Australian Biography: Charles Birch
Charles Birch (b.1918, Melbourne Vic) is one of the world's leading geneticists. His early investigations into the insect world led to his interest in population ecology. He went on to explore the inter-reaction of humanity with the environment, studying genetics at Chicago University then Oxford. As Challis Professor of Biology at Sydney University, he helped lay the foundations for the new science of ecology. His search for a philosophy that could embrace both science and God culminated in what he calls 'an ecological model of God'.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
Today we're beginning our study of Charles Birch and as a biologist, I want you to advise me, what weighting would you put to the various factors that we should look at to understand him? Should we be looking at his genetic inheritance, at the environment that he grew up in, or should we be looking at his beliefs?
The environment I grew up in, I think. That's the most influential, as far as I'm concerned, including the people that I met on the way, you know. I can think of relatively few people who would be important in determining what happened to me.
Not really. I don't know much about my inheritance. You mean my genetic inheritance?
Not really, because I know my mother came from Ireland and there's Irish background there, and that my father's side was also Irish. But I don't know to what extent that's influenced me. I don't think genes are that important in terms of the differences between us. I think the genes are less important than the whole environment in which we are brought up in.
Well, they mean that we're human beings instead of chimpanzees or something. Yes.
Oh, no. It means more than that, it means that I have blue eyes because my mother had blue eyes, that sort of thing. And I'm not bald at the moment, whereas I would have been if my father had been bald, but he wasn't. I mean those things, they're trivial.
Oh, he was a banker and pretty matter-of-fact. And I think that I would know less about him than I do about my mother because he was more restrained, reserved; very reserved person. And he had business friends and I wasn't interested in business friends. I wasn't interested in business. And when I went, decided, to become a biologist, well his business friends said, 'What on earth is he doing that for? He'll never earn a salary doing that.' I mean our differences were enormous in terms of interests in life.
Not entirely, no. Because he appreciated his family very much and was a very kind person in that respect. And very early in the piece, when he was left a small inheritance from his Irish forebears, he was very pleased because he said that that will enable us, enable him and my mother, to send us to a private school. We were in a public school until then, so then the three of us went to Scotch College as a result of that. He could have spent it on other things than our education.
Yes, his grandparents would have been Irish.
Oh, no, his parents were Irish, yep.
He was born in New Zealand.
She was a very gentle, kind, loving person, whom I learned a great deal from because she was very interested in her children. I mean, so much so that she used to subscribe to different organisations that told you how to bring up children, and she wanted to do the right thing. I think she very often did. But she was a very kind person. And I suppose the biggest influence was that she encouraged me in the peculiar interests I was beginning to have, that's to say in plants and animals, collecting beetles, that sort of thing. And, to the extent that she would put books in my hand that I would never otherwise come across. And one in particular that really had a tremendous influence on me was [JBS] Haldane's book called Possible Worlds. And Possible Worlds is still a wonderful book to read. I mean, a great, a very, very famous biologist. And I said, 'I want to become a biologist. To become like Haldane.' And that was because of her. And so she kept abreast of the sorts of things that she thought would be of interest to me. And I remember on one birthday she gave me a book which is now extremely valuable because it's very rare, Bullard's Insects of Australia and New Zealand. 'Course that was tremendously important to help me identify things I found in the field. I became a bug hunter.
Oh, she was a nurse. She came out to Australia as a trained sister from a hospital in Dublin. She'd been brought up in a school, in a convent, Loreto Convent, in Dublin, and her parents died very young. And she knew her parents but she had been at boarding school pretty well all her life. And then she went and became a nurse in Dublin. And because of curious friendships she eventually came to Australia. It was very odd really because she had two brothers who were in the merchant navy. And the navy, this merchant navy, used to visit Melbourne. And they got to know people in Melbourne who were very evangelical. And they wanted to save my mother, you see, from the perdition of being brought up in a Catholic Ireland. And they were very, very kind and generous people. And they went over to Ireland and literally collected my mother and brought her out. Saw that she got a job in the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. And ...
It must have had a big influence because she must have become a Protestant, I suppose, by the time she married my father, I don't know about that. But, she was certainly shown what was supposed to be the inequities of her upbringing.
Oh, certainly not. No. In fact I think by the time I came into the world my parents probably had no connection with churches. But, when the family arrived I think that they began to feel, oh, well, one of the things that children probably acquire in this day, day and age, is to be brought up, is to know what a church is about. So we used to go to — every Sunday we went to church. Now my mother was basically concerned and interested. My father did it as a duty. And we went along because we had to, I suppose.
An Anglican church. A rather evangelical Anglican church in Melbourne.
Well, I had a twin brother. And then I had another brother who was two years older than I am.
Well, they had different interests. My twin brother became a personnel officer in the Shell Company. He did a degree in the University of Melbourne and then he spent most of the war in New Guinea. And so he was in a sort of business scene. My elder brother was a flier from the day he left school. Before the war started, Second World War started. He wanted to go to Point Cook, which was a training ground for pilots. And he became a very enthusiastic flier. So as soon as the war broke out he went to England with a squadron. In fact, a flying boat squadron. And their job was to check all the ... at least to help the convoys to get through. And he had some funny distinctions, in a sense. He was the first person to shoot down a Heinkel Bomber over the Channel. You know, I wouldn't want to be, wouldn't be proud of that. And he got the distinguished Flying Cross during the war. So they, he, had very different interests. And then when the war ended he joined Qantas and became a pilot and he remained in Qantas then as an executive until he retired. So their interests are very different.
I was not very close to my older brother, I was close to my twin brother because we did everything together.
Just about everything, yes.
Not the slightest bit interested, no. I was very different.
Well, we played, I mean we were the same age so we were in the same football team. We went to school together. We came home together, all that sort of stuff. We went to parties together. Until, pretty much I suppose, until I graduated from the University of Melbourne.
Well, I haven't got a clue. I suppose he thought it was a bit odd. Still, the school I went to in Scotch College in Melbourne, we had a field naturalist club so that I think he probably joined some of those expeditions.
Oh, I was born in Melbourne.
Oh, I was immediately brought up in a rather depressed suburb because my father was a bank manager and I think the first home we went to was in Collingwood which, you know, famous football team and that sort of stuff. I don't remember much about that.
Oh, vaguely, only very vaguely.
I think I might have wanted to blot out a good deal of that. I mean, I don't think I ever really enjoyed school. I worked terribly hard. I thought the thing to do was to pass examinations and every weekend I'd struggle. Oh, my brother was the same, my twin brother was the same. And I didn't like it much. I thought it was such a transformation to go to the university after this discipline. I mean, Scotch College was a good Presbyterian school. Every morning we had an assembly, had to sing these funny hymns, you know. Very ancient hymns they were. And hear a prayer and all this sort of stuff. And that didn't go down very well with me. But it was a very disciplined school.
Oh, yes it was. It was a disciplined household. My father had a little whip hanging up on the corner of a cupboard and the whip would come out if need be on certain occasions.
Oh, I think I could be quite nasty. I remember on one occasions, I must have been in a bit of a rage, but I ripped out a lot of pages from a very important book. I can remember sitting on the floor pulling these pages out much to the distress of my parents. They didn't know what got me into that state.
I was angry, yes. Maybe I'd been punished, I don't know. Anyway I was so glad when the school days were over. It's a pity not to appreciate a very good school, isn't it.
Yes, we did. And did for many years until the time came in which I went to Scotch College. Then we lived in a private home because there was no accommodation in the bank. So we lived a lot of the time above a bank, yeah. It was a rather odd thing in a way.
Oh, I think the requirement in those days was that the bank managers had to look after the banks after hours. We had revolvers all over the place. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. I mean, I knew where the revolver was in my father's desk, both downstairs and upstairs. And when he went away one weekend I remember, oh, they must have all been out of the house and I was alone and I thought I heard something going on down at the bank and I thought it was my responsibility to investigate. So I pulled the revolver out of this drawer and went around the bank chamber with it, with this thing in my hand. And I had to sort of cock the thing and then I couldn't uncock it. So I had to confess what I'd done the next morning when one of the clerks came in. I said, 'Could you please uncock this and put this back in my father's drawer.' I don't know where he was.
Yes, I was told that I shouldn't have done it, and what I should have done is simply take two bricks and drop them from a height onto the floor and that would sound like an explosion.
No. I don't remember hearing anything like that in those days. But we were better behaved in those times, you know, the '20s and '30s. I don't know.
I wouldn't say it was a grim place. It was not ... it didn't make life enjoyable for me. And I'm really not too sure of the reason for that. Part of the reason was I think that I worked so hard.
Oh, because I thought that if I didn't really work hard I'd never get places. I mean, I didn't think I was that bright and that I really could make up that by working hard.
Oh, how would I know that? I didn't know. I suppose, one reason might be that there were very bright people in my class. Zelman Cowen, and a number of others. Nearly all the people in that class became professors. Isn't that odd? Including myself. And I once, many years afterwards when I revisited the school, I mentioned this to the headmaster [and] he said it was a very unusual class. So I had some pretty bright people that made me feel pretty unbright I suppose.
Very competitive. There was one person in particular that I was extremely competitive with because he was also interested in biology. And I wanted to be sure that in fact I got to the top of the biological ladder before he did. I think he was probably brighter.
Well, in the sense that, when we graduated from the University of Melbourne in Agricultural Science, there were only two possible jobs available, and we both wanted the one which was much better than the other. And I got it, to his disappointment. He became a plant pathologist, I became an entomologist at that stage. I studied insects, he studied plant diseases. That was a matter of chance I think.
We both wanted that job, yes.
Oh, yes. I was very competitive.
No, I don't think so. I don't know where it came from. I'm not very good at analysing why I am, why I am, at all.
Oh, in a sense, yes.
Oh, no. He was in a different class. Same year but a different class. So we had different friends.
Well, they were A, B, Cs and Ds. I was in an A and I think he was in a B.
No. No, I didn't really at all. All I knew was that I wanted to be a biologist. And, that was encouraged by the fact that we had a very, very good biology teacher at the school, which was a bit unusual in those days, a woman who was the first MSc, first Master of Science from the University of Melbourne. Her name was Mrs a'Beckett [Ada Mary]. She was well-known because she was the mother of a famous Victorian cricketer and of course that put her up in the estimation of the kids in the class as well. But she was wonderful. She was the best biology teacher I ever had.
Oh, what was so good was she told you, gave you, detailed instructions on how to dissect a rabbit or a frog or whatever it was, so you knew exactly what the next step was. You wouldn't be fiddling around making mistakes. And she also inspired you to be interested, she inspired me to be interested, for example, in my own physiology. I knew nothing about my own physiology. All those sorts of things. Oh, very practical things. I remember she'd say, 'Now when you're drying your face after a shower in the morning, don't press the towel heavily into your eyes because that might make your eyes go flat.' Well, I suppose it was nonsense, but, anyway, it did mean I took notice of her and, looked after certain things like that. Now, she always had some very practical little suggestions.
Oh, that was great. That was great.
Oh, no, it wasn't. But I think what I'm trying to give the impression of is that the overall feeling was not one of great excitement as a school boy. And I also had, you know, I had emotional problems in my adolescence which were never resolved by my school, never. This is a touchy sort of subject.
Oh, simply the awareness of sexual activities and so on. You know, you become such a different sort of person from the age of 14 or whatever it is onwards. Whereas school didn't regard you as different at all.
I just felt I was probably very abnormal, very wicked, and all that sort of thing.
Yes, that's right.
Never. It was a lonesome venture. I think it was for many of us. The only light on the subject, and there wasn't any light at all, was from the chaplain at the school who was supposed to enlighten us on this. And he approached the subject with fear and trembling which made the situation worse.
Oh, he'd draw very hopeless diagrams on the board, you see, instead of getting us really nice proper pictures. But, you know, I think that's all changed. I mean, that was a bad thing about schools in those days. It really didn't understand, I don't think the people understand, what human life is about. What it was to grow up. It's very odd isn't it?
Only my mother. My father was sort of aloof, 'You'll get over that. That'd be a passing phase,' or something. It took a long time to pass though.
No, they were hopeless. I had mother-and-son talks.
Oh, yes. She tried very hard. She had lots of books and things and approached it as best she could.
And so at this time, with your emerging sexuality, and with no very good way of understanding it and feeling guilty and bad about it, did this mean it was hard for you to evolve and develop relationships that might have lead to a satisfactory relationship for you?
I find that hard to answer that question. I don't really know. I think it meant that there were barriers in that area. Yeah, I would admit that. Also, see, the thing that reinforced the barriers, I discovered in school around about that time a very evangelical religion. And that had a very black and white view of the world and a black and white view of human behaviour. So I felt very sinful, very wicked, because of the religion I was being introduced to. And so, that was not just the absence of any enlightenment in the school, but was the absence, was a very negative sort of aspect to a very evangelical religion, which was unhelpful.
Not much, because it was a unisex school. It was a male school, still is. And I can't remember, we ... my parents used to try and introduce us to girls on vacations and so on.
I don't remember much about that?
No. I taught in the Sunday School. I was supposed to be a leader. The blind leading the blind. You know, one of the things that does come back to me in memory was the sense of, of concern really, and that is that I taught right from an early age, you know, 16, 17, or something, I was teaching kids in Sunday School. And all the wrong things I must have told them. I mean, my views were so immature. I shouldn't have been a teacher, I don't think so. And I wonder what happened to these people because of the false views I was putting in front of them, you know, miracles and all that sort of stuff. God is sort of descending and performing sorts of miracles and stuff like that I no longer believe in.
Well, I hope so. In other words they discovered some light along the path.
Oh, it was tremendously important. It was a resource, a tremendous resource. And one of the positive things that came out of it, I suppose, is that it did emphasise that there was a thing called forgiveness, see. So I remember the day in which I actually said, 'I'm going to believe that. I'm not going to feel that there's great weight in my life, and on my shoulder.' You know, I had pictures of The Pilgrim's Progress by Bunyan and there are pictures in the body of the pilgrim wandering around with a great big sack on his back. You know, tremendous burden. And then there comes a time I think in the actual pictures in the book, he's at the foot of the cross. The load falls of his back and he's free. I actually had that experience. And that was a wonderful positive experience which has never left me.
No, I think I got to a point of no return.
I was so burdened, that this was just a great wonderful relief. Tremendous relief. That it's never left me I think is tremendously important.
Was the guilt that you felt — and I think it's a guilt that's often been described in literature and it's a very common experience, especially from the period where people were given a lot of religious reasons to really feel guilty — did you feel that that guilt was mostly associated with your emerging sexuality?
Oh, absolutely, yes.
No, absolutely. Clear as a pike staff.
Oh, I had lots of friends at the university. Didn't have many friends at school. I think I had great respect for some of the senior students and wondered why I wasn't as good as they were. You know, they were leaders in various respects. They became leaders in the community.
Oh, yes, I had friends.
Well, I had a particular one who was interested in biology, the same one as I. And then we went and did the same course at the University of Melbourne where we were competing with each other all along. And in the end I got the job that he wanted, that we both wanted.
He was, I think, yes.
No, because we went to ... I mean, only in a casual sort of way because we went to different parts of the world. He eventually became a Professor of Agriculture. And I went over to Adelaide.
Yeah, well, my first preference really was to study medicine. But, my parents were against that. My father thought that was a terrible job, to be a doctor.
Oh, up all hours. Weekends not free, that sort of thing. And in any case it was a very expensive sort of course, I think. So, I thought the next best was some other form of biology, and agriculture seemed to be the one. Now that was probably a good choice because in agriculture I learnt an awful lot of things that I wouldn't have done in a science course.
Things about soil, about domestic plants and animals, about climatology. A lot of stuff which eventually was going to become very important to me when I decided I was really interested in ecology. So I got an ecological background way back in the '30s. Now, I realised that I was missing out on something in biology and that was a detailed study of the animal kingdom, say if I had done that in the zoology department. So I did slip in some extra courses, you know, just attending them because I was very interested in that. But that to some extent professionally didn't count because eventually when I changed my career pretty substantially, from studying insects to going into the zoology department at the University of Sydney a long time later, I was not regarded as somebody who really understood animals. I could garden and tell you any insect or — nobody else in the department could pretty well do that. But if I walked down to the beach, the rocky shore, I wouldn't know one barnacle from another, and was regarded as pretty dreadful, to live in Sydney and not know that detail of biology. But these were the days in which the important thing was to be able to recognise the animals and feel, and to know something about their anatomy. It was pretty old-fashioned stuff, but it clinged on.
Very classical biology, yeah.
Oh, yeah, I think so. And I think what I would have liked to have done [was] research. Because in those days, in Melbourne anyway, the big top thing in biology was the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. You know, the research institute that Sir Macfarlane Burnet eventually became the director of. And some members of my class did medicine and went into that. And I thought that was, you know, you'd be doing research that was going to help humanity. That was a very important component of my thinking, and I think one of the reasons why I didn't say, 'Well, I'll do zoology,' What use would that be to the world? So agriculture, I thought, 'Yeah. That could be very helpful.' See I was very evangelical still. 'That could be very helpful to the world.' And I wanted to go to South-East Asia or somewhere and use agriculture as the vehicle for my bringing light to the darkness of the world. See, I really felt that way. And I remember talking to, very early in the piece, the Professor of Agriculture who eventually became Sir Samuel McMahon Waltham, a very wonderful person, very, very tactful person ...
Um, partly disappointed, but then when I began to think of the other ways in which I might be able to help humanity, see that was very important, I thought [about] agriculture. My father actually helped me there because he'd used some people who in fact had gone through agriculture and he said, 'That's the place for you.' And, so, I felt, 'Yeah, that's probably good, that's probably a good line.' And I'm glad I did that actually.
I would have liked to have gone into research because my ideal was the famous institute in Melbourne, the Walter and Eliza Hall Medical Research Institute, which Sir Macfarlane Burnet eventually became the director of. And some of my school friends actually became, did medicine, and were members of the staff there. So, that's what I would have wanted to do. I had the feeling that investigation into medicine would mean I would be helping people. That appealed to me more I think than being a bedside sort of physician.
Oh, because everything in my background, from the school, the Presbyterian school, from the church I went to, was your job in the world is to help people. Be of, be of use. So the world is different because you've lived in it. That was very, very strong. It was a sort of puritanical thing in a way, you know. It was associated with the puritan work ethic too I think.
Oh, yes, you know, very strongly with me in the sense that I feel I want to be doing something useful all the time.
I was looking forward to discovering information, learning, that would help me to help my fellow human beings. I had a sort of positive feeling about that.
That wasn't my prime interest really. My prime interest was to discover knowledge which I didn't have and how I could make use of that. In the meantime, you know, along with that would come knowing various people I suppose.
Oh, I hated it. I realised that I could never have been a farmer because we had to spend a year in a place called Werribee where there was a state experimental station. And we had to get up early in the morning and milk the cows and feed the pigs and so on. I remember after about two months of this — we had a whole year doing that — I said to Professor Waltham, 'I don't think I'm made ... I don't think there's any point in doing this. It doesn't do me any good at all. Why do I have to learn how to feed a pig?' And he said, 'It's good for your soul.' I never understood why it was good for my soul.
Well, I disliked that aspect of it. I was happier if I was in a wheat field, reaping a wheat field or learning the difference between wheat and barley. But then we also had to learn how to grade wool and wool classing. You had to learn at a dreadful table which had something like the finest of the wool that way, and I don't know, the crimp of the wool that way. And you had to remember all these numbers and pick out a number somewhere in that general table which gave you the class of the wool. I found that was a ridiculous thing to do. There must have been a machine that could do that. Why did we have to do that?
It really was, yes.
I didn't mind the physical thing, I always like physical things. But it was just rather boring. Milking a cow is not much fun. I mean, I love animals, if my job had been to pat the cow and make the cow happy, I would have loved that. But this is doing something very unfriendly to the cow.
Not really, no. And then we had to fill in, I don't know, a number of months during the vacation, quite a number of months, on farms. And I went to the north-west, north-eastern Victoria, in the hot summer months, doing time which I thought was terrible. I was not cut out to be a farmer.
Oh very, quite early in the piece. I really wanted to be an investigator. I wanted to find out more knowledge myself. And I didn't even have to bother about the field in which I wanted to do that because I was basically interested in insects and so entomology became a very important part of my study and my ambition was to eventually do research into insects.
Because they were the easiest, I mean, if you're interested in biology when you're a kid, the easiest thing to collect is butterflies or beetles. After all, there are more beetles in the world than any other sort of animal. So that's easy. And I remember on a summer vacation once, the school vacation, I actually found a beetle which was the most beautiful creature I've ever seen, called a jewel beetle. You know, it just looked like a gem with gold, and blue, and green and whatnot. Iridescent. And I thought this was wonderful. And I keep on doing that. And, an aunt of mine had given me a microscope, but I didn't know how to use it. But that could have led me into another area which would be important.
Not until I went to the university, yeah. Then of course I became interested in another whole area which you couldn't just see with your naked eye. But the world beneath the microscope, that was wonderful.
Oh, it really did, yeah. But I was interested in, see, there are a lot of things associated with insects. There's the weather. There's the plants that they feed on. You see, it really opens up quite a big area. They're very fascinating. I mean there are so many insects in the world. And they're so important in the life of human beings.
Not a bit. I was not. I was focused, no problem. I was very focused. And that had disadvantages in the sense that if there had not been some job in that area to go on to, I would have had a sense of collapse I think. And, in a way, I think that one's life is very much governed by accidents. It was an accident that a particular job came up, I mean, a research student's job came up [at] the time I was just ready for it. I didn't regard that as any divine plan, you know, for my benefit. It was just fortunate. That's happened a number of times. And I think that has made me feel that we shouldn't commit ourselves to a particular profession or particular focus in jobs early in life, but you're able to[do] many different things. So that if that one fails, try that one, it ought to be okay. But I did change later on.
I was very clear. I wanted to go to the darkest Asia and help the Asians to find enlightenment from their Hinduism or whatever it was, and at the same time I would be growing vegetables or doing something, helping them to grow a bit of vegetables or crop or so on. I had a very evangelical fervour there. And when I explained that to Professor Waltham, I said, 'This is what I really want to do,' he said, very plain to me, 'What are you like, at whiskey?' I mean he used some expression which meant, 'What are you like at five o'clock going into the Club at Singapore or something and having Daniels Whiskey or something?' I said, 'I'm a teetotaller.' He said, 'That won't help much.' He really was a wet blanket. He realised that was a bit [of a] passing phase perhaps.
Well, they're both the same I think, you see. The idea was that a colony was a missionary enterprise. But there was one interesting thing in between — if I was to do that, I would have had to have gone to the Colonial College of Agriculture in Trinidad and learn the ropes about tropical agriculture. And I thought that would be fun before I went into the part of Asia or something.
Because it was near. Because it was close to hand. Africa seemed to be remote.
Well not as remote, no.
Oh, well, oh. It took quite a while after the beginning of the war before there was any conscription as I recall. Before, there would be volunteers called for, and ...
I wasn't tempted a bit. I thought I was a pacifist. I think I was a pacifist at that stage and I wasn't tempted at all. Both my brothers became involved in the war. And when I went to the Waite Agriculture Institute, we didn't do anything we wanted to do. To start with we did, but as the war progressed, we had to be classified as an essential industry and so my actual field of operations changed as the war progressed and I was doing things which were regarded as more useful to the war effort.
That was at the Waite Institute.
Well, the research student entomologist, yeah.
That's right, yeah.
It was going to — to me, the Waite Institute was a Mecca. It was the agricultural Mecca in Australia. There was no question about that. It had fantastic facilities. It had a great reputation ... [INTERRUPTION]
Oh, it was opening up, I mean, I felt now I was going into the real world. The opportunities were just opening like that in front of me. I thought, wonderful ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, the Waite meant, to me it meant going to the best place in the world. I didn't know anywhere else in the world, but the best place in Australia, anyway, to pursue my career.
Well, almost the first impression was a bit of a negative one in a way because I had to introduce myself to the director, who was an Englishman. And he was a rather stern fellow, Professor Prescott, and he said to me, 'Well ,we've only ever had one other research student in this agricultural research institute, you're the second one. The first one was a complete failure.' That was my introduction. So I used to say, 'I'm not going to be the second failure.' Anyway, the people I actually worked with in the entomology department were wonderful. Terribly helpful, just fascinating people and so on.
What was what?
Oh, my initial task was to study grasshoppers. Plague grasshoppers, which were causing devastation in the drier areas of South Australia. And so, particularly, I was studying what happened to the eggs when they were laid in the soil in the summertime, how was it they survived. What would perhaps be the ways in which you could stop them from surviving and that sort of thing. It was very interesting to study.
Oh, we found that, I was working, I was not the only one of course working in that area. And what we found was that the reason why there were plagues of grasshoppers was the farmers had introduced — instead of just having sheep feeding on salt bushes, the farmers had pushed their wheatbelt further and further north in areas [that weren't] terribly suitable for wheat. They'd get a crop in good years, but in other years they'd hardly get any crop at all and it was just food for grasshoppers. So it was a wonderful place for grasshoppers. They'd just feed on the seeds, you know, the plants that the farmers planted. And the conclusion we came to, which was a very simple conclusion in the end: the only way of solving the grasshopper problems was to draw back the wheatbelt to the sure areas that were growing wheat and replant these places with salt bushes because the farmers had got rid of all the salt bushes, the native plants. Of course the farmers said, 'I'm not going to do that.'
We found the answer, which often happens — you can't put it into practice. Politically not acceptable ...
It was frustrated. Yeah.
Well, it's not quite as simple as that, but basically that's what happened, yes. But we did add to knowledge. We added to the knowledge of the physiology and ecology of the grasshoppers which became very important because grasshoppers and locusts were problems all around the world, particularly in Africa. We had lots of correspondence with people in Africa and in Russia where there were locust plagues also. And so we felt we were adding to store of human knowledge in this area.
Now this sounds like an important moment for Charles Birch because here he's been fairly narrowly focused on insects and he does a project, in which you use the word to describe it, ecology, which was a fairly new word about looking at those insects in a wider expanse, and then this led you to look at the world and not just at the local environment. Was that an important opening out that began to occur for you around this time?
Oh, dramatically important. Because the process of studying, not just grasshoppers but other insects, we were finding out the importance of the environment and we tried to analyse the role of environment in determining numbers. That's what ecology is about. And we felt we had a line that nobody else had. We were fairly self-centred about this. I mean, a small bunch of very enthusiastic people working on what is now called ecology, population ecology. And so we reinforced one another to try and be leaders in that field.
Did we did have what?
We had a line that was not the traditional line. And the traditional line was being developed by another group in Canberra, CSIRO in Canberra, under a leading entomologist, Dr Nicholson. And we came to blows in terms of our views of what determined the numbers of insects.
Well, it's a bit difficult to put it in a nutshell, but let me see if I can. I think the essence essentially was simply this. That we regarded — well, Nicholson's view is a rather simpler one to give. And that is that, as numbers increase like that, say grasshopper plagues, they ran out of food or predators increased and they collapsed because it's usually a food shortage or a predator that comes into the picture. And they call that density dependent regulation because what happens depends on the density of the grasshoppers, you see. Now, we said, what really happens depends on a multitude of things in the environment. Not just running out of food, in fact, we thought that was very unimportant. Not just predators, we thought that was very unimportant. But [there] were other things and they were — the environment consisted of a great diversity of things that you needed to study, not just one or two things. Now, in Canberra, Dr Nicholson put all his eggs into one basket saying, 'Well the important thing is biological control. Bring in pests from outside, I mean, predators from outside that can eat your bad bugs, you see.' We said, 'No, the important thing was to study the total environment.' And my colleague Andrewartha [HG] wrote a book about this which was probably the first, biggest, treatise on that approach to ecology. And we thought we had a mission in the world, to bring this aspect in, what is now called population ecology, to the forefront.
I think I have to say that the traditional orthodox view still is the Nicholsonian one. We're still a bit on the sidelines. But, picking up bits and pieces here and there. In other words, there are still two camps.
Each has influenced the other, yes. But Dr Nicholson's approach was far more conducive to a mathematical model. And everybody these days wants mathematical models, you see. You put it in a computer. We weren't interested in that, in fact, our models were much more complicated. You would have had to have 100 computers and then, you know, I don't want to get too complicated, but it was not easy to put down in simple mathematical rules. And people began to think, 'What we want are simple mathematical rules to govern ecology.' I don't think there are any actually.
Now, can we leave your scientific career there, where we've got it for the moment, and go back and look at other developments that were taking place in your life, that you went through and learned and graduated and went on to study. On the philosophical side, which is the other major interest of your life, when you left school, you left a devout evangelical Christian and went off to university. While you were at university did any of that change?
No. It didn't really. I remained devout. I taught in Sunday School. I had a very narrow view of the world. Even my biological studies, which put an emphasis on evolution and I didn't think evolution was very important, didn't challenge my faith really, though it should have, I think, at that stage. No, I didn't change at all. In fact, it would be true for me to say this, as an undergraduate in the University of Melbourne, I never learned to think. I learned how to get stuff out of text books. I learned how to take down lecture notes. I learned how to regurgitate for an examination and do reasonably well. But I never learned how to think. I never learned to think until I went to the research institute in Adelaide.
No, I wasn't, no.
No. Oh, I don't really know about that. Probably. Because I, yeah, I suppose I did because as when I was at school, I kept on feeling that the important thing for me is to do a good job in whatever profession I'm going into. So I'm going to put all my life into that. Fun and games, there's a bit on the side. It was there, I mean, I played, I played hockey or something, and that was fun. But it was not an important part.
The same as when I was at school, I think. I didn't have any. 'Oh, there's no point. . .' That's true as an undergraduate in Melbourne. No, I didn't have any close friends, except one. The one we were talking about already.
Ah, I think less so. But I was reinforced in the funny views I had because I tended to belong to a thing called the Crusader Movement. It's a very evangelical student movement, when I was at the University of Melbourne. And I was very embarrassed about that because I felt there were a lot of things that were wrong about it. And yet they were ... who am I to judge? I've always had that problem. Who am I to judge whether my views are the right ones or not? I might be just taken in. I always had that problem. And when I say always, I got over it eventually. It took a long time to get over it, to have confidence that I was really on the right track.
Because they're afraid? Oh, yes. I think what I've learnt is this. That for the person who has blinkers and is very committed to a position, which is wrong, you can have very little influence on that position unless you show them an alternative which is more attractive. But just to be negative and say, 'Look that's a stupid idea, everybody's shown that to be wrong,' only makes it worse. But if you can say, 'Look there's an alternative that you haven't even begun to think about, which is jolly good. Just think about it.' That's what happened to me, you see. I mean, both things happened at the same time. I was told in Adelaide, you know, 'It's a lot of nonsense you believe in.' But, 'You know, there are other ways of looking at this.' That's important in teaching because I learnt slowly that you should never with a student be negative ...
I think it was because I didn't know any alternative. If I had been presented with an alternative, I think I would have thought seriously about an alternative. In fact, I did have germs of thinking that way because there was an organisation here in Melbourne called the Student Christian Movement. And I went along to a couple of their meetings but I didn't understand what they were talking about. Very sort of high faluting it seemed to be. Somebody was lecturing on the mathematics in Christianity, you know. I thought, 'That's not for me.'
No I wasn't, no. I wasn't thinking at all. I wanted the truth handed to me on a plate.
No, no. I think ...
I think ... Mmm? No, no, no. I think I was attracted to groups. Always have been. So very quickly found a group of people my own age in Adelaide, for example. When I was a student in Melbourne I was too busy. When I was in Adelaide we used to do lots of things together. Go on picnics. We belonged to a student Christian movement which is a very liberal organisation, so that ... safety in numbers I suppose.
Not really, no. These were the days in which you didn't talk about those things. You don't walk in the bookshop and see a book on the shelf which says Men Love Sex as I did last night. It's an entirely different atmosphere then.
No, I didn't think that way, no.
No. I don't know why, but it didn't. See, I'm not really very introspective. Never have been. When people ask me, 'Why do you do this? Why do you do that?' I said, 'You'll have to ask somebody else.'
Oh, that's very important, because my colleagues, particularly the one who was supervising me, used to think I had very strange views on religion, which I think I did have. And he was very anti-religious. He thought that this was a cause of a lot of trouble in the world. And so we used to have lots of discussions with him, my trying to defend my position, he trying to say 'Well, with a scientific view of the world you can't possibly believe those sorts of things.' He said it much more gently than that. And I found I couldn't answer his challenge. I really couldn't answer. So I said, 'There's something funny about the track I'm on if I can't really ... ,' you know ...
... account for it. So, and then it was just fortunate that I really went hunting. And I said, 'Well, I didn't really have much to do with student life in the University of Melbourne, let me see if I can have something to do with it in Adelaide. I've got more time now.' And I found the Student Christian Movement, which is a very liberal organisation. Luck again! So fortunate for me. I mean it could have been a fundamentalist outfit. But it was a liberal organisation which had an alternative way of looking at Christianity and science and the world. Great new area opened up for me. I was really a convert. Not that it was evangelical in that sense.
Oh, the big difference was that it didn't emphasise future things that are going to happen to you in terms of heaven and hell, rewards and punishment. That didn't come into it at all. That it emphasised a way of life which was basically modelled on the life of Jesus and so you had to study the life of Jesus. That God didn't manipulate the world or God didn't send flowers, God didn't send fire and angels and chariots and all this sort of stuff. So it was what we now call a very liberal interpretation of the Christian religion. And God was not the manipulator of the world. And if you wanted to use a word, it would be God's influence was persuasive. And that stayed with me. And I found it very persuasive. But I also, see I was lucky that I met particularly one person who'd gone on this path much further than I had, was a philosopher. And he put me on to a whole lot of reading which helped me enormously.
Oh, well, that's easy to answer. It was A.N. Whitehead who had written a book called Science and the Modern World, which is an attempt to relate science, a mechanistic and reductionist way of looking at the world, with another way of looking at the world which is more philosophical, more religious. And that was an eye-opener to me so I read all of Whitehead. And then something interesting happened. I remembered, my memory, something snapped, and I remembered that [earlier in my life] my Professor of Zoology in Melbourne, a person who was a wonderful lecturer, a person called Professor Acker, had given a lecture to the students which I'd gone to. And she talked about Whitehead, the philosopher, in relation to biology. So I [later] wrote to him and I said, 'You know, I never took any notice of you as a student but I want to take some notice of you now. What should I read?' At that stage [he said], 'There's one book you ought to read' — he said he was writing a book of his own which I ought to read but wasn't available now — the book was The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation, by Charles Hartshorne, an American philosopher, which I read and went on from there to get to know him and all the rest of this long story.
No. I was trying to integrate two areas of my life. The scientific side, which is very clear cut, and the religious/philosophical side of my life, which had been clear cut, but which was now, things were falling apart. The bottom was dropping out of the bucket in a sense. But I was looking for some alternative. I very much wanted to have a united way of looking at my understanding of the world around me.
Well, I could have easily thrown the baby out with the bath water but I was left with a number of very positive things. One was the experience of forgiveness, you know, the weight doesn't have to remain on your back forever if you think you've got weights on your back. And, other qualities which bore the virtues. It seemed to me they needed an explanation in a mechanistic world, which I was learning from science — where does love, and compassion, and all those sort of things, is that a real part of the universe or not? That sort of question. Difficult question.
Philosophical religion, yeah. Yeah.
Well, not just a theology, but a philosophy of religion I think. I didn't want to think of science there and religion there. I wanted to ... I thought they had to be looked at that way. And I think this is what Whitehead was helping me with.
... Oh, that's easy to answer because I stayed at Waite, Waite Institute, for about six years, and then I went to the university ...
Your time at the Waite Institute opened up the world to you mentally and in a way physically you were looking at a much broader horizon than when you'd been at school and university. And, this change started you on a search to see whether or not you could integrate what you were learning in science with your need to continue, to believe, in something. What was the next big stage of your life that helped you in this quest to try and find a way to integrate science and religion?
Yes. Well, I'd spent a lot of time thinking and discussing this whole area. And I had on side my scientific colleagues who wanted to know more about what the science was about, see, so that was good. And I had on my side the people in the Student Christian Movement who were wanting to know what is a credible religion to the world of science. And then I left the Waite Institute after about six years and I went to the University of Chicago. The reason I went there was that it was the centre of population ecology and I wanted to study more population ecology. But, as a matter of chance, it so happened that it was the centre of Whitehead and Thorpe in the world. The University of Chicago.
I didn't know. All I knew was that Professor Hartshorne, whose book I read was there, didn't know much about him, but that the divinity school and the philosophy department was the strongest group of Whiteheadian thinkers in the world. And there's never been a stronger group since. So, you know, it was just paradise that had fallen on my feet. So I spent a good deal of my, I mean I had a research program to do that, but I spent a good deal of my time sitting [in] on lectures by people who were really quite famous. There are names who are now written in the Hall of Fame of what is now called 'process thought' - process geology, process theology. So, that was very important to me because it meant that I was reinforced in a view which I was beginning, for me, was beginning to be the truth and that I must have been on the right track. So I wasn't alone thinking about this. That was very important for me.
Oh, fundamentally because you think of the Newtonian Universe, looked at the universe in terms of lots of bits and pieces called particles. And the particles were sort of jumbled together and they were pushed around like billiard balls on a billiard table. Process means that the particles are not like that at all. Something is going on which is a process. And the particles, the idea of a particle, is simply a very poor metaphor for what the world is like. It isn't made of particles at all. It's made of processes, events. And, I mean, that's the beginning of the idea. And of course this is becoming substantiated in the modern, physical understanding of the universe. It was beginning to appear at that time through relativity and what not. Quantum theory. But now, the whole idea of particles is out the window. You know, if you say that an electron here, at this end of the universe, can be influenced by an electron at the opposite end of the universe, if that makes any sense saying that, then they're no longer particles. They're related in some way. They're events. So the world is a world of happenings. They're no longer a world of bits and pieces being pushed around including human beings being pushed around. The most important thing that happens are relationships, and that applies to humans too. So you move about the world, the more you discover what process thinkers talk about, internal relations between entities, be they between human beings, between the atoms or what have you. It's not the dominant philosophy of the world today, a dominant philosophy is a mainly materialistic one.
Oh, yes, very much so. And I became friendly with Professor Hartshorne, who was a Professor of Philosophy there and has remained so every since. He's just celebrated his 97th birthday. And, then I ask Hartshorne, 'Who else should I know in this area?' And he said, 'My best student, who's a man called John Carp.' Well I eventually came to publish things with John Carp. He was in California.
No. No. No.
Oh, that was simple. I was just counting beetles. It was an experiment on trying to ... on flower beetles.
Well, it was really an excuse for being in a place where people were thinking about ecology. You see, when you go overseas for a year, a year and a bit, it's extremely difficult to do any basic research which is going to be important. So you pick out something that will keep you occupied. Give you an excuse for talking to other people. Well that's, I mean, that's the more honest way of looking at what I was doing.
I had a project on how to store wheat. See, Australia wasn't exporting any wheat at all because there were no ships to export wheat. And what do you do with a harvest every year and the silos were filled. So you had great huge quantities of grain and they were just being put into great big piles on the ground and then roofs, corrugated iron put over them as a sort of a roofing. And the wheat was deteriorating very rapidly. What was the cause of the deterioration and what could you do about it to stop it from deteriorating? The cause could either have been that the wheat itself was breathing and heating up. Or, perhaps it was that plus the fact that insects got on the surface and their heat was contributing to the heating. You see, wheat had never been stored for years before. Now it had to be stored for year and year and year after year. So that was a problem.
Well, it was really a problem of physics, you know. What were the physics of a great big pile of wheat which had sources of heat? And so I cooperated with Rutherford Robertson, who is now working on the wheat side, you know, the respiration of the wheat. So I got all his sort of ways of working on this and applied it to the insects and together we were able to work out how much wheat, how much heat, was being contributed by these two sources. And most of it was coming from the wheat itself.
Well, they were making a mess of the surface, but they never got very far below the surface, you know, a foot or so. Made a mess of the pile of wheat.
Well, the war ended. I mean, all we knew was that you couldn't store large quantities of wheat in piles like that. I don't ...
No they didn't.
Yeah, but it added to our understanding of both the population of insects, how they were operating in a huge pile of food. They were not doing what you might have thought they would do. In other words, go right through the whole pile, they didn't do that.
Well, because they heated up the surface, and that heat prevented a sort of layer, prevented them from going any further, [so] they just died. So it was an interesting phenomenon. Interesting physical phenomenon.
Yeah, but in the process of doing this, you see, I was studying the rate of increase of different species of beetles that come into wheat. And I was learning a lot about rates of increase which became very important to my understanding of ecology later. I didn't know how to put this stuff together, but my later experience helped me to put this together.
Always. And the more you know, the more there is to be known. You never finish a project in that sense, which is a temptation in science because we keep on asking [for a] grant for the same purpose. And the grantees become fed up with that. So, it's important I think to ramify, you know, branch out beyond your ... into some of the areas that are now opening up. That's always happening with me. The more you know the more there is to be known.
Now there's always been this tension, especially with governments, about whether or not money should be put into the kind of practical thing that you set out to do — although you ended up finding things that were theoretical out of it rather than practical — and those who argue that funding should go to basic research. Where do you sit in that debate?
Oh, I see that as a very clear area, and that is, I thought it was my responsibility to, if possible, work with an animal which had some economic importance. For me it turned out to be something that was a pest. And then find out principles of animal ecology in the process. And you might [not] be able to help the world directly, but you might be able to help it indirectly by the understanding we're getting. I mean that was the philosophy. And you see it was a good philosophy for the Waite Institute, which was an agricultural research institute, and I remember there was a plant physiologist who was interested in respiration. But most physiologists work on carrots, you know, slices of carrots. Well, who wants to be bothered about understanding any more about carrots. But he had to work on tobacco leaves which was much more difficult because it had nicotine which was mucking up the experiments and so on. But he had to persist with that because tobacco was a crop. See, you bring these two things together if possible.
No, it must have been 1946, I think. Yes.
No, that actually, I mean the word ecology was first used by a German a long time ago. But it had been taken up by the Americans. And the department that I was working in in Chicago, they were producing the first big text book on animal ecology, called Principles of Animal Ecology. And so ecology was in the air then.
Now, the theory that you had about insect population, that you'd been developing at the Waite, that you felt was pretty original, did you find that the people in Chicago thought the same thing? That it was an original idea?
Oh, yeah. They were interested in it as a hypothesis, because their book Principles of Animal Ecology really didn't emphasis that. Emphasised other aspects. And when eventually Andrewartha and I came to publish our book on the distribution of balance of animals, which was putting our position, the Professor at Chicago said, 'Well, maybe the University of Chicago Press will be willing to publish it.' And then when I delivered the manuscript to him, he said to me, 'I hope the press doesn't lose its shirt on this.' Actually, it did very well with the press. But he was dubious you see. Is this thing going to hit or not?
I don't know. He was one of these Americans who'd have a bet either way, you see. He would give me stuff to read which was the alternative and ask me to give a seminar to the students on the alternate position, you see. 'Cause he knew I'd be critical, which was good for the students, probably good for me because I had to struggle with ideas that I didn't think much of. It was still a battle going on. Still going on.
Again, could you try and say, in practical terms for the ordinary person who's now become very interested in in ecology, what difference does it make to how we look at the world who wins that argument? ... [INTERRUPTION]
In the broader scheme of things, in a practical sense for ecology and our understanding of how the world works, why does this debate continue? What's important about it? What does it mean if one side wins?
Oh, I think the debate has broadened so that the questions that one is asking now is: How can you, which would be part of the original question, how can you prevent the species from disappearing from the face of the earth as human beings interfere with the environment? What is the nature of those interferences? What can we do about it? So it impinges on a very, very practical thing of really saving the environment of the world. Be it rainforest, or wheat, or outback in Australia. And I think that in a way we know very little about the details of that. My friend Paul Ehrlich has a very good image of this and he says it's as though you're going to walk on aircraft and you see that there are some people on the wings of the aircraft and they're pulling out rivets. And you say, 'But that's a plane I want to fly in.' And the people who are pulling out the rivets are saying, 'Oh, we can get a dollar a rivet and this few won't matter.' 'Well, how many are you going to keep on doing?' 'Oh, the wing hasn't fallen off yet.' Well, Paul Erhlich's image is that that's the world, you see. I mean, the world of nature, we're pulling rivets out, the species that are disappearing. But we don't know how many will disappear before the wings fall off. It's a good image. But we don't really know what are the critical species and what it is that preserves them. So the whole notion of understanding what determines the numbers of animals and plants becomes very important in the modern world. So ecology has risen to an issue of top importance.
But you've indicated that there was an argument right back there at the beginning, which is continued between different schools of ecological thought, and are they not though agreed that there is danger in our not being able to control population? And they disagree about the way to do this?
I think that would be a correct statement, yes.
I think so. I think they come together with the practical problem that needs solution. Now that needs everybody to get to work on the project as fast as they can. And I think the theoretical disagreement becomes less important.
In practical terms it would mean that, if you want to know what is causing the extinction of species, one group would say that the important thing is the total environment. You've got to look at the way the weather is changing, the way the plants are being changed with the clearing of forests and so on. And a whole lot of things. The nature of the soil is deteriorating. The other would say that there are relatively few things. Perhaps there are predators responsible for this extinction. Perhaps the food is running out. In other words, it's a much simpler thing. And the people who are on that side tend to be the ones who are making rather simple mathematical models. And I learnt something from Whitehead, which is a very important principle: seek simplicity, but distrust it. There are a lot of people who make simple models of the world, including the environment, but distrust their models. You should always distrust something which is simple. Now Andrewartha and I, my colleague, always found everything was far more complicated than we thought when we started. Now, one of the battles has been in fact with the chap who's now the chief scientist in Britain, Bob May, an Australian, and Bob has always put these rather simple models. Now he said to me once, 'Charles, the difference between you and me is,' — he believes that there could be a simple solution to the problem of conservation, extinction and so on, [and] I believe there are probably only complex things. He said, 'If I am right, I'm on a winner, you're not.' See. If the world is simpler than you think it is, well back the simple horse.
Of course it does, right through. Science wants to make simple solutions.
I think it can be true to say some of them think that, but others don't think [that] at all. Actually this is a very difficult area. You see, if you go back to the rivets on the plane model, we don't know enough about the detailed relationships to know which ones are the species we have got to be really careful about to save.
That's right, yeah.
I was there for a year and a half.
Oh, it reinforced my philosophical views. Although that's the biggest difference to date, it gave me more confidence about working with other biologists because I thought I had ideas which were more important than some of them had.
That's right, yeah.
No, I started that in Adelaide, the Waite Institute helped me in that region. And then it was reinforced in the year I spent in Chicago. It was a wonderful time there. See it had, gosh, the guy who was president was the genius president in the United States. He was appointed in his 20s. Had been a professor long before that. Professor [Robert] Maynard Hutchins. And he had a dominant view on how to run a university which was entirely different to anyone else. And this was a very exciting atmosphere to be in education then. He was against all the disciplines, you know. He said you're got to integrate them all. He had a more wholistic view of things. It was very exciting for me. He had people who were challenging even the way the university was structured. And he got rid of the football team. And the important thing was to have a good football team. He said, 'We'll have a football team that nobody will be proud of. But we'll have scholarships that everybody will,' you know it was a wonderful idea. And I thought it was so good to have somebody who was so convinced about the role of education and research and the rest of it, that he was inspiring people to go in that direction. Today it's a model. It's an encyclopedia from A to Z, you know, with nothing telling the story. Fancy reading an encyclopedia from beginning to end which was what universities tend to be like now.
Now, here we have somebody who had started out blinkered, very very focused on insects in the most classical way, unwilling to look more broadly, become enormously excited about being in a university where the walls were being pushed down, in a world where he was being asked to integrate everything, and moving away from classification into a complex ecological view of the entire biological spectrum. What do you think had really happened?
What had happened to me? Well, 'cause one of the things that did happen in Chicago was I was determined to learn about something other than insects. So that I attended many courses, you see. All sorts of things on mammals, on genetics, on what not. And genetics was one of the things that I didn't know too much about and I realised that I had to know more about that. So I did expand my biological horizons. And I also had in view the idea that the job I want eventually will not be in a research institute, but will be in a teaching institute, so I will probably have to go back to a biology department somewhere in Australia. And so I was preparing myself in a way for that and I wanted to be acceptable to that possibility.
Yeah. Absolutely, yeah.
Yes, I went on to Oxford.
Yes. From the day I arrived and I was shown my digs, which consisted of a little tiny room, it didn't have anything other than a bed in it, looking out onto a rather dismal garden, and the only bathroom had a bath in it that was full of coal and I asked, 'Where do you have a bath?,' and I was told, 'Oh, there's a wash basin there.' So I used the wash basin to try, for washing myself, and I filled the wash basin up and pulled the plug out and somebody came screaming, the housekeeper, or person who owned the house, and said, 'You've flooded the garden.' Cause they never, somebody had never used the wash basin before. And it didn't go into a drain, it just went into the vegetable garden.
It was absolutely true, yes. So I didn't stay there for too long. But nobody talked to me for a long time.
Oh, no. I'm sorry. That was my first experience in Oxford. And then when I got into the department and so on, very few people would talk to me ...
Oh, they had their own job to do. That was the atmosphere then. I remember the director of the laboratory I was in, the outfit I was in, he said to me one day, 'I've found a very interesting discovery today, there are three people in Oxford who are all working on Vitamin A and neither one knows that the other is working on Vitamin A. Isn't that wonderful?' I said, 'I think that's terrible.' It's the bloody opposite of Chicago, we get together, here it was, we each have our little source. And one day I said to this very distinguished and important ecologist, Charles Elton — I mean he's now in the hierarchy of ecologists of history — and I said to him, 'I'd like to come out with you,' he was studying in a forest called Wickham Wood, 'I'd like to come out with you and find out what you're doing, how you're studying the ecology.' And he said, 'Oh, I don't think you'd better come with me yet because I don't really know what I'm doing.' Well, you'd never hear an American say that. And so I didn't go with him to the woods, I went with somebody else to the woods.
Oh, you ask him, I don't know. I think the idea is that it's important for everybody to do their own thing and you shouldn't be influenced too much by other people. Where, you see another thing, I asked this guy, the director of the laboratory, 'Now I've been here for a few months, I think I ought to go around England and Wales or wherever, and see what's going on in other places. What are the good centres for ecology?' He said, 'I don't know why you want to leave Oxford.' I didn't get much help from him.
Oh, I was doing something quite important. I took the material that I had from Chicago, I didn't know quite how to deal with that, and the stuff I'd been working on the wheat in Australia, and it concerned the rate of increase of animals, insects, you see. And I didn't know quite how to put it together properly, mathematically. And I learnt in Oxford from a very good statistician that if I measured the birth rate of animals, that if I measured the death rate, what is called their life table, I could put these two together in a particular way, I would have a mathematical model. A mathematical figure of what determines the rates of increases and how weather influences and so on. See. And so, I made a big step forward and that was introducing techniques which were used by human population biologists, for insects, rats and things. So I got a lot out of that.
Oh, yes. Well one thing I learnt, which was this: the contrast between England and Chicago at the time, in Chicago the students all came in about 6am in the morning and they never seemed to leave the laboratory. The lights were on at midnight still. They were all taking years and years and years to do their PhDs. And when I got to Oxford nobody turned up before 10am, and the first thing they did was have a cup of tea and life would be broken during the day by cream buns and tea. And they would leave round about 6 and they did ten times the amount of work.
Because the important thing for them was to have an idea which you were concentrating on, focusing on, being critical of and so on. The important thing for my Chicago friends was to get work done. To be seen that you were working. Tremendous contrast. So the effects on, actually the effects on students in Oxford was tremendously important. I eventually came to see the value of that sort of university. I mean the University of Chicago was valuable but there were very different things which were important in England at that time.
That's right. And you knew how to get the most out of such time as you were going to put into your efforts.
No. No. My friends in Oxford were a Canadian and his wife. They were the only people that ever invited me over to dinner. And then the statistician who was very helpful to me and he used to invite me and go to a pub. Well, I didn't drink there but these huge, seems to be gallons of beer that he'd drink, and I would sip water or something.
No, no, no, I haven't. I tell you, the change came when I went to Chicago. I was an absolutely teetotaller until I went to Chicago. And the very first night that my very friendly supervisor professor invited me to come home for cocktails, I didn't know what a cocktail was. And he gave me a martini and I couldn't walk home. So I sort of went for lesser things after that. But no, gradually it became less, I think it was part of my puritanism that I'd been a teetotaller. I don't know. My puritanism began to disappear in Chicago. That aspect of it.
Oh, yes, yes. I saw some merits in it.
Oh, I was pretty clear in what I wanted to do. I wanted to get into a biology department, probably a zoology department, and do teaching as well as research. 'Cause up to that time I'd only virtually done research, you see. And I found that unsatisfying. Largely because, people [who] were 100 per cent research seemed to be a bit nuts in some way; for some funny reason they were doing it. And anyway, it was to take you away from people. I wanted to be with people. And so the obvious way to be with people in a university as an academic was to teach. And I deliberately wanted to combine teaching with research. Can I do those two? So that was my objective.
Oh, everything. I think learning together, reinforcing one another's views and relationships, and it's also something egotistical about it. If you're a teacher you are standing in front of a crowd of people and you're supposed to know more than they do; this isn't always the case, and so, it's like being an actor. And that gives me a certain amount of satisfaction. I suppose that's a weakness, is it? You see it's very difficult to know where to draw the line between self-centred activities and those which are going to be more outward. And I think the two have to get together in some sort of way. But, I've always enjoyed teaching whenever I've started. Especially large mobs. I mean to stand in front of a thousand students to me is wonderful. You feel, that's a bit why I like the organ, you feel in control of power, you see; you make such a noise out of one instrument.
No, certainly not.
Oh, contributing to a general theory that I'd become wedded to in ecology. I wanted to add more to that. Secondly, a less worthy motive. You're not going to get anywhere in academy, in the academia unless you publish papers and you can only do that by doing research. And so, those two motivations I think.
Oh, at the beginning stage, the second was paramount. That is, I had to establish myself in a university, a new university, that I was capable of doing research as well as teaching. So I put myself, my 100 per cent to it. I really did, I really worked very hard. But I wasn't sure that I was going to bring it off. I was never confident when I started something new, that I was going to bring it off at all. The only way to be sure, well, to increase your chance, was to put a lot of effort into it. But, so I ended up with a job in the University of Sydney which gave me that opportunity.
I had no choice. It was a case of where the jobs were and there were very few jobs in 1948, yeah, 1948. And I was very lucky, there was one available in Professor Deakin's department, in the zoology department in the University of Sydney. So I was quite happy.
None at all. No.
Oh, I had a two-year assignment to go overseas on the scholarship I was on. I didn't want to stay any more.
Not at that stage. I did later on.
No, that's right there.
Oh, the thing that attracted me was, first of all I was amongst students again because I took up residence in a college, in the University of Sydney, Wesley College. And straight away I was made Vice-master so I had responsibility with students in addition to what I was doing at the university. And that was very pleasant company. Then I thought Sydney was a wonderful city because you could get so easily to national parks both to the north of the city and to the south of the city, and the Blue Mountains in the west. There's nothing like it in Australia. You know, to have this huge city in proximity to such wonderful places, as well as, of course, the Asians. I thought it was wonderful. This'll do.
That was certainly one of them, yes.
Oh, yes. I think very frequently in the weekends I go down to national park or somewhere like that.
Oh, it's fun.
Oh, about nature? Oh, I think it's ... I have a relationship with things that are natural. I love rainforests. I mean, it seems to me one of the most diverse environments on earth, and you get that down on the south of Sydney. I like having picnics.
Oh, sure. I had, you see, I was very closely associated with students and we had lots of excursions. We eventually established a field station just a little north of Sydney on the central coast. So there were lots of good reasons to bring students out to these places.
Oh, I went ahead straight away.
Oh, I was working with the same insects that I was working with in Adelaide when I worked at the Waite Institute. And I was trying to get more information on the sort of things I'd learnt in Oxford on how to handle the sort of information I was getting, see, in terms of rates of increases and so on. So, it was laboratory work. Fairly straight-forward stuff.
At that time, not very much really, because by 1948 there was hardly any teaching of ecology even in Britain. The person I'd worked with there, Charles Elton, had established a course in Oxford on animal ecology. It was regarded as a little bit suspect. You see ecology was — is this a hard science or not? And people wondered whether, you know, it was really a part of biology. And when I got to Australia, Sydney had more ecology probably than the other cities because Sydney had Professor Ashby, later Lord Ashby, who was Professor of Botany. And he taught the first, I think, the first course in plant ecology in Australia. And I was interested in trying to develop a course in animal ecology at Sydney. But Professor Deakin wasn't too enthusiastic about it, because he said, 'You're appointed to teach comparative physiology,' about which I knew almost nothing. So it was a job just to keep one step ahead of the students. But, I said, 'Well you know, I really want to make this more an ecological course.' And he said, 'Okay, but be careful about it.' And that was because ecology was not really accepted in 1948. It was a funny subject. Natural History, you see. Okay, that's fine. But it's more than those questions.
Oh, that was all right because ... you mean my scientific colleagues?
Yeah. Well, I had to pick out the ones who were tolerant. But most of them were very old-fashioned zoologists. See, comparative anatomy, all this sort of stuff had been taught ever since Darwin got into the picture. And, there was very little at that time in Australian biology departments on either ecology or genetic ecology. Very little genetics, that was a new subject. But there was some taught at Sydney. And no evolution. Nobody taught anything about evolution in the sense of how it happens.
I suppose what I'm asking, from the scientific establishment at the universities in Australia at the time, was there excitement and enthusiasm about this new way of looking at things? Or was it, and you therefore, regarded with a bit of suspicion?
Oh, I think the latter.
Oh, because biology established itself after Darwin by trying to get as much evidence as possible to support the fact of evolution. And that was through comparative anatomy. It was through studying the different species, the differences between them. You know, morphological differences. I thought pretty dull stuff. People would be studying bones and muscles and all this sort of stuff. And that was what biology was thought to be. And if you're a biologist what you needed to be able to do was to know all plants and all the animals from A to Z. I didn't know that. So I was not really part of the culture, you see. I came in through the back door. I'm sure if there had been somebody who was willing to teach the old-fashioned stuff, who applied for the job, they would have got it more. But that was okay. I mean, I wasn't — in a sense I wanted to challenge the citadel. Or actually, stronger word than challenge, I wanted to sort of really attack the citadel of old-fashioned biology. It took a long time to get there.
Well, yes. You see my prime interest was what is now called population ecology. And that really is — you take a single, any particular, species like a rabbit, I took various beetles: What is it that determines whether they're common or rare? What can make them extinct? What determines their numbers? What determines where they are when they are? So it's very important if you want to know how to get rid of rabbits to know those sorts of details. What limited them from going halfway through the tropics? There they stop when they get halfway through the tropics. How far, low down, will they go in terms of cold? That sort of thing.
I suppose I'm interested in why it is that scientific establishments are so conservative. Because it seems on the face of it that what you were interested in, and the questions you were asking, were so obviously in need of asking, that people would have been interested?
Oh, I think the scientific establishment is interested, I mean, if you want to get ahead fast in the scientific establishment, you dig your roots into areas which are already well-established; they're recognised. The scientists are very reluctant to accept something from outside that established area. And it's particularly at that time when the established area had been set by what was taught in England.
Oh, the fact that I had done research in this new area, that I'd gone to a department which was very much involved in ecological thought. That I'd been in England in a department which was in fact a frontier department in an ecological work. So, I was fascinated by that. And I'd never had much enthusiasm for the old-fashioned stuff. I hadn't done it, you see. I really hadn't studied it. Perhaps it was my way around an outfit that was dedicated to something else.
No, no. I don't think so. I think that I got on to something which interested me. And I wanted to pursue that. And that I wasn't excited about these other things. Nothing very complicated about it. The only complicated thing was trying to do it in essentially an old-fashioned structure. That had its problems.
Now, you'd chosen to go to a university where you could do both research and teaching. And you felt more drawn to the teaching side of things. Do you think that you are the sort of person who is better at communicating ideas and popularising them than doing original research?
No, no, no. I was interested in both. And the reason I didn't want to be 100 per cent in the research area was that I thought I'd go nuts. Because you see research is very demanding, personally and emotionally, because you might spend a month, two months, three months, doing something that turns out to be a blank. Well, what satisfaction do you get out of that. It's very, very distressing. Whereas if during that time you'd also been doing something else, like teaching, well at least I've communicated something, I think, and I certainly needed the two together. In fact, I think that's fairly well-recognised. I remember the director of the institute in Adelaide saying to me, 'You know, if you're doing the research you either ought to have associated with teaching, or else extension work.' In other words, that meant going out to farmers and advising them what to do. Well I wasn't interested in that.
Oh, yes, the person I worked with in Adelaide who was my supervisor, Professor Andrewartha, I kept in constant touch with him. And I wanted to have that, to make sure I was still on the right track. See, I was dependent to some extent, to a considerable extent, on him. And we wrote a book together a little bit later on.
Distribution and Abundance of Animals. It became a sort of classic.
Oh, yes. I had, in fact, more contacts overseas than in Australia. Still do have.
Oh, I went abroad very frequently, at least once a year. I never paid my own fare. You know somebody, there would be some conference or something, some teaching, some lecturing engagement. So that was not difficult, not at all. And the other thing was, the people that I knew came out here. Later on, Professor Dobzhansky at Columbia University, whom I'd worked with there, he came here for a year. And then, one of his graduate students who's now the leading professor in Harvard, he came here, Professor Lewontin, and Professor Moore from Columbia University, so these friends that I'd established they were very interested in Australia. You see, frontier country, like America was in the west, before anyone got there, to California. So it had a fascination to these people.
Well, terribly important.
Oh, I have no problems about that at all, provided it is not just a long holiday. My visits were on the whole, not that long, you see. Three or four weeks, except for the occasions when I went away for two years. More or less two years.
I worked very hard, oh, yes. Well, when I was at Columbia University for a year, I remember the very day in which I had to catch a flight out of New York, I was still looking at stuff under the microscope at Columbia University to tie it all up. I said that I think this is ridiculous. I ought to be doing something else. But the professor said to me, 'Well if you're doing it now, that's the thing that will make your career,' you see.
Oh, that makes me sound pretty ancient, doesn't it. I mean, a father. No. Look, the founding father, one of the founding fathers of ecology, was the guy I worked with then in Oxford, Charles Elton. Very famous. You know, he really is very important. In the United States there were ... founding fathers came a little later. And I came a little later still I think. Now, I think what Paul Erhlich was getting at, is that he was not very enthusiastic about the traditional ecological way of approaching things. And it was pretty crummy, I think. You know, way back in the '40s and '50s. And he came across this book that Andrewartha and I had written and he thought that this was opening up a new area that was in fact very attractive to him. He thought, 'Oh this is what I really want.' And he very shortly afterwards met me at an international congress of zoology in Washington and said, 'Now look, can we arrange that I come to Australia.' He came to Australia for a year. So that's, I think Paul was stimulated by that book because it was a different sort of a book at the time. And the people who published it, you see this University of Chicago Press, they were not convinced it was going to be a success because it was out of the run of things.
Now, of course, Paul Ehrlich himself is one of a handful of people who were leading a huge political movement based on a new way of looking at the environment. At what point in your career did you get involved in this sort of thinking?
Oh, I find it a bit hard to put that down. But it was partly that the students became very concerned about the environment. And in the University of Sydney the students put on lunchtime lectures, believe it or not, I don't know whether they do that now or not, in the huge Wallace Theatre which held about a thousand students. And they'd pack them. And I remember that on one occasion, and Professor May, who was a physicist who became a biologist, he was on another. And the whole issue of population, this would have been in the late-'50s, I think '60s, and it was round about then ...
Yes, we got involved fairly quickly. I was pretty strongly criticised for that because I was not an expert in human ecology. That really didn't exist to any extent. I was not an expert in human populations. The word people call demographers. But they were not interested really in the sorts of impact of human beings on the environment. And it's a bit like wildfire from then.
I don't think anything happened to me.
Oh, I just participated because I was enthusiastic. And I had people, you know, gradually people gathered around you, which gives you confidence that this is the thing that's important to deal with. I think it was like that. I didn't have any problems.
So where did it lead you, this involvement? Did you start to speak publicly a lot, did you start travelling internationally over it? What, how did that evolve, and develop for you as a theme in your life?
Well, I suppose the most important development was [that] the Club of Rome was established as this sort of super-organised, very small organisation, but by business people who had a lot of clout. Like Peccei who was head of Olivetti and Fiat in Italy. So he was a big industrialist. Now he established, with only about half a dozen people, the Club of Rome. And they produced this world-rocking book called The Limits to Growth. I think that was 1972. And it sold over a million copies, very quickly and they had no idea it was going to sell like that. It was just, you know, the climate of opinion was appropriate for that book to take on.
Yes, well, the reason why Peccei was interested was ... he was concerned about the disappearing resources on the face of the earth, and the impact that industry was making through pollution. This is in the early '70s. And he saw it as a threat to his industries. which he was also developing these industries in South America as well as in Europe. And the important thing was: What can we as business people and industrialists do about the threat to the whole Planet Earth?, you know, to the environment. And he was saving his own skin in a way, but he also had a very altruistic sort of concern. I mean, he was a leading citizen in Italy, had turned down an offer to become the President of Italy. But you know, he was a big bloke.
The ones I mentioned, the Olivetti, the typewriters, and Fiat Motor Cars.
Oh, no, he was thinking of industry as a whole. Industry as a whole. He was interested in the future of the world. And then, I actually knew about Limits to Growth before the book was published, because in 1970 I became involved in the World Council of Churches' program on science, technology and environment. And we got along ... one of the authors delivered a paper to talk at one of the earliest of our meetings. And that happened to be in Italy. And we were absolutely rocked by this guy. A young chap from Norway. Not only a very good presenter, but he also had all these wonderful graphs in which population [was] going like that, going to collapse. Pollution going like that, resources disappearing; we were very impressed. So as a group we decided we were going to try and find out, how real was this? I mean, is this just a mirage, some sort of guess at the future, or is it real? I mean, these were models. And so, he enthused us to begin to do something about it. The next step was that Peccei came to Australia, he was going all around the world, and he wanted to try and establish a group in Australia which was concerned about Australia's environment, population and so on. And it was at that stage that I was made a member of the Club in Rome as were two others at the same time. And we, through the Club of Rome, we had a sort of international platform. And then I was in the World Council of Churches, that was an international platform.
Well, Margaret Mead, in must have been 1969, so just before 1970, she had made a very impassioned speech, I mean all her speeches were impassioned, but this was particularly impressive. Here was the World Council of Churches, this big organisation, mass organisation, it had nothing on its program, no speakers on science and technology and the future of humanity. And she said, 'This is ridiculous. This is a disgrace. You must do something about it.' And I always take notice of Margaret Mead. And so, they established a program on science, technology and the future of humanity. And I got on the program very early in the piece. I had nothing to do with the council before that. But that was 1970.
Oh, for the same reasons that anybody gets onto anything, in other words, somebody knows me you see, who was actually an Australian —what is he called, he's called the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in Australia — David Gill was on the staff at World Council. He said, 'This guy in Australia is in science and the future. Why don't you try him out?' And I think it was for that reason. I don't think they would have heard of me before. So, everything operates like that. You know, little contacts here and there that bear fruit sometimes, sometimes they don't.
Oh, I don't think I did very much in the Club of Rome, actually. I learnt quite a lot because they had all these industrialists and business people that I had never met before. So I was listening rather than doing something. I think I was probably a very ineffective member of the Club of Rome. Where I was more effective was in Australia because there were relatively few people who had that sort of concern. So, as you suggested, I did more, I accepted lots of invitations to give lectures and so on in different places.
Yes, it certainly did because whenever I was referred to in the newspaper I was always referred to as the prestigious Club of Rome member, which was ridiculous, you see. But it gave quite a bit of clout, yes.
Oh, wonderful, really sounds as though you're up on the top echelons. And they were a bunch of dedicated and wonderful people. I mean, there were a few politicians in it and there were a few scientists. But mostly they were business people and industrialists. So it was an interesting bunch of people. They of course knew nothing about the details of the effects of industry and what-not on the environment, what was happening to resources. So they commissioned a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT for short, to do the study which ended in The Limits to Growth. So it was a commission thing. Nearly all their activities were commission things to write this book for the Club of Rome. But, that's what happened. And then, you see, after I got into the Club of Rome, I thought, well what we need is a Limits to Growth thing for Australia, dealing with the Australian detail. That's why I wrote the book Confronting the Future, which is essentially pretty well everything that was on the Club of Rome agenda. But I put it into an Australian context.
Oh, gosh, I wrote it about 17 years ago, whatever that would be. And the only reason I remember, I can't remember dates at all, but it would be about 17 years ago because two years ago I revised it, and that was revised after being 15 years unrevised.
Oh, that was very good, I'll tell you why. It came out the same time as the Democrats were establishing, you know, the political party, Don Chipp and company. And Don was very interested in my book and Don more or less made it the bible of the Democrats. All their groups, the groups that were establishing around Australia, used Confronting the Future as a source of information. And the second thing was that schools took it up. 'Cause once you get it into schools you sell lots of copies. And the colleges of advanced education and those sorts of things. And yet again, you see, the climate of opinion was ripe for information, people wanting to know: Is this just a fantasy that some people have? or Is it a reality about what's happening to population and environment? That came out at just the right time by chance. Luck.
Oh, that was quite simple, though I didn't have this little formula then, which was invented by Paul Ehrlich later, but essentially the idea in Confronting the Future was that the environmental impact, which they used to call EI, equals population times the amount of resources used per person: we call that A for affluence times the negative effects of technology, let's say, pollution per person. So you have three things you're studying: population, resources and things that deteriorate the environment, soil erosion, pollution, and so on. Those are the three critical things. Now I didn't have them quite classified like that. But I had chapters on population, on water, on soil, on forests, that way of looking at it. But it's very difficult to know when you're writing a book which is for general purposes, you know, for anybody to read, to get the framework that's going to appeal to them, and the interesting thing is that when Paul Ehrlich established this ER = P x A x T, T for technology, he dropped it after about a few years. But then in the last few years it's come back again, saying, 'This is really the best way of looking at it,' and it caught on then.
That's right, yes.
Well, I really didn't have any success for a long time, but things changed.
Well, politicians became interested in the possibilities, and the Club of Rome actually aimed at politicians first. And one of the ... I suppose the biggest meeting they ever had, there were about 30 heads of state, 30 prime ministers at a meeting in Europe, and they talked about all these things. And, Pierre Trudeau, who was then Prime Minister of Canada, said that yeah, he agreed with all this. But if he went back preaching that in Canada he'd lose his seat in five minutes, you see. I mean the population was not ready for it. And this is very interesting because it means that the politicians realised there was no possibility of them putting forward something that was cutting across traditional pathways, unless they had support from the grass roots. And, it was the realisation of that, I think, that led to the formation of lots of grass root movements around the world. So that in Australia today there are over 30,000 grass root movements. What I mean by that, a group down at Botany Bay who's looking after the quality of water at Botany Bay, that sort of thing. Hawkesbury River, what have you. Forests. And, I think that's the political scene really, that the politicians will not act on any of these things, be it forest, soil, erosion, what have you, unless there is a grass roots movement supporting it, who's going to vote for them.
Exactly, I can even answer that question. In 1974. In other words, that was two years after the Limits to Growth book came out. And that happened in a rather unexpected way. It was a World Council of Churches conference of the group I was in, on the limits to growth. Well, it was more than the limits to growth, it was the whole of technology and future, but limits to growth was part of it.
That was held in Bucharest. And I was put in charge of a working program on the limits to growth. And I had with me the young author who had spoken earlier to us about limits to growth, the chap who was an author of Limits to Growth called Jorgen Randers. He was a Norwegian. Very charismatic young man, he was, you know, really, you've probably got to listen to him. Well, we had this workshop and after the first meeting Randers said to me, 'Charles, we're getting nowhere with this Limits to Growth stuff because the Third World don't want limits to growth.' They all said, 'You had your turn, the rich countries, it's our turn to grow now. Don't stop us from growing.' And Randers said to me, you know, 'It's too negative, limits to growth. We want something positive.' And he said, 'Instead, state society, equilibrium society,' and he said, 'Oh that's too abstract.' He said, 'Let's try, the ecologically sustainable society.' In other words, the society that's going to be sustained indefinitely into the future because it's using its resources and industries appropriately. So we went back to our group after coffee break. We put over this notion of a sustainable society and all the Third World crowd said, 'Yeah, that's great. We all want to have an ecologically sustainable society.' And it caught on. A very important phrase. And we then had it accepted by the plenary, big plenary session, Margaret Mead and all these people were there. And it came out as the number one new thought, you see, for the World Council of Churches. And they took it on board. So that the program from that moment on became, of the World Council of Churches, for the just, participatory and sustainable society. So it had to be just, it had to involve people, that's fair, and then it had to be ecologically sustainable. And for seven years they had that as their masthead, you see. So it really got places. And people began to think about these issues. Now that taught me a lesson that, I really knew, already knew, that you had to have good images and they're very hard to get, parables. But you also have to have good descriptive phrases and 'ecologically sustainable society' caught on. Now that was, the World Council of Churches in world terms is not such a big outfit, but in a very quick way, people started writing books about the sustainable society. They never acknowledged where it came from. In fact, when the head of the World Watch Movement in Washington produced a book called The Sustainable Society, I wrote to him and said, 'Do you know where that phrase came from? You don't mention it.' And I told him. And he said, 'Oh that's great, I'd expect Randers to produce something good like that.'
Oh, probably. Though he did all this work at MIT.
And, at this point in time in Australia, sitting where you sit now, after watching this movement develop, find its feet, get its grass roots support, get its slogans and its images, this enormous and amazing growth in the movement ...
Yes, fantastic. Yes.
Oh yes. I'm always optimistic because any alternative attitude is destructive. You know, if you don't have a hope for the future, if you don't see the little things that could be lights at the end of the tunnel, then you're just reinforcing the present situation.
Oh, well, the most difficult aspect in Australia is convincing politicians that they'll get votes on anything to do with population control, anything to do with conserving forests and grasslands and things like that. Now we've won some things. I mean, Bob Hawke when he was Prime Minister, was very effective in concentrating on soil erosion. Two-thirds of Australia was disappearing down the drain because of soil erosion. And he said, 'Yeah, that's very important.' And the Greens voted for him. And he knew he had a Green backing there. There's been some progress. Forests hasn't been anything like as successful because of the far more vocal group of people who are defending the right to chop down forests. In soil erosion, the farmers just had to leave the places where the soil was disappearing. But the foresters want to say,'These forests are ours to cut down.' Now that battle hasn't been won yet. The battle every year that was fought in Australia. I think a lot has been achieved in water conservation, that sort of thing. A lot has been achieved. And particularly in public concern about these things. I used to go round to lots of high schools and I used to get tremendous response, particularly in Sydney in the northern suburbs. But when I went down south, and west, there's much less enthusiastm because it suggested to them that I was proposing a future where there'd be less economic growth and fewer jobs, you see. And they wanted jobs. They wanted to improve their situation. That is a hard one to deal with. Except that I would now claim that what you've got to say is the ecological sustainable society is one which may not have more goods in it, but it's going to have a higher quality of life.
And jobs associated with trying to work out new sustainable ways of producing energy, such as from sunlight and from wind. Oh, there are lots of good positive things to deal with.
No. I don't think so. No. Because I'd worked out a — I mean one of the things I wanted to do when I came back to Australia was to make sure that I could include research and teaching together, and neither would suffer. So I kept my eyes pretty close on it, closely on that. And I think it's good to have extraneous activities ...
Oh, the extra stuff I was doing in the laboratory, I mean, were very similar because I got onto working with a problem, a practical problem, of fruit flies and fruit in Australia, and it had an evolutionary context because the thing was spreading south and changing evolutionarily, changing even as, say, it was going to Victoria. So that, I mean, that was an independent problem on its own which involved a lot of time, a lot of resources, quite a lot of people involved. And my interest in human ecology and what humanity was doing to the environment, was another sort of minor thing.
Well, we wanted to know why the fruit fly was where it was and why it was spreading. And so we did all sorts of things. We had, we rigged up little, little chambers which would replicate the climate in different places, see, and see what sort of climate they could survive in. And, so it was studying every component of the environment that might be useful to them: What sorts of fruits did they go into? Did they come from rainforest fruits into palms or not? That sort of thing.
Well, we found out that it had evolved to cope with the different climates in Australia as it spread, as the fruit-growing spread. And so it was an evolutionary problem. And we had another group in our little set-up who were also working on how to control them directly, you know, with pesticides, the best way, the best ways of using that. There wasn't any simple solution and in fact it's still an unsolved problem.
Yes, but it's another fruit fly, yes. Same principles still apply.
It seems to, yeah. That was one of the things I studied when I went — Paul Ehrlich came out and helped me with this because he knew far more genetics than I did at the time. And so we discovered some of the ways in which the genes were being hybridised, in a sense, providing a greater virility on which natural selection could upgrade. That was an interesting study in evolution.
Oh, there was a time in which I took a whole year off to go to Brazil and that was with Dobzhansky. I'd worked with Dobzhansky on another sort of fruit fly, a genetic sort, in Columbia University. And then he had put up a program in forests in South America, particularly in Brazil, to study the evolution of fruit flies in Brazil. So I joined him for a whole year and we used to go out into the Amazon, all sorts, everywhere around Brazil we went. And other parts, we went to Chile and so on. He actually was the prime person in establishing interest in genetics and evolution in South America. So he was sort of Holy God amongst the biologists there.
Yeah, I was on the staff continuously, with just breaks for a sabbatical at Columbia University, down in Brazil for a year, terms in different teaching institutions like the University of California and Minnesota and things like that. But otherwise, I was, yeah, in the same place.
Oh, yes, I've been many times and got sick every time I went there.
Well, I went on programs, for example one was World Health Organisation, a mosquito-spreading area in Bangkok. Another one was on UNESCO, science and Asia and that sort of thing. And I met some of my former students there and they were interested in showing me how Indians live in these villages that have no electricity and water or anything like that and so on. That was an interesting experience except to get to the village was wading through mud with a suitcase for about three hours in the dead of night.
Well I thought, 'What is my student doing to me?' He didn't mind.
Now, we've looked at the way in which over the period that you worked as a biologist your world view slowly expanded, and it was a sort of journey of discovery about the implications of science for the environment and for the future, and understanding it. At the same time another journey was going on for Charles Birch, which was the exploration of his spiritual life. What happened during the period that you lived in Sydney. How did you evolve your thought about religion, about a spiritual life and about life's purpose and meaning?
Well, it was a combination of still thinking about the sort of world revealed by science, and how that related to the sort of world revealed by religion or whatever you wanted to call that, the other way of looking at things. And so I was concerned about the relationship between science and religion and what truth their might be that comes out of this sort of interaction. I mean, when I began thinking about this, most people had kept these in different compartments, but I was not prepared to do that. So I wanted to see some sort of unity in the thing. And I found an approach to that through the philosophy of AN Whitehead. So I read a lot of his books and thought about it in that context and then met people who were thinking in that sort of area.
Yeah, very much so. I'd sort of found something and I stuck to it.
Oh, well, when I was in the Wesley College, that was a Methodist institution at the time I was there. And it had a chapel. And so I was involved with the Master quite a bit in the goings on in the chapel. And he was very liberal Christian so we got on well together. And so we were presenting a sort of a point of view that would be unfamiliar to most of the students who were there. So that was fun. But then I didn't ... I was not involved in any church activity in the suburban churches, I found that very boring, until Ted Noffs, at the Wayside Chapel, asked me to give a few lectures there on what he called philosophy. And, which I did, and that led me to sort of stay on at the Wayside Chapel for about ten years.
I said, they're boring.
Singing hymns. People pontificating and prayers and telling God what to do and all this sort of stuff. It seemed to be irrelevant.
Oh, well, the main thing that I was rejecting was the notion of a supernatural God who periodically intervened into the natural sphere, because science has no room for an interventionist God. It's as simple as that.
Because you don't see any of those things happening. I mean, as a scientist you operate in the laboratory believing that things are going to happen tomorrow much the same way as they happen today. And the sun is going to come up in the morning and so on. And that this whole thing is not going to be disturbed by some intervention from outside in the form of miracles. You know that was a pre-scientific idea; to suppose that you can really attach that to science seemed to be a lot of nonsense. And so, is there any relevance or any credibility in the conception of God which gets rid of the interventionist notion? And I think there is.
Well, I think my faith was basically this, that I related in some way to a reality greater than myself that contributed to my life. And that my life contributed to some extent to that reality. The reverse thing as well. In other words, I was living not just for myself, but something bigger than myself. Now that sounds very abstract, but if I put it into more concrete terms I think it becomes too simple. But you get the idea, that I am not alone in the universe, there's something bigger than me that I relate to, that helps to fulfil my life and gives me meaning and purpose. And that I as well make a contribution to the life of God if you like and that reality.
It's both. You see, I've got to be very careful to use the word 'personal' because people immediately think of an individual person. I don't think God is an individual person, God is related to all entities that exist in some way, you see, so that the idea of a person turns God into a sort of substance, an object like a chair. And I don't think that makes any sense. And I, you don't find this in The Bible. I mean, God is not a person in The Bible. The word person came round about the third century when they were trying to work out what the relationship was with Jesus to God and all the rest of it. So I think one has to be very careful. But I would say that God is personal, but not a person. But our idea of a person is somebody who is wrapped up independent in themselves, is not dependent upon other resources besides themselves. I mean, we think of people that way. We tend to behave that way. Whereas I am what I am by virtue of my relationships, all sorts of relationships. Relationship to my pussy cat. Relationship to my friends. Relationship to the environment. This all becomes part of me and molds me, so that we're all a sort of web of relationships. So it's not the external relations, in other words the push and pull things, that matter. You know, you can push me off the chair, that's an external relationship, but what's important are what we call the internal relations and those are the things that eventually constitute us, make us what we are. I am what I am by virtue of the environment I was brought up in, what my parents taught me, school and university and so on. All these things make me what I am. I would have been a different person if I'd had a different environment, different parents.
Well, I would say that this model of God, if you wanted to talk of it as a model, is an ecological model because it emphasises relationships. And so it's in a sense very parallel to the model I have of nature, that they're the things, if you're going to study conservation and so on, the things that you're working out are the relationships, that's the important thing. And to get the relationships right. So that, yeah, I have an ecological view of God. In fact I could ... I sometimes thought I might write the book on the ecology of God. Actually ...
That depends on who reads it. There was a Professor of Zoology in Oxford who wrote a book called The Biology of God. A bit on the same lines. Sir Alister Hardy. We corresponded about this at one stage. So, I bring the ecological thing right into the whole picture. And it becomes very, very persuasive; very pervasive is the word I want. I'm not sure it's very persuasive yet. But very pervasive because the simple principle is this: that human experience, the experience I have as a human being, is a high-level example of the nature of reality in general. In other words, the nature of a pussy cat, the nature of the leaves on the trees, the electrons, the protons and so on. That's the model. In other words you work from the top down, instead of trying to say, 'What do you do when you build up atoms into bits and pieces?', and so on, you work out, you get a machine that way. I don't believe that we're just machinery.
That's okay. You can have it both ways. I mean, I would say there's a sense in which there's an aspect of God that's unchangeable. But there's an aspect of God which changes. And it's as simple as this: there's an aspect of me which is unchangeable, I'm still Charles Birch tomorrow, but tomorrow I'm a different Charles Birch. I hope I never wake up the same person everyday. But there is a sense in which I am the same. Now, so, God, yeah, the same for yesterday, today, forever. You can have that, that's fine. But then the thing which Christians and other people find so hard to sort of get the notion of, if it's really a God of love, then God must be responsive to the love and the feelings that people have towards God. So that if you have experiences, if God has experiences as the world evolves, then I think God must be different now from what God was at the Big Bang. Nothing much. I mean, a universe pretty empty except for hydrogen. How dull! Then come dinosaurs and all the rest it, human beings, is God not different because of the relationships that God now has to all this. God is different so God changes in that sense, Analogous in the sense to which my experiences changes. So I think God's memory must be very rich now compared to what it was at the time of the Big Bang.
Throughout your life people have expressed tremendous surprise that you can hold to a scientific view of the world and a religious view of the world. Why do you think that other people have a difficulty in reconciling those things that you don't experience?
Oh, because as soon as you mention the word God, most people have an image of some super-human being up there who periodically does something. He left the world after he created it but he periodically comes back to fix up the machinery. And that of course is very inconsistent with any understanding, any scientific understanding of the world. So the dominant theism is unacceptable I think to science.
Do you think it's just that the dominant theism is unacceptable to science, or do you think it has something also to do with the fact that traditional science has a view which doesn't account for a lot of the things that you account for with your view of God?
Well, the history of science is very complicated and if you go back to the rebirth of science in the 16th/17th century, all these people, Newton, Copernicus, the whole lot of them, they were all religious people. But they didn't quite know how to bring their religion in line with their science. But they didn't want to feel that they were doing something that was going to rule God out of the universe. But they didn't know quite what the nature of that God was. There were lots of disputes about it. And that led eventually, I think, to the Enlightenment in which God became pretty much an entity right in the periphery, you see, because the important thing was science understanding rationality. That was very important in a world which was previously so superstitious. So that God left, God got pushed out into a corner. It's called God of the gaps. You had brought God in [for] something you couldn't explain in other ways. And that was very unsatisfactory. Religion couldn't defend itself. And of course the climax came as far as I'm concerned with Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin was brought up, I mean he's a good case history, because Charles Darwin was brought up much like me. I mean, I'm not like Charles Darwin, but this little bit of his history is like me. Charles Darwin was brought up in Cambridge, had to read and pass an examination on a book called The Natural Theology. And The Natural Theology was the design of nature from where you argue there must be a God. See? Oh, fair enough an argument. You see a watch, then somebody must have made that watch. If you see wonderful design in nature, these animals and birds that have feathers and so on, then there must be a designer, that was God. Charles Darwin comes along and says, first of all he believed that. And then he comes along after his trips around the world which took five years, including Australia, and says, 'The world doesn't seem to be made that way.' And he really threw a spanner into the works because he says, 'There's a struggle for existence. Individuals vary in all sorts of ways as far as their capacity to live and survive are concerned. And so there's a natural selection, there's a great struggle going on. Those that are best adapted survive and they leave those sort of qualities to their progeny and that is what's happened in the creation of all the creatures.' He didn't know how it began, but once something [has] a beginning to life, he says you can explain this in terms of a struggle for existence, natural selection, of chance variation. It's all a matter of chance, I don't need to bring God into the picture. And he didn't need to bring the traditional God into the picture. That would have made a mess of it all. So where was God? If he's there he's in some other way. And very few clerics at the time accepted that he could be there in some other way. Except, Charles Kingsley was an Anglican Vicar and of course the novelist, and he wrote a book called Water Babies for his children. And it was an evolutionary epic. God made things that make themselves as part of the principle of the book. So here you have not just one creator, but a world full of creators who are relating, participating, in the one universal creators. I mean it's an interesting idea. So we're not dependent upon ... it is all the different creatures who themselves are participating in the total creation and experiencing it.
Oh well, Darwinism, I mean Darwinism gets rid of the classical notion of God as the designer. And I don't like the word designer because it conveys the notion of God as a sort of architect, engineer, who's making blueprints. And you know, then builds the thing according to the blueprint which is nonsense. It doesn't work that way. We know that evolution doesn't work that way. So, I'd rather use the word purpose. That there's a sense in which God has some purpose for the future. It's not worked out in detail, but there are possibilities there. That from the foundation of the world, the Big Bang, or at least our world, from the Big Bang, there was a possibility of human beings coming out of that.
Oh, absolutely, yes.
You see, I think science has done a very important thing for theology. It has shown us what are the false views and the views that were superstitious and that necessarily arose in a pre-scientific era. And so it gets rid of, I think, a lot of the dross. I used to give students a talk at lunch time called, What Did Darwin Do to God? And Darwin got rid of the intervenionists, the supernatural being up there. God is not supernatural, God is natural.
Now, one view that has been a dominant paradigm in the way in which scientists have thought, has been of reality operating off a mechanistic model. How has that changed in scientific thought in recent times, and for you?
That's a good question. It's changed a lot in physics, very little in biology. I'm not sure why the difference, but ...
It seems very surprising, doesn't it, because the notion of a living organism is something that biologists look at all the time. And the fact that that operates differently from a clockwork blueprint is evident.
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Except that the way the biologists have traditionally studied the living organism is in terms of the living world as a piece of machinery. Study the heart as a pump. Study the muscles and the limbs according to Newtonian laws of physics, you know, the laws of motion. And the brain as a computer. So that the way the biologist has gone traditionally about studying living things, is a mechanistic way. Look at it in terms of a piece of machinery. And it has worked, to a point. But the point at which it doesn't seem to work, it doesn't tell me anything about my feelings, about consciousness, about experience. That just has not responded to that particular approach to studying the living organism. And biologists have therefore said, 'Let's stick to where we can get some answers.' If you want a Nobel Prize, you don't go and work on something which is going to take ten centuries to get the answers to. So you work on things that you know you get some answers to. And, now physics, for some reason or other, I'm not quite sure, has gone on a different line with quantum physics. Now quantum physics, of course, says there aren't any particles. There isn't a universe of bits and pieces. It's relationships. It's network. All the images are different.
Energy is sort of tied up in it somewhere, yes. Very difficult to understand, but it's not difficult to understand the main point, that you get rid of the substance, the materialistic, mechanistic universe. It isn't a piece of machinery any more. Now physics is way ahead of biology. But biology is beginning to think in these terms. In fact, a couple of biologists have written books about consciousness, one of them is Roger Penrose who seems to be a popular writer at the moment, and he thinks that the answer to consciousness will be found in the new physics of quantum physics. I have my doubts about that, but at least they're beginning to think in the more modern physics terms.
But again, why do you need to have God in this picture, could it not just be that for a period, science, that is the method of looking at things in an investigative way, with experiment and observation, hasn't yet got to the point where it understands a lot of these things, but eventually, if it remains open-minded and keeps working, it will eventually get to explain them? Not necessarily in the way they think, but in some other way?
Yes. Yeah. Well that's the ... I think that will be the dominant view. And people write books about that and they say that, so I think there are at least two ways of looking at it. That is, one way which you say, 'Well, give us time. We shall find the solution for that. Give us time, we'll understand what consciousness and feeling is. Working with the methods that we've got at the moment and these great new mechanistic ways of looking at the world biology in terms of molecular biology. See we've got some different thoughts.' That's one way. Another way would be saying, 'Perhaps the mechanistic model is not the best model. It tells us a lot but it doesn't tell us everything. Is there another model?' And that's the line that I'm interested in.
... I know. You have everything ...
No, no. You do both things. I would put it this way, a term that is used by scientists quite a lot is reductionism. You try to understand the living organism, my brain, in terms of reducing the brain, the complex things, to the elements to which it composed, which are cells called neurones, to the molecules of the cells, to the atoms. And when you've got all that detail, you will understand how the brain works. Well, you understand a lot about the brain that way. But then I say there's another way in which you try and build up, at least build down from the opposite direction, what do we know about experience and consciousness. Is there a way in which we can look at the world in terms of an experiential model, rather than just the mechanistic model? So that's the question. Now it's a minority position, but I think it's worth pursuing because reductionism has its limitations.
Psychologists have attempted to study the human consciousness by the observation of experience and by the observation of behaviour. But they use scientific method in their approach to that. Is that something you'd recommend or would you go with the people who are becoming more and more noisy, about this, who are sort of attempting to say that science isn't worth pursuing because it can't answer these big questions?
No, no. I wouldn't say the latter at all. I think science is always worth pursuing. And that it ought to know when it's got a sort of impasse and can't get any further in that particular direction. But I think psychology is a good example of something that went right down the wrong track. For the sake of behavioural physiology, with all these Skinner boxes, and rats and mazes and things. And said we can't leave out altogether the notion of experience. All that matters is what you observe the animal doing. That you've got to explain, so forget about experience. So that the rat can't possibly have any thoughts in its head. It can't possibly have any purpose. If it does, you'll never be able to find out what they are. So just, well now, behaviourism is finished. It may not be finished in university departments, but it's finished as a viable theory of how the living organism operates. So you've got to start somewhere else again.
Oh, because it was an eye-opener to me. Something was happening that I didn't know was happening. And it happened from the very first meeting that I had at the Wayside Chapel in which Ted asked me, Ted Noffs asked me, to give three talks on philosophy, whatever that ... And, it was in the Wayside Chapel theatre, the bottom part of the theatre, and that opened into a lane in Kings Cross. And the doors were open which I thought was a bit funny because all sorts of people were wandering past. But gradually the place just filled up with people wandering in from the street. And I thought, 'This is great.' I mean, 'fancy giving a talk on philosophy and religion and so on, on science and religion, and people wandering in from the street in Kings Cross to talk about it.'
I can tell you exactly. Three young men came up to me after that very first discussion and said, 'Will you come and have coffee with us, cup of coffee with us.' So they took me along to a coffee shop nearby. They talked and talked about various things. And it was revealed, they'd revealed to me, that one of them was a schizophrenic who'd been released from a mental hospital but he was, you know, he had his ups and downs. A second one was a thief, just got out of Long Bay Goal. They were all very young guys. And a third one was a male prostitute. Now I thought, 'This is pretty wonderful. I mean, here is a little thing representing the church in which these people come and talk to you.' On the whole the church doesn't have any room for such people. Or they wouldn't even think of going into a church. Well this didn't look like a church, it was a theatre. So I thought, you know, that's the sort of people. So these three plus a lot of the others then decided that we would form a discussion group, so we met on a Friday evening in Ted Noffs' office, sitting on the floor, and we'd discuss all sorts of things. But I found it was better if we had a book they could read. There were two books that appealed to these guys. I mean, there were guys and girls but I'm thinking of the guys that I met initially. And the two books that they really liked, one was Eric Fromm's The Art of Loving, that was terribly important, and the second was Viktor Frankl's book, which was written in a concentration camp, called Man's Search for Meaning. Now it was interesting because Man's Search for Meaning meant that these people, these kids, were looking for meaning and hadn't found it. And here was somebody who was in the most awful circumstances, you know, a concentration camp, look for no hope you can get out of it, and can write a book about meaning. So that really spoke to them. And The Art of Loving was important because they had very strong relationships with the kids in the area. You know, if there was a runaway kid in the area and he had no home, 'Come home with me. I only got a room but you can sleep on the floor.' That sort of thing. And that really appealed to me. You know, I thought, 'This is a very, very, very interesting thing going on amongst human beings here.' And nobody was an expert in anything. I wasn't an expert in anything related to the issues that they were interested in, I suppose. And the Wayside Chapel had established then a crisis centre which anyone could come in with, you know, if they felt they wanted to commit suicide they come and talk about it. But the people there were not experts, they were just these people who came from nowhere. And one of the lessons I learnt was, and I applied this with students later on, and that is, 'If somebody comes with a deep personal problem, the best thing I could do would be very often, very often, to introduce them to somebody else who had the same problem. 'Cause they all thought they're alone in the world, they're the only ones who had that mess in their lives. So they all helped one another. There were resources for each other.
Well, I was a sort of a focus around which they could talk about things they wanted to talk about. But I said, 'We mustn't just wander all over the place.' That's why I wanted to have a book in which we could read a chapter before we met, you see. So we were talking about things they were interested in.
Of course they did. We had — the people we basically had in the group were dropouts, runaways, well, prostitutes. People who were on the periphery of society. And, I remember, I was coming back one Friday evening in a plane from a meeting in the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra, a council meeting. I was sitting next to a guy who was also on the council who was a businessman, and he said, 'What are you doing tonight?' And I said, 'I'm going to the Wayside Chapel. I've got a group down there.' He said, 'Oh, you shouldn't waste your time doing that.' And I said, 'Well these are real human beings. I mean they're wonderful people.' And I discovered that these were, this was real humanity. And the interesting thing was that they were so open to me. See, whereas students are a bit suspicious of professors and what have you. I mean it's a little bit, not so much now, but they were in those days.
Oh, yes. Yes. Well, very much so. But I had to close up for a while because they wanted to invade my home, you see, and it was getting too much for me. They'd ring up any old hour of the night and I said, 'Oh forget about this.' I remember on one occasion a chap said, 'I want to, I got a problem, I really want to talk to you about it.' And I said, 'Okay you can come over.' He said, 'You come to me, you've got a car.' Well that was okay, I mean I just said, 'No, you've got to come to me.' But that was alright.
Oh, we didn't do that much because I didn't want to be invaded. I was very happy to use the facilities at the Wayside Chapel. Only on very, very few occasions I did it. When we had a Christmas luncheon once, I said, 'Everybody that doesn't have something to do, let's have lunch together.' And one of the funny things was that they collected kids on the way. There was one little young boy, a young teenager ...
Well I didn't, I didn't do that very often, because I didn't want to be invaded from the Wayside Chapel. We had good facilities at the Wayside Chapel so I preferred that than to having my time sort of encroached upon too much when I was at home. So it was rather, it would be one or two individuals at the time, at the most. And only once did we ever have a bigger gathering, and that was when I said, you know, 'Those of you who are not doing anything on Christmas day, let's have a lunch together.' We had quite a mob turn up and collected people along the way. One of them, he was a very young boy and I said, 'Where do you come from?' and he said, 'Oh, they told me to come. They met me on the train.' I said, 'Where is your home?' He said, 'I don't have any.' I said, 'What do you do?' He said, 'Oh, I live in the streets.' And I said, 'Well, you ought to join our group,' you know. And somebody invited him back to their pad to spend the day there. And he was — but it was interesting to me because we tried to introduce him to friends and so on, and be kind to him, and he wouldn't accept love and acceptance. And eventually we discovered that in fact all his relationships with adults had been totally negative and destructive. He'd been manipulated and used. And for the first time I realised that there are some people for whom it is very difficult to love. And to be loved. Because they reject human beings. So that was a sad case. But, but there you are again, the Wayside Chapel brought together these people which I thought was very important.
Oh well, I realised there were others who would have chosen to live in a small room with bare lightbulb on the ceiling and so on. But I had other things to do. I mean, I had plenty of study to do and what not. And maybe I can't justify my position, I should have gone and lived in a hovel or something.
No, it wasn't really an issue.
Not really, no.
Well, Mother Teresa actually built up a community in which she herself is part of the living with these people. No, I didn't have that attraction, I didn't want to do that at all.
I think there is, you know, there's something in maintaining a distance as well as maintaining a close relationship. And I found that, when sometimes, on occasions when I've been invited to give a speech or a sermon or whatever in a church, and people would come up to me afterwards or write me letters. And I'd write to the parson and finally say, 'Look I've got all these letters, these are people which it would be interesting for you to deal with.' And he said, 'No. That's your job.' And I found that they in fact were protecting themselves and to an extent I needed to protect myself. That's not answering the question on why I don't live in a hovel, but at least that's the question why they weren't here all the time. It became overwhelming after about 10 years. You see, I kept on that discussion group, but changing periodically, for about 10 years. And the question time, which is a sort of Sunday evening performance, which is my sort of 'Aunt Sally' show, you were very vulnerable because they could say anything about you, ask anything they liked. I kept that up for about 10 years and then I found it was too tiring, because at the end of the sessions I'd be so exhausted that the next day I wouldn't really be as good as I wanted to be at the university. I don't know how Ted Noffs stuck at it for all his life. Very special qualities you need, to be able to work in that community continuously with human problems surrounding you, ever single one of them which probably needs fulltime attention. I don't know how to handle that situation, but he was held to do it.
Oh, the worst problems were terribly tangled human relationships and I'd say to myself, 'How does anyone get tied up into such a mess?' Now I couldn't understand that. And they were, seemed to be untangle-able, there's no such word, is there? These seemed to be things I didn't know how on earth they could be untangled. Perhaps over a long period of time they could be. Very complex human relationships.
Oh, we talked about these two books in particular, Search for Meaning, they were very interested in the problem — what life is all about, what experiences you should pursue. And then the other one, the one about love, meaning of, you know, the Eric Fromm's book on The Art of Loving. That goes down well with kids and students. There are a lot of issues raised. They were all fairly personal things. They were not interested so much — oh, they became interested later on in issues of environment and so on. But to start with, there were all rather personal things, about, you know: What shall I do with my life? How can ... Why am I a thief? How can I as a schizophrenic, you know, get on creatively? I was very impressed with that lad because he knew when he ought to go back into hospital. He didn't accept any maintenance, any sick leave allowance or anything like that. He tried to work when he was out of hospital. Very positive attitude to life. Wonderful.
Oh, yes. Very often. I mean, in cases, some cases were easier than others. For example, one student who was a drop-out from New Zealand, and he actually had been a biology student, and I said, you know, 'You really ought to get back into this. Let's see what we can do in Sydney.' So I introduced him to various people. He went back into his course, which is very good. He is now a professor in the University of London. I didn't know until I got the Templeton Prize and he saw this in a newspaper and he wrote to me. I hadn't kept in touch with him. So that was, you know, that was somebody who really came good in a special sort of way.
Well, I missed the two, I missed meeting this great diversity of people which I'd never really come across amongst students. And, I missed the opportunity of being a bit helpful, I think. But, anyway, I wasn't really able to continue. I mean it was emotionally very draining. You had to be young to do that.
Oh, I think I've been much more concerned with, um, with people in numbers, you know, living in a college, being associated with the Student Christian Movement, in camps and things like that. And I think my relationships have been much more with people. Well, you might say this is a ... here's a sort of escape from something else. But then I had individuals, individual persons, who have been at a more, a much more close relationship, yeah.
What do you mean by that, 'like for example'?
People who ... the friendship, you see, I think it's very hard to classify relationships because ... and I like to say there are some relationships I've had which have been more than friendship, less than being 'in love', I suppose, that's not the right phrase, but more than friends and less than lovers; I think that's probably the better phrase. Now there's a category in between somewhere. And I'm sort of made for that, I think.
Oh, I haven't a clue. How could I know?
Yeah, I'm no good at introspectives, and I don't particularly want to go to a psychoanalyst. It's not, it doesn't interest me really.
I mean, I realise that I'm a bit exceptional in that respect, but so are nuns. So are monks. I'm a monk. I live in my monastery.
Oh, I don't think the environment that I chose for myself, that impinged on me and so on, probably led in that direction and so on. I don't know. No, I don't think I was born that way. I could have been anything.
Oh, at one stage it did, yes. But I think I grew out of that.
Well, you see, I experienced it most when I was Vice-master of a college at the University of Sydney with about 150 students. And my door was open really all the time and they used to come and talk to me about anything, like. And they'd invite me to their rooms and so on, we all lived in the same place. We ate in the same place. So we got to know each other pretty well, particularly if it's a medical student who sticks there for six years. And, so, that was an easy environment in which to find friends and to feel very much, and I was invited in their activities, you know, training for the swimming carnivals and all this sort of stuff. It would be the slightest interest now, but it was then.
No, I wasn't very good at that. I'm not at all good at categorising people, and I never was very successful with categorising students. Not at all. I found that, well, I'm not very good at that. I don't think I'm terribly interested. I regard everybody as a sort of equal in a sense. Their difference is, well in appeal, other people would notice difference which I wouldn't notice.
Oh, I don't know. I'm a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. Is that an honour?
I don't know, I suppose it is? I've been given sort of honours by the American Ecological Society and the British Ecological Society. I'm an honorary life member of both of those and I got an award from the American outfit with my colleague in Adelaide, called Eminent Ecologist of the Year, a few years ago. That sort of thing.
Only one, only one major in the sense that there was a lot of money involved — that's the Templeton Prize for progress in religion.
I got that, I think, because of my work with the World Council of Churche, almost certainly, on science, technology and environment, and I think I was the first scientist to give a plenary, a talk to a plenary session of an assembly of the World Council of Churches, every seven years they have this meeting. And I think that was the reason. I can't imagine any other reason.
What do you mean by that?
Most people have never heard of it. All they did know was that the money seemed to be rather big. Why so much money? And the reason for that was that Sir John Templeton who inaugurated this prize thought that there ought to be a Nobel prize for religion because he was a very religious sort of person and very wealthy financier in New York. And so he established a prize which would be equivalent to the Nobel prize in terms of the money. And surrounded it with all sorts of pomp and ceremony. You had to give an address in the Guild Hall in London and then go to Buckingham Palace and receive your medal from the Duke of Edinburgh, that sort of thing. So it was, so there was that sort of surrounding, yes.
I was surprised. I didn't know I had been nominated, so I was really surprised.
Yeah. A chap rang me from Bermuda, the vice-president, no, from the Bahamas. And, he said, you're sharing the Templeton Prize which will require you to be in Buckingham Palace on the such and such and such and such. And read out a whole of this stuff, this is what I had to do, and where I had to go and so on and so on. I thought it was a bit funny to do that at the same time. So I said, 'Send me a letter.' Which he did.
I suppose I rang my brother, brothers. I can't really remember. Actually I had a friend from Tasmania who was staying with me, at the time, and he saw that I heard some funny news on the telephone and when I tried to explain to him, what it was all about, I had difficulty in speaking. You know it was just a bit overwhelming.
I suppose so, I don't know.
I'm really not terribly interested in prizes.
But there was a recognition there, it was a recognition of your work and a recognition was for religion rather than science. And because your life had been the integration of the two, I suppose the question that I was trying to ask was about the relative importance in your scheme of things?
I suppose the prize was a prize for religion and science together because Sir John Templeton was terribly interested in the whole field of science as well as religion and bringing the two together. So that I think it was my activity in that joint area that was important to him, or for the judges.
Exactly the same situation, yeah.
Who found what?
Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes.
You worked very hard, you felt guilty about a lot of things, and you took a very strong discipline on board. And that cramped your style and made you quite unhappy when you were young. What makes you happy now?
Oh, I think that I have a focus and I have a meaning. I know what I want my life to be about, which I didn't at that stage. And that I, it wasn't sure I had the confidence to do the sort of things that I thought I'd be basically interested in.
Well, the focus is that the two areas that to me have been very important, namely science and a liberal religion brought together in an understanding of the world, which is a different understanding than a completely mechanistic world, but is one that is more alive, and full of life and possibilities. It's unfinished. It's an unfinished symphony and that I can contribute to some extent to the next movement.
I do if I've got a project in hand, like writing a book. Now I get to it straight away, half-past eight at the latest. On to my word processor. Yeah, yeah, I feel quite moved and motivated about these things. I think it's very important.
And when did that really change for you? Could you describe the journey and just try and sum up and describe the journey that's occurred in your life from a young, inhibited, embarrassed, ashamed boy?
Sounds awful, yes.
A bit, yeah, okay.
Yeah, well, I said that I'm not very good at analysing myself. And, I don't really think about that very much.
I guess I'm not asking you to analyse yourself, Charles, I think I'm asking you to just sort of describe, in fact, what's happened to you in terms of the sort of key things that have given you a way of living rather than to, you know, sort of talk about your motivation as an individual. But I guess what we're doing here with this series is offering people ways of looking at their own lives too by looking at what's worked for you. So I was thinking it might be nice if you gave us a bit of a description of that journey we've been looking at?
Well, I mean, I think that the challenge and the conflict as well is how to relate the tendency for self-interest, with a tendency for other interests. And that has always been a battle I think. It's a battle when I stand up on a platform to give a public lecture, or to give a lecture for students, that it's my own ego which is being satisfied to some extent. I know more than they do, I'm important on this particular occasion. But then there's the other motivation. I want, I'm the person who's supposedly enlightening this bunch of people that I'm talking to. I think those two things are quite hard to sort out and that you've got to have a bit of both of them. Some people say the solution is you've got to deny yourself completely and get rid of the egotistic, but then the egotistical aspect of life is very much part of [your] impulse to go ahead and do something different and new. I think it's very difficult to deny yourself completely. I'm not sure that it's a good thing to do, but I don't think I'm very good at doing that. So I try to make some sort of a compromise or a joining between these two aspects. And the people I see who are doing things in the world are mostly ... are making headway with a very strong ego, but at the same time it's modified by the desire to do something beyond the ego. I don't annihilate the ego.
It's less important. It was very important when I hadn't reached a job in a profession so I was competing all the way when I was a student until I got a job. I don't think it became very important thereafter because I was less, less reasonably competitive.
Well, Confronting the Future, I must have written about 20 years ago. And On Purpose which the first ... Oh, no. There was one before On Purpose, and that was a joint one I had with John Cobb on liberating, Liberation of Life. And that was 1981, I think. Then On Purpose developed out of that idea. So it was, I don't know, from about the 80s. In fact, I think the first one, that's right, the first one I finished just when I was retiring.
That's right. And I've had more time to develop the ideas in the form of a book. I'd written articles before but I needed more concentrated attention, yeah.
Well Liberation of Life, which was with John Cobb, was essentially an idea of liberating the model of life which was mechanistic in size to a more organic model. I mean, that was the theme of the book. And in order to get there we had the framework of Whiteheadian thought, process thought, in which we were replacing the notion of bits and pieces, the world was made of bits and pieces of substance, by a world made of events. And so we talked about event thinking as contrasted with substance thinking. It's a difficult idea for some people but very important in terms of say, modern physics. And then, we talked about the importance of that, the revelance of that, to an ethic, particularly an ecological ethic. In other words, the things of value in the universe are not just people, but all other creatures. So we had an environmental ethic developed in that book. Now the second one, On Purpose, my idea was to try and say, well if the universe is not just a mechanistic universe, is it a purposeful one? Is there some purpose beyond just my own individual purposes? Am I contributing to some ongoing purpose? And so, On Purpose was concerned with the role of this intangible thing called purpose, not just in my own life, but perhaps in the life of God also. Was there a purpose to the foundations of the universe? Try and work that one out. And so I have a lot about evolution in that book. Cosmic evolution, biological evolution, because I see that as a working out of a sort of a purpose. Not ... it's an open-ended thing. I'm not suggesting that anybody knew where it was going, but in general terms. Then the third one was Regaining Compassion: For Humanity and Nature and that was concentrating more on compassion for nature. In other words, an environment book with ethics again. But developing it in a single book. And so I have a lot to say there about my attitude to animals and why people have had different attitudes to animals, particularly in the course of history. So that was really — see the environmental ethic up till now has been very largely one thing, 'Look after nature because nature looks after us.' In other words, it's what is called an instrumental ethic. I want to add another component. 'Look after nature because nature is like us, has feelings.' Other creatures have feelings and we should respect feelings. They should, they have rights. It's a development of that argument, which has become quite a big, you know, 10 years ago there was nothing written about this, now there's a lot written about it. Then the last one was called Feelings because I've said all along, and I said in the previous book, that the most important thing for me, is feelings. My feelings. It's not other things, it's feelings. I come back to feelings all the time. If I have no feelings then I'm zero. So, how do I interpret feelings. Not just my feelings but the feelings of other creatures on this planet. Who has feelings besides human beings? So I deal with that question, and come down to the conclusion, which I knew I had at the beginning, that it's a feeling universe. That it's a much more feeling universe than a substance, materialistic, sort of universe. And I end up with a rather controversial chapter which interestingly enough seems to appeal to more people than I thought it would, and that's called 'The Feelings of God'. Well, I've got to sort of excuse myself and say, how do I know about the feelings of God, but here's a proposition, you see. And people write and say, oh, you should write more about that. Perhaps I've said everything I can say about it.
The traditional view of what makes a person tends to look at their genetic inheritance and the environment in which they evolved, but you add something to that, don't you? You say it's not just a matter of inheritance and environment, of nature and nurture, but also of individual decision, individual belief. Where does this idea come from?
Oh, I think I included under the heading of what you use as nurture, the total environment. My total environment is not just the food I eat and the people I meet, but it includes the purpose that I've chosen to be influential in my life, that's part of my environment, I mean, I've focused in a particular direction. So that, I say, the most important thing is the nurturing aspects. In other words, the environment in a very broad sense and I regard God as part of the environment. If God is influential then God is part of the environment. And I put the least emphasis on the genetic side.
Yes it is. The reason is, I don't think that there's any evidence that the important differences between us, between individuals, is genetic. I think it's primarily environmental. I think the evidence is in that direction. Now it's true that my eyes are blue because I've got genes for blueness. Okay, but that's trivial. If my eyes were brown it wouldn't matter, it wouldn't make any difference. But the important things are, what we do with what we've got. You know, the parable of the talents and the talents can multiply. Don't think you're talents are limited because you think you're born with only this little bit. And I think that's the important thing. The extent in which people can flourish, I learnt that at the Wayside Chapel. The extent to which people can flourish and the environment they're in changes and there opens up possibilities and they see a different world. They don't see themselves as transformed. That's much more important than the genes they have, I think.
I think it's very unlikely, yes. Well I don't, of course, I don't know. But I'd be, that's a dicky one, that one you see, because obviously the differences between the sexes is a matter of genes, a matter of chromosomes. So it's possible that sexual orientation can have a genetic component. But I'd be surprised, I don't think there's very much evidence at the moment that that is the case. Could go either way.
How would you feel about people bringing the environmental influences to bear on one's genetic inheritance? I mean, what do you think about intervention in genetic, genes, by the manipulation of genes?
Oh, I think in terms of trying to replace defective genes that cause disease with genes again that overcome that problem, I mean that's a perfectly laudable objective. The objective which is much less acceptable at the moment is to change the genes in the person that will influence the genes in the next generation. The reason why that is difficult is that we don't have any ideas as to the extent to which that, a new gene in the germline, could disrupt the whole picture. So we don't know enough about genetics to play around with that one yet.
Oh, I think eugenics has been very largely discredited. It was high on the agenda at the time when we knew very little about human genes and human genetics. But it's very low on the agenda now because the sorts of ways that eugenicists thought you could improve the human race, turned out to [be] ways which would have no effect in that direction at all. In other words it didn't work. And eugenics also has a pretty negative side to it when you think of the Hitler campaign against all the people who had genetic, possible genetic, diseases who were in mental hospitals and so on. I think that's one of the least important things to pursue. In fact, I would try and pursue it in the opposite direction. The environment and social climate is the important thing.
Three things. It has to do ... something about the population explosion. And that applies as much to Australia and the United States as it does to Indonesia and India or China because every individual in Australia and the United States uses perhaps 20 times more resources. Produces 20 times more pollution than any individual in Indonesia and India and China. So in actual fact our population would in terms of China be equivalent to a billion people, not just 17 million people at the moment. So that's one of the things. We've got to try and there are too many people on the face of the earth and they're getting more, we're growing at a faster rate now than we have in all our history in terms of the number of people who are added to each year. The second thing is, we've got to curb our use of resources, particularly water and soil and things like that, which are disappearing. And the third one is, we've got to disrupt the environment less in terms of the technology which is destroying the atmosphere, you know, pollution in the atmosphere. And, pollution in the seas and the rivers, that sort of thing. So there's a huge agenda and we ought to be committed to changing the scene in each of these items. It's difficult in an affluent country like Australia because people say 'Well, we ought to become even more like what we are at the moment.' See, as time goes on. But I think we've got to become different.
Makes an individual?
Oh. That's a very general sort of question, how should we, not just me. I would think in terms of fulfilling the possibilities of our lives so that all the various potentialities that we have — try and develop, not them all, but those that are most likely to respond to our efforts, so that our life is fulfilled. And that, I think, means pursuing certain values rather than others. I mean by that I mean pursuing, not material wealth and prizes, but friendship and understanding the world, meaning, finding meaning, that sort of thing.
Oh, because I was brought up that way. If I'd been brought up in Thailand I'd be a Buddhist. I mean, that's the most direct answer. Then you can say, 'Well why didn't you reject it?' Well I reject the form that I was brought up in, but I felt there were certain aspects of it which I wanted to retain which were valuable, so I went on searching for another interpretation of Christianity. And one of the things I've been interested in is confronting people with alternatives to the traditional interpretation. Now I'm not saying that I'm rewriting, you know, 'I think Jesus should have said this, that and the other,' but I'm saying, 'What I'm finding to me quite consistent with the biblical picture of the sort of person that Jesus was and the sorts of goals that he had in life and so on. The things that he regarded as important.' So that's why I'm willing to call myself a Christian though a lot of people say, 'This isn't Christianity, this is some other version, some sort of, funny sort of liberal philosophy that you're pursuing.'
Oh, Jesus is a person just like any other person and has access to God, I mean, is open to the influences of God in terms of the values that influenced his behaviour and so on. And the things that motivate him. And Jesus said, 'Take up your cross and follow me.' In other words, it's not much use saying that, in fact, if he's got something up his sleeve which I haven't got. So that I think basically Jesus is a human person who has, I would say, like all other human beings a divine aspect to his life. But divinity and humanity are like that. They're not separate like that.
You've said that one of the reasons why you had to keep religion in your life when you were young was not only because you needed to explain things that science couldn't explain, but also because religion had delivered for you, it had delivered you from a burden of guilt when you understood forgiveness. What part does that notion of forgiveness play in your understanding of Christianity today?
Oh, I think it's very important. In my work, in the department which I was working in, for example, [if] I came to cross-purposes with somebody. Then it's important not to continue being at cross-purpose but to find some way out, which might involve my expressing my sorrow that it's happened to the extent which I'm responsible for, which I've done on occasion. And so that forgiveness opens up the possibility of new relationships, which is important I think. And this is why I think it's true to say that if you don't forgive other people then God can't forgive you, because you're in an unforgiving state. I mean it's all very logical, nothing mystical about it.
Yes. I would have the image, I think, ingrained in the background of my mind, the image of Jesus as the most complete human being in many respects that I know of. So that, you know, it's quite interesting, my mind will ply back to some text I learnt in my degenerate youth. But it still has a meaning but a different meaning now. So that, there's a richness of experience and history that somehow or other was embedded in my brain, that I still draw upon.
Oh, yes. The principle of persuasive love, an uncoercive situation. I mean coercion nearly always has bad effects so that, if it's possible, the persuasive is the role that I ... well I think that persuasive is the role that God always relates to. It's the role that I should have in human situations. I should persuade and not try and coerce. Unless you win the other person there's not much point in relating to that person, if you think there are differences between you.
Moving out into the broader picture again, you worked very hard for the movement for the environment and so on, did you feel an obligation to any other political agenda? Did you take a role in any political activity?
Well, the main one that became important was the anti-Vietnam protests and particularly the anti-conscription protests. I had been in the US at California, teaching at Berkeley, for a whole semester at the time of the hippies and the flower movement and the big protest against the Vietnam war and kids, students, were being put in gaol because they were against conscription. And I was very impressed by the role that the staff at the university took, in which they formed, what they called, a committee on conscience. These were members of the staff who were going to support any student who was anti-conscription, who were going to be put in gaol, they'd help with legal fees and things like that. Support them in any way possible. So when I got back to Sydney and there was the same thing happening in Sydney, students in their numbers were being conscripted, many protesting, with great opposition to the war, I formed a group in Sydney, got other members of staff around, we formed a group called Committee on Conscience in which we had leading students and about a dozen staff and we would meet regularly and we provided free legal service to students simply because we had in our midst legal people who were willing to provide services free. We visited students in gaol who were conscripted. And we had big meetings on the front lawn, you know, against conscription. And we put ourselves on the line in the sense that we were apparently disobeying the Crimes Act, you see. It was illegal to persuade students or to support students against some legal obligation, which was to be conscripted. And that was in many ways one of the cathartic experiences I had in my whole career in the university because you got to know students well, they got to know the staff were with them, and it was very, very motivating. That was great. A very important time. And some of the friendships I established then I still retain. Some of them were my own biology students, one in particular. And others have gone out into other areas of life. But they were all very much challenged by their own feelings against the Vietnam war. They didn't want to participate in any way and we were helping them to pursue the goals they thought were important because we thought they were important also.
Oh, I think it was feeling that goodness, without this group we had, Committee on Conscience, students would feel alone and struggling alone. And here we had people who were full of, I mean, they were really delighted that there was some support, they were not alone in the world. I think that's what it was. And think that was a cathartic experience for the students. They actually used that term, I remember that. I thought, that's a good word, that describes my own feeling about it.
Oh, very much so, yes. We had a group which would meet regularly every week and any student who wanted to come in and talk about the problems. Then it had interesting ramifications because one of these students was the head of what was called, Students for Democratic Society, which is a pretty Left-wing outfit, and regarded as an enemy by the Vice-chancellor, you see, because they were the people involved in sit-ins and all that sort of stuff, and it became known that I had been in touch with this lad when he was in gaol and that I'd communicated to his disciples, you know, to the other guys, that this is a message for you. And it was said that I was being rather subversive in the university, but ... So that was just interesting ramifications because there were extremist as well as people who were not quite so extreme.
Oh, I've always been a Labor supporter. I've never supported the conservatives.
Oh, well, I thought the Democrats was a great movement because I thought Mr Chipp had the right ideas. Actually I tried to persuade him not to form a political party, but to form a movement called New Ways, New Ways Ahead, or something. But I think he was right, he formed a political movement. And, I supported that to the extent that if I was asked to address, on the whole I would tend to do that. And I remember going to one big meeting that Chipp had organised in the Melbourne Town Hall, I think it might have been the inaugural meeting. And Sir Mark Oliphant and I were there. There was a plane strike so I had to get a little tiny plane to take us down to Melbourne. That was a very exciting meeting because here we were putting a new political thing on the platform that everybody was very excited about. And he was a very ... I mean Chipp himself was a very charismatic and very emotional person, he threw himself into these things.
I don't think so.
Don't think so.
Now, relationships have always been very important to you in your life and you see them really as what makes the world go round. What do you feel are your obligations in a relationship, what do you think are the most important things that a human being has to do to make the relationship with another person work well?
Goodness, that's a sort of psychological question, isn't it?
Yes, I suppose so. I suppose the most important thing is to regard every individual as having a value in themselves, for themselves, to themselves, which must be respected at all costs. So, I don't want to be manipulative in any way, my role has simply been one of relating in a persuasive sort of way. I don't think I have any rules about this. But I think acceptance is very important. And it's one of the things that I thought was important at the Wayside Chapel. Everybody who walked in, no matter who they were, immediately they felt they were accepted. It didn't mean that their way of life was accepted, but those individuals were accepted and were free to express themselves. There was, it was an inclusive group. Now the trouble about other churches is that they're non-inclusive. They don't include gays, and prostitutes, and what-nots. At least, they're not welcome with open doors. I don't suppose they shut the door, but the Wayside Chapel made no distinction. It's very important.
Oh, I'm not trying to persuade anybody, I suppose, except during the conscription period that we talked about. I would be wanting to be very persuasive about the harm that the Vietnam war was doing to individual people as well as to nations.
Well, most of the time I have spent really writing. I spend a lot of the day at a word processor.
Yeah, I love that.
Well, the interesting thing is that I hated sitting down and writing it by hand because I can't read my own handwriting and the only person who could read it was my secretary. Well, I don't have a secretary any more, when I retired. And I find something, sitting in front of a word processor with just a few ideas, then everything begins to flow because it's a very strange piece of machinery. But it has a hypnotic effect on me. And it's a wonderful thing that just sort of came into existence just about the time I retired, as far as becoming a practical thing for individuals to own. So I do that.
I simply got a little book called Learn to Type. And I sat down for about a week in one vacation and taught myself how to do it. So I'm not terribly good, but I'm good enough. I type rather fast making lots of mistakes but it's easy to correct on a word processor.
Oh, I have a number of — most of my friends are about a third of my age. I have a few people, very few people, who are my same age and mostly they're over there in the United States, interestingly enough. They're people I spent time with in the various places I've lived in the United States. I ...
Yes. Yes. All of them. All of them have been here.
Well, there's been Professor Dobzhansky, Columbia University. Professor Moore and his wife from Columbia University. Well, Dobzhansky came with his wife too. And a much younger one who was a student I influenced when I was lecturing at the University of California at Berkeley, he's now a Professor of Biology at University of California in Los Angeles and he became interested in the origin of mind, mind and consciousness, which my last book was about that. And, but he [has] a much more computer way of looking at it. But he spent six months here sort of trying to get a Whiteheadian view of things.
Frank would like us, for you, to describe your relationship with Paul Ehrlich because of the footage they shot the other day. So I'm going to ask a question. Do you still stay well in touch with people who are leading the world environment movement?
Well, some of them. The person I have most contact with is Paul Ehrlich, who is possibly the most informed of the lot. I have some contact with people like Lester Brown who runs the Worldwatch Institute but that's [at a] less personal sort of level because I've never known him to the extent which I know Paul Ehrlich. And I see Paul certainly once a year, if not more than that. And he writes so many books that he sort of keeps one up-to-date. At least one a year. See, I'm being kept up-to-date to some extent and I keep up-to-date also through Lester Brown's organisation, Worldwatch Institute. [INTERRUPTION]
Yes, we see each other at least once a year. I mean, if I'm in California I will usually call in and see him at Stanford University, or if it's in the summertime, on one occasion I visited him in the Rocky Mountain biological laboratory where he goes for three months every summer. And we correspond a lot.
Yes, he comes almost every year. And usually it's to give some meeting. But this year he talked to some big meeting. He always talks to some meetings when he comes. But he also likes to, he's done field work here, on the Barrier Reef, and also in the bush around Sydney with birds. So he has some projects down here as well as being interested in telling us the latest state of the world. But, no, I learnt a lot from him.
Not really. I'm lucky I think. I think I'm very fortunate. I ...
Well, I mean, I exercise a lot. Every day I exercise in the morning by going down to the gymnasium at Bondi Surf Club and going into the surf. I don't know if that has anything to do with it. And I don't stay awake, I don't stay up too late at night. But I'm not terribly elaborate the way some people are. Like Paul Ehrlich, there's so many things he won't eat that have the slightest bit of cholesterol in it, all this sort of stuff. I don't bother too much about that. Well I don't each much meat, but I'm not too fussy. No, I'm very fortunate. I'd hate to be sick.
Well, I love having little birds that visit me every day. Two curra ... on my balcony. Two currawongs, two miners, two rainbow lorikeets and, sometimes, two little ducks that come swimming in the swimming pool. I call them, whistle to them when they come up and I drop some bread and milk down to them. Yeah, that's fine. I love animals. I like to be surrounded by animals.
Yeah, I just got one, one cream Burmese pussycat who's now 14.
I remember the Professor of Zoology, Professor Agar in Melbourne, on one of his lectures on animal behaviour, he said, 'Those of you who like the cats and dogs, that means you're going to have lots of children. You'll like children.' I didn't see the connection but I suppose it's there's, something there. Yeah, I love, I love cats.
Very unaccurate as far as I'm concerned.
I think I come from a rather unmarriage-able bunch of family. See I was thinking the other day that on my father's side, he had two brothers, one of whom was married only, my father was married, and then he had four sisters, only one who ever married and that was very late in life. My mother had two brothers that never married. See perhaps there's an unamarriage-able gene.
Well, there's always exceptions to these rules.
Yeah, but not too complex.
You don't make things unnecessarily complex. I mean, you look for the simple possibilities, but then you are pretty careful about them. But, you see, I think simplicity in looking for a meaning to life, simplicity in trying to understand the world, is likely to lead to great error, because the world is more complex than our simple model. So you've got to be very careful of simple things, but don't get too, too involved in complexity.
But you seem in your thought quite often to look at what other people would regard as a paradox, or as things that are oppositional, and say both are true? Like you have no difficulty with science and religion. And you accept that. Do you think that this is an essential part of the way you look at things and that you often see the two things that seem to be contradictory are in fact complementary?
I think I tend to the radical, in the sense that I question the accepted orthodoxy of almost everything, including science, certainly with religion. So that I'm way out in one sense.
Oh, yes. Yes. Because most of them belong to the establishment.
It certainly brought criticism, I think, yes, yes.
Well, I used to think, for example, in the things like the Australian Academy of Science and so on, their pronouncements would be written in such a way that it would be a miracle to expect anyone to read them, yet see they were supposed to influence the world. I would go for a much more radical thing. And the most radical thing I ever said, and they never forgave me for, was I said, a quotation from Whitehead actually, 'It's more important to be interesting than true.' Now I didn't say it's important to be untrue, but don't say that the truth is the only thing you've got to aim at. You must first of all be interesting and that's terribly important if you're going to try and influence anybody in a lecture or anything else. In these official bureaucratic things, that doesn't seem to count to be interesting. But it's very important. And they thought that was a very dreadful thing to say. Science is for truth, no matter if it's interesting or not. I think if it is true, it'll be interesting.
Oh, yes. In the sense that I'm talking out of my field. And that is a very strong criticism and it comes from almost any profession you like. You can't talk about economics, I mean, I can't talk about economics, you're an ecologist. You can't talk theology because you haven't done any formal courses on theology. This sort of thing, yeah. And, the Vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney used to ask me, 'How are the eco-nuts today?' Well, it's pretty clear what he thought of people who had ecological ideas from that statement. And, but that didn't matter much, that's fine. It didn't worry me.
And when you share with your colleagues your desire to make sense of these things that can't easily be made sense of, with present biology at any rate, and you talk about feelings and you talk about meaning and purpose and these kinds of ideas, how do they react to that?
Well, the main reaction will be, 'If this is something on which we can't agree, why bother about it?' see. And, my difference is this, that I think there is an area of knowledge that you can put a line around and say, 'We can be pretty sure in that area.' And scientists mostly study within that area. And then I say, 'There are fuzzy edges and in these fuzzy edges there are very interesting ideas and things.' And I tend to be very interested now in the fuzzy edges and to try and find some clarity there. Not to be just confined to the thing of which we can be certain. I don't think certainty is the most important element in our lives. You don't have to be certain about everything.
That's right. Well, now maybe that is the case and it was people who were prepared to move out a little bit into the unknown area and think of other ideas. In fact, one thought that struck me very much [was] by a very famous chemist called Edward Doisy, who discovered Vitamin K, he said, 'Discovery in science consists of looking at the same thing, observing the same things but having thoughts that nobody else had ever had.' See, in other words, your boundary is going out beyond the — so I used to say to the students, 'Can you have some thoughts that nobody has every had? See if you can. Now that's imagination. And discovery. And it's a bit fuzzy. See, nobody has ever had these thoughts. Try and get into that area. It's worth worrying about.'
You've had in your life an element of research, an element of teaching, and an element of public advocacy for various ideas. Is there any one of those strands that has given you particular satisfaction?
I like communication because it's not just a lone act. I mean, research is a pretty lonely sort of operation. You do it best essentially on your own. The sort of stuff that I've been involved in anyway. You know, I haven't been in one of these laboratories and had red telephones which are ringing up somebody across the way or somebody across the world to find out if they discovered this bit of gene before somebody else. So that research is a bit of a lonely operation. Whereas teaching is not a lonely operation at all. It's very communicative. It's very fascinating. You get feedback from the students. I walked into David Jones store the other day at Bondi Junction and some woman walked up to me and said, 'You won't remember me but I think you're Professor Birch.' I said, 'Yes.' She said, 'Well you lectured to me 40 years ago and I was a pharmacy student,' she said, 'I never forget.' Well I mean that's fun isn't it. You know. It's the feedback comes back later on, very often. And I think that's one of the satisfactions of teaching.
You've opted for relationships with groups, with relationships with students en masse, rather than an individual pair-bonded, if you like, relationship. And your satisfactions come with those relationships with larger groups. And yet, you actually seem quite a shy person. Do you think you are shy?
I think I was. I think I was terribly shy. It was awful when I was learning the piano and be asked to play something in front of the visitors; that was shattering for me. I was shy in that sort of way.
Oh, I think, being more with students, you know, on the same basis, I think.
You clearly also don't very much like talking about your own personal feelings and your private life, you feel embarrassed, you seem embarrassed when those sorts of questions are asked. Why do you think this is?
I don't think it's very interesting. I'm interested in the world out there. I'm interested in things that happen. I'm not interested in analysing myself. Other people can do that if they want, but they're not going to get much information from me to help them.
I don't know. But what my philosophy of life is, and includes the possibility that, I would say even the probability that, anything of value which we have achieved in the world for our own lives —and this applies not just to human beings, to every creature — is in some way preserved in the memory of God. So that we contribute back from that which we have received. And this is why God is a changing God because God benefits from the creation in that sort of way. So that, I think it's very unlikely that there will be any individual survival, but there will be some sort of way in which God's memory has received a bit of flip. So I don't know. Of course I can't know the answer to that question. It doesn't worry me much. But I think there has to be some form of eventual survival of what has been achieved in the total creation because otherwise I'd be — you can't say there's a purpose to the universe. If it all blacks out into the end into nothingness, I mean, we know the world is going to come to an end, it's either going to be burnt up or frozen up, and so we will all, I mean, there won't be any human beings on the face of the earth after many billions of years maybe, so what's the point of it. The point of it presumably has to be that what has been of value in the whole of creation, the experiences that have been on the face of the earth, are saved in the memory of God. I mean, that's the general hypothesis. Don't ask me to prove it. But I just simply say there has to be something of that sort to make sense for the rest of the story.
That is very difficult. You know, the wheat and the tares, it's very difficult to know which is the good wheat and which is weeds. But eventually, don't make your judgement too early, is the meaning of that parable. You know, don't try and rip out these things that you think are weeds in the crop because wait until you're sure, a little bit sure, on the harvest time you can make the difference between the seeds of the good and the seeds of the bad. So I think one has to be very wary. I've made some bad judgements on people in the past because I made up my mind too soon. So I think it's best not, don't judge, is better isn't it? You know, if possible, don't make too strong judgements about people before you know enough.
Oh, yes. I mean if I'm selfish, that's bad. But again, see, I don't think I think about these things too consciously. But what I do know [is] that if I do something which is helpful to another person, I feel happy about that. So that's, is that being selfish? I mea,n I do things which bring me satisfaction and the things which bring me satisfaction are not essentially selfish things I think. They're things which in some way or other relate to some other person, or some other being. I mean, I think it's important that I try and make my little pussycat have a happy life. Now that is satisfactory to me if the pussycat is happy, but it's also important to the cat to have experiences that are pleasant.
Yes, there is, yes. But I know what experiences are valuable, the ones that are important to me. And the ones that are not important to me.
Well, it was not that bad, but it was not all easygoing.
Oh, yes, sure.
That I'm doing things that give me satisfaction. And I have goals and motives and something creative. I mean, if I feel I'm being creative in some way up here, mostly, then that gives me happiness.