Australian Biography

Charles Birch - full interview transcript

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How did you feel coming back from the Wayside Chapel and all these waifs, and strays, and homeless people, to this beautiful apartment at Darling Point?

Well I didn't, I didn't do that very often, because I didn't want to be invaded from the Wayside Chapel. We had good facilities at the Wayside Chapel so I preferred that than to having my time sort of encroached upon too much when I was at home. So it was rather, it would be one or two individuals at the time, at the most. And only once did we ever have a bigger gathering, and that was when I said, you know, 'Those of you who are not doing anything on Christmas day, let's have a lunch together.' We had quite a mob turn up and collected people along the way. One of them, he was a very young boy and I said, 'Where do you come from?' and he said, 'Oh, they told me to come. They met me on the train.' I said, 'Where is your home?' He said, 'I don't have any.' I said, 'What do you do?' He said, 'Oh, I live in the streets.' And I said, 'Well, you ought to join our group,' you know. And somebody invited him back to their pad to spend the day there. And he was — but it was interesting to me because we tried to introduce him to friends and so on, and be kind to him, and he wouldn't accept love and acceptance. And eventually we discovered that in fact all his relationships with adults had been totally negative and destructive. He'd been manipulated and used. And for the first time I realised that there are some people for whom it is very difficult to love. And to be loved. Because they reject human beings. So that was a sad case. But, but there you are again, the Wayside Chapel brought together these people which I thought was very important.

How did you feel about your position and privilege, living in here, on your own, in a beautiful apartment, with these people who had nowhere to go?

Oh well, I realised there were others who would have chosen to live in a small room with bare lightbulb on the ceiling and so on. But I had other things to do. I mean, I had plenty of study to do and what not. And maybe I can't justify my position, I should have gone and lived in a hovel or something.

I'm not asking you to justify it, I'm asking you to tell me how you felt about that, whether it was an issue for you?

No, it wasn't really an issue.

You didn't think maybe I should give all this up and go and live in a hovel?

Not really, no.

And why do you think that was? Why didn't it occur to you to do that because you were being very generous with your time, but you didn't feel the need to become a sort of Brother Teresa?

Well, Mother Teresa actually built up a community in which she herself is part of the living with these people. No, I didn't have that attraction, I didn't want to do that at all.

Why did you, how long did you do this?

I think there is, you know, there's something in maintaining a distance as well as maintaining a close relationship. And I found that, when sometimes, on occasions when I've been invited to give a speech or a sermon or whatever in a church, and people would come up to me afterwards or write me letters. And I'd write to the parson and finally say, 'Look I've got all these letters, these are people which it would be interesting for you to deal with.' And he said, 'No. That's your job.' And I found that they in fact were protecting themselves and to an extent I needed to protect myself. That's not answering the question on why I don't live in a hovel, but at least that's the question why they weren't here all the time. It became overwhelming after about 10 years. You see, I kept on that discussion group, but changing periodically, for about 10 years. And the question time, which is a sort of Sunday evening performance, which is my sort of 'Aunt Sally' show, you were very vulnerable because they could say anything about you, ask anything they liked. I kept that up for about 10 years and then I found it was too tiring, because at the end of the sessions I'd be so exhausted that the next day I wouldn't really be as good as I wanted to be at the university. I don't know how Ted Noffs stuck at it for all his life. Very special qualities you need, to be able to work in that community continuously with human problems surrounding you, ever single one of them which probably needs fulltime attention. I don't know how to handle that situation, but he was held to do it.

What was the worst problem encountered during that time?

Oh, the worst problems were terribly tangled human relationships and I'd say to myself, 'How does anyone get tied up into such a mess?' Now I couldn't understand that. And they were, seemed to be untangle-able, there's no such word, is there? These seemed to be things I didn't know how on earth they could be untangled. Perhaps over a long period of time they could be. Very complex human relationships.

What kinds of things did you talk about in your sessions?

Oh, we talked about these two books in particular, Search for Meaning, they were very interested in the problem — what life is all about, what experiences you should pursue. And then the other one, the one about love, meaning of, you know, the Eric Fromm's book on The Art of Loving. That goes down well with kids and students. There are a lot of issues raised. They were all fairly personal things. They were not interested so much — oh, they became interested later on in issues of environment and so on. But to start with, there were all rather personal things, about, you know: What shall I do with my life? How can ... Why am I a thief? How can I as a schizophrenic, you know, get on creatively? I was very impressed with that lad because he knew when he ought to go back into hospital. He didn't accept any maintenance, any sick leave allowance or anything like that. He tried to work when he was out of hospital. Very positive attitude to life. Wonderful.

Apart from offering some good attitudes and some good thoughts to them, did you ever offer any practical help? Did you ever give practical advice to people about how they should ...

Oh, yes. Very often. I mean, in cases, some cases were easier than others. For example, one student who was a drop-out from New Zealand, and he actually had been a biology student, and I said, you know, 'You really ought to get back into this. Let's see what we can do in Sydney.' So I introduced him to various people. He went back into his course, which is very good. He is now a professor in the University of London. I didn't know until I got the Templeton Prize and he saw this in a newspaper and he wrote to me. I hadn't kept in touch with him. So that was, you know, that was somebody who really came good in a special sort of way.

Now, you stopped doing this because you were exhausted. After you stopped did you miss it?


What did you miss?

Well, I missed the two, I missed meeting this great diversity of people which I'd never really come across amongst students. And, I missed the opportunity of being a bit helpful, I think. But, anyway, I wasn't really able to continue. I mean it was emotionally very draining. You had to be young to do that.

What form has love taken in your life?

Oh, I think I've been much more concerned with, um, with people in numbers, you know, living in a college, being associated with the Student Christian Movement, in camps and things like that. And I think my relationships have been much more with people. Well, you might say this is a ... here's a sort of escape from something else. But then I had individuals, individual persons, who have been at a more, a much more close relationship, yeah.

Like for example?

What do you mean by that, 'like for example'?

Well, individuals which you've had close relationships with?

People who ... the friendship, you see, I think it's very hard to classify relationships because ... and I like to say there are some relationships I've had which have been more than friendship, less than being 'in love', I suppose, that's not the right phrase, but more than friends and less than lovers; I think that's probably the better phrase. Now there's a category in between somewhere. And I'm sort of made for that, I think.

Why do you think you're made for that?

Oh, I haven't a clue. How could I know?

You're just no good at [being] introspective?

Yeah, I'm no good at introspectives, and I don't particularly want to go to a psychoanalyst. It's not, it doesn't interest me really.

But I think it intrigues ...

I mean, I realise that I'm a bit exceptional in that respect, but so are nuns. So are monks. I'm a monk. I live in my monastery.

And you feel that you are just very naturally born to be a monk? Why do you think you became that way, because of interests and ...

Oh, I don't think the environment that I chose for myself, that impinged on me and so on, probably led in that direction and so on. I don't know. No, I don't think I was born that way. I could have been anything.

And do you think that the early years of guilt and the very narrow way that you lived through your adolescence made you a little bit afraid of intimacy and commitment?

Oh, at one stage it did, yes. But I think I grew out of that.

Have you found the sort of relationships that you've had in groups very satisfying?

Yeah. Yes.

Could you talk about that a little and say what it is about being in a group and contributing in a group that makes you feel good?

Well, you see, I experienced it most when I was Vice-master of a college at the University of Sydney with about 150 students. And my door was open really all the time and they used to come and talk to me about anything, like. And they'd invite me to their rooms and so on, we all lived in the same place. We ate in the same place. So we got to know each other pretty well, particularly if it's a medical student who sticks there for six years. And, so, that was an easy environment in which to find friends and to feel very much, and I was invited in their activities, you know, training for the swimming carnivals and all this sort of stuff. It would be the slightest interest now, but it was then.

Did you enjoy observing them?


So it wasn't like observing insects?

No, I wasn't very good at that. I'm not at all good at categorising people, and I never was very successful with categorising students. Not at all. I found that, well, I'm not very good at that. I don't think I'm terribly interested. I regard everybody as a sort of equal in a sense. Their difference is, well in appeal, other people would notice difference which I wouldn't notice.

For your achievements in the course of your life and your work, have you been given any honours?

Oh, I don't know. I'm a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. Is that an honour?

Do you think it is?

I don't know, I suppose it is? I've been given sort of honours by the American Ecological Society and the British Ecological Society. I'm an honorary life member of both of those and I got an award from the American outfit with my colleague in Adelaide, called Eminent Ecologist of the Year, a few years ago. That sort of thing.

And any major prizes?

Only one, only one major in the sense that there was a lot of money involved — that's the Templeton Prize for progress in religion.

And why did you get that?

I got that, I think, because of my work with the World Council of Churche, almost certainly, on science, technology and environment, and I think I was the first scientist to give a plenary, a talk to a plenary session of an assembly of the World Council of Churches, every seven years they have this meeting. And I think that was the reason. I can't imagine any other reason.

Was there a lot of excitement around you when you won it?

What do you mean by that?

Well, did people feel terribly pleased, did it seem like a very important honour to have — to go?

Most people have never heard of it. All they did know was that the money seemed to be rather big. Why so much money? And the reason for that was that Sir John Templeton who inaugurated this prize thought that there ought to be a Nobel prize for religion because he was a very religious sort of person and very wealthy financier in New York. And so he established a prize which would be equivalent to the Nobel prize in terms of the money. And surrounded it with all sorts of pomp and ceremony. You had to give an address in the Guild Hall in London and then go to Buckingham Palace and receive your medal from the Duke of Edinburgh, that sort of thing. So it was, so there was that sort of surrounding, yes.

And what do you feel about all of that?

I was surprised. I didn't know I had been nominated, so I was really surprised.

Did you feel excited?

Yeah. A chap rang me from Bermuda, the vice-president, no, from the Bahamas. And, he said, you're sharing the Templeton Prize which will require you to be in Buckingham Palace on the such and such and such and such. And read out a whole of this stuff, this is what I had to do, and where I had to go and so on and so on. I thought it was a bit funny to do that at the same time. So I said, 'Send me a letter.' Which he did.

And when you heard about it, who did you ring to tell?

I suppose I rang my brother, brothers. I can't really remember. Actually I had a friend from Tasmania who was staying with me, at the time, and he saw that I heard some funny news on the telephone and when I tried to explain to him, what it was all about, I had difficulty in speaking. You know it was just a bit overwhelming.

Would you have rather got a prize for science?

I suppose so, I don't know.

No, I'm asking that as a genuine question.

I'm really not terribly interested in prizes.

But there was a recognition there, it was a recognition of your work and a recognition was for religion rather than science. And because your life had been the integration of the two, I suppose the question that I was trying to ask was about the relative importance in your scheme of things?

I suppose the prize was a prize for religion and science together because Sir John Templeton was terribly interested in the whole field of science as well as religion and bringing the two together. So that I think it was my activity in that joint area that was important to him, or for the judges.

As it was when they gave it to Paul Davies?

Exactly the same situation, yeah.

Could I ask you now, as the little boy who found life rather hard, who, who, who [INTERRUPTION]

Could I ask you now, as the little boy who found life rather hard, who ...

Who found what?

Who found life rather hard ...

Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes.

I started asking that question. You started out your early years, you put a fairly sort of hard yoke on yourself ...

Oh, yes.

You worked very hard, you felt guilty about a lot of things, and you took a very strong discipline on board. And that cramped your style and made you quite unhappy when you were young. What makes you happy now?

Oh, I think that I have a focus and I have a meaning. I know what I want my life to be about, which I didn't at that stage. And that I, it wasn't sure I had the confidence to do the sort of things that I thought I'd be basically interested in.

What is that focus and the meaning?

Well, the focus is that the two areas that to me have been very important, namely science and a liberal religion brought together in an understanding of the world, which is a different understanding than a completely mechanistic world, but is one that is more alive, and full of life and possibilities. It's unfinished. It's an unfinished symphony and that I can contribute to some extent to the next movement.

And does that seem urgent to you, that you have to, I mean, when you wake up in the morning do you have a strong sense that you have to do important things that day?

I do if I've got a project in hand, like writing a book. Now I get to it straight away, half-past eight at the latest. On to my word processor. Yeah, yeah, I feel quite moved and motivated about these things. I think it's very important.

And when did that really change for you? Could you describe the journey and just try and sum up and describe the journey that's occurred in your life from a young, inhibited, embarrassed, ashamed boy?

Sounds awful, yes.

But that's how you described yourself?

A bit, yeah, okay.

To where you've got to now. could you just tell us that story, how that sort of really happened for you and why you feel now you've got a rhythm, a way of living that suits you?

Yeah, well, I said that I'm not very good at analysing myself. And, I don't really think about that very much.

I guess I'm not asking you to analyse yourself, Charles, I think I'm asking you to just sort of describe, in fact, what's happened to you in terms of the sort of key things that have given you a way of living rather than to, you know, sort of talk about your motivation as an individual. But I guess what we're doing here with this series is offering people ways of looking at their own lives too by looking at what's worked for you. So I was thinking it might be nice if you gave us a bit of a description of that journey we've been looking at?

Well, I mean, I think that the challenge and the conflict as well is how to relate the tendency for self-interest, with a tendency for other interests. And that has always been a battle I think. It's a battle when I stand up on a platform to give a public lecture, or to give a lecture for students, that it's my own ego which is being satisfied to some extent. I know more than they do, I'm important on this particular occasion. But then there's the other motivation. I want, I'm the person who's supposedly enlightening this bunch of people that I'm talking to. I think those two things are quite hard to sort out and that you've got to have a bit of both of them. Some people say the solution is you've got to deny yourself completely and get rid of the egotistic, but then the egotistical aspect of life is very much part of [your] impulse to go ahead and do something different and new. I think it's very difficult to deny yourself completely. I'm not sure that it's a good thing to do, but I don't think I'm very good at doing that. So I try to make some sort of a compromise or a joining between these two aspects. And the people I see who are doing things in the world are mostly ... are making headway with a very strong ego, but at the same time it's modified by the desire to do something beyond the ego. I don't annihilate the ego.

You started out early in life with a strong belief in achievement and a very strong sense of competitiveness that you had to achieve things in your life. Has that ever left you?

It's less important. It was very important when I hadn't reached a job in a profession so I was competing all the way when I was a student until I got a job. I don't think it became very important thereafter because I was less, less reasonably competitive.

You've cited your books as one of the things that makes your life feel important and directed. When did you start writing these more popular books that you've been writing in the last few years?

Well, Confronting the Future, I must have written about 20 years ago. And On Purpose which the first ... Oh, no. There was one before On Purpose, and that was a joint one I had with John Cobb on liberating, Liberation of Life. And that was 1981, I think. Then On Purpose developed out of that idea. So it was, I don't know, from about the 80s. In fact, I think the first one, that's right, the first one I finished just when I was retiring.

Right. And so it's been something you've taken up since you retired from the university work?

That's right. And I've had more time to develop the ideas in the form of a book. I'd written articles before but I needed more concentrated attention, yeah.

Could you go through the books and describe for me what each of them was, what was the reason behind each of them, and why you felt it necessary to write that particular book?

Well Liberation of Life, which was with John Cobb, was essentially an idea of liberating the model of life which was mechanistic in size to a more organic model. I mean, that was the theme of the book. And in order to get there we had the framework of Whiteheadian thought, process thought, in which we were replacing the notion of bits and pieces, the world was made of bits and pieces of substance, by a world made of events. And so we talked about event thinking as contrasted with substance thinking. It's a difficult idea for some people but very important in terms of say, modern physics. And then, we talked about the importance of that, the revelance of that, to an ethic, particularly an ecological ethic. In other words, the things of value in the universe are not just people, but all other creatures. So we had an environmental ethic developed in that book. Now the second one, On Purpose, my idea was to try and say, well if the universe is not just a mechanistic universe, is it a purposeful one? Is there some purpose beyond just my own individual purposes? Am I contributing to some ongoing purpose? And so, On Purpose was concerned with the role of this intangible thing called purpose, not just in my own life, but perhaps in the life of God also. Was there a purpose to the foundations of the universe? Try and work that one out. And so I have a lot about evolution in that book. Cosmic evolution, biological evolution, because I see that as a working out of a sort of a purpose. Not ... it's an open-ended thing. I'm not suggesting that anybody knew where it was going, but in general terms. Then the third one was Regaining Compassion: For Humanity and Nature and that was concentrating more on compassion for nature. In other words, an environment book with ethics again. But developing it in a single book. And so I have a lot to say there about my attitude to animals and why people have had different attitudes to animals, particularly in the course of history. So that was really — see the environmental ethic up till now has been very largely one thing, 'Look after nature because nature looks after us.' In other words, it's what is called an instrumental ethic. I want to add another component. 'Look after nature because nature is like us, has feelings.' Other creatures have feelings and we should respect feelings. They should, they have rights. It's a development of that argument, which has become quite a big, you know, 10 years ago there was nothing written about this, now there's a lot written about it. Then the last one was called Feelings because I've said all along, and I said in the previous book, that the most important thing for me, is feelings. My feelings. It's not other things, it's feelings. I come back to feelings all the time. If I have no feelings then I'm zero. So, how do I interpret feelings. Not just my feelings but the feelings of other creatures on this planet. Who has feelings besides human beings? So I deal with that question, and come down to the conclusion, which I knew I had at the beginning, that it's a feeling universe. That it's a much more feeling universe than a substance, materialistic, sort of universe. And I end up with a rather controversial chapter which interestingly enough seems to appeal to more people than I thought it would, and that's called 'The Feelings of God'. Well, I've got to sort of excuse myself and say, how do I know about the feelings of God, but here's a proposition, you see. And people write and say, oh, you should write more about that. Perhaps I've said everything I can say about it.

The traditional view of what makes a person tends to look at their genetic inheritance and the environment in which they evolved, but you add something to that, don't you? You say it's not just a matter of inheritance and environment, of nature and nurture, but also of individual decision, individual belief. Where does this idea come from?

Oh, I think I included under the heading of what you use as nurture, the total environment. My total environment is not just the food I eat and the people I meet, but it includes the purpose that I've chosen to be influential in my life, that's part of my environment, I mean, I've focused in a particular direction. So that, I say, the most important thing is the nurturing aspects. In other words, the environment in a very broad sense and I regard God as part of the environment. If God is influential then God is part of the environment. And I put the least emphasis on the genetic side.

Why is that? That is unusual in a biologist, especially these days?

Yes it is. The reason is, I don't think that there's any evidence that the important differences between us, between individuals, is genetic. I think it's primarily environmental. I think the evidence is in that direction. Now it's true that my eyes are blue because I've got genes for blueness. Okay, but that's trivial. If my eyes were brown it wouldn't matter, it wouldn't make any difference. But the important things are, what we do with what we've got. You know, the parable of the talents and the talents can multiply. Don't think you're talents are limited because you think you're born with only this little bit. And I think that's the important thing. The extent in which people can flourish, I learnt that at the Wayside Chapel. The extent to which people can flourish and the environment they're in changes and there opens up possibilities and they see a different world. They don't see themselves as transformed. That's much more important than the genes they have, I think.

So you'd be surprised if they find a gene for homosexuality?

I think it's very unlikely, yes. Well I don't, of course, I don't know. But I'd be, that's a dicky one, that one you see, because obviously the differences between the sexes is a matter of genes, a matter of chromosomes. So it's possible that sexual orientation can have a genetic component. But I'd be surprised, I don't think there's very much evidence at the moment that that is the case. Could go either way.

How would you feel about people bringing the environmental influences to bear on one's genetic inheritance? I mean, what do you think about intervention in genetic, genes, by the manipulation of genes?

Oh, I think in terms of trying to replace defective genes that cause disease with genes again that overcome that problem, I mean that's a perfectly laudable objective. The objective which is much less acceptable at the moment is to change the genes in the person that will influence the genes in the next generation. The reason why that is difficult is that we don't have any ideas as to the extent to which that, a new gene in the germline, could disrupt the whole picture. So we don't know enough about genetics to play around with that one yet.

And of course genetics, and the notion of genetics, gave rise to eugenics which is the whole idea of manipulating to get the kind of people you want. What do you feel about all of that?

Oh, I think eugenics has been very largely discredited. It was high on the agenda at the time when we knew very little about human genes and human genetics. But it's very low on the agenda now because the sorts of ways that eugenicists thought you could improve the human race, turned out to [be] ways which would have no effect in that direction at all. In other words it didn't work. And eugenics also has a pretty negative side to it when you think of the Hitler campaign against all the people who had genetic, possible genetic, diseases who were in mental hospitals and so on. I think that's one of the least important things to pursue. In fact, I would try and pursue it in the opposite direction. The environment and social climate is the important thing.

How would you sum up the most important things the world has to do in order to ensure that it has a good future?

Three things. It has to do ... something about the population explosion. And that applies as much to Australia and the United States as it does to Indonesia and India or China because every individual in Australia and the United States uses perhaps 20 times more resources. Produces 20 times more pollution than any individual in Indonesia and India and China. So in actual fact our population would in terms of China be equivalent to a billion people, not just 17 million people at the moment. So that's one of the things. We've got to try and there are too many people on the face of the earth and they're getting more, we're growing at a faster rate now than we have in all our history in terms of the number of people who are added to each year. The second thing is, we've got to curb our use of resources, particularly water and soil and things like that, which are disappearing. And the third one is, we've got to disrupt the environment less in terms of the technology which is destroying the atmosphere, you know, pollution in the atmosphere. And, pollution in the seas and the rivers, that sort of thing. So there's a huge agenda and we ought to be committed to changing the scene in each of these items. It's difficult in an affluent country like Australia because people say 'Well, we ought to become even more like what we are at the moment.' See, as time goes on. But I think we've got to become different.

That's for the world as a whole. What do you think makes an individual good life?

Makes an individual?

Good life. What is a good life?

How do you live as an individual? How should we live?

Oh. That's a very general sort of question, how should we, not just me. I would think in terms of fulfilling the possibilities of our lives so that all the various potentialities that we have — try and develop, not them all, but those that are most likely to respond to our efforts, so that our life is fulfilled. And that, I think, means pursuing certain values rather than others. I mean by that I mean pursuing, not material wealth and prizes, but friendship and understanding the world, meaning, finding meaning, that sort of thing.

[end of tape]

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