They say that the first person who will live to 200 has already been born. We tend to think this means recently born, but what if – as every sign seems to suggest – it’s David Attenborough? What if being born into privilege (that’s not meant as snide commentary – just an acknowledgement of fact) and spending the 70-odd years of your working life doing something you love and that, by its very nature, kept you mentally and physically fit while western medicine and other technologies developed all the miracles you might need to aid you in your progress … Maybe you would need never die?
For when he goes, the sky shall be rent asunder and every mountain and island whose flora and fauna he has spent his life documenting shall move out of their places. In short, it will be a big thing.
Dynasties (BBC One), a quintet of episodes four years in the making and devoted to the five most celebrated and endangered species on Earth, is his own most recent big thing. Although it has possibly been slightly diminished by the simultaneous announcement of his collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund and Netflix to narrate the eight-episode Our Planet next year.
Last night’s opening episode was about chimpanzees because – and you know this is true – they’re the best. Next week is penguins, who are obviously great, and lions, tigers and wolves will all get their day in the documentary sun. But chimps; they’re the best.
Using the work of anthropologist Jill Pruetz, who has been studying the animals for 20 years to understand their power games and politics, the Dynasties team follow a troop of chimpanzees in Senegal, west Africa, and its alpha male David’s determination to hang on to his leadership as rivals gather. (Note: I shall be drawing no analogies. It would be exhausting.)
At first, we are treated to a run-through of all the classics. Baby chimps splash and frolic at watering holes. Mothers watch indulgently. Adults dextrously poke grass stems into termite mounds and munch thoughtfully on the bugs they catch. But David can never let his guard down. He keeps a particular eye on young males Luthor and Jumkin, the most likely contenders for his crown. His toes twitch whenever they edge too close. A strategic alliance with another male – older than David and no challenger, but still powerful – via some literal back-scratching, is enough to repel one attempted coup, but next time David is not so lucky. After a fire and under pressure from a drought and the coming of several females into season – events, dear boy, events – David’s toes start to twitch again. In the night, the troop’s young males turn on him. His toes no longer twitching, fingers missing, great gouges in his flesh and foam dried to a white crust around his mouth, he looks to have been killed.
Incredibly, he is still alive. The females and children lick his wounds until the group has to leave in search of water. And, while Luthor sets about instilling fear and panic in the group so that he can shore up his position as – why do I want to call it president? – David slowly regains enough strength to follow them. And when he finds them, Luthor runs. David is restored to fragile power without a blow being struck. He makes a few more allies, the better to protect himself next time – and there will always be a next time – gets a female pregnant and nine months later has a son. David is now the longest-reigning alpha male in the group’s known history.
If you have any scrap of humility in you it is impossible to look from them to us and back again and not shake your head in something between wry resignation and simple despair at how little we have managed to change over the thousands of generations that stand – you would think significantly – between us. Dress it up with elections, referendums, ballot boxes, agrarian farming, industrial economies, marriage ceremonies, religion and Deliveroo all you want; we are still all just animals fighting over resources and angling for the power that will get us more than our fair share. The chimps’ honesty in their operations only makes them seem the more civilised.
Hominid, know thyself. And may Attenborough reign as long as David.