A springbok is attacked by a leopard in Namibia. Photograph: Wim van den Heever Somewhere in my parents’ photo albums there is a picture of me, aged seven or eight, lying in my bed, reading. On the wall, there are postcards from holidays, a poster of space pirate Han Solo crouching above a fictional snow lizard called a Tauntaun, and a picture of an equally alien but very real cephalopod, a nautilus, a mollusc with a pin-hole eye and tentacular cirri projecting from its tiger-striped shell. It was cut out from the second copy of Life on Earth that my father had acquired, the book that accompanied the BBC series by David Attenborough. The first was for reading, the second, bought cheap without a dust cover, was for the photos.
It’s difficult for me to appraise the work of Attenborough critically. I do what I do, to a large degree because of what he has done. Like so many people of my vintage, seeing the wonder of nature with him as our guide was inestimably influential in steering us towards science. That first book was published on Charles Darwin’s 170th birthday, a fitting tribute to the greatest idea anyone has ever had. I approached the 40th anniversary edition with a cautious awe. It does not disappoint. The new Life on Earth is as glorious as the first, if not more so for the sole reason that it has been considerably updated. Science never rests, and while the overarching Darwinian ideas in the 1979 edition are correct, many of the details have moved onwards significantly. Straw-coloured fruit bats at sunrise. Kasanka national park, Zambia. Photograph: t/Nick Garbutt It’s not simply that we have observed more of nature with ever increasingly sophisticated technology. Ideas about biodiversity and mass extinctions are now prominently included, and the revelation – now textbook – that birds are dinosaurs is front and centre, having been dismissed the first time round. Credit should be given to Matthew Cobb, who has helped Attenborough with contemporary thinking on matters such as the intense integration of genetics into evolutionary biology – a result of our ability to read genomes with ease and speed. This technology was effectively nonexistent in 1979, but is now universal, and has categorically reinforced and refined our knowledge of evolution. Perhaps no field in biology has undergone more of a revolution in the last few years than human evolution, again enabled by unpicking the DNA of long dead people. The chapter on the story of us is the most significantly different in the new edition. Back in the 70s, there was an academic debate about whether the nursery of modern humans was centred in East Africa, followed by an exodus to cover the globe, or if individual populations had evolved roughly in the locations they are today. The debate on the “out of Africa hypothesis” versus the “multiregional hypothesis” has long been put to bed, first from fossil evidence, and now with DNA quite clearly putting Homo sapiens as a species begotten in Africa. David Attenborough filming in 20o8, with a monitor lizard. Photograph: Gavin Thurston/BBC NHU Within the last couple of years, that East African stranglehold has been slightly loosened by fossils in Morocco – we may be moving towards our being a sort of pan-African Gestalt species. In 1979, Attenborough had picked the wrong team, and was an ardent multiregionalist. That’s all gone in the new edition, and the radical shift in our understanding of our own genesis includes humans unknown to science until the last decade, such as the Denisovans, and the facts that we repeatedly interbred with both them and the Neanderthals. We should now regard them not as oafish thugs, but simply as people, with sophisticated thought, art and culture. If there is any criticism to be made about the science of the book, it is that it doesn’t quite represent life on Earth in all its diversity as we understand it today. This is because most life on Earth is bacteria, and while we are grappling with the colossal importance of those myriad single cells, they are not very televisual, and the focus here is on the charismatic animals and plants that make for relatable stories. As in the TV series, there are Reithian principles running through the veins, arteries, xylem and phloem of Attenborough’s words: to inform, educate and entertain. It does all three and one more: inspire. There is much more detail in the book than on our screens. For odd, historical reasons, the BBC keeps natural history and science in separate silos, as if displaying the scientific fact of evolution can only be represented in the glory of nature. But make no mistake, this is a science book. The life cycles of creatures are explained with reference to the Darwinian ideas of natural and sexual selection. Biodiversity and the networks of life are highlighted in a way that was absent in the first edition. As has become more prominent in Attenborough’s recent work, the impact of anthropogenic climate change is a seam that penetrates this book. And then there are the photos. Nowadays, we are somewhat inured to the spectacle of wildlife photography, largely because of Attenborough himself, and the tireless work of his camera crews, photographers and field scientists. We see breathtaking images of the natural world every day, shared on social media for us to gasp at. Even so, there’s nothing like seeing them on big glossy pages. I sat with my four-year-old daughter and we flicked through the pictures; she liked the pangolin, not so much the grim fanfin seadevil, and was transfixed by a leopard taking down a pained, bloodied springbok, teeth sunk into its haunch. King bird of paradise ( Cicinnurus regius), Papua New Guinea. Photograph: Tim Laman/National Geographic Over the course of nearly four decades, it appears from the photo of me in bed that I haven’t changed much. I have dedicated my life to studying and talking in awe about evolution. Last year, I recorded my daughter commentating over Blue Planet II, and posted it online; it became a minor internet phenomenon. I know Attenborough saw this video, and I hope he knows that the continuity of his work is transgenerational. In another 40 years, there will be scientists continuing to change the way we understand this living planet. Stare at those pictures, wonder at how those beasts evolved. I have little doubt that one of your daughters will cite Attenborough as her inspiration, too. • Adam Rutherford’s The Book of Humans is published by Weidenfeld. Life on Earth is published by William Collins. To order a copy for £21.50 (RRP £25) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.