‘SMITHSONIAN WORLD’ TRACKS SCIENTIFIC SLEUTH

From the New York Times of January 24, 1986:

TV WEEKEND; ‘SMITHSONIAN WORLD’ TRACKS SCIENTIFIC SLEUTH

By JOHN CORRY

”SMITHSONIAN WORLD” has always been a good series. ”On the Shoulders of Giants,” the episode tomorrow night, is one of its best. Indeed, it is everything that a program about natural science is supposed to be. It will be shown on Channel 13 at 8 o’clock.

For one thing, it’s intelligent; for another, it’s wonderfully entertaining. It spends most of its time following a young scientist, David Steadman, who looks in passing like the actor Kris Kristofferson, as he scrambles around the Galapagos and Cook Islands.

Mr. Steadman, trained in ornithology, biology, geology and zoology, is looking for fossils. That might not sound like much fun to watch, but it is. The photography is wonderful. Mr. Steadman’s venues – beaches, forests, rock formations, caves – are unspoiled. We may not be able to visit, but this is the next best thing.

Moreover, the production has a feeling of playfulness. ”Smithsonian World” has always suggested that science isn’t a bad way of life. ”On the Shoulders of Giants” is positively overt about this. Thus, David McCullough, the knowledgable, intelligent and utterly-at-ease host of the program, watches Mr. Steadman sift through old bones.

”You’ve really got a good job, don’t you?” he says.

”I don’t complain,” Mr. Steadman replies.

How could he? We see him hobnobbing with marine iguanas, sea lions and giant tortoises. It’s a terrific job. Among other things, he’s proved that the giant rice rat and giant ground finch really existed.

The thread running through the program, as reflected in its title, is that Mr. Steadman is building on the work of Charles Darwin. This is no mere gimmick. Whereas Darwin, who began thinking about evolution when he visited the Galapagos in 1835, was on the islands only once, Mr. Steadman has been there seven times. Among other things, he has reclassified some of Darwin’s old evidence, and identified species that have vanished since Darwin’s visit.

The program, whose executive producer is Martin Carr, also visits Darwin’s old home, the British Museum, Tahiti and Mangaia. This last is a rugged, rocky outpost of the Cook Islands, and is home to some 1,200 Polynesians. ”On the Shoulders of Giants” savors some of their culture: dancing, churchgoing and stories of a ferocious, warlike past. This is a rewarding and well-done production.

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