Magazine article The Spectator

Pervasive Fear of the Unknown

Magazine article The Spectator

Pervasive Fear of the Unknown

Article excerpt

When I was a suburban schoolboy in the 1930s I was an avid reader of Talbot Baines Reed and his senior, Henty. I wish I could say I laughed at them or that their sometimes ineptly unscientific realities made me angry, but very largely I swallowed them whole. Huge, menacing anacondas, gorillas as big as Kong, maneating tigers and enormous squids and tarantulas . . . none of them lived or were even truly imaginable at the trite mouth of the Thames estuary. It was somehow so nice, in the warm little apple-scented nest where I lived, to dream of all those horrors safely somewhere else. This complacent, self-insuring attitude is still with us, of course. We see it regularly with The XFiles, where everything that comes from another planet is clearly out to destroy man . . . and woman . . . here. I long ago complained of this profoundly childish view of the unknown, an essentially neolithic reaction to our own isolatedness and ignorance. If it's foreign, it's obviously evil.

Peter Raby read English and Theology and now lectures on drama at Cambridge. We already have two good biographies from him, one of Berlioz's Harriet Smithson and the other of Samuel Butler. One might almost have guessed his interest in drama from this lively and absorbing account of the way both European art and science have so deeply influenced the way we stay-at-homes see - or once saw the natural world. We not only meet almost all the great naturalists from Darwin and Wallace down, but have skilfully pruned and vivid accounts of their adventures, the peripeteia of their psychological and emotional lives.

With very few exceptions - Mary Kingsley (there's a nice photograph of her, dry-eyed and quizzical) and Marianne North of Kew - all these trail-blazers were men. In our contemporary terms most were sadly myopic in their general political and cultural attitudes. Only too many were hypnotised by the gaudy pomp and circumstances of imperialism and the notion that civilisation must follow trade. Where the merchant goes, culture will follow. What actually followed - frequently at those same merchants' demand - were the nearfascisms of the codebound military and the crass missionary, with all their attendant evils. The empire-besotted easily withstood the ironies and sarcasms of the more percipient like Dickens and Butler.

I suspect most modern ecologists, all those of us concerned over the cruelties and deprivations that mankind still cannot stop inflicting on nature, now realise that somewhere between the 18th and 19th centuries, in the broken dawn of the modern sciences, man was pushed by his perennial amorality onto a precarious path. …

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