Australian Biography

Charles Birch - full interview transcript

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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.

And you didn't know that before you went there?

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.

Why is it called process thought?

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.

But the Chicago experience made things really start happening for you?

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.

Now, you weren't spending too much time in the philosophy department, to be able to do what you'd gone there to do, in the biological side ...

No. No. No.

What were you doing?

Oh, that was simple. I was just counting beetles. It was an experiment on trying to ... on flower beetles.

And what did it, where did it fit in your ecological thought?

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.

What was it that you were doing at the Waite Institute that excused [you] from being drafted into the Second World War?

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.

And did an entomologist help with this? Was the problem insects?

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.

The insects weren't really contributing much?

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.

Now again, you wanted to be useful. You sorted out usefully what was the problem. What could be done about it?

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 ...

And no-one ever wanted again to do it?

No they didn't.

So, it was a fairly futile finding again was it, Charles?

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.

What did they do?

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.

So, in the process of getting their first lot of food they created so much heat that they couldn't get onto the next lot?

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.

Have you found that with everything you've studied, even if it doesn't have quite the outcome that you expect, you get something else from it?

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.

What year did you go to Chicago?



No, it must have been 1946, I think. Yes.

The notion of ecology as a subject, where had that come from?

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?

What did he himself actually think of the idea?

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.

So your bottom line is, what should we do about it?

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.

But the theoretical disagreement, could you encapsulate that for us? What it means in practical terms?

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.

The world certainly wants to hear simple solutions?

Of course it does, right through. Science wants to make simple solutions.

But you're in a situation where you're also trying to sell an implication of a complex model of what's wrong, that we might have to change how we behave ...

That's right.

Whereas your opponents think that this simple problem can be managed by us.

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.

Now, back in Chicago, you are learning to think in a big way ...

That's right, yeah.

And so how long were you there?

I was there for a year and a half.

And what difference did it make to you?

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.

You said you started out always wondering whether your own thoughts about things were worth having ...

That's right, yeah.

... and a desire to rely on other authorities. Was it in Chicago that you got to the point where you began to feel that maybe you can think things through?

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.

And the fall out from all of these things was a much broader view of the world?

Yeah. Absolutely, yeah.

So the next step, you went onto Oxford didn't you?

Yes, I went on to Oxford.

How did you find Oxford after Chicago?



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.

Charles, I always thought that was mythical about the coals in the bath. It was absolutely true, you saw them?

It was absolutely true, yes. So I didn't stay there for too long. But nobody talked to me for a long time.

Because you wanted to wash?

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.

Why did he think that it was such a good idea — three people working on the same thing and not talking to each other?

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.

And what sort of work did you get to do?

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.

So, you didn't get general intellectual stimulation, but you got some practical advice and knowledge when you needed it?

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.

And why do you think that was?

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.

So in England there was the quality, but not the quantity?

That's right. And you knew how to get the most out of such time as you were going to put into your efforts.

Did you get reconciled to Oxford at all before you left?

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.

You were ... have you remained a teetotaller all your life?

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.

So your wider world view embraced even alcohol?

Oh, yes, yes. I saw some merits in it.

So while this time you'd been away and experiencing the way people thought overseas, what were you thinking in mind that you wanted to do when you came back to Australia?

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.

What did you enjoy about being with people?

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.

You were planning to come back to a situation but you didn't want to, of course, give up the research?

No, certainly not.

What is it that you really enjoy most about research?

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.

Which was paramount?

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.

What job was it?

Well, senior lecturer in zoology. In the zoology department, which was a pretty conservative department and I said I wanted to reform this department ...

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