DER SPIEGEL: Sir David, did you have a treasure chest as a child?
DER SPIEGEL: You obviously haven’t stopped collecting things since your childhood.
Attenborough: Yes, collecting is a basic male instinct.
DER SPIEGEL: Why is that?
Attenborough: I don’t know. There are a few women who collect, but not really great ones. One or two I can think of collected 19th century porcelain in China. But by and large, collecting is a masculine thing. And it nearly always starts with the natural world. Darwin, the greatest biologist ever, he collected — and he was astounded to find that there were hundreds of different kinds of beetles in the United Kingdom. He wondered: What’s going on? It was that simple question, you see, which led to a lifetime of the most revelatory theory in the whole of biology.
DER SPIEGEL: So it’s more about the beauty of things, the aesthetics?
Attenborough: It’s about beauty, yes. And of course, occasionally, it’s about things that take you back.
DER SPIEGEL: During the war, your parents took in two Jewish girls from Germany for a couple of years.
Attenborough: More than a couple of years; they lived with us six or seven years. My father and my mother were both very active socially. They were very strongly pro-European, my mother in particular. She spoke very good German and French. One day, these two girls turned up aged 12 and 14. They were supposed to go onto New York, but then all passages were stopped. My mother came downstairs and simply said: “Helga and Irene are now our children. They’re your sisters. And you’ll have them until they can leave.” They stayed with us until the war was over.
DER SPIEGEL: All your life, you’ve pretty much been constantly pursuing things that are the stuff of young boys’ dreams, haven’t you?
Attenborough: Yes, absolutely, never-ending boy’s dreams. That’s fair. That’s about it, end of interview. You’ve got it.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you remember moments of sheer joy?
Attenborough: Diving on a coral reef with proper gear for the first time is just mind blowing. To hang there motionless is an extraordinary sensation. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen, full of maybe 50 to 100 different species of creatures of unbelievably beautiful colors. That’s a complete creation, a world that you’ve never seen before ever, and of exquisite beauty, fantastic colors. Amazing.
DER SPIEGEL: The admiration comes from your having shown people the wonders of our planet. Would you say that you delivered a realistic picture of wildlife and nature?
Attenborough: Realistic is a curious word. You can’t show the full range of truth; you can show one aspect of it or one or two aspects of it. I don’t think we misrepresent nature in a fundamentally dishonest way. We are guilty of making it seem more dramatic than it might be, but that’s part of our job. You’ve got the job of making this conversation sound interesting, which is difficult enough. It’s the same sort of thing. But I’ve never deliberately told a falsehood on film.
DER SPIEGEL: Have you learned something more generally about humankind?
Attenborough: The only things you really learn from are other primates, very obvious things. Approaching a big male gorilla, you have to show submission, and the way you show submission is very similar to the way in which you show submission to the queen. You keep your head down, you bow, you don’t talk loudly.