Life on the Discovery Channel

| 66 Comments

Last night, I watched the the first two episodes of the series Life on the Discovery Channel. Although it had some fascinating footage (who knew that Komodo dragons were poisonous?), I thought the program as a whole was episodic and unfocused – more like a travelogue than a science program. Still, it was a pleasure to hear narrator Oprah Winfrey refer to evolution and geologic time as the uncontroversial facts that they are. The series is on every Sunday night through April 18, and I will probably try to catch most of it.

66 Comments

Dude, no worries on missing an episode. They’ll only play it 2,456 times in the next month : )

I watched the UK version on blu-ray…having David Attenborough narrate was like having icing and a cherry on top.

I’ll be a nerd and point out that Komomdo Dragons aren’t poisonous - they’re venomous ;)

There’s a nice post about these lizards and their venom over at Ed Yong’s blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science: Venomous Komodo Dragons kills prey with wound-and-poison tactics

Komodos are not precisely poisonous themselves - it’s just that their saliva is a congenial home for some of the nastiest bacilli you ever want to meet. This is a symbiotic relationship, more or less. The lizards - they’re the world’s largest species of lizard - benefit from the fact that anything they bite, more or less, develops galloping gangrene. The bacilli have a home, and a congenial (to them) environment, plus spreading potential.

And now I read the article, and I’m wrong, and everything I thought was incorrect. Curse you, advancing science! Why are there no immutable truths?

That’s a brilliant bit of science journalism from Ed Yong:

Dave Luckett said:

And now I read the article, and I’m wrong, and everything I thought was incorrect. Curse you, advancing science! Why are there no immutable truths?

Had exactly the same reaction as soon as I finished reading it. But that’s why science succeeds.

Incidentally the lead scientist in the scientific paper Yong refers to, Brian Fry, is the same Australian scientist who has made some other important discoveries with regards to the evolutionary history of snake venom, and providing more molecular evidence demonstrating the close phylogenetic kinship between snakes and their monitor lizard relatives.

I’ll be a nerd and point out that Komomdo Dragons aren’t poisonous - they’re venomous

Yes, I should have said venomous, though as Mr. Luckett points out that’s not exactly right either. I don’t remember exactly what the narration said. As for your being a nerd, I think “editor” is the preferred term.

That was one of my favourite stories from last year. It busted a a piece of established wisdom, it made a cool predator even cooler, and the methods involved shoving a terminally ill Komodo dragon into an MRI scanner. Posts like that pretty much write themselves.

Plus, as has been pointed out, Bryan Fry is a total legend.

Glad folks are enjoying the post

If you keep this up, you might be giving Carl Zimmer some competition (Just kidding of course.). On a more serious note, thanks so much for a splendid piece of science journalism:

Ed Yong said:

That was one of my favourite stories from last year. It busted a a piece of established wisdom, it made a cool predator even cooler, and the methods involved shoving a terminally ill Komodo dragon into an MRI scanner. Posts like that pretty much write themselves.

Plus, as has been pointed out, Bryan Fry is a total legend.

Glad folks are enjoying the post

The second show, concerning reptiles and amphibians, had a scene with a Basilisk(sp?) lizard on a branch, then a shot of a large flying bird, “a raptor”, implying that the bird could attack the lizard. Actually, the bird was a Turkey Vulture, and that species generally does not prey on living creatures. If the lizard was squashed on a neaby road, then perhaps; but a Turkey Vulture likely would not swoop down and snatch a lizard off of a branch overhanging a river. The photography for the series is excellent, but the information presented seems pretty shallow so far. Dumbed down for average viewers? I don’t think Oprah is a good choice for the narrator, when has she ever had a real competency in the subject matter?

The original narrator was Richard Attenborough. It’s too bad the USA distributor opted to use Oprah instead:

James B said:

The second show, concerning reptiles and amphibians, had a scene with a Basilisk(sp?) lizard on a branch, then a shot of a large flying bird, “a raptor”, implying that the bird could attack the lizard. Actually, the bird was a Turkey Vulture, and that species generally does not prey on living creatures. If the lizard was squashed on a neaby road, then perhaps; but a Turkey Vulture likely would not swoop down and snatch a lizard off of a branch overhanging a river. The photography for the series is excellent, but the information presented seems pretty shallow so far. Dumbed down for average viewers? I don’t think Oprah is a good choice for the narrator, when has she ever had a real competency in the subject matter?

Sorry about that, I got the two Attenboroughs confused. I meant actor Richard Attenborough’s brother, David, who is often the voice of documentaries produced by the BBC Natural History Unit (as well as having written and produced many of them himself). I believe he wrote and produced the current Life series which Oprah Winfrey is narrating for the Discovery Channel:

John Kwok said:

The original narrator was Richard Attenborough. It’s too bad the USA distributor opted to use Oprah instead:

James B said:

The second show, concerning reptiles and amphibians, had a scene with a Basilisk(sp?) lizard on a branch, then a shot of a large flying bird, “a raptor”, implying that the bird could attack the lizard. Actually, the bird was a Turkey Vulture, and that species generally does not prey on living creatures. If the lizard was squashed on a neaby road, then perhaps; but a Turkey Vulture likely would not swoop down and snatch a lizard off of a branch overhanging a river. The photography for the series is excellent, but the information presented seems pretty shallow so far. Dumbed down for average viewers? I don’t think Oprah is a good choice for the narrator, when has she ever had a real competency in the subject matter?

John Kwok said:

The original narrator was Richard Attenborough. It’s too bad the USA distributor opted to use Oprah instead:

I have to disagree. After all, Oprah brings a demographic that doesn’t often tune in to the DC. As was already pointed out, evolutionary history and geologic time were treated as incontrovertible facts. Oprah’s implied agreement with the same may make a small impression on viewers who tune in because their hero is narrating.

Plus, irregardless of her initial competency in these areas, one would hope that narrating this series will make an impact on Oprah herself; in the future she may be be more critical of guests on her show who peddle anti-science.

In short, why not gain a powerful ally with a broader audience than would normally be reached?

David Attenborough has a wonderful voice, which does an exceptional job in conveying the wonders of nature, if anyone who has seen his narrated documentaries can attest. As for Oprah, I’m not certain whether narrating this series for an American audience will have the desired effect that you suggest. Indeed, judging from her past experience, I strongly doubt it:

Jersey Jim said:

John Kwok said:

The original narrator was Richard Attenborough. It’s too bad the USA distributor opted to use Oprah instead:

I have to disagree. After all, Oprah brings a demographic that doesn’t often tune in to the DC. As was already pointed out, evolutionary history and geologic time were treated as incontrovertible facts. Oprah’s implied agreement with the same may make a small impression on viewers who tune in because their hero is narrating.

Plus, irregardless of her initial competency in these areas, one would hope that narrating this series will make an impact on Oprah herself; in the future she may be be more critical of guests on her show who peddle anti-science.

In short, why not gain a powerful ally with a broader audience than would normally be reached?

Well, as expected Mr Ham doesn’t like it at all:

http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/b[…]-man/#review

No doubt adults and children will be attracted to such a spectacularly filmed series—but at the same time, it is a dangerousprogram as such a well known USA media personality, through her narration, will indoctrinate you and your children in evolution … and that nature is god

You have been warned !

Just a minor quibble, James. I noted the same thing you did, but I believe I saw some paler color in the outer primaries, so I was thinking Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture.

And although we know the thing wasn’t going to grab a living Basilisk – does the Basilisk know the difference?

James B said:

The second show, concerning reptiles and amphibians, had a scene with a Basilisk(sp?) lizard on a branch, then a shot of a large flying bird, “a raptor”, implying that the bird could attack the lizard. Actually, the bird was a Turkey Vulture, and that species generally does not prey on living creatures. If the lizard was squashed on a neaby road, then perhaps; but a Turkey Vulture likely would not swoop down and snatch a lizard off of a branch overhanging a river. The photography for the series is excellent, but the information presented seems pretty shallow so far. Dumbed down for average viewers? I don’t think Oprah is a good choice for the narrator, when has she ever had a real competency in the subject matter?

Beware: Oprah is Dangerous

It’s nice to know that Oprah is willing to at least appear to accept evolution (with the appropriate financial inducement, of course). But that comes no where close to compensating for the fact that she promotes dangerous medical quackery on her program. See “Proof that Oprah Winfrey is utterly beyond redemption…” (http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2[…]rly_beyo.php).

Peter Henderson said:

Well, as expected Mr Ham doesn’t like it at all:

http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/b[…]-man/#review

No doubt adults and children will be attracted to such a spectacularly filmed series—but at the same time, it is a dangerousprogram as such a well known USA media personality, through her narration, will indoctrinate you and your children in evolution … and that nature is god

You have been warned !

Sweet Jesus! I’m with Ken Ham here!

Can you just imagine it if little children watched this and got it into their impressionable little heads that nature was full of endless wonder and marvel and beauty!

What a fiasco!

Some of them could even want to be… park rangers and zookeepers and… and… oceanographers.

Jersey Jim said: irregardless

and you said it just to piss me off, didn’t you, JJ. ;-}

John Kwok said:

I meant actor Richard Attenborough’s brother, David

Whoa, whoa… they’re brothers?!

Huh, I just googled it and it’s true! How did I not know this until now?

Richard’s probably at least as well known as a director now. Apropos of nothing, I just last year saw his fine early performance as a baby-faced psycho gangster in the 1947 British thriller Brighton Rock, from the Graham Greene novel. Well worth your time if you can find it somewhere.

To be on topic for a moment, I’m also skeptical of Winfrey’s involvement and have my doubts about whether it will affect her anti-scientific tendencies. Presumably they’ll release it on DVD with the (David) Attenborough narration intact, as with Planet Earth.

Does Oprah know what she is talking about? Should she be a influence on origin issues? If creationim gets some science celebrity should that influence viewers too? Oprah used her influence to get President Obama elected. By the reasoning here that would make that a right idea!!

David Attenborough is my hero! I can’t get enough of those BBC nature series where he goes on location all over the world to some pretty unlikely places and narrates on the spot. Even if they have to put him in a harness and haul him up by crane to top of the South American jungle, or he gets lunged at by an elephant seal twice his size. I’m pretty sure there’s a bit in a documentary about animal life in the Antarctic where there’s an aerial shot of an unbroken expanse of snow – but wait! There’s a speck down there, just one black spot in the midst of vast and endless white desolation – and it’s moving! The helicopter zooms down – and it’s David in a parka trudging along and lecturing about penguins! (This is from memory, so don’t take it too literally, but I seem to recall some scene like that.) I was a little disappointed by the BLUE PLANET series about oceans that he only narrated… I kept waiting for him to swim by in a scuba suit… It might be kind of fun to see Oprah do the things David does in these documentaries.

Some of them could even want to be… park rangers and zookeepers and… and… oceanographers

or go to work at the creation museum.

Robert Byers babbled:

Does Oprah know what she is talking about? Should she be a influence on origin issues? If creationim gets some science celebrity should that influence viewers too? Oprah used her influence to get President Obama elected. By the reasoning here that would make that a right idea!!

So, tell us, Mr Idiot Byers, who would make a good “science celebrity” for Creationism, one of the most infamous of all anti-science movements?

However, unlike Oprah, David Attenborough has a keen interest in and substantial admiration for viewing Earth’s biodiversity close up, whenever it is possible for him to do so. Also unlike Oprah, he was trained in geology and zoology as a Cambridge University undergraduate. I think for many, David Attenborough has had a more substantial impact in introducing them to natural history and Earth’s biodiversity than, for example, has Carl Sagan with respect to astrophysics and, in general, science. And of course, David Attenborough is my hero too:

Deklane said:

David Attenborough is my hero! I can’t get enough of those BBC nature series where he goes on location all over the world to some pretty unlikely places and narrates on the spot. Even if they have to put him in a harness and haul him up by crane to top of the South American jungle, or he gets lunged at by an elephant seal twice his size. I’m pretty sure there’s a bit in a documentary about animal life in the Antarctic where there’s an aerial shot of an unbroken expanse of snow – but wait! There’s a speck down there, just one black spot in the midst of vast and endless white desolation – and it’s moving! The helicopter zooms down – and it’s David in a parka trudging along and lecturing about penguins! (This is from memory, so don’t take it too literally, but I seem to recall some scene like that.) I was a little disappointed by the BLUE PLANET series about oceans that he only narrated… I kept waiting for him to swim by in a scuba suit… It might be kind of fun to see Oprah do the things David does in these documentaries.

Didn’t see it; but being a folklore and legend enthusiast, all this mention of basilisks makes me half expect one to turn any predator to stone – maybe a salamander newly formed from an open flame.

Stanton Wrote:

So, tell us, Mr Idiot Byers, who would make a good “science celebrity” for Creationism, one of the most infamous of all anti-science movements?

Although the anti-evolution activists would not likely pick Oprah as their spokesperson, if they did I would not be surprised if she fell for their scam. I once saw her rave about prayer as alternative medicine.

The BBC version has not released yet in the US. Amazon says that BluRay will be available on June 1. I can’t wait to watch this over again with Attenborough narrating. The Discovery Channel version of Planet Earth with Sigourney Weaver paled in comparison to Attenborough on the BBC. I suspect the same for Life with Oprah.

The only thing that beats David Attenborough narrating Planet Earth is pressing the mute button and watching while listening to Sigur Ros (preferablly the Parenthesis album).

Don’t give Discovery too much credit; they just agreed to fund a new show by Sarah Palin. Ugh.

That’s depressing news. What for, I wonder:

Glenn said:

Don’t give Discovery too much credit; they just agreed to fund a new show by Sarah Palin. Ugh.

I think I missed something somewhere. When I watch the Discovery series, “Life,” narrated by Oprah Winfrey, I am confused by her narration which suggests that species purposefully developed physical traits to overcome the challenges of a hostile environment!!?? I was taught that over many, many hundreds of thousands of years … natural selection took place resulting in what we have here today. Was I taught wrong? How did “purposeful development” creep in? Is Oprah spinning the story? Has the science changed and I have just failed to catch up with it? I’d appreciate any help from anyone who knows one way or the other. Thank you. Sojourner.

Whoever wrote the script for Oprah got it wrong, if that’s what it said. No species that we are aware of can “purposefully” develop heritable physical traits.

I didn’t think so, but I don’t spend my hours pouring through science journals either. I thought I’d watch, “Life,” for the pure fun of it, but every time I hear the narrator suggest that the “so and so animal … developed … this or that physical trait … in order to do this or to do that,” it drives me silly and makes watching the otherwise awe-inspiring photography quite irritating. I appreciate your reply. Thank you. Sojourner.

Of course, RG is correct. Just think about it. If you concentrate really hard, can you grow wings? Do you know how to grow wings? Is there any mechanism whereby your thoughts could change your DNA? Will your kids have wings if you really want them to? If humans cannot do it, is there any other species that knows more about genetics that could do it? IS there any species that is even smart enough to know what the environment will be like in the future, let alone know what feature would be beneficial in that environment? Humans seem to be pretty poor at both those things, how is an ant or a rhino supposed to be so smart?

Popular television programs make mistakes like that almost every five minutes, even ones who get most of the science right. They want feel good sound bites that capture attention. One of the ones that bothers me most is when they use the word “designed” to refer to some morphological feature. The word “adapted” isn’t any longer or harder to pronounce, so why not use the correct term? And of course the ever popular use of the word “theory” when they really mean “hypothesis”. You would think that programs devoted to science education would have better technical advisors, especially after spending millions on stunning photography.

There were some staggeringly bad choices for the narration. One of my favorites was “millions of years ago, the ancestors of modern birds lost their front legs and grew wings,” as if to imply that the wings of a bird were entirely separate structures. I also noticed some waffling on the use of the word “evolution”- sometimes it was used, other times, as DS pointed out, they’d use words like “designed” when they should have used “evolved.”

I raised the issue because several years back I was casually speaking with my children about “Darwin’s Origin of the Species,” a book which I had purchased for my daughter “as a classic,” that she might enjoy reading (extremely bright child who simply cannot stop reading – she was quite interested in anthropology at the time).

As the conversation moved along, my high-school age children explained that they had learned about evolution in school. “You, know, they said. The giraffes couldn’t reach the leaves so they grew longer necks. Birds of prey grew sharp talons so they could swoop down and catch slowly moving critters. We know all about it.” And the conversation continued with many such examples.

It then took me about forty minutes to explain that those things didn’t just “happen,” but that birds with sharper talons just happened to live long enough to mate and produce offspring having a tendency to have sharp talons as well, and with the passing of hundreds of thousands of years, periods of drought and famine resulted in the sharped-taloned birds simply outlasting the others because their slight genetic difference played a role in them surviving long enough to produce offstring with similar traits. I used the example that people near the Equator tend to have darker skin because light-skinned folks naturally fell prey to skin cancer and other such factors which hampered their ability to pass along their genes to the next generation’s gene pool.

Anyway, after explanation, I think they finally understood the concept of “natural selection,” but I was surprised by the fact that my two very intelligent children had either both coincidentially mislearned the material or had been mistaught.

But watching the “Life” series made be think, well, gee whiz, I’m an old geezer these days. Maybe I’ve missed something. I’m glad my knowledge is still useful. But if my children are watching the “Life” series, I can’t help but wonder if they are sitting in their college apartments thinking to themselves, “Geez. Maybe I bought into what Dad was saying waaay too easily. Even Oprah Winfrey understands evolution like I do.”

In the end, it seems like a great disservice when the narrator misinforms the masses under the guise of, and enjoying the ambience of, a trusted educator.

I’ve appreciated everyone’s comments. Thank you again.

Sojourner.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on March 22, 2010 11:33 AM.

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