David Attenborough has hooked me with evolutionary theory

Water babies: Attenborough explored the thesis that humans developed on shorelines
Water babies: Attenborough explored the thesis that humans developed on shorelines

There’s a golden branch among the green of the Linden tree in the street. The duvet is back on the bed. Andrew Marr and Start the Week has returned to Radio 4. Autumn is officially here. Yet, this year, in the summer holiday’s last gap (usually a time for thrifty repeats), Radio 4 has had some remarkably good new stuff. There was Melvyn Bragg’s two-week exploration of the North; there’s still The Briefing Room, David Aaronovitch’s fast-paced, fact-filled examinations of such topics as Trotskyism. Last week, best of all, came a revelatory two-parter from David Attenborough, The Waterside Ape.

Why, he asked, are humans so different from other apes? Unlike them, we walk on two legs, have a highly developed brain, possess the voluntary breath control necessary for speech and swimming underwater. Could it be that an essential first stage of human development happened on the world’s shorelines?

Desmond Morris Credit: Rex Features

I started listening out of duty. Within three minutes I was gripped. Stage by stage, Attenborough took us through the theory, the evidence, the objections, the conclusions. Elaine Morgan’s Sixties book, The Descent of Woman, had proposed the idea first. It got lots of publicity, became a bestseller but, because she was not a scientist, it was largely discounted. Not, however, universally. Oxford academic Alister Hardy (1896-1985) took her aquatic theory seriously as, later, did zoologist Desmond Morris.

By 2010, enough fossil evidence had emerged from around the world to support the idea that early humans had lived along shorelines, eating shellfish (its minerals supporting brain development), walking upright (more effective in shallow water), the females developing a layer of subcutaneous fat (the better to survive near-marine life), their babies being born with a coating of a specific grease, vernix caseosa. Vernix caseosa was identified on seal pups. Human skulls were found showing growth of a bone to protect the eardrum from water. Ancient fish shells bore marks of stone implements. Vast caches of fish bones indicated that catfish had been abundantly caught and consumed two million years ago. This was, said Attenborough, a major shift in evolution theory. Before we evolved into “savannah man”, we were shore dwellers who learned to harvest the ocean for food that grew our brains.

David Attenborough Credit: BBC

The lingering effect of this duo of programmes (made by independents Pier Productions) has been to steer me in the direction of more nature programmes. The Wandering Albatross (Radio 4, Tuesday last week; repeated Monday) was the latest in the natural history anthologies of fact, myth, allusion, art, presented by Brett Westwood with, this week, Brian Protheroe reading from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner so well it brought on the tingles. Yesterday’s edition, on dragonflies, made me wish it were summer again.

Every time Fiona Stafford has done Radio 3’s The Essay I have recommended it warmly. So warmly a pal sniffed that Stafford is an Oxford English don, not a botanist. I sniffed right back. Stafford’s a magnificently informed enthusiast. In previous series she made me see trees with new eyes. Last week, talking about flowers, she showed why the daisy is a token of our natural desire to connect. She’s a real Radio 3 treasure, with a gift for leaving little legacies for the listener, as in describing rambling roses as “suspended avalanches”. If some economist had tried telling me about Bulgaria paying its Second World War debt to America in attar of roses I probably wouldn’t have listened. To Stafford, I did.

This week’s Radio 3 essayist, Kenneth Steven, had me by the heart from the start. He was talking about Iona, the first of five Scottish islands he knows and loves, all of them on the “sea roads” of ancient travellers between Ireland, Scotland and then even further north. My mind’s eye saw his fields of orchids on Iona’s wild side, the green pebbles on Columba’s beach, the waves that come crashing along the channel between Iona and Mull, wild as lions, tall as Loch Ness monsters. Follow him to Rum tonight, with Muck, Eigg and Canna on the side.

Peter Allen Credit: BBC

It was Peter Allen’s last day on Radio 5 Live on Thursday. He’s been with the network since it began in 1994, first on the breakfast programme, later (and longer) on the drive time show, most recently part time on weekday mornings, principal reporter and commentator on every big story – elections, revolutions, Princess Diana’s funeral – all along. As his six Sony Awards show, he’s a presenter with a rare combination of authority and good humour. He’s not going altogether, he’ll have a Sunday show. We fans await it, eagerly.