The Nature Documentary and its Edifying Functions

In response to my post on nature documentaries, reader Noor Alam offered the following thoughtful comment:

How the nature documentary is made, what types of animal behavior are depicted, and how they are then interpreted, provide early and formative impressions about the world around us. Does the documentary empasize nature as a world in which life is “nasty, brutish and short” or does it choose to focus on instances of social behavior in nature, such as the social coordination prevalent amongst bees, or the seeming altruism exhibited by dolphins? Does it emphasize the similarities between humans and other animals, or does it marvel at the alien nature of those animals. With such questions in mind, the “uncontroversial” nature documentary becomes inherently political, and we as parents should have an awareness of this so that we can not only expose our children to the wonders of the world that they portray, but so that we can discuss with them the different issues which any one nature documentary may raise.

As I had perhaps only hinted at in my post, the nature documentary often emphasizes or glamorizes the predator’s work, and may provide a form of ‘predator porn’: the kill is the ‘money-shot’, leading up to which is the foreplay of the slow, drawn-out stalking and set-up. Besides being a form of catexploitation, this emphasis can valorize a crude Nietzschean view of nature: the beautiful animal is the strong, the valiant, preying on the hapless weak, the timid, the meek; the strong feed on the weak because such is their nature, the weak serve as food for the strong because, well, such is their nature. It may too, reinforce a facile social Darwinism: survival depends on feasting on others, using stealth and violence and subterfuge judiciously blended; those who are unable to resist meet their deserved fates all too quickly. These ‘nature red in tooth and claw‘ visions can be problematic sources of moral and political edification.

As Alam points out,  we need to query whether the vision of the documentary maker extends to noticing and showcasing Kropotkin would have called the mutual aid of the wild–“the social coordination prevalent amongst bees, or the seeming altruism exhibited by dolphins”? Is nature understood as continuous with human societies or is it regarded as separable from us by radical discontinuities–biological, moral, cognitive? Does nature appear as unfinished, primitive human society or does it appear as a distinctive entity in its own right?

The nature documentary has the capacity to provide intervention elsewhere. For instance, the chauvinistic vision of the Great Chain of Being–which saw all of nature through a blinkered human-serving teleology–is not an easily displaced one, and neither is the notion of the human species and its achievements as representing an onward and upward movement through an arc of moral and technical progression.  These two easily combine to provide a motive force for unthinking and rapacious  environmental degradation–the kind that threatens to render this world uninhabitable for a generation not too distant from ours.

The nature documentary–whether those who make it like it or not–is saddled with the expectation of providing an ‘appropriate’ vision of the relationship between man and the wild.

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