Australian Biography

Charles Birch - full interview transcript

Tape of 7

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So when you took yourself off to Melbourne University, what were you looking forward to most?

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.

And were you imagining yourself making lots of friends at university and expanding your general horizons?

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.

Now, in choosing to do agriculture, how did you get on with the practical side of the course?

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.

What did you dislike about it so much?

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?

So it was the absence of thought that bothered you?

It really was, yes.

Did you mind the physical work?

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.

There's not much room for cow-hugging on a farm?

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.

So, at which point while you were going through this course did you realise that you really wanted to perhaps shift your focus to be very research-oriented?

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.

Why were you so interested in insects? What is it about insects that attracts you to them?

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.

And why, so you never used this microscope?

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.

So the experience of going to university, instead of perhaps drawing your interest to things other than insects, amplified your interest in insects?

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.

And so you weren't tempted by other animals or plants away from your initial love of those insects?

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.

In doing agriculture you had this desire that you might do some good ...

Yeah.

What did you have in mind?

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.

So he had a sort of colonial image and you had a missionary image?

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.

What attracted you to Asia rather than Africa?

Because it was near. Because it was close to hand. Africa seemed to be remote.

In those days in the 30s, Asia felt remote to a lot of Australians too?

Asia?

Mmmm.

Well not as remote, no.

Now you graduated in 1939. Why didn't you go off, why weren't you drafted into the war?

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 ...

You weren't tempted to volunteer?

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.

And that was at the Waite Institute?

That was at the Waite Institute.

Now, you got the job as entomologist at the Waite Institute ...

Well, the research student entomologist, yeah.

You got the job over your friend ...

That's right, yeah.

And, can you describe how you felt going off to the Waite Institute? What did that mean to you?

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]

What did it mean to you to get this opportunity, to get research in entomology at the Waite Institute?

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]

What did the Waite Institute mean to you?

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.

And what was it like when you got there?

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.

And what was your task?

What was what?

What was your task?

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.

And what did you find?

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.'

So you found the answer ...

We found the answer, which often happens — you can't put it into practice. Politically not acceptable ...

So this desire to be useful was frustrated?

It was frustrated. Yeah.

You'd found something useful but it wasn't any use?

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.

And do you think in retrospect that you really did have a line that nobody else had?

Did we did have what?

A line that nobody else had.

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.

And what was the essence of the argument?

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.

Now, leaping ahead to now, in that debate between Nicholson and you, who has now really won?

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.

But each has influenced the other?

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.

So, you had sort of philosophical blinkers on? You weren't thinking beyond a given philosophy?

No, I wasn't, no.

Did you also have emotional blinkers on?

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.

And what about relationships?

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.

Had you stopped feeling guilty about sex?

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.

Do you think that often, when people are blinkered, it's because they're afraid?

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 ...

Do you think that you had these philosophical blinkers on because you were afraid to think of other things?

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.'

Because you weren't at that stage really thinking of it?

No I wasn't, no. I wasn't thinking at all. I wanted the truth handed to me on a plate.

Now on an emotional level, were you drawn to have relationships with people?

No.

So you didn't get an attachment to anybody?

No, no. I think ...

In secret perhaps?

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.

So your adolescent sexuality was a sort of isolated thing you felt guilty about but didn't relate to other people?

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.

Still, you must have seen your brothers perhaps and other people around you forming relationships. You didn't think, maybe there's something wrong with me that I don't have a relationship?

No, I didn't think that way, no.

It never occurred to you?

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.'

So, when you were in Adelaide, your whole world widened out. It widened out in your scientific perspective. What happened to your philosophical perspective?

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 ...

Defend it?

... 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.

And what do you think was the big difference in that type of Christianity for you, from the one that you were exposed to up to that time?

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.

And who featured, which philosopher featured most in that?

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.

What was motivating you at this time? Was it just simply the fact that you'd realised that what you'd always believed was wrong? Or were you searching for something more?

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.

But you needed to keep the religion in the picture?

Yes.

Why?

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.

And you felt that the only way to integrate those things that you couldn't explain with science at that stage of science's development was with religion?

Philosophical religion, yeah. Yeah.

Philosophical religion?

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.

So what happened next in your life to help you develop this integrative approach that you tried to ...

... Oh, that's easy to answer because I stayed at Waite, Waite Institute, for about six years, and then I went to the university ...

[end of tape]

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