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

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The Independent Online

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.

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)