Last night at 21:30, the ABC ran this hour long program called Elders, where Andrew Denton interviews people past the age of retirement. In the opening episode Denton was interviewing the 82 year old David Attenborough, and since Attenborough is one of those few select people I actually look up to we’ve made an exception and watched a TV program off the air for a change.
I’m glad I stayed up to watch the interview despite being a bit sick. Indeed, Attenborough the person is just as fascinating as the subjects of his numerous documentaries.
The thing I have found remarkable is just how similar his opinions and views were similar to mine. Obviously, our personal histories are quite significantly different, but that does not seem to have an effect on the way we both see the world around us. I don’t find this to be the biggest coincidence ever, though: Attenborough is one of the people that have educated me to become the person I am today.
There was one answer Attenborough gave with which I disagree. Asked about the meaning of life, his answer was that perhaps we will never know what that is; coming from a major natural historian such as Attenborough I find such an answer rather confusing, the type of material that will end up being used as ammo by your average creationist. Of course we know what the meaning of life is: We, as in all living beings, are all here to make more of ourselves. It doesn't really matter whether this is for the benefit of our genes (the current prevailing theory) or for the benefit of the species, but it is still as simple as that!
The thing about us, humans, is that we outgrew our original purpose: I don’t know anyone whose major focus in life is replication, although all the parents I know are making significant efforts to ensure their kids do the best they can.
With us, humans, the meaning of life is the meaning we give it ourselves. For some it could be taking care of a relative, for others it may be poetry, space exploration, getting to know the world around them in general, saving the planet, having satisfying relationships with their partners – the world is just full of potential meanings and all we need to do is pick some up.
While it is easy to pick on our disagreements, it would probably be much more representative of the interview for me to highlight some of the agreements.
Both Attenborough and I are of the opinion there are too many of us humans around, and that overpopulation is the major cause of issues facing our world. We also both agree that Western society’s views and approaches to the matter of death are rather stupid; Attenborough points out that these views are not childish, because children’s clean slates mean that they actually view death with open eyes whereas we hide it in the corner and pretend it’s not there. Interestingly, for the both of us the main worry about death is not dying itself (although we would both like it to be quick and I’m certainly in no hurry to get there), but rather the legacy we leave behind – both the headaches we will be leaving our families and friends as well as our impact on the environment in general.
We also both agree that we people need to stand for what is important even if by doing so we accumulate enemies; I strongly suspect that I have upset all my friends, to one extent or another, with this blog of mine.
But by far our biggest agreement is in our rationalism, the way we both approach the world through evidence based rationality. The point was repeatedly made during the interview, with Denton asking way too many religion / afterlife questions that got him rather repetitive answers from Attenborough (I’m assuming Denton went along these lines to cater for the majority of viewers who are religious and to whom hearing such answers as Attenborough’s would sound rather peculiar).
Attenborough’s answers concerning religion were pretty straight forward. After life? No evidence. Religious views? Different people around the world have different religions saying contradicting stuff, yet all the evidence gathered all over the world all leads to one objective truth (namely evolution, in the case of us living beings).
Denton countered him with the regular religious line, “but this is how god meant the world to be like”. Attenborough’s answer to this intelligent design like view was pretty straight forward, too: If that is indeed god’s design, then please do not focus on the lovely stuff like the humming bird; pay attention to the African child that has a worm eating through his eye until he goes blind, and ask yourself what type of god would come up with such a design. Not a merciful one, at least not by my book or Attenborough’s.
Actually, that eye eating worm is the reason why I wrote this post in the first place. You see, my main conclusion after being a parent for almost a year now is that life is just plain hard. I’m not talking about my lack of sleep as a parent, the eternal race to pay the bills and repay the mortgage, or the effort you make running around your baby all the time. I am talking about all the hardships Dylan has had to combat since he was born, and to be more accurate – since he was conceived.
Placenta issues in the womb, tangled up piping, the hardness of taking breaths in the early days, the stomach’s limited but gradually improving ability to digest, constant germ attacks, and ongoing ear wars: We live in a world that is tight on resources and where everybody and everything, from human beings to viruses that are virtually just complicated molecules, fight it out with one another in a struggle to survive. You certainly learn to appreciate this fight as a parent when you see the weakling baby's struggles; what you certainly don't see is any evidence of intellegent design (where is the baby born with built in grommets?).
Someone who manages to survive this struggle for 82 years and hopefully more while generating as fine an output as David Attenborough certainly deserves praise.