Australian Biography

Charles Birch - full interview transcript

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Did your growing interest in the environment, and the implications for the future of humanity of environmental activity, affect your actual research work?

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 ...

Did the way you carried out your actual scientific research change at all as a result of your growing understanding of the environmental problems with the world?

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.

Now, the work with the fruit fly, what were some of the principles that you were able to uncover in that work?

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.

And what did you find out from this work?

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 well, the fruit fly is a problem currently in the news, isn't it?

Yes, but it's another fruit fly, yes. Same principles still apply.

Does the fruit fly adapt particularly readily?

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.

And did you do any other field work during this period in other parts of the world?

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.

Did you stay at university, at the University of Sydney, pretty well until you retired?

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.

Did you ever fulfil your dream of going to Asia?

Oh, yes, I've been many times and got sick every time I went there.

What sort of things did you ...

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.

How did you get on doing that? Did you feel 'this is what I was born for'?

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.

And were those people and that philosophy the main thing that then shaped your mind on it?

Yeah, very much so. I'd sort of found something and I stuck to it.

Did you attend church?

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.

Why didn't you find the suburban churches interesting?

I said, they're boring.

Why did you find them boring?

Singing hymns. People pontificating and prayers and telling God what to do and all this sort of stuff. It seemed to be irrelevant.

Could you talk a little bit more about that? What do you think was wrong for you about the religion that you encountered when you went to church?

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.

Why not?

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.

So, in rejecting the God that was taught in churches, you didn't feel any necessity to reject the idea of a God at all?

No. No.

What kind of God did you believe in?

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.

Now is that something, that reality, which is how you've described God so far, an abstract idea, or is it personal?

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.

So you see God really as the link in the ecological web?

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 ...

But would it be sustainable?

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.

One of the principles of the nature of things in an ecological sense is its change and its evolution. Does your God change?

Yeah. Sure.

So, 'Oh God who changeth not,' is not going to abide with you?

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.

So where does that put God for you?

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.

... And for you these are built into the principles that nature operates on? The way in which things evolve? The way in which ...

Oh, absolutely, yes.

That's where God is?

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.

Matter is energy?

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.

But that doesn't necessarily — empiricism, investigation, observation ... [INTERRUPTION]

... I know. You have everything ...

... cool thinking is not necessarily only tied to the mechanistic view?

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.

Why did the Wayside Chapel seem to you to be a much more attractive option than your local church?

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.'

What kind of people?

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.

And what did you have to offer?

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.

And did they read it before they came?

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.

Were you open to them?

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.

How did they feel when they came in from sleeping on the streets of Kings Cross to your beautiful apartment here in Darling Point?

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 ...

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