There are 200 million insects for each of us. They are the most successful animal group ever. Their key is an armoured covering that takes on almost any shape. Darwin's stag beetle fights in the tree tops with huge curved jaws. The camera flies with millions of monarch butterflies which migrate 2000 miles, navigating by the sun. Super slow motion shows a bombardier beetle firing boiling liquid at enemies through a rotating nozzle. A honey bee army stings a raiding bear into submission. Grass cutter ants march like a Roman army, harvesting grass they cannot actually eat. They cultivate a fungus that breaks the grass down for them. Their giant colony is the closest thing in nature to the complexity of a human city.
The second episode of Andrew Marr's exploration of Darwin explores the impact of Darwin’s ideas on society and politics. Darwin’s first port of call on the Beagle was Salvador in Brazil – then a major port for the international slave trade. His experience there confirmed his enlightenment views of liberty and progress and his hatred of slavery. But his theory of evolution that began to take root on that epic voyage would describe a world of conflict, ruthless competition and struggle. It would be taken up and abused by some of the most reactionary movements of the late-19th and 20th centuries. The phrase “survival of the fittest” would help propel Darwin’s theory as a scientific justification for eugenics, enforced sterilisation and genocide. But after the Second World War, Darwin’s theory finds redemption in the United Nations statement on race which confirms Darwin’s long-held view that all humans are members of the same race and deserving of equal treatment. This is further reinforced in the extraordinary work of a small Jewish community in New York who used DNA testing and a voluntary and anonymous form of selective breeding to eliminate a debilitating disease from the Jewish community. DNA testing is the final frontier of Darwin’s Dangerous idea. But the lessons from history suggest that the new choices we face about what to do with the knowledge Darwin has given us when combined with genetics and DNA testing remains a major social and political challenge.
Making of David Attenborough’s Galapagos, which is aired first, offers an unrivalled and actually far more interesting view of the dramas that went into capturing all that footage. The way all the shots have been so calmly edited together makes the process look so effortless, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are broken helicopters and broken camera cables that threaten the whole enterprise and the grunting of mating tortoises that threaten to drown out Attenborough’s pieces to camera. This making of programme also includes the discovery of a previously unknown species of pink iguana, as well as the final television appearance of the last-remaining member of another species – the iconic long-necked tortoise known as Lonesome George. “He’s about 80 years old and he’s getting a bit creaky in his joints,” whispers Attenborough. “As indeed am I.”
This episode continues the study of mammals, and particularly those whose young gestate inside their bodies. Attenborough asks why these have become so varied and tries to discover the common theme that links them. Examples of primitive mammals that are still alive today include the treeshrew, the desman and the star-nosed mole. Insect eaters vary enormously from the aardvark, giant anteater and pangolin to those to which much of this programme is devoted: the bats, of which there are nearly 1,000 different species. These took to flying at night, and its possible that they evolved from treeshrews that jumped from tree to tree, in much the same way as a flying squirrel.