A non-Darwinian view of plant evolution from the BBC

Tonight on BBC Two, Chris Packham presents a teleological view of plant evolution that leaves room for miracles.
Published in Ecology & Evolution
A non-Darwinian view of plant evolution from the BBC
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The third episode of a new blockbuster TV science series “Earth” is of particular interest to me as a plant biologist. It is titled “Green” and tells a story of plants, from the origin of photosynthesis to the origin of flowers. 

The presenter, Chris Packham, is  well known for his nature shows and environmental campaigning. One of the emphases he brings to this new series is how fragile life on earth is. Plants were once fixing carbon dioxide to coal so fast that they were on a trajectory to self-destruction, he says. They were saved by the timely uplift of mountain ranges, decelerating global photosynthesis just in time to avoid disaster. Surely, we would not be so stupid as to release all that carbon again so rapidly that we cause disaster, he asks the viewer, with heavy irony and a clear message.

Another, more subtle message also comes from Chris Packham’s script. His view of evolution is non-Darwinian. He does not speak of evolution as a purposeless natural process with no end in mind. He speaks of it as a process that is intended and has direction. 

Packham consistently anthropomorphises plants, speaking of them as if they have agency and intention. “Plants aren't the type to give up easily,” they “developed a new trick,” “they were ready to start conquering the world”. The first trees were “the epitome of everything that plants had learned.” They “even communicate with one another” through fungal networks. 

Initially I thought Packham’s anthropomorphising was just a figure of speech, but by the end of the episode it seemed more than this. I concluded that he must have a teleological, non-Darwinian, view of evolution, as no doubt many of his viewers also do. He does not view the greening of the planet as a purposeless, unintended process, but one that was striven for and aimed at. Though he ascribes the agency behind this to the plants, what he says could be consistent with a broader, more cosmic view of purpose in the universe.

Indeed, Packham goes further than ascribing purpose to plants. He describes the world around us as “This bountiful, blooming miracle.” Early photosynthesisers are described as “something miraculous”. A “wonder material led to the creation of biological machines”.  Asteroid bombardment of earth is “a celestial intervention”. Plant-fungal interactions are “a match made in heaven”.  

The blurb for the episode on the BBC iPlayer website reads “Chris Packham tells the miraculous story of how plant life turned Earth from a barren rock into a vibrant green world”.

It is hard to tell if these references to miracles are just figures of speech, or deliberately suggestive of divine activity. At the very least, the BBC is leaving room for those viewers who do believe in God to see a divine hand in the events described. Packham is not imposing theism upon viewers, but neither is he advocating atheism. 

In this, Packham is being far more inclusive than previous BBC documentaries. For example, the last major BBC series on evolution was “Universe” with Brian Cox, aired in 2021. In the first episode, “God Star”, Cox was gratuitously dismissive of belief in a God outside of the universe. “We don’t need to invent imaginary God’s to explain the universe; we can replace them with the real thing,” he claimed, pointing at the sun. 

The idea that the sun could be an explanation for the universe, and thus an adequate substitute for the God that a majority of the world’s population believe in, is self-evidently implausible. Cox alienated a large body of viewers, not just from himself, but also from science and the scientific community. At a time when we need to increase trust in science, he portrayed scientists as not just intolerant, but also as unthinking.

Packham’s approach is more tolerant than that of Brian Cox. The teleological view he presents of the greening of our planet, leaving room for divine intervention, will fit with the views of many viewers. His environmental message is delivered without unnecessarily alienating his audience.  Whether this is a policy shift by the BBC, or unique to Chris Packham's personal approach, time will tell. It is probably easier to persuade viewers to care for a miraculous, intended, ecosystem than a purposeless one. 

The episode is also available on BBC iPlayer.

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