Living Planet

David Attenborough / William Collins / 338 pages

In Living Planet: The Web of Life on Earth—a fully updated edition of Sir David Attenborough’s 1984 book that accompanied the BBC’s Living Planet documentary series—the famed naturalist takes readers on a journey through the interconnected web of life on Earth. From the mutual relationship between algae and fungi (setting the stage for the colonization of plants), to phytoplankton’s support of species from tiny zooplankton to great whales, to guano of guanay cormorants fertilizing human crops, we are all interdependent.

Through dreamlike imagery, Attenborough brings art to science. Female leatherback turtles are described as “sweeping showers of sand” during nest creation. If you are left in any doubt as to the diversity of life, you need only turn to the breathtaking pictures. 

Attenborough’s interdisciplinary approach provides a detailed explanation of the operation of life. For instance, “The Baking Deserts” chapter uses geographical concepts to explain how atmospheric circulation determines the creation of the hot deserts. The chapter then turns to biology to highlight how this extreme environment has caused diverse species—from the jackrabbit of the American Southwest to the fennec fox of the Sahara—to develop huge ears with large capillary networks close to the skin’s surface to enable effective heat loss. 

Species are not static—they change over millions of years along evolutionary pathways that twist and turn as environments slowly change or the species adapt to exploit a particular niche. Such changes continue—and some pathways double back. Attenborough writes, for example, that the “procession of mammals into the sea has not yet ceased” and conjectures that polar bears may be on an evolutionary path that “could lead its descendants in a few million years’ time to a fully marine existence.” 

However, Attenborough always provides an overarching caveat for any species’ prospects for survival: the interference of humans. For the polar bear, it is the specter of climate change causing sea level to rise faster than the species can adapt. Many species—such as the great auk of the Atlantic coast, the quagga of South Africa, and the great tortoise of Réunion Island—have already been extinguished by humans. 

But for species that remain, hope is not lost. In the final chapter, Attenborough outlines the basic principles by which we should live in our environment. He argues powerfully for the protection of biodiversity. Humans must rely on the natural world for our own survival—but, says Attenborough, “We have no moral right to exterminate forever the creatures with which we share this earth.”