Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The missing contribution to the great debate of our age

A A A

Anyone who saw the Hollywood movie Gladiator will remember its villain: the demented young Roman emperor Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The most vivid historical picture we have of Commodus is by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Gibbon hated him because he felt it was with Commodus that the Roman rot set in, after four emperors who had ruled wisely and well, the last being Commodus's own philosopher-father, Marcus Aurelius.

Gibbon portrays Commodus as degraded, not least for his antics in the arena, where he specialised in shooting wild animals with bow and arrow before the cheering crowd; his party trick was to shoot off the heads of running ostriches with crescent-shaped arrowheads, and he is said to have shot 100 lions, as well as elephants and rhinoceroses. But Commodus did something else which seems to have shocked even Gibbon, who recounts in a brief, awed footnote: Commodus killed a camelopardalis or giraffe, the tallest, the most gentle, and the most useless of the large quadrupeds. This singular animal, a native only of the interior parts of Africa, has not been seen in Europe since the revival of letters, and though M de Buffon (Hist. Naturelle, tom. xiii.) has endeavoured to describe, he has not ventured to delineate, the Giraffe.

Here's the point of this: writing in the mid-1770s, Edward Gibbon had never seen a giraffe; when he wanted to get a feel for what one looked like, it was to a French book that he naturally turned. The Histoire Naturelle of George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, in 36 volumes, was the major general work on natural history of the 18th century and every educated European was familiar with it. While the Hampshire parson Gilbert White, whom we now so revere, was depicting at length the wildlife of a tiny microcosm, his native village of Selborne, Buffon was attempting to describe the wildlife of the whole known world. His monumental synthesis was one of the great productions of the European Enlightenment, and his fame as an author rivalled that of Voltaire or Rousseau.

In fact, Buffon gave France a pre-eminence in the then-dynamic field of natural history which was maintained for two generations by the naturalists who came after him, such as Georges Cuvier, who among much else founded palaeontology, and Jean-Baptiste Larmarck, whose statue in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris proclaims him as "the founder of the theory of evolution". He may not have hit upon the mechanism of natural selection, but Lamarck, and Cuvier, and Buffon before him, were without doubt the pioneers who laid down the path which Charles Darwin eventually followed to his re-ordering of all our conceptions about life.

But where are they now? I mean, where are their successors? Where are the leading French minds examining nature? There seem to be none. The French today do not seem to be remotely interested, at least at an elevated level, in the natural world, saving all their enthusiasm for the abstract world of ideas. If we take the grand intellectual adventures of the past 40 years, in Britain and America we have had two: evolutionary biology, which has told us more about ourselves as humans than we ever suspected, and the theory of Gaia, now generally referred to as Earth system science, which has told us more than we ever dreamed about the way the Earth works. Both are of vital consequence (especially the Gaia theory as it relates to climate change – it explains how the feedback mechanisms which keep the Earth system stable may work against us, once they are disturbed), and they have exercised some of the most distinguished minds in Britain and America, from Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould to E O Wilson and James Lovelock.

Yet in these exhilarating new explorations of the world and of humanity – and I say this as a confirmed Francophile – the French have been absolutely nowhere. The grand intellectual adventure of recent years in France has been structuralism, shading into post-structuralism and then deconstruction, which, it is barely an exaggeration to say, all lead to the ultimate conclusion, via the works of thinkers such as Barthes and Derrida, that nothing means anything.

That is not to say the French are not interested in the environment, and in environmental problems: of course they are. But with a few notable exceptions, such as Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the aerial photographer whose visions of the Earth from above have turned him into a passionate defender of the planet, there seems to be minimal interest, among their major thinkers, in the actual, empirical workings of the natural world. While E O Wilson, the Harvard evolutionary biologist seen by some people as Darwin's successor, delights in the label of "naturalist", it is inconceivable that a French intellectual today might regard such a description as praise. He (or she) would think it referred to a little person who collected butterflies.

Why, in this great culture, should there now be this contempt for the empirical? I don't know. But it seems to me that the natural world is where the great drama of the future threatens to be played out – the overwhelming of the carrying capacity of the earth by the scale of the human enterprise – and I don't think Messieurs Buffon, Cuvier and Lamarck would rest easy in their tombs knowing their countrymen had turned their backs upon it.

All down to Lyon

These thoughts are prompted by the fact that The Independent is this weekend joining with our French counterpart, Libération, and the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, in a large-scale, three-day international debate, in the city of Lyon, on the theme of "A Sustainable Planet". I look forward to being proved comprehensively wrong.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

Further reading

'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire', Chapter IV: The cruelty, follies, and murder of Commodus', by Edward Gibbon; 'Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth', by James Lovelock (OUP, 1979, 3rd edition 2000)

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?