Sir David Attenborough Tracks Down Earth's 'First Life'

World-famous natural scientist Sir David Attenborough has spent the past 50 years exploring the living world. For his latest documentary, he explores the origins of life on the planet. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Attenborough, whose series, First Life, debuts Sunday night on the Discovery Channel.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

World-famous natural scientist Sir David Attenborough has spent the past 50 years exploring the living world. In a new documentary premiering tonight on the Discovery Channel, Sir David instead is exploring the origins of life on the planet.

He travelled 40,000 miles and to four continents for the series called "First Life." And Sir David Attenborough joins us from London.

Welcome to the program.

Sir DAVID ATTENBOROUGH (Natural Scientist): Thank you very much.

HANSEN: What sparked your interest in fossils?

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: Well, I just think they're just about the most romantic thing you can imagine. I guess I was about eight when I first hit a rock and it fell apart and I saw, inside that rock, a shining, glittering, perfect seashell complete in every detail, and knowing that nobody had seen that before, and it had been laying without the sun shining on it for 100 or 200 million years. Now, that seems to me unbelievably romantic. And fossils have always seemed to me that way.

There's also the part of the treasure hunt in it, of course, you know, of finding things and collecting things. And who knows what you're going to find when you turn over the next rock. But basically, it's that thrill of looking at animals that lived a million, 10 million, 100 million years ago.

HANSEN: Now there was something very special in the woods near your house where you grew up that no one knew was there.

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: Yes, indeed so.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: The rocks there were known to be exceedingly old, and so old that, at the time, everybody believed that there could no longer be possibly be any signs of life in them. So I never went looking for fossils there. But a few years after I'd left Leicester, a boy from the very school that I'd attended was climbing around in among the rocks and found something. It was like a leaf or fern. And suddenly, people realized that there were fossils in these extremely ancient rocks. And so people started looking elsewhere in rocks of the same sort of age, and lo and behold, they discovered an extraordinary range of creatures.

And over the last 50 years, there have been, year after year after year, new exciting, thrilling discoveries. And that's what this series is about.

HANSEN: What did it reveal about the origins of life?

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: Well, the first thing it revealed was that rocks of this age contained those things. That was the first and most important thing, that there were animals of some kind. That particular animal is shaped like a leaf of a fern. It was not a plant, but it was of some strange colonial animal, the like of which doesn't exist today.

But once it was demonstrated that it was possible to find fossils in rocks of that great age, people started looking in similar rocks elsewhere on other continents from that same sort of period. And up in Newfoundland, for example, there is a place called Mistaken Point. They discovered great slabs of rock in which there were not only fossils like that one that I'd seen in Charnwood Forest, but dozens more, dozens of many different kinds. It was a huge thrill for me to be crawling over that slab of rock and looking at all those things.

HANSEN: I bet. Tell us about this creature you found with five eyes.

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: This particular creature with five eyes is an animal called opabinia, which is found in a deposit called the Burgess Shales up in the Rocky Mountains, which date from about 560 million years ago. And that crawled around on the bottom of that very ancient sea, searching around with its five eyes. Why it had five eyes - who knows?

HANSEN: You use a lot of computer-generated graphic imaging in this particular documentary, and I imagine that must have been so useful to you because you could re-create this creature with five eyes.

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: It was truly thrilling, and it was something that we couldn't have done with the degree of perfection which we have done it only 10 years ago. And, of course, what one does these days with the Internet and so on is that you can create a computer image, and then you know that the world's greatest expert, let us say, is in Newfoundland or is in Australia. And so you can send him on the net, hey. This is it. Is that what you think it was? Is there something wrong? Is there something that doesn't agree with the evidence that you've been unearthing? And they will then send back messages to say yes, this or that or the other. Or occasionally they say, wow. That was amazing. It's absolutely what I imagined, except I never thought I'd see it.

HANSEN: Given everything that you have accomplished in your field, did anything surprise you doing this series?

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: All the time. I mean, there are new things being discovered all the time. And the amazement to me is the detail which real, modern methods can extract from these fossils. These are, after all, compressed smears of an animal's body that has survived for 600 million years in slate. No, it's a miracle.

And you might say that if you just found one, oh, that's kind of a freak or something. But, of course, they found thousands of them, so this is not just some kind of accident or anything. I mean, the evidence for species like anomalocaris or opabinia or any of these things is based on hundreds of different specimens.

HANSEN: Do you draw any conclusions?

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: Well, it's a very good question. Of course the conclusion you draw is that some species succeed and others don't. But you are led to believe that the processes that bring these things about which cause one animal to develop into another form are the same processes that are at work today which are continually refining the details of animal bodies in order to make them more efficient. The more efficient species drives out the less efficient one, which disappears. And so you end up with this huge range of variety of animal forms on the planet today.

HANSEN: How difficult a program was this for you to make, compared to the many others you've done over the years?

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: It was quite difficult, but it was also something that we couldn't possibly have done 10 or 15 years ago because we didn't have the computer imagining technology which enabled us to do it. And not only that, but we didn't even have the information on which those computer images are based. So it couldn't have been done until very recently. But getting the images now is not difficult. What is, I suppose, difficult is whether in fact you can make a coherent and compelling story about life forms that existed so long ago and are so unfamiliar. Whether we have succeeded in that, of course, we'll have to wait to find out.

HANSEN: I have to admit, my favorite line in the documentary is that collagen is the sticky tape of the natural world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: It's what sponges have that allowed them to become sponges, right?

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: That's it. That's it. That's it.

HANSEN: Given you've been at this for some 50 years, will you do more nature films?

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: Sure, sure, sure, sure. I've just come back from Madagascar.

HANSEN: And what are you doing there?

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: Making a film. It gets to be a habit after 50 years. It's about some very strange and wonderful distant relations of ours called lemurs, which are primates related to monkeys and apes and ourselves, and which are breathtakingly beautiful. I mean, some of them are pure white with an orange hat.

They move through the forest by leaping, so their legs are very long, much longer than their arms. So when they get down to the ground - which they don't do very often - they can't run on all fours. And they run on their hind legs with a kind of mincing balletic movement, which is absolutely enchanting, I can tell you.

HANSEN: It sounds like you're a kid in a candy store, if you don't mind me saying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: Yeah, absolutely so, absolutely so. I couldn't think of a better description. I certainly get lots of nice candies.

HANSEN: Sir David Attenborough's documentary "First Life" premieres tonight on the Discovery Channel. Sir David joined us from London.

Thank you so much.

Sir ATTENBOROUGH: It's a pleasure.

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