Tim Flannery is an Australian scientist and environmentalist; his work as a mammalogist and palaeontologist pushed Australia's mammal fossil record back 80 million years and uncovered numerous new extant species. His new book, Here on Earth, proposes a rethink of the way we view our and the Earth's histories. He talks to Olivia Edward about how Darwin dented our self-esteem and what we need to do to create real democracies here in the West
I grew up in Melbourne in a suburb called Sandringham on Port , Phillip Bay. When I was very young, Sandringham was the edge of Melbourne's suburbs and there was a lot of bushland nearby. By the time I was ten, most of that had been transformed into suburbs and the bay had been very grossly polluted. I think my sense of aggravation at seeing this terrible destruction of the natural world was the beginnings of my environmentalism.
I always wanted to be a scientist, but I did so poorly at maths and languages in high school that I wasn't able to study science at degree level. I decided to be a high school teacher instead and took a degree in English and history. I absolutely loved it, but I knew that teaching wasn't really for me. Luckily, there was a minerals boom in Australia at the time, so after graduation, I applied to do a Master's in geology, and they accepted me because they were so desperate for geologists.
Here on Earth is a double history of human beings and the planet on which we live. I hope it allows readers to understand a little better the processes that made them and their world. In the past, we've been very focused on Darwin's way of looking at evolution, but nothing survives in a world where survival of the fittest prevails. I think it's time we re-evaluate the work of Alfred Wallace [the 19th-century naturalist who came up with his own theory of evolution by natural selection].
Charles Darwin was a consummate reductionist scientist who looked at the mechanism of evolution in great detail, whereas Wallace went on to look at what evolution had produced and saw this extraordinarily interwoven and cooperative world. How we perceive evolutionary science informs our thoughts about ourselves and our society. Darwin's work made us think we were an ugly species, but just because the mechanism that created us is amoral and cruel and ruthless, that doesn't mean we are. When you look at the world around you, what you see is cooperation. We're in the middle of a great civilisation here and it's based on cooperation between people.
Co-evolution is the reason megafauna largely only remain in Africa. They had half a million years to co-evolve alongside human beings and learnt to escape hunters. But when we finally got out of Africa, we met a whole fauna that didn't even know what a carnivorous ape was, so was much easier to catch. …