal behaviour, in particular behaviour of a small fish called the ten-spined stickleback, and I did my doctorate on this fish. The essence of comparative ethology was that it was a comparatively new movement at the time and it was in opposition to animal psychology. I say opposition because there was quite a lot of hard feeling between the two groups. Psychologists tended to work in laboratories with rats in mazes and artificial conditions for the animals; what the ethologists decided was that it was more correct to go out into the field and to study animals in their natural habitat. And of course the criticism was, ‘Well, that’s just natural history, that’s not science.’ But what Tinbergen did, and this was his major contribution, was that he showed that you can enjoy quantified observation.
Quantified observation was the essence of his work; that is to say you didn’t just sit with your binoculars and say, ‘Oh look, there’s a so-and-so.’ You actually measured and counted the number of times that actions occurred and how changes in the environment produced changes in the behaviour. And then you analysed the causation, function and evolution of each action in the behaviour of the animal, and you tried to study the whole animal. If you were studying a herring gull or a stickleback you tried to make a complete study of its behaviour. In the case of fish, of course, one had to work in the laboratory, but you recreated the natural conditions, you didn’t use experimental setup, you created a river, a stream in the laboratory. My aquarium tanks were 7’ long so that the fish could live in a natural habitat. In this way we were able to study behaviour of animals, as natural historians, but with scientific analysis, and that was what made comparative ethology new.
It was called comparative ethology because one of the things we were doing in particular was comparing the behaviour of different species. There was a three-spined stickleback and a ten-spined stickleback, so what was the difference between these two and how did that difference evolve and how did it assist those species in their survival.
So we were always comparing one species or another, and I had many different species in my laboratory, and I was working there until 1956 and then I was approached to move into television and left my researches behind and went off to London to join ITV on its launch.
How I got started in television
What had happened was that I had been studying fish and birds, I’d also done some studies on bird display, and I wanted to move on to mammals, but of course mammals were not really suitable for Oxford University’s Zoology Department: they were too big. So it was suggested that I might go and do research at London Zoo, where of course they had a large collection of large animals to study. So I went to the zoo and asked if they had any research possibilities there and they said, ‘No, we haven’t at the moment, but we are just about to start a television unit. BBC has had a monopoly of television now, ever since it began, and it’s just one channel of television, but now they are going to face opposition. ITV is being launched (at the end of 1955) and when that happens they’ll be two channels and they’ll be competition between them and we want to set up a unit here, a television and film unit here at the London Zoo, to make films and television programmes about animals and we’re very keen,’ Granada said, ‘to have a professional zoologist. We don’t want to get an actor pretending to be a scientist; we want a research zoologist, and you’re a research zoologist and we would like to offer you the post.’ I said, ‘Well, it would be wonderful to be able to put onto the screen the sort of behaviour studies that I’ve been doing, because I think this new approach of looking at the natural behaviour of animals, not experimenting with them but observing them and measuring their actions, would be something that people could understand, so I would like to come and make films.’ And I took the job.
The first days of natural history television
This was in the early part of 1956. ITV had gone on the air originally in London in September of 1955. Granada, who covered the northern region, went on the air on May 2nd I think it was, in 1956. Five days later I went on the air, so ITV was only five days old when I went on the air with my first programme. But this actually wasn’t what I’d intended. When I got there I said, ‘I’m going to make these films about animal behaviour; I want to show you how bird display evolved and how animals communicate with one another and I want to put all this on film.’ They said, ‘That’s going to take ages.’ I said, ‘Well, yes, it’s a lengthy job to make films like this.’ They said, ‘But we’ve got to go on the air, couldn’t you do a half-hour live programme for us now?’ I said, ‘Well, that wasn’t really what I came to do, ‘cause I can’t show proper animal behaviour on television in a live show. It wouldn’t be right.’ They said, ‘Well you could bring all the animals to our studio.’ I said, ‘No, no, I wouldn’t do that anyway because that’s unfair to the animals. If you want to film them you’ll have to come here to the zoo, where the animals are comfortable and at ease and not being trundled off to some studio.’
In the past all animal television had been like that, it was animals taken off to a studio and shown just sitting doing nothing. I said, ‘No, no I want my animals to do something if I show them; I’m not going to have them just sitting there, they’ve got to actually behave and they won’t do that if I come to your studios.’ So they had to put a studio in London Zoo. We actually hijacked one because it was on its way to Wimbledon; it was going to be used to interview the tennis champions, and we managed to hijack it, got it to London <chuckles>. I don’t know what happened to the Wimbledon champions but we pinched their studio, it was a temporary one and we erected it inside the London Zoo so that I could have the animals there in a relaxed state. I could also let the animals live there, go in there during the day before the show, and in that way I could hope to get some behaviour out of them instead of them just sitting there looking worried. We did later replace that studio with a permanent one in the zoo because it worked.
The first days: Popular television versus zoology
So in May of ’56, it was only 43 days after I’d been doing research in Oxford, I was on the air with my first show. And of course this wasn’t BC but it was BV, that’s before video. It was the era when everything was live, all television was live, well, except for films obviously, but there was no video. So I was on the air, live, with animals who could do anything and did do anything. It was not what I’d intended because I was unable to show people complicated animal behaviour because obviously in a studio you couldn’t get complicated behaviour. However, I did manage to insert into every one of these programmes some idea, some zoological concept, it might only be something like countershading or camouflage or use of venom, it might be some small thing but I would try to get a scientific idea secreted into one of these programmes, which of course were meant to be just popular programmes. I had an evangelical zeal to get rid of things like anthropomorphism and teleology, which infested a lot of… and still, I’m afraid, still infests a lot of animal programmes. Anthropomorphism is tempting, it’s so tempting to say, ‘Oh look at the little penguins, they look as though they’re wearing evening dress,’ or something like that. That was the thing that I was totally antagonistic towards and I tried to get rid of, and I was trying to explain that actually if you look at the penguins and you see that they have black backs and white fronts, why? Then I explained about the fact that when they’re swimming in the sea and you see them from below you see the white and when you see them from above you see the black. In other words the markings of the penguins, which we had of course in London Zoo, were not evening dress, they were in fact valuable markings to help the bird in its natural state.
So I was, all the time, trying to get rid of the old anthropomorphism and introduce a new scientific approach to animals but keeping it popular at the same time, keeping the jargon out of it. That took a long time, it took me about a year to get rid of the jargon. I had a very good director and he would stop me from using technical terms, which of course as a research worker I was prone to do, and I gradually managed to learn to avoid technical terms. I had a little sentence across my forehead which was ‘simplification without distortion’ and that, believe me, is the most difficult thing any popular scientist can do. Because when you do simplify it there is a huge risk of distortion of the facts, and in getting rid of the dependent clauses and all the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and ‘maybes’, you have to try and keep as close to the truth as possible but making it understandable, and of course that is incredibly difficult. That’s what I trained myself to do.
The first years: The success of ‘Zoo Time’
By 1958 we had filmed … not filmed <chuckles>, we had transmitted a hundred of these live programmes and I was beginning to get the knack of how to do this on television. We were making films of animal behaviour as well, slowly, slowly, but unfortunately for me these programmes were too successful. I hadn’t intended to do them. In fact they went on for 11 years until I left England <chuckles>. I hadn’t intended to do the Zoo Time programmes, as they were called, but people enjoyed them. I think what was happening was that people could detect that I really cared about the animals and about their behaviour and about trying to understand. I tried very hard to avoid the pitfalls of, as I mentioned earlier, teleology. Now this is something which still occurs as a fault in even the best scripts and the best documentaries about animals, people still will use a teleological argument which implies some sort of purpose in the animals’ evolution. I’ll give you an example, they say, ‘The giraffe has evolved its long neck in order to get at the leaves higher up on the trees.’ Now it didn’t. It evolved a long neck, which enabled it, and you only have to change the wording very slightly, which enabled it to get to the leaves that are high up on the trees, it didn’t do it in order to get <chuckles> it wasn’t a purposeful thing, it was natural selection operating. When people use teleology they are ignoring the fundamental process of natural selection and implying a sort of purpose in changes of animal behaviour.
So things like that I was very, very careful the way I worded my statements on television and it became a challenge to keep the precision of my research into animal behaviour on the one hand, and popular understanding of what I was talking about on the other. That was the challenge I had to meet and that was what I was working on, and it worked too well because I spent most of my time doing that rather than making the films. Eventually we did get some films, behaviour, made but Zoo Time, the live programme, was so successful that it took up a lot of our time. But I know that some zoologists later told me that they became professional zoologists as a result of having watched the programme and that was very rewarding.
So that was the history of my early days in television.
The first natural history filmmakers
If you look at the history of natural history on television you find that in the very early days there were… I mean I’m going right back now in the thirties and so on, there were intrepid explorers who would go off and find animals in the wild. Sometimes they shot them <chuckles>, they were very proud of this, others… ‘cause when I was a child and went to see animal programmes they nearly always had big game hunters; big game hunting was very popular back in the thirties. Then that kind of faded away and we did start to see some natural history filming in the wild, but it was still in black and white and it was still pretty primitive and there was no great technology attached to it. So it was pretty simple minded and the people who were doing it weren’t really zoologists, they were just saying, ‘Oh look, there’s a rhinoceros!’ You know? <Laughs> There was no discussion of the evolution of the rhinoceros or anything about its biology; it was just, ‘There’s a rhino!’ and that was about the limit of it. So it was like bird spotting on a grand scale.
The first days: Animals in the studio
In the studios, of course, it was even worse because there the poor animals were taken off to some studio in a sack and taken out of the sack and put in bright lights and just sort of blinked, like this, and that was all they did. That was back in the days of George Cansdale. There was a famous story that he took a fruit bat to Alexandra Palace in the early days and was showing it to people when it flew off and it got up into… <chuckles> and nobody could catch it. And apparently for months afterwards this fruit bat would fly through the news or a Victorian drama and there would be a beating of wings <chuckles> turning everything into a vampire movie. They never did catch it; it lived there for years apparently, in the rafters of Alexandra Palace. That was the sort of primitive state that one had in those days. So my first refusal was to do that, I wasn’t going to take animals to a studio.
The early years: David Attenborough and the BBC Natural History Unit
I should mention that at the same time, in the fifties, I was on ITV and David Attenborough was on BBC: I was doing Zoo Time and he was doing Zoo Quest. Now his Zoo Quest consisted of him going off and catching animals and bringing them back to the zoo, something which he wouldn’t dream of doing today, but at the time, again, it was appropriate for its era. And again, his programmes were shot in the wild but they weren’t really about animal behaviour, they were about capturing a lizard, popping it in a box and bringing it back to the zoo. And that was what was going on in his world at the time, which of course he now looks back on and thinks, ‘How could I have done that?’ But what I was trying to do, unsuccessfully, was to make really detailed films of animal behaviour and to show people not just, ‘Oh look, there’s a rhino,’ but how does this animal live, how does it breed, how does it rear its young, the whole life history of any particular animal.
As I said, we made some of these films but we weren’t able to make enough because we didn’t have the budget, quite frankly, from Granada Television, to do the sort of field work that was needed. That was developed in Bristol at the Natural History Unit, the BBC’s Natural History Unit there. They did have the budgets to go off into the field and to film natural history. They started out, Desmond Hawkins, who began that unit down there, the Natural History Unit in Bristol, and he started out with, again, excellent intentions to produce natural history films. There was still an air of just simply observing. Someone like Peter Scott, for example, would be satisfied simply to see a rare species of goose. What I, and other ethologists wanted was not just to see a goose but to analyse its behaviour and show its courtship, its fighting behaviour, its territorial behaviour, its nesting behaviour and so on. And that was still off in the future because the technology wasn’t really ready for it yet. But it did come and over the years that followed the Natural History Unit in Bristol was responsible for producing most of the great animal documentaries.
David Attenborough and I
David and I go back a long way. When I was doing Zoo Time on ITV and he was doing Zoo Quest on BBC, our bosses said we must never meet, we must keep apart! Well, of course that annoyed us so we got together and in 1959 we met and had a meal together. One of the things that happened straightaway was we found we had a strong bond through humour. You wouldn’t think so listening to David on the television, but in fact I don’t think I’ve ever spent time with David without roaring with laughter; we’ve kept our shared humour for half-a-century. That bond of humour, because we were both faced with the same issues, we were both faced with: how can you go on television with an animal and not get bitten? <Laughs> to put it… in those early days. And we had the same kind of challenges of how to explain animals to people, and of course all the terrible things that would happen to us would make us roar with laughter.
One of the strangest things that has happened over the years, it’s an oddity, is our voices have changed. I made a programme about the history of natural history programmes for the BBC and at the beginning of it I had opening shots of all the programmes that were done in those days, each of us introducing our programme, so I would introduce Zoo Time and he would introduce Zoo Quest and somebody else … Peter Scott would introduce something else. And they were put together in a series, each person saying ‘Hello’ and the weird thing was that our voices <chuckles> were completely different. And I took it round and showed it to David and so I come on the screen and I say ‘Hello’ in this sort of… <chuckles> and David of course falls back laughing, and then we come to him and he says ‘Hello’ and then I fall back laughing. Because what had happened… and this is an odd piece of human behaviour, actually you can see it in early British movies… the slow change in speech patterns that has occurred in the last half-century is quite extraordinary, and people like David and I, who can see ourselves talking on television back in those early days with this cut-glass accent, realise how our voices have changed. And of course we haven’t done it deliberately, but there are these subtle processes. And there are other changes in human behaviour in terms of how people sit and stand and cross their legs. All these things change as time goes on and people are unaware, the changes are so slow that people don’t realise it. Body language is constantly changing, a big change in the sixties when people’s body language showed massive relaxing into more freedom of posture.
And so studying of changes in human behaviour are something which are very important and David Attenborough’s case, the change from the way he behaved in his early programmes to his later ones reflects the change that has gone on in our attitude towards animals. Today, in his later work, it is all entirely observational work and there would never be any sort of catching an animal now but only of watching it without disturbing it.
David Attenborough as channel controller of BBC 2
One of the problems with David Attenborough is that he’s too good at everything he does. He got trapped by his excellence as Head of BBC because he didn’t really want the job, he didn’t want to be sitting in an office, but he was too good at it and he innovated as a Controller of BBC an introduced a whole lot of new ideas and was very concerned that television should continue, BBC should continue its original aims of informing people as well as entertaining them.
When I used to hold research seminars in London, David used to come and sit in on them, and this is back in the sixties when we were discussing all kinds of new projects in animal behaviour, and he listened to our debates and discussions and said, ‘Do you know, we’ve never had a programme on television in which scientists actually sit around and discuss rival theories. Politicians do it every day but scientists don’t. When did you last see a group of scientists sitting round with differing ideas, different interpretations of some issue, arguing it out on television?’ And I said, ‘It’s never been done,’ and he said, ‘Right, we’re going to do it.’ And when he became Controller of BBC 2, one of the first things he did was to ask me to do a programme called Life, in which I brought in the scientists from all over the world, all the top scientists, to discuss issues, and looking back on those programmes, I looked at them the other day, and we tackled things like population growth and loss of environment. All those things were discussed, but this was discussed amongst scientists who had different views on how to handle the situation, and that was David innovating as a Controller and commissioner for television.
That series lasted for several years, I did about a hundred of them, a hundred hours of broadcasting, in which we discussed scientific issues, and one whole hour was devoted to population increase; I remember that one particularly, and Jane Goodall gave her first report on chimpanzee behaviour in one of the programmes and so on. So we were really looking at all these issues as discussion points, not just as ‘Here it is,’ but debating it. And when that programme finished, when I went abroad and the programme stopped, nothing like it has ever been seen again. It was just that one period in the sixties where a couple of years and a hundred programmes went out in which scientific issues were debated in the studio and of course also illustrated with material from the wild. That is the kind of television that David introduced and which sadly has never really reappeared. I’ve not seen such a programme though I have to put up with endless political debates, and yet there is no scientific debate. It’s one thing, you see, just to put forward a theory, but it’s quite another thing to see two scientists who have different approaches or different ideas about a particular theory arguing with one another, and then you can see the scientific mind at work. And that is something that we badly need and which I would love to see return.
David Attenborough and the call of the wild
David himself had gone off into administration and was running the BBC at the time and getting bored sitting in offices and itching to get back into the field. I, by this time, was making another series for BBC called Life in the Animal World, which was something that David had commissioned. On the one occasion when I couldn’t go to Africa to film, he <chuckles> left his office in London and quickly took over from me and rushed off to Africa to have some field work, because he just loves being in the field.
Then in the seventies he finally decided he’d had enough of administration and moved back into the field and made Life on Earth, which of course was the first really massive documentary on animal behaviour, and then after that of course we know all his other series that followed. And with gradually improving technology, it became possible to do the thing that I’d always wanted to do, which was to show details of animal behaviour on television.
David Attenborough’s qualities
David Attenborough, without any question, is the great communicator when it comes to natural history. I can tell you an anecdote about David, because when I went to live abroad in the sixties and seventies, he and his family used to come and spend their summer holidays with us. It was a time when he was Controller at British television and he would arrive, still with that Controller sort of concern about everything and then gradually become the real David Attenborough. And after about a day or two when he’d lost his briefcase and didn’t have to think about meetings anymore, I saw him up on the tower on top of our villa with his binoculars and I went up and I said, ‘What are you looking at?’ and he said, ‘Phosphatic nodules.’ <Chuckles> He already knew more about the stratification of the island where I lived than I did. And he took us off to the cliff tops where we were looking and studying the fossils that were embedded in these cliffs.
I remember on one occasion I had a boat and we’d just anchored the boat outside of a little bay and we’d swum in and we were all sitting round relaxing. David’s not very good at relaxing. We were all relaxing, his family and my family, and two small girls came down and started looking in the shallows and they found… I think it was a sea cucumber, and they said ‘Ugh, ugh look at that horrible ugly thing!’ David was up like a shot and he rushed across and he got in and he picked up the sea cucumber <chuckles> and gave these two startled girls at least quarter-of-an-hour talk about the beauty of the sea cucumber. <Laughs> And these two little girls were getting a quarter-of-an-hour David Attenborough programme just for the two of them. He couldn’t bear the thought that these girls thought this was an ugly object and he had to explain to them how beautiful it was and demonstrate to them. And all this was done because he simply couldn’t bear not to communicate to these children the wonder of this object. Now, that was David. He has this built-in need to tell people how exciting the planet is and has done so now for many, many, many years.
A journalist once said to me, ‘You know David Attenborough…’ I said, ‘I’ve known him for half-a-century’. He said, ‘You know him very well. What are his flaws? I want to know his flaws.’ And I said, ‘He only has one flaw.’ ‘Yes?!’ And I said, ‘He doesn’t have any flaws; that’s his flaw!’ Because you do like an old friend to have a few weaknesses and I haven’t found them with David.
Has David Attenborough made the world seem too beautiful?
The relevance of David Attenborough today, as it always has been, is that he gives us a window onto the natural world. The television screen in our room becomes a window, as if we’re floating in space travelling over the planet, and he brings the planet into our rooms for us where we can see it and reminds us of what’s out there. If there’s any criticism at all it’s that he makes it all perhaps more beautiful than it really is, because he picks the most wonderful images he can find. But that’s not distortion, those things occur, there are still blue whales out there and there are still mountain gorillas and you can’t blame him for wanting to show how wonderful this planet is. Because the more wonder we have for the planet… and don’t forget urban man is largely cut off from it, the more wonder we have for the planet then the more concerned we’ll be about it when it gets into trouble.
The criticism that David should talk more about the problems rather than showing the beauties of nature, I think is unfair, because if there were no beauties of nature we wouldn’t want to preserve them. <Chuckles> And so what he’s doing is showing us what is worth preserving and it’s up to somebody else, who is not a naturalist, to look at the political issues of planetary decline.
On Jane Goodall and animal behaviour
There were a number of people who were starting to make field studies under the influence of comparative ethology, the naturalistic study of animal behaviour, and who were going out into the field now to tackle some more difficult species. At our Granada film unit in London my wife, one of her tasks was to act as librarian for all the film that we were shooting, and her assistant was a young girl called Jane Goodall. <Chuckles> We hadn’t spotted that Jane was going to become an important … she was just a very attractive young girl who was working as my wife’s assistant in the film library. Then she said, ‘I’m going off to live with chimpanzees in the wild.’ And we said, ‘Well, be careful, they are dangerous, they can be quite dangerous animals,’ but she was fearless and she managed, just by simply living with the chimps in the wild, to make studies, which were later filmed by Van Lawick, and gave us a whole new way of looking at a large, dangerous mammal. Previously most of the behaviour studies had been done with birds and fish and reptiles. Jane was a pioneer with primates and her studies of chimpanzees in the wild started a new era of looking at bigger animals. We then had Dian Fossey with the gorillas and other people studying orangutans and gibbons and pandas. Giant pandas had never been seen in the wild. When my wife and I wrote a book about pandas, we were astonished to find that hardly anybody had ever seen a wild panda, certainly they hadn’t studied them. Now, of course, we have film of them behaving in the wild and we can see their behaviour very clearly as that rare species that fascinates everyone and which is now being studied in terms of its behavioural detail.
So we are moving forward, not just with little animals that are easy to handle, fish and birds and so on, but also with large, dangerous animals that previously people wouldn’t have risked being close to in the wild.
The pioneering work by George Schaller of course, who wrote books about them but didn’t film them, he wasn’t interested in filming, he wrote his books about these animals, and then the next wave was to study them on film.
Filming ‘Zoo Time’ live – with a cobra
In terms of my own television research, it really went in two phases. For 11 years I was on the air every week with Zoo Time and I enjoyed that and it was a great challenge to try and tell people about animal life as it really is and to avoid pitfalls. But it was limited obviously, because even after we had video, we filmed as live, we didn’t edit for the video, that was a rule we had, in order to keep the programme fresh, because most people watched it to see what was going to bite me next week <chuckles> because things would go wrong, and of course when things went wrong, that’s when you started to learn, you could learn from these things.
For example, I wanted to demonstrate… this is one item that I really do remember, I wanted to demonstrate that snake charming was nonsense because snakes are deaf, and so when the snake charmer plays his flute like this and the snake moves its head, it’s responding to the movement of the flute and not to the sound. So I got a snake charmer’s flute and we had a cobra. Now of course, being London Zoo the cobra couldn’t be treated. In the wild of course the poor animals have their venom… either the fangs are blocked or they’re cut out. Anyway, they’re rendered harmless obviously by the people who use them, but the zoo one was lethal and if I had been bitten by it, I’d have been dead within 30 minutes and it’s the most painful 30 minutes you can imagine, so it was quite a nervous moment.
The snake expert said, ‘Well what we’ll do is we’ll bind… without hurting the snake we’ll put some tape around its tail so that when it’s in its basket it rears up, but it won’t be able to actually get out of the basket.’ And so we taped it into the bottom of the snake charmer’s basket and then put the lid on. Now we’re on the air live, or pseudo-live because there’s no editing, and I play my flute like this and the snake moves its head, and then I do the same but without any sound and the snake still moves its head. I have now actually got across one little fact; that is snakes are deaf. And so I’ve got that fact across to people and I’ve also made it clear that snake charming is a load of rubbish. So I was trying, although it was a bit of fun and I’m pretending to be a snake charmer, but beneath the surface I am making a scientific point – I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. And that was fine, I made my point and then I said, ‘Right, that’s it, we can put the lid back on.’ And to my horror at that moment… <chuckles> and I’ll never forget this moment, the snake slithered out of its basket, down onto the floor and made straight for camera number two. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a television cameraman operate his camera from above, he climbed up… it was a big old camera and he climbed up and was sitting on top of it trying to operate it while this deadly cobra was at the base of his camera. It was a scary moment and we had to get in special experts to come in and catch this cobra <chuckles> because it was lethal! And afterwards I said to the snake man, ‘Well, how on earth did that happen?’ And we looked in the bottom of the basket and we had forgotten one thing: the snake had just been about to shed its skin and there was its skin neatly taped in the bottom of the basket. So we learned something ourselves at that point <laughs>. And one of the things that I learnt then was how I should’ve noticed that the eyes of the snake were starting to change, because when the skin is about to shed… you see a snake can’t blink, it doesn’t, it evolved an entirely different kind of eye and there’s a plastic <laughs>, plastic? Er, a transparent cover over its eyes and that is shed. This cobra was just about to shed its skin which it probably did.
So that was a very dangerous moment but it was also… I’m telling the story because it was… what I was always trying to do was to have one scientific fact hidden, as it were, because I wasn’t allowed to do it, I wasn’t allowed to be scientific but I could hide these scientific facts and this way I was educating people gently.
When I cooked an ostrich egg on television, for example, which is the size of 28 hen’s eggs, it looked like a silly thing to do but I ate this and the reason was, I said, ‘Now you understand why, these eggs are so tasty. That’s why the ostrich…’ and then I explained about all the defensive displays and distraction displays and things which the ostrich performs when its eggs are threatened in the wild; if the eggs didn’t taste good it wouldn’t have to go through all these elaborate distraction displays. So I’m then into the defensive nest behaviour of ostriches, through a bit of gimmickry. And I was using gimmicks to tell serious stories in this way.
For example, with the giant tortoise I wanted to show how powerful they are, and so I would be talking about one and I knew that if this tortoise decided to leave and I held onto its shell, it would be strong enough to pull me across the lawn, which it did, and of course everybody was laughing ‘cause I was trying to talk about this giant tortoise while it was dragging me across the lawn. But what I was trying to do was to demonstrate the power in the legs of a giant tortoise, which, if it hadn’t evolved incredibly powerful legs it would never have been able to shift that huge shell around. And so I’m trying to tell people about the muscular strength of a giant tortoise, whilst …fooling around bit.
So it was always a balance, there always had to be an underlying scientific fact. But that was in the Zoo Time days, but I decided after 11 years I’d had enough of it and I went off to live abroad and to pursue my other love, which was painting, and I had a studio and I spent some years … I did a mini Gaugin, in a small island in the Mediterranean <chuckles>.
My second phase in television: The human animal
When I came back I hadn’t intended to go back into television again, I was now writing books, but a producer from the Natural History Unit came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you make a television series about human beings as animals, the zoology of the human being?’ This appealed to me and so I did make a series called The Human Animal as a documentary series. And now I had a big budget I was able to film all over the world and to study human behaviour all over the world, because by this stage I had moved onto human beings. I had started with insects, gone to fish, then to birds, reptiles, mammals, chimpanzees and finally made it to the human species, but as a zoologist, as an ethologist, not as an anthropologist, not as a psychologist or a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst, but as a zoologist looking at the animal behaviour of the human species. This was something that hadn’t been done before, which I think was the television… I did two series, I did The Human Animal and then another series called The Human Sexes in which I looked at differences between male and female, and those were the series that satisfied me most because I was able to bring comparative ethology to the study of the human animal, and that was, for me, very exciting because people hadn’t really… we were always interviewing people and talking to people and so on, I just wanted to watch them. In the seventies I started the study of what is now called body language. I made a special programme called The Man Watcher for BBC and I was trying to show you that if you listen to people you can hear them lying; if you watch people you can see the truth.
Inventing body language
One of the things that was important to me was to watch people’s behaviour rather than to listen to their talk or interviewing them. I’d always been a watcher of animals and you can’t talk to animals, so I thought if I used the same process with human beings, let’s see what happens. So instead of doing what many other students of human behaviour do, the psychiatrists and the psychoanalysts and psychologists, I decided to simply become a watcher of human behaviour and not to interview people, not to talk to them, not to listen to them, but to see with my eyes what they were doing. Because it seemed to me that very often when you talk to people… there’s an old story, an anthropologist goes out and asks a question and the tribesman thinks, ‘What will please the anthropologist most?’ and gives him an answer that he thinks will please him, and the next day he may give a quite different answer because he’s forgotten what he said the day before. But, if you watch what people do, then you see the truth, and I started to make a study which eventually led to a large book I wrote on body language.
Now today body language is an accepted term but in those days it didn’t really exist and I wanted to look at body postures, at expressions, at gestures, movements and I wanted to see how people communicated with one another. And so this was the new thing that I was introducing and I wanted to make a series, which I mentioned earlier was called The Human Animal, in which I looked at people the same way that I would have looked at a monkey or a mongoose. That’s what made it different, and sometimes startlingly different because by using this observational method it focussed on a different aspect of human behaviour; it took you away from the sort of philosophies of life into the behavioural actions of life.
I even started on an Encyclopaedia of Human Actions. I’m still working on it today, <chuckles> 45 years later. But what I was trying to do was to record, as I did with a fish or a bird, every human action. I wanted to know how many actions the human being performed. I’m not talking now about operating machinery; I’m just talking about communicative body language, the way in which I might do this or this or this [motions with hands], you know, the gestural and postural language of human beings. And I studied this all around the world, I travelled to over a hundred different countries looking at this and recording, wherever I could, the subtle differences in body language that occur from culture-to-culture. I filmed a lot, I spent a lot of time working with Japanese television where I made a series for Japanese… it hasn’t been shown in this country, it was shown in Japan, at me looking at the body language of the Japanese, which is remarkably different from ours and wonderfully subtle and complex. This was, to me, the most exciting television work that I did.
Putting environmental issues on television
One of the biggest problems we face today is how can you make a subject as depressing as extinction of animals and the destruction of the environment into something which is going to entertain people? <Chuckles> It’s a kind of contradiction, it is such a sad story, what’s happening to the planet, that it is very hard to make this into television entertainment. People will just simply switch off. If you show them… I mean I’ve been myself deeply depressed when I see the oceans, you’re right out in the middle of an ocean somewhere on a ship and you look over the side and you see plastic bags floating past. It’s very difficult to make that into a bit of fun <chuckles>, into television fun. The fact is that the destruction of the planet is progressing at such a rate that it is very hard to find a way of putting that across which isn’t so depressing that people switch off.
I think what one has to do in this case is to find stories where the process is being reversed, maybe in a very small way, but where you can find the process of destruction being reversed in some small way by some small effort somewhere, that’s the only way you can turn it into an entertaining story that people will listen to.
Can you separate humans from the natural world?
One of the important questions that we have to answer is how are human beings going to fit into the natural world of the future on this planet? One of the things that always distressed me is the idea that somehow human beings are separate from the natural world. Many religions have this attitude that we are somehow sacred. I once said that I don’t see human beings as fallen angels but as risen apes, and I believe that unless we can look at human behaviour as part of natural behaviour, that we are a serious risk. If we don’t control our population growth, if we don’t accept that there are limited resources on this planet, then we’re likely to destroy it. Now, this is a grim sort of message and one has to find some way of presenting this on television which isn’t too doom-laden, but it’s not easy.
Using the natural history archives for the future
One of the sad things about the archive of natural history programmes is that an awful lot of it was thrown away. People seem to think that there’s a perfect archive going right the way back. There isn’t. I made a series called Life in the Animal World. They were one-hour programmes and they included some of the top brains of the period, top scientists, discussing their work, and I was horrified to discover that the whole lot was wiped. There were just a few left which one of the producers had kept a few and David Attenborough found them recently and gave them to me, and on it there is, for example, a tribute to Julian Huxley on his 80th birthday, one hour I did, in which all the famous scientists of the day were talking about evolution. So we have saved that, but that was an exception. Most of those early things were thrown away. It was just too difficult to keep all that stuff in those days. We didn’t have the … today you can keep it on a tiny little memory stick or something, but in those days it was great cans of film. I was offered a million feet of film of animal behaviour by Granada when they shut down the unit and I hadn’t got anywhere to put it, so I don’t know … it probably was all thrown away. Because it was mountains of cans of film. So one mustn’t imagine that the early archives are as good as you might think. However, the later archives, now of course we have perfect methods of keeping things in very small form, and what I think would be very interesting would be to produce an archive on computers whereby I could put in the name of any species and up would come film of its natural history. It should be possible to make a sort of encyclopaedia of animal behaviour available, classified both … when my wife was running the film library at Granada she had two methods. One was behaviour: nesting, feeding, fighting, cleaning and so on; and species. And it was cross-indexed, and that’s what we need. And if we had that sort of cross-index, whereby I could look up the nesting behaviour of any bird or everything about the red-footed booby <chuckles>, and in that way you have a species or behaviour subject, and that archive could be produced in such a way that it would be available like going to a library and picking out an encyclopaedia and it would all be there and the archival material could be presented, ideally, free of charge on television so anyone can find out anything about any species that’s ever been filmed. That would be wonderful if that could happen. And I can’t see that that’s impossible, because today the storage systems are so much more convenient.
An archive of human behaviour
The point is that we don’t have information on every species and if one had an archive available online of all the different species’ behaviour, then it would be possible to build that and go on building it until we had a complete record. But equally important I think is to look at human behaviour too, to have an archive of human behaviour, because what we seem to be incapable of doing as a human species is shedding our past. We still live in the past in many ways, we still allow superstitions from the past to dominate our lives, and an understanding of what is still being done in the name of outmoded, outdated superstitions is something that is very important.
I made a study of the distribution of female circumcision for example, and here is a pattern of behaviour which is based purely on old superstitions, has no medical value, it has no value of any kind; it is an appalling act of violence performed on small girls, and yet there are ten million women alive today who’ve had female circumcision performed upon them, and so what is … and that’s just one example, but there all kinds of things like that that need to be looked at, to understand how it is that these old patterns of behaviour are still surviving in a modern, scientific age.
Has natural history television adequately reflected the decline in the natural world?
Television has a duty, I think, to keep us up-to-date on what’s happening to the natural world. The trouble is that it’s not always good news <laughs>; in fact it’s usually bad news. Very few cases where things are improving, nearly always there’s destruction. I was in Borneo, a little train, railway train that still runs through Borneo, and I was looking out at the environment as I went past and one of the locals said to me, ‘Look, look. You see that area? We’ve flattened all the forest there! Isn’t that wonderful?’ And they were so proud of the fact that they’d destroyed a complete forest! <Chuckles> And I said, ‘Well, actually you’re destroying your forest,’ and he said, ‘Yes, but you did that in Europe, didn’t you? And look at Europe. Europe’s successful now because you’ve destroyed all your forests.’ So what can you say to that? And the fact is that we did of course destroy all the European forests and made Europe, and now they’re very proud to be doing this, and I thought to myself, well, somebody should actually make a film about just how much has been lost and include the European forests too. Look at the loss of forests that’s changing the climate; look at the loss of wildlife which is occurring as we sit here today. It’s still going on.
I remember taking my small son to Africa to go on safari and I thought he’s a bit young for this, he was only about eight I think at the time, but I daren’t leave it because I want him to see it … and he’s now in his forties, when he was eight he went across Africa with me and saw huge herds of animals, and today there are probably only about 10% of that population is left. It’s not just 2% lost, it’s 80% lost of many of these large animals, and I’m just thrilled that I saw it when I did and I’m pleased he saw it when he did, but the sad thing is that … if you make a programme about that, it’s so depressing that people simply switch over to the other channel, and you have to find a way of making a programme about the loss of habitat interesting without being too depressing … but it’s almost impossible.
Are we humans capable of responding to the crisis we have created?
One of our problems is that the human character was formed over about a million years when we lived in small tribes, and during that time, when we were hunter-gatherers, that was really when the human personality was created and we’re still, inside our skulls, we’re still tribal hunters. That’s why sport is so popular, because we don’t hunt animals anymore, we now hunt goals, and millions of people sit down every week and are glued to their television sets or in the football stadia of the world watching men kick a ball about, and I wrote a whole book about this because I was so fascinated by the passions that a simple game like that can arouse. And it occurred to me that of course this is simply the hunting ritual converted into a metaphorical form: scoring the goal is killing the prey, which will keep the tribe alive. Otherwise, why would men weep over the scoring of a goal? <Laughs> Grown men are cheering and shouting and weeping and it’s because we had to have some replacement for the loss of the hunting ritual and sport, international sport, has become one of those substitutes.
The human being hasn’t really had time to evolve into a new species since those tribal days, and so we still have to look at ourselves as tribal animals living in super-tribes, and that means that we’re not really adapted to contemplating super-tribal issues. We tolerate the super-tribe, but in our hearts we’re still tribesmen and it may be that we’re a tribesman who follows Manchester United rather than a tribesman who goes out killing antelope, but essentially we have that tribal mentality, and that means that when it comes to the bigger issues we’re not really equipped to deal with them. We’re more concerned with what’s going to happen next week than we are about what’s going to happen next century, and I’m afraid that it’s very difficult to get people to worry about what happens next century.
What was your contribution to natural history television?
In the early days of television my only contribution I think then was to try and get people to see animals as they really are and to understand their behaviour. If a robin in the garden has a red breast, I want to know what that red is doing to help that robin survive; what is the significance of that red patch on its chest? And I would try to explain that to people. If a particular animal has a courtship dance which is very elaborate, how did that evolve? These are the sort of questions I was asking and I was trying, in my early programmes, to get rid of distorted anthropomorphic approaches to animals and to show animals as they really are, and that I tried to achieve in my early work.
In my later television work it was my goal to show human behaviour as animal behaviour. The human species, we are animals, we’re not angels, and our behaviour has about it a number of qualities which are inborn. There was, when I first started work on human behaviour, the feeling that we were a tabula rasa, a blank canvas on which anything could be painted. I argued, no, no species would give up the genetic inheritance that it acquired over millions of years, it would be very stupid to do so, and that what we have in our brains, a number of, not genetic rules or instructions, what we have are genetic suggestions. Because obviously a nun can go through life without any reproductive behaviour, so even though reproductive behaviour is very basic to our species, it is possible to have an entire life and ignore reproductive behaviour, as a nun does. So we are flexible and she’s ignored the suggestion, which is that one should engage in sexual behaviour and reproduce. And so they are only genetic suggestions but they are there, and to suggest that there’s nothing there, that we learn everything, is nonsensical because no species would come into the world like that.
We have this set of suggestions which tend to make us behave in certain ways. We have a powerful genetic suggestion telling us to cooperate with one another, which is overlooked because we always stress competition, which leads to violence, and that’s the part that frightens us. But we are also an incredibly helpful species; if we hadn’t been incredibly cooperate as a species and hadn’t had cooperation built into us by nature, we would never have survived, we couldn’t have survived; and that cooperation has to be balanced by competition. There has to be a perfect balance between competition and cooperation and if it goes too far one way we’re in trouble. That balance is a suggestion which we have genetically, and those of us who follow these genetic suggestions and who balance our cooperation with competition and vice versa are the ones who are most fulfilled in our lives. And also we have a very powerful urge to explore and to invent and to have a high level of curiosity and to always be inquisitive and investigating everything around us, and that is what has made us great because it has led to all our inventions. And if someone looks at the human being as an animal, as I have done, you start to see what kind of an animal it is.
The ‘Naked Ape’
The human animal has, built into his skull, these patterns of behaviour which, the closer he follows them, as I say, the more fulfilled his life will be. And that was something that I wanted to try and get across. When I wrote The Naked Ape in ’67 it was very unpopular. Everybody then was saying, ‘Oh no, no, no we’ve got no inborn qualities at all.’ I thought this is ridiculous, as a zoologist I can’t accept that, it’s just biologically unsound to imagine that we don’t have some genetic patterns and behaviour inside our minds. It’s like saying, ‘Oh we learn to fall in love.’ No we don’t, falling in love is a behaviour pattern which you see in many species of animals. I have studied it in birds in great detail and the courtship patterns and the behaviour patterns in which a male and female bird get together to form a pair is extremely complicated and fascinating to study. And it’s the same with human beings; we actually form pairs, like birds, because we have a heavy parental burden. Birds need to fall in love and make pair formation processes because they can’t look after the eggs without the mate being there to help them; they have to have a pair to survive and to rear their young. And we’re the same. We have a tremendously heavy burden, we have a bigger parental burden probably than any other mammal, and we need to have pair bonds to create family units. That is built into us. Now of course it gets disrupted by all kinds of social pressures, but people will always go on falling in love despite what pressures are put upon them, because that is built into their character. And there are a whole series of behaviour patterns which are built into us and which are part of our nature, and that was really the message that I was getting across in The Naked Ape and in my later television programmes about The Human Animal, and which were very unpopular with some psychologists because they couldn’t see… they couldn’t understand the biology of the human species.
What television programme would you like to make?
If I were going to make a new television series now, I’m too old to do it now at 88, but if I were younger what I would love to do would be to take particular patterns of behaviour that all human beings go through and show them in say 10 or 20 different cultures around the world to see… because one of the things that struck me is that no matter how many cultural variations there are, and there’s this wonderful cultural diversity of our planet, but in the 107 countries I’ve visited I’ve always found that when you see a mother with her toddler, her facial expression is the same the world over. When she sees the little toddler coming running towards her looking excited, the mother’s face will be the same regardless of which culture she comes from. And what I found as I went round the world was that although there are hundreds of gestural differences, so that we might do that [motions thumb down] and another culture would do that [motions palm towards him, little finger pointing in the air], in Bali that [motions little finger pointing in the air again] is that [motions thumbs down] <chuckles>, so everywhere I went I was watching out for these little differences, there are hundreds of these tiny gestural differences. However, when we’re angry we all shake a fist <chuckles> so that there are basic similarities and cultural variations, and what I would love to do would be to study those all over the globe in every culture on the planet, that would be my lifelong pursuit, if I could live to a thousand years.
The future of Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?
There are dark days when I am a pessimist and then there are brighter days when I’m an optimist. On a very dark day I described humanity as the mould on a rotting planet. You think of an orange, a nice bright orange and then how it goes mouldy and you think of our planet going mouldy, and the biggest mould on the planet is humanity because we are covering the whole surface of the globe. We started out with just a few people and now today there are millions and millions of us. One of the most extraordinary things I find is that in my own lifetime… when I was born there were two-thousand-million people on the planet, today there are over seven-thousand-million people. That is, in my own lifetime the human population has more than tripled and it’s going to go on like this, so that it will increase… and let’s get this straight, it isn’t a graph like that [draws a line graph in air increasing over time], it’s a graph like that [draws a line graph in the air with a steep rise, very quickly]; it gets faster and faster as it goes on. And this increase is showing absolutely no signs of abating.
Now, the biology of this should be investigated, nobody seems to have done this. I want to see a programme which looks at the way in which other species control their populations, and then look at how we control ours. Now, something I must mention called The Bruce Effect, invented by a scientist called Hilda Bruce. She discovered the most amazing thing; I was with her actually at the time and I’ll never forget it. She discovered that with the house mouse, if it becomes overcrowded, so that there are stranger males floating around, the odour of a stranger male mouse has an effect on a pregnant female mouse, she reabsorbs her embryos; the embryos go into reverse and disappear. And in that way you’ll never get house mice overcrowding, ever, because the moment they get overcrowded the females reabsorb their embryos.
Now, look at the fox. Fox hunters will tell you that if it wasn’t for them the place would be covered in foxes! It’s not true because there were foxes here thousands of years before fox hunters came and they’ve always controlled their population very simply. If foxes become overcrowded then all but a few of the vixens cease coming onto heat, so the reproduction rate goes right down.
Now, if you look at all the different species of animals you’ll find they’ve all got some sort of mechanism for controlling their population, because of course if they don’t then they destroy themselves. A species has to have some mechanism which stops them from destroying their environment. And there’s only one species that hasn’t got this mechanism; guess which species that is? It’s us. We don’t seem to have that mechanism. Nothing seems to stop us. We are a tribal species; we evolved over a million years in small tribes, maybe 80, 100, 120 people, that was it. And indeed today we still only have a small tribe, it’s just that they’re interlocked with about 10 million other tribes <chuckles>. Because if you look in your phone book you’ll find about 80-to-100/120 names, that’s your tribe and that tribe will be interlocked in a great city with all the others. We’re not like ants; we’re like tribesmen who have, through extraordinary flexibility and ingenuity, managed to keep our tribal lives, our friends, our relatives, our colleagues, that little group that we know, and all the other people we walk past in the street, they’re non-people, they’re non-persons, we walk past people, we don’t say, ‘Hello, hello, hello’ as we go down the street. If you go to a small tribe like the Dogon in Africa, a very small tribe, every time they meet another one they say, ‘Hello, hello’ and they greet one another and have a long greeting. But of course if we walked down the street saying hello to everybody life would be impossible, so, of the ten million people in a big city, all but 120 or 130 of them are non-people and our little tribe is somewhere in there intermeshed with all the other hundreds of tribes. With this incredible ingenuity and flexibility the human species has enabled itself, as a tribal animal, to live in super-tribes of ten/fifteen million people. No other species could do this, we are extraordinary the way we have done this, and that is what has enabled us, along with all the other stories of agricultural food storage etc. all those things have created a situation in which this tribal animal has become super-tribal and has come to cover the whole surface of the planet practically.
Now, we’ve still got a lot of forests and deserts that are unpopulated and that we can move into, but if we go on at the present rate of population increase, the time will come when every square inch of the earth will be covered by humanity and we will become a mould on a rotting planet. Of course the time will come… and there’s no sign, I should say, of any reduction in population increase. Population Concern and other organisations that are putting out information about this and saying we should stop this increase in population – sex is so basic, so powerful, so emotional that people breed, and it’s a right of the human being, we don’t have to have a breeding permit… yet! <Chuckles> And so the result is that in parts of Africa, for example, the doubling time for a population is 19 years and in other parts of the world it’s longer, but that’s about the worst I think. But it is a population increase that will eventually destroy us.
Now, what will happen is that we will eventually eliminate all forms of life except for ourselves. There was a wonderful science fiction film, 1973, called Soylent Green. Soylent Green was a brilliant story because Soylent Company, which is a big government company, is making little green wafers, quite tasty green wafers which are nutritionally balanced, so all you have to have, you eat these green wafers and you get a complete diet. What is not known by the general public is that the source of these green wafers are human corpses. When people die their bodies are sent to the Soylent factory where they are turned into these tasty little green wafers. And so recycling ourselves because there’s nothing else left, all the animals are gone so all we’ve got left is our own bodies and we’re recycling ourselves. Terrifying science fiction story, but of course, the time will come when we will have eliminated most of the natural resources of this planet and will be relying on… our food supply will only be two sorts, it will be reproduced human excrement and human corpses, and that’s all we’ll have left <chuckles> because we’ll have eliminated everything else. I’m talking now maybe several thousand years ahead.
That’s the picture I have on my dark, gloomy days of pessimism.
My moments of hope
I also have optimistic days, and there’s a special reason for this: our species is the most inventive, innovative species on the planet. We are ingenious. One of our strongest characteristics is our playful curiosity. We retain this throughout life, other animals lose it, they have it in childhood and then they lose it. Young chimpanzees are incredibly curious and investigative and so on, but they tend to lose it later on in life. Human beings remain childlike throughout their whole lives. The essence of human behaviour, the core of what it is to be human is to have a high level of curiosity and playful curiosity in which we try out new things. Now, everything from the invention of the wheel, the motorcar, the space rocket, all these things, the computer, we can never predict what’s going to happen. I mean I’ve seen, in my own lifetime, television: there was no television when I was a child. No computers of course, and these things change lives.
Now, there is one big change that we need and that is to develop an antigravity machine and that will be the next major thing, it will be as important as the wheel or the motor, and people are working now, I believe, on antigravity. Because gravity is the most mysterious process on the planet. Why don’t I float off, when I go out of the doors why don’t I float off; there’s no iron in my body and yet I stay stuck on the planet. People take this, ‘Oh, well, of course it’s gravity.’ But why? Why should a large object attract a small one, why should the earth attract me, why don’t I float off into space? It doesn’t make any sense to me. And that’s the childlike question in me. I still have that. I, like most people, have this childlike questioning: what is gravity? I don’t understand gravity. And so once we’ve solved that problem and we can produce antigravity machines so that we’re not stuck on the planet’s surface but can get up into the air without any trouble, that will help enormously to change the structure of society and to get away from the nightmare of cities becoming bigger and bigger until they clog up.
So when I’m in my optimistic mood what I’m seeing… and I’d like to have some of this put on television if possible, what we should be doing on television now, alongside worrying about the destruction of the environment, is looking at how human curiosity could change the structure of life on the planet. I think we are sufficiently intelligent, sufficiently inventive, in the future, to face the challenge that we now have, the challenge of destroying the planet. When I was young, nobody thought about this. There was not the slightest thought about damaging the planet. And today at least people are aware of the problem, but in order to make it palatable in terms of communicating on television, it must be more than just a gloom and doom story, so I would like to spice it up with some investigation into possible new developments that could improve our lives in ways that we haven’t yet thought about. Now of course it’s easy to say, and if we could do it we’d already be doing it. It must have been impossible for people once upon a time to have thought of metal or the wheel or cooking. These things hadn’t yet happened and as soon as we start cooking some way, cooking is obvious, and wheeled transport is obvious, and once we’ve got it, ‘Well … of course … it’s so obvious.’ But before it happens, we haven’t yet grasped that idea. Now there are ideas out there as basic as the wheel, which are waiting to be discovered, and nobody that I can think of is focussing on that, because it is very difficult because obviously if you can imagine it you’d be doing it. But at least we ought to discuss the possibilities of what could be done; how can we turn our species, which is a high-quality species, away from its trend to become a high-quantity species? Because there are millions of people today living a low-quality life, and this is because of high-quantity reproduction. How we can prevent that I don’t know, but that challenge has to be faced.