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‘During the twentieth century, humankind has managed to do the impossible: we have brought famine, plague and war under control. Today, more people die from obesity than from starvation; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed in war. We are the only species in earth’s long history that has single-handedly changed the entire planet, and we no longer expect any higher being to shape our destinies for us. As Homo sapiens becomes Homo deus, what new destinies will we set for ourselves? As the self-made gods of planet earth, which projects should we undertake, and how will we protect this fragile planet and humankind itself from our own destructive powers?’

Yuval Harari – Home deus – 2016

”In looking to the future it as well to examine the past – to understand and explain why things are as they are now – to realise how things could have been different – and to look critically at how we would like them to be in the future”.


This web site explores the theme ‘plants and their relationship to people and the planet’ within the broad context of Big History and its associated scientific world view.

What you will find is a worldview – not an impregnable intellectual fortress of ideas, but one attempt to put together the main elements of our current scientific and philosophical understanding of the world stated in a way that invites the reader to measure them against their own views and, if so inclined, to make suggestions for their modification and improvement.

Where to now?

No doubt you are saving time by reading this Summary first – that way you will know how it all ends without wading through the time-consuming detail of the story.

So be it.

If I’ve done my job properly then reading this summary will tempt you to delve a bit deeper and challenge its claims. But remember . . . it is an evolving resume so it will probably be different the next time you read it (assuming you return!).


The opening articles of the ‘Home’ section draw attention to our contemporary tendency to provide explanations by a process of analysis . . . if you want to know how something works, you look at its parts and their relations.

But there is another way of proceeding, and that is to assume that what you are looking at is itself a part of a wider context and in this way you can proceed by the method of synthesis, by seeing how what is of interest fits into a greater whole. These two different ways of explaining the world (analysis and synthesis) are not alternatives but complementary methods, the one reinforcing the other.

History and science provide us with excellent examples. The problem with the universe and its events is that everything is ultimately connected, no matter how distantly. Pick any part for study and you are forced to acknowledge a lack of completeness and teh temptation to provide this by being more inclusive.

Though the topic of this web site is plants-people-planet, it was decided very early on that the main approach would be synthetic and inclusive. The topic was vast, and with planet Earth one component there was no alternative but to start out at a planetary scale which, in turn, presented a context at the scale of the universe. But isn’t history just about people?

Historical context

History has undergone a momentous transformation in recent times. Once clearly and narrowly defined, like many other subjects it has fragmented into subdisciplines which provide us with a far richer and more nuanced impression of the past. We now have, for example, feminist history. One offshoot in the 1960s was environmental history which made us aware of the long-ignored physical and geographic factors that are always at play in human affairs. To gain a fuller understanding of this physical and geographic context environmental history extended the traditional historical periodization beyond the span of human existence. It was then a small step in the 1980s to Big History which now gives us a universal framework in which to locate the activities of the community of life, including human beings.

Big History reminds us of the miraculous conjunction of physical factors in space and time that provided the necessary preconditions for life. Of special note is the photosynthesis-generated Great Oxygen Event that occurred when the Earth was about two billion years old, which not only made animal life possible, but has supported it up to the present day.


The articles on this web site are written with an eye on the future. The aim is to maximize benefits to planet Earth, the community of life, and future human generations. This ambitious goal is addressed through two associated concepts – the moral imperative to maximise human well-being combined with the practical strategies now well established for sustainability.

This strategy is very close to a world-wide or universal universal human ethic, a commonly-agreed code of behavior enshrined in all scales of society from the global scale of, say, the United Nations, to the policies of countries, and the efforts of individual citizens.

This is all under the general banner of ‘sustainability
Human flourishing is built on environmental resources conveniently categorised as energy, food, water, materials, and biodiversity. These five resources are woven into the operations of society in complex ways. To manage the way they are integrated into society requires the cooperation of three major domains of human activity: the economy, society, and the environment. The United Nations refers to these management tools as the ‘three pillars of sustainability’. However, there can be competing interests and demands. Economists point out that without flourishing economies such ambitious programs could not even begin. Environmentalists point out that the global impact of growth has affected the planetary system to such a degree that it warrants its own epoch, the Anthropocene.

Careful and stable governance of the three pillars is the means by which social organization gains in numbers, complexity, and efficiency, increasing both the potential social and economic benefits but also the potential impacts on other human societies, the community of life, and the planet. We are, today, at a point in history where, in spite of resistance, globalization of economic, political, and biological factors is drawing the world into an increasingly elaborate international network.

Growth in social organization has been accompanied historically by increase in population, more elaborate technology, and more efficient transport and communication systems.None of his would be possible without the plants and community of life that sustains us. In the 21st century we are more familiar with economic systems than biological ones and accordingly we use economic metaphors to indicate our dependence on biological systems. So nature becomes natural capital and the life-sustaining benefits it provides are known a ecosystem services.

These factors are addressed in the ‘Commentary and sustainability analysis‘ module of the articles. The difficulty concept of sustainability and its analysis requires some justification.

Proceeding by analysis it is clear that all human activity is constrained by access to resources in their various forms so this must be a major consideration in the context of each article, most notably the energy that drives all activity. However, proceeding by synthesis it is evident that sustainability is greatly affected (both positively and negatively) by collective human activity, that is, by social organization. It is then the most influential components of social organization that require discussion: governance, population numbers, technology, transport and communication. These methods of analysis and synthesis are thus combined to discover the impacts of factors on the environment, society and the economy – and hence on sustainability.

Photo courtesy –

Peter & Penny Vine

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Planet Earth as first seen from space in 1972

A fragile blue marble spinning in the cosmos

This image now serves as a symbol for sustainability – the flourishing of the planet and its community of life

A scientific world view

Big History presents us with one particular interpretation of the past – that given to us by science. It is so easy to forget that less than 200 years ago, only six to seven generations away, explanations of the Earth and Universe were religiously based. In the West, evolutionary theory had not arrived. It it was generally assumed that immutable species had been individually created and placed on Earth by God; that the age of the Earth was of the order of 3000 years; and only the privileged could read and write. The first inklings of geological time were only just beginning to surface and horses would remain the main means of land transportation in the West for another three generations.

Darwin‘s theory of natural selection, published in 1859, provided an alternative and naturalistic explanation for a world that, in his day, was almost universally assumed to be God’s Creation.

The contemporary scientific worldview is a product of major advances in the 20th century working at both cosmological, molecular and submolecular scales. The transition from a Steady State theory of the universe to one originating from a point source Big Bang reveals events unfolding, or evolving, in accordance with universal physical constants. The emergence of genetics in the 1920s and 30s culminated in the cracking of the genetic code in the 1950s and this has taken us into an age of molecular biology and biotechnology. Science still mostly proceeds by analysis but one synthetic approach, arising in the early 20th century, has been the examination of the interrelationship between the world’s organisms and their environment by the new discipline of ecology. This was combined with the 1960s environmental movement and a global human population explosion (the Great Acceleration) that raised awareness of  human influence on the world’s biogeochemical cycles to a degree that has warranted the coining of a new human-dominated geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

This 20th century evolutionary unity of the universe has given us a new perspective on the place of humans in the scheme of things. We are indeed made of stardust and since Darwin we have known that all organisms are derived from a common ancestor and the comminity of life is therefore deeply and genetically connected. Plants and animals are literally our relatives. Inevitably or not, for better or worse, for sadness or joy, our march into a techno-future is the latest of many steps that have taken us ever further from our biological and psychological origins.

Has science has improved our understanding of the world? Yes, without any doubt.

Has science improved the world? Yes and no.

Foundations – a modern philosophy

Philosophies tend to follow the tenor of their times, reflecting the current state of knowledge and intellectual climate. In the last 100 years or so our understanding of the universe, our cosmology, has changed dramatically. Biology, we now realize, must all be viewed through the lens of evolution, from the knowledge that all life has been derived by descent, with modification, from a common ancestor about 3.5 billion years ago. This theme is repeated when we examine the wider picture of the entire universe as originating from a point source or Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago. What is dramatically new in this contemporary cosmology is the recognition of continuity in matter, space and time. All the matter of the universe is connected, however distantly, in space and time. Our bodies are made of star dust.

This is something new.

The theory of evolution is young, replacing the religious notion of the special creation of the components of the universe by a supernatural being; the Big Bang theory replaced a Steady State theory of the universe (the universe viewed as eternal) in the 20th century century; the Red Shift and other findings have allowed us to date the Big Bang to a specific time of about 13.7 billion years ago, placing our universe within a known time frame; Edwin Hubble demonstrated that our Milky Way galaxy is just one of trillions of glalaxies.

How are we to grasp, conceptually, this new idea of spatiotemporal continuity?

Pre-socratic philosophers presented us with a smorgasboard of ideas – the world as mind (Anaxagoras) or as a composite of minute indivisible particles (Democritus), or as complex manifestations of Earth, Air, fire or Water. Aristotle favoured the metaphor of organism. The Scientific Revolution presented us with the idea of the universe, including nature, as operating like a machine. This was a mechanistic-materialistic understanding of the universe that freed the critical mind from ignorant religious dogma about origins and matter. But the mechanistic-materialistic world was devoid of mind, meaning, value, and purpose. It has no doubt contributed to a shared sense of detachment – of isolation from meaning, purpose, and nature . . . from other life and the universe.

The modern cosmology outlined above, the fact of material spatio-temporal continuity, has given us a new outlook. The universe is not just a container or stage where things happen; instead it is an active and integrated system, subject to entropy, but where parts are evolving and increasing in complexity. A machine requires a designer. Our modern insight is that the universe designed itself, and in its processes, it is much more like an organism passing through developmental stages of organization constrained by its own environment – which determines its adaptive boundaries.

This is a modern universe of continuity, not always smooth continuity, but continuity nonetheless: it requires explanations, concepts and ideas that reflect this evolving continuity.

When we ask the big questions about our world and the universe – how it originated and why, what happened in the past, how humans began, how the world will end etc. … we find that there are many answers, or world views, available to us. The answers promoted on this web site are mostly those that come to us from the body of knowledge we call science, the reason for this being that the evidence for them, and the way it was gained, can be studied in detail, criticised, and where appropriate, amended. Other world views tend to be accepted on trust, by tradition, faith, dogma, revelation, imposed authority, charismatic leaders, mysticism, divination, or gut feelings.

Although science rests on strongly corroborated evidence it nevertheless brings with it assumptions about the nature of the world (‘reality‘) that are not amenable to observation and experiment. This is the underlying metaphysics of science. In spite of the trust we place in science (because of its predictivity and impressive application to technology) the subject is notoriously difficult to define and distinguish clearly from other investigative procedures.

We are currently in the thrall of two competing scientific world views. The older view is that of a science unified under physics and chemistry with the physical world grounded in the smallest units of matter, its fundamental particles, and the universal laws of physics. A more recent view, and the one endorsed here, is that there can be no grounding in a single domain of knowledge because nature does not prioritise the objects out of which it is made. The best we humans can manage is a single material world interpreted in different but interrelated ways, at different scales and degrees of complexity. These different aspects of the world comprise domains of knowledge, each with its own most appropriate terminology, principles, procedures, and standards of evidence.

The older view of a unified science is supported by the metaphorical imagery of a universe consisting of a hierarchy of levels of organization. Hierarchical thinking places rank-value on its various levels which is inappropriate for the world of matter. Ancient universal hierarchies attempted to synthesise the physical world by placing greatest value on the forms of matter that demonstrated the greatest integrated complexity, namely human beings (which could only be surmounted in value by the spiritual world). The Scientific Revolution inverted this hierarchy by emphasising analysis, placing the greatest value and scientific credibility on the simplest constituents of matter. The article on hierarchy argues that neither view is scientifically appropriate, and that the notion of hierarchy with its misleading and unnecessary conceptual structure, objects and relations, is best replaced by the notion of domains of knowledge as aspects or perspectives on the natural world.

Philosophy is enriched by taking full account of our human biological constraints. Metaphysics has searched for a reality that lies beyond the realm of our biological capacities – an absolute state of the world as it might be seen by God or a detached and objective ‘point of view of the universe’. But though, with science, we can will understand ever more fully the world around us, it will always, and inevitably, be a human perspective. Our scientific account of things, like our common-sense view, is not false or mistaken, it is simply limited in its scope by our brains and technology. Science provides us ever more sophisticated account of the world but it can only ever be a human account.
In ethics, too, philosophy has sought a detached and absolute point of reference, initially as divine command, more recently as objective principles derived by reason. But with the development of evolutionary biology it is becoming apparent that normative systems carry the echoes of the evolutionary process out of which they arose. We can see the precursors of conscious purpose, value, and reason itself in the design that was created by the evolutionary process.


Metaphysics (the science of being, or nature of reality) though never an empirical study has been progressively constrained by advancing science.

The metaphysics presented here is a pragmatic one, as informed by science in general, and cognitive science in particular:

What we make of the world is constrained, firstly, by the biological limitations of our human systems of perception and cognition (cognitive science) and, secondly, by the limitations of the technology we use to extend the range of this sensory system (science). We often assume, partly reinforced by the language we use, that there is an absolute reality and that, given sufficient time, we could discover this as a definitive and unequivocal ‘truth’. Scientific facts are best explanations or interpretations of the world, not the world ‘as it is’ or ‘absolute truth’.

There is no privileged position from which to view everything . . . no Gods-eye view . . . no seeing things from the point of view of the universe . . . or from no time and no place . . . no ‘thing in itself’. Our assessment of reality is a human assessment, no matter how much human bias we discard. This does not commit us to a deep subjectivity. We have survived in the world as a species because our interpretation (mapping, mirroring, explaining, representing) of the world must closely match, with what is going on. However, science is not moving us closer to an ultimate ‘reality’, rather, it is providing us with ever more compelling and predictive explanations (pragmatism).

World views

Worldviews are the way we explain everything – including: what is real and true; what the world is made of; how it works; how it began; how it will end; our human place within it; and our relationship to other living beings.

There are many worldviews and they are used to legitimate social and other structures, that is, they help bind like-minded often ethnic, religious or regional groups of people. Most people throughout history, including today, have included the supernatural as part of their worldview.

One particular worldview, the scientific worldview, has proved to be a secure form of knowledge through its accessibility to all, its testability, predictivity, and application to technology. Science does not disprove the supernatural, it simply has no means of accessing it.

Science has, however, provided either answers or, at least, increasingly compelling explanations for some of the big questions about existence: the nature of matter; how everything is distributed in space (geography and cosmology); how everything played out in time (cosmology); how humans arose and interacted over time (world history, Big History, human evolution); everything there is (descriptive science) – this includes compelling (though not absolute) explanations of space, time, the operations of the human mind.

Until about the mid nineteenth century (the publication of Darwin’s Origin… and realization of the vast temporal and spatial extent of the Earth and universe, dwarfing the period of inhabitance by humans and later confirming genetic continuity between humans and all other life), cosmologies were almost exclusively anthropocentric humanity considering itself the essence, meaning, and reason for the cosmos

Today’s Western grand narrative can be influenced by optimism and pessimism with realism requiring improvement of the evidential base

Immanuel Kant

Kant took a step back from worldviews by examining the grounds for any claims to knowledge. In particular he was addressing: skepticism (that we can never know anything with certainty); rationalism (that we gain knowledge through the use of our reasoning faculty); and empiricism (that we can only gain knowledge through our senses).

He was examining where we begin in our search for the nature of reality.

In his Critique . . . Kant demonstrated the possibility of ‘prior knowledge’, of knowledge independent of experience and by claiming that knowledge requires both experience and reason he claimed to have overcome old philosophical problems.

His work invites us to look closely at the way we think about the world and formulate our worldviews. He gives us tools for the critical examination of our worldviews.

Among his challenges were the views that:

  • our minds operate like colour lenses in spectacles. The colour we see seems to be a property of the world but it is added by the lenses. The mind filters our experience of the world in a similar way. Not only are we unable to see the world ‘as it actually is’ but the world ‘as it actually is’ can only ever be what we humans make of it, that is, the world ‘as we interpret it’. Today we would call Kant’s mental filter the innate cognitive structuring done by our mind to give us our human ‘reality’ (different from the reality of a fish or bat)
    • he divided the world into the noumenal (what exists in the mind-independent world), and the phenomenal (what we experience through our innate cognitive filter)
      • he concluded that our interpretation of reality is not an illusion: it is not in some way mistaken or incorrect but it is nevertheless an interpretation, albeit an interpretation provided by an extremely powerful cumputing device (our brains). Also that it is an error to think of the noumenal world as a separate unknowable world. All we have are phenomenal interpretations. The problem is that we assume that behind our interpretation is a ‘reality’ or ‘thing in itself’ the world as it ‘actually is’. Such an thing is not ‘unknowable’ or something of which we can only have ‘indirect knowledge’, it simply does not exist
        • among the necessary preconditions for experience (the innate faculties of the mind) Kant included those of perception (space and time) and those of cognition (twelve faculties under the general headings of quantity, quality, relation, and mode). This is knowledge that must be presupposed if we are to have any coherent experience of the world at all. Knowledge emanating from this source is expressed in synthetic a priori statements, that is, language describing the world that does not derive from experience of the world. Kant included here: causation, mathematics, logic, metaphysics, and religion
          • Kant did not deny the existence of space and time, he simply pointed out that we can only experience them as phenomena, not noumena – that is, as configured by our innate cognitive filter which is the instrument or mode of our understanding
            • Note that scientists explore the empirical properties of space and time while Kant is examining what is necessary for us to have any experience at all – whether it be of space, time, or indeed, science itself. Observation and cognition presupposes some means of structuring and categorizing observations and experience. Newton and Einstein did not modify, disprove or confirm what Kant had said: they were only incidental to what he was attempting. Modern technology has allowed us to investigate noumena in ways that Kant could not have imagined – this will be discussed in the next article Appearance and reality.
              • We can learn from Kant and place a modern gloss on his work with Principle 5 (below) which we can carry over to future articles. What is the relationship between Kant’s cogitations and modern science?
                • Our mental representations of the world are not illusory or mistaken (except for those that are empirically illusory), but they are uniquely human representations constrained by the biological limitations of our human sense perception (the perceptual capacity or range of our sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and other possible sensory input) and the inherited limitations of our human cognition. The capacities of our perception and cognition no doubt reflect those factors that were important for the historical survival and reproduction of our species: they are an adaptive psychological mechanism. What we can know of the world is partial – our best interpretation of the phenomena, including the extension of our perception and cognition using science and technology. There can be no world ‘as it actually is’ or ‘thing in itself’ beyond our interpretation. Our human-eye experience of the world has been extended by science, the application of the computing capacity of our human brains to the knowledge of the world obtained by the technological extension of our biologically-given senses. This this will be discussed further in the next article
                  • Organisms blend with their environments in an organism-environment continuum.




                    The scientific world view


                    At the core of all human existence there is a search for agency – the need to find reasons for the events that occur in ourselves and the universe, and why these events display order. Many would regard science as our most accomplished way of examining this order.
                    For most of human history the ultimate order of things was attributed to supernatural agents with purposive human-like motives – whether those agents be the spirits so popular in prehistory, the many gods of early human history, or the single gods of the latter-day Abrahamic religions. With the Western Scientific Revolution came the growing belief that supernatural agency was simply a projection of human agency onto nature – that the order of the universe was not a product of supernatural intention, it arose out of the world itself. Though supernatural beliefs persisted, for many scientists it now seemed that the purpose once attributed to supernatural agency must now be properly located in human conscious intention: it was human conscious intentions alone that gave meaning to the word ‘purpose’.
                    But with Darwin has come a new realization – that human purposes are part of a world whose order is graded in a continuum of complexity. Human conscious intentions grade into the intentions of other primates and the particular kind of order we associate with the products of natural selection. We intuitively use the word ‘purpose’ for these products of natural selection (‘the purpose of a spider’s web is to catch flies’).
                    In reacting against former anthropomorphic views of the natural world it is now evident that the Scientific Revolution gave undue weight to human conscious intention as it related to those particular reasons for order that we refer to as ‘purposes’. We have always used the word ‘purpose’ in relation to nature, but it is now time to do so without scientific embarrassment. The difficult history of the idea of purpose in nature is traced chronologically through four articles: Purpose, Aristotle to Darwin, Darwin and after, Purpose and value, and Purpose today.
                    One theme running through these articles is the parallel journey between the gradual complexification of matter on its way to conscious humanity and the way this material gradualism can be associated with the concepts like cause, reason, purpose, value, and design.
                    Research into the final frontier of science, the mind or brain, is making rapid progress and much that was formerly placed in the realm of metaphysics is now considered factual science. We cannot today ignore the possible role of the human mind (our perception and cognition) on our judgements about appearance and reality. Remarkable insights into reality and representation were revealed by the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant who, perhaps more convincingly than anyone before, defined the limits to what the human mind can achieve.

                    First Australians


                    Arrival & dispersal

                    Today’s best archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that the first modern humans to step on to today’s continent of Australia had land left Africa about 80,000 to 90,000 years ago, migrating across the Arabian Peninsula, along the coast of India, through south-east Asia and down the Malayan Archipelago. Then, aided by low sea levels and ancient land bridges that no longer exist, splitting into two around 37,000 BP, one line settling in present-day Papua New Guinea and the other Australia before the land masses of Australia and Papua-New Guinea separated about 8,000 years ago.

                    The split into Aboriginal and New Guinea peoples is presumed to have been quite ancient as Australian Aboriginal people are more closely related to southern Indians than to the New Guineans.

                    Though the exact entry point is unclear, 2017 genetic data reveals an expansion of people from Cape York with the occupation of Arnhem Land occurring 65,000 ± 5000 years ago, their DNA including that of Neanderthals, Denisovans and another extinct hominin. This compares with the first record of modern humans in northern Europe c. 42,000-43,000 BP, in Britain about 25,000 BP, in North America about 18,000 BP, and in South America by around 12,000 BP.

                    Archaeological evidence of Aboriginal presence can be found across the continent at very early dates, the first in Tasmania dating to about 35,000 BP.


                    The nomadic lifestyle constrains group activity, the most efficient band size being between about 10 and 35 people. The mobility needed to locate seasonal food supplies restricts both family size and the quantity of goods that can be transported. The number of children is limited as they can severely slow the group. Beyond this size and the organisational and authority structures become problematic. These numbers are reflected in the size of many modern sports teams.


                    Australian Aboriginals provide us with a paradigm case for a sustainability analysis that compares pre-European tribal humans living in nature with contemporary humans living in complex globally interconnected cities and cultures.

                    Most obvious is the dramatic increase in resource use. As societies become more complex so increasing resources become embedded in the products and services that they provide, represented in the simplest terms as the quantities of energy, water, materials, food, and biodiversity needed to support one person. In contrast to nomadic lifestyles, large hierarchically organized settled communities develop more environmentally destructive technologies using specialized division of labour and the benefits of scale that, for example, enable the building of ocean-going ships and gathering of armies.

                    What has been the Aboriginal impact on the environment?

                    There are at least five ways in which Aboriginals have modified Australia’s vegetation can be listed; and all are still understood:

                    use of wild plants for food and material culture

                    transport of plant propagules along Dreaming trails

                    effects of hunting and foraging on trophic relationships in the food chain

                    the use of fire

                    It was through the use of fire that First Australians left their most enduring impact on the landscape, but we can outline in more detail some particular ways in which vegetational and ecological change could have occurred by the use of plants for food and material culture, as listed by Philip Clarke in his Aboriginal People and their Plants:[9]

                    Removing the edible crowns of Cabbage Palm (Livistona spp.)

                    Collecting plant fruits, notably that of the parasitic mistletoes and native apples Solanum spp.

                    Digging out yams, native truffles, and a wide range of corms, bulbs and tubers, especially those of sedges and bulrushes. Digging and replanting of yams in particular could give the appearance of worked fields

                    Building shelters, ochre quarries and fish traps

                    Eating grubs, especially root grubs. Explorer Basedow noted the ravages of root grubs when gathering ceased

                    Middens of ash, bone and shell are found at ancient coastal, river and creek camping sites, built up over many generations and sometimes the sites of fruit trees that have probably grown from the seed of ancient feasts

                    Tracks to sources of food and water, to mountain passes and sacred landscape features were maintained by fire


                    No doubt Aboriginal use of fire and firestick farming altered natural landscapes, However, there are divergent and sometimes acrimonious differences of opinion concerning: the extent to which its consequences were known and planned; the places of major use; its influence on the early megafauna; the extent to which it has been used over the period of c. 55,000 years of Aboriginal occupation, together posing the key question of the scale of anthropogenic and climatic landscape change that occurred over this time period.

                    In general it seems to have been vegetation that was poor in animal and plant food species that was burned rather than rainforest or riparian areas. Use of fire by indigenous American Indians is also considered a factor in the character of the North American grasslands of the Great Plains.

                    Though we still cannot give a very clear answer to this question. In a summary review of the impact of Aboriginal burning on the Australian biota David Bowman concluded that:

                    . . . there is a large body of circumstantial evidence which suggests that altered fire regimes following the cessation of Aboriginal burning have resulted in substantial changes in the range and demographic structure of many vegetation types, such as rain forest, with corresponding changes in animal populations. And again in 2011 an eminent team of ecologists and researchers concluded: . . . fire in Australasia predominantly reflects climate, with colder periods characterised by less and warmer intervals by more biomass burning . . . There is no distinct change in fire regime corresponding to the arrival of humans in Australia at 50 +- 10 ka and no correlation between archaeological evidence of increased human activity during the past 40 ka and the history of biomass burning.

                    Anthropogenic fire has the capacity to shape plant communities as ‘unnatural’ regular firing can lead to the extinction of species that are unable to reproduce effectively when there is an increased frequency of burns. This in turn influences the animal populations to produce a “trophic cascade”. What possibly occurred in Pleistocene Australia was the fragmentation of woodlands and forests and spread of grasses, especially Triodia, as a result of anthropogenic burning. There was then possibly a further trophic collapse when, with the arrival of Europeans, anthropogenic burning was reduced, leading to the decline of small-to-medium size mammal populations. However, the persuasiveness of this thesis and the way in which anthropogenic fire has influenced these processes remain a matter for research.[12]

                    What part did Aborigines play in the contemporary composition and distribution of plants and animals? How have burning practices changed over time either in their intensity or method? As always, individual areas may have been treated differently at different times.

                    Interpreting charcoal data is contentious. High charcoal might indicate high anthropogenic burning – but then without human burning when fires occur they are very intense and can leave good charcoal remains, which is an indication of a lack of human burning. Perhaps fire-adapted vegetation remains essentially unchanged under an increasaed anthropogenic firing regime? Frequent firing can add to erosion and subsequent sedimentation from hillsides.


                    In considering the impact of Aboriginals on the environment the extinction of the megafauna becomes significant because of the removal of major herbivores and predators from the food chain. The scale of this impact is uncertain but ecologists are clearly of the view that it might have been sufficient to have had an observable effect on the vegetation.
                    The precise reason for the global loss of these giant animals – from the Americas, Australia and Eurasia – is still the subject of debate although human hunting is most frequently suggested. In Africa and Eurasia with humans present long before the Pleistocene the picture is not so clear although in Africa about 50 big game species became extinct around 50,000 BP and this is seen as a probable result of human hunting.[14] Other possible causes (sometimes in combination) include: climate change, disease, and the atmospheric disturbance resulting from the impact of an asteroid or comet.

                    In Australia by the end of the Pleistocene the largest animal (over 50 kg) on the continent was Homo sapiens but there is still no consensus among archaeologists and ecologists concerning the causes for the extinction of Australia’s megafauna. This may be because it involved a complex of factors, notably human hunting and the use of fire in combination with climate change.

                    In Australia archaeological evidence of the extinct megafauna is fragmentary and under constant revision as bone is difficult to date archaeological finds are based on less reliable stratigraphy. Perhaps the nearest to a consensus view is that Aboriginal burning produced vegetational change that severely altered the food supply and diet of these animals. Their size alone would have made them vulnerable to fire, being unable to sustain speed or find safe cover during the fire. Often slow creatures with large body mass this would make them susceptible to both fire and hunting. Some would have been relatively tame, making obvious game animals while the young, especially, would be prone to human predation which would have had an immediate impact on population numbers, especially in animals with a long gestation period.
                    Even so, it appears that in Tasmania the megafauna died out about 41,000 years ago. This was either before the arrival of humans (a possible arrival date being 37,000 BP) or, if it was after the arrival of humans then fire was not a factor, suggesting climate as a major cause.[7] Kohen in 1995 noted the paucity of hard geological evidence for both the hunting of megafauna and the Aboriginal use of fire in the Pleistosene and early Holocene, it seeming that improved dating techniques and significantly more data are needed to provide compelling evidence.[12] Of the 50 species of megafauna that became extinct includes reptiles, birds and mammals. Flannery lists 41 mammalian species that became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene.[10] There were only three carnivores, a marsupial ‘lion’ (Thylacoleo carnifex), a giant lizard Megalania), and the Tasmanian ‘tiger’ (Thylacinus): as their prey was fairly lumbering, they did not need to be fast and agile like their African equivalents.
                    When human occupation can be clearly dated the connection between extinction and human activity is readily assessed. Maoris hunted the Moa to extinction within 300-400 years of their arrival. In Madagascar local lemuroids were extinct by about 1200 AD and the famous tame Dodo on Mauritius and Reunion was easy game for European settlers with their guns and feral pigs that would eat their eggs, the last one dated to 1681. In both North and South America with the comparatively late arrival of humans between 10,000– 20,000 BP human hunting, it appears, took only 1,000 years to target the giant herbivores, their carnivorous predators and the associated scavengers, while small animals survived. Those animals becoming extinct included mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, horses (horses used by native Indians were later European introductions) and camels and many other animal ‘giants’.[14]

                    Plant science people

                    How important are individual people in shaping the course of history?

                    When is history following a predictable path, and when is it just a matter of chance events and random outcomes? Can we rank in importance the many factors that have determined the course of history, the network of influences that have brought us to now – material factors like climate, topography, geography, natural resources, and technology . . . social factors like great men and women or the ideas and ideals embedded in science, medicine, culture, art, and religion . . . maybe ideologies like socialism or capitalism? This is a tall order.

                    History is more than the study of kings and queens but we cannot ignore the legacy of influential people. Until recent times urban societies were strongly hierarchical. People had a relatively fixed station within society and that determined the way you dressed, spoke, and related to other people. Decisions affecting peoples’ lives flowed from relatively few important individuals ‘downwards’ to the general population. As liberal democracies have become more entrenched across the world, so major decisions have tended to flow ‘upwards’ from the people (though simplistic recent times have shown that voting can elect unusual people during times of disenchantment). No doubt school history was largely a narrative about elites of various kinds because they determined what would affect everybody else. Whatever your view on these matters (and as just presented it is a very simplistic one) the people described here lived in times that were more strongly structured socially. Today leading academics are distributed across the world when once they came from narrow geographic regions. Fathers are no longer the sole decision-makes in the family, and so on.

                    Though any choice of influential people is subjective, those I have described in this series of articles were carefully chosen for their influence on the world of plants, mainly the botany and horticulture of the West. This introduction to the series sets the scene for the more detailed accounts to follow.

                    Science, botany, sustainability

                    Classical era

                    Ancient Greek philosophers are not popular today and might seem over-represented in the list of people discussed in this section. Perhaps there is a Eurocentric bias here with the great minds of India and the Orient ignored although it does seem that the sciences are more a Western phenomenon as evidenced by the history of medicine, mathematics, botany, and physics. Ancient Greek culture seemed to have absorbed and synthesized the wisdom of the ancient world like that of Egypt to its south and Mesopotamia and its developments to the East, and expressed most fluently in the work of the pre-Socratic philosophers.

                    Unlike Australian Aborigines, whose world revolved around their spiritual and physical dependence on the land, the Greek world was increasingly urban, many of its problems relating to the diversity of religious and other beliefs, and the many ways of structuring of society. This period was surely unprecedented for its intellectual honesty as all life and existence was pared back to its very basics to find solutions to the great problems of the universe and human existence. To do this would have required an extraordinary independence of mind in the face of customary beliefs and social traditions. We might not approve of ancient Greek society or even the mental detachment needed to delve into the questions of existence – but the Greek thinkers and their obsession with reason delivered unprecedented results in mathematics, science, law, art, literature, architecture, astronomy, psychology, politics, ethics, science and more. Though they too stood on the shoulders of others: if we want to know what makes Western science and society tick then we must look to these people and this period in history, and this was a truth recognised by the massive Roman empire that was to follow. This was also appreciated by our educated forefathers weaned on the classics.

                    Today our education must address much more than our Greco-Roman heritage. Some might even feel that they must accept responsibility for some of today’s pressing problems. But we should all be aware of the profundity of their thought, their independence of mind, and the legacy to European culture.

                    For botanists all this begins with the legacy of plant science coming down to us from Aristotle and Theophrastus that for a brief period was studied alongside the folk-medicine that held sway before them and for 1200 years after. The Greek philosophers were a particularly analytic branch of introspection and religious blossoming that swept world civilisations in the Axial Age and their educational institutions, notably Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, are prototypes of our current universities as places of learning and research based on libraries of manuscripts.

                    Ancient Greek philosophy and traditions synthesized much of what was known in the ancient world – adapted by the more practical and less theoretical Roman society which, through its empire, laid the foundations for European society, then through European society to the European colonies, to form a Western tradition established during the Age of Discovery which culminated in European colonization and the Westernization of much of the world.

                    Naturalistic (non-supernatural and therefore proto-scientific) explanations of the world were explored by pre-Socratic philosophers (physiologoi) in western Anatolia (today’s Turkey) mostly at Miletus and Ephesus and other communities in coastal southern Italy including the famous Pythagorean school. Their ideas probably harked back in part to the early civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia but it was the musings of the pre-Socratics that served as challenges for the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle of ancient Athens in the Golden Age of Greece.

                    For many years study of Ancient Greece and Rome formed the core of the Western education system known as the ‘classics’, influencing European leaders for many generations through its literature, science, philosophy, heroic military triumphalism. ethos of the classical world and their overall influence can be felt today in our science, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, logic, engineering, ethics, politics, economics, law, architecture, sculpture, literature, art, education and much more.

                    Plato believed in a transcendental or subjective world independant of the material world, a world of ideas or Forms (eidos), what later became known as Platonic Idealism. His ideas would be united with those of Christianity by Medieval theologian St Augustine and later by Florentine Marsilio Ficino who translated his works into Latin at the Platonic Academy in Florence. Plato’s careful reasoning produced a roadmap for philosophical debate that has continued to this day including a carefully crafted metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, ethics, political theory, and theory of education. It even included a mystical four-step path to transcendental enlightenment. His student, Aristotle, used the term ‘Form’ in amore natural way to mean that which defines things, especially living organisms, the life principle that gives them both ‘potentiality’ (today we might call this the genetic make-up) but also ‘actuality’ or changing functionality through nutrition, motion, growth, ageing, sensation and all those processes that enable survival and reproduction including, in conscious organisms, emotion, the will and intellect (nous). This was all directed at what he called the ‘final cause’ of the organism … its goal, purpose, or meaning … the reason for its existence. His thinking would be incorporated into Christianity by the Medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle is often said to be the first true scientist. For biologists it is not his ethics, logic, and politics that attracts so much as his ‘Invitation to Biology’.

                    For our purposes, it was Plato’s successor Theophrastus, the originator of plant science, who is of special interest. Theophrastus was part of a Greek culture that was part of the world-wide introspection of the Axial Age. Theophrastus’s curiosity led him to study plants for their intrinsic interest not just for the use that could be made of them. He worked on their classification, structure, function, reproduction, relationship to the land, and geographic distribution in addition to their various uses. The botany of Theophrastus and zoology of Aristotle represent the climax of natural history in antiquity. At the Lyceum (which, with Plato’s Academy, served as the model for today’s universities) Theophrastus inherited Aristotle’s garden and plant collection. The garden was associated with an educational institute with a library where there was research and lectures; it was situated within a designed sacred landscape (of a kind that probably dated back into prehistory) dedicated to the God Lykos. Some of the cultivated plants had been collected in foreign lands, like those returned from military campaigns by Alexander the Great (the first ‘Westerner’ to observe tropical vegetation) who had been tutored by Aristotle. As a living collection it was used by Theophrastus for botanical instruction and, although similar gardens had been developed elsewhere in the ancient world, its combination of characteristics mean that it can legitimately claim to be the forerunner of the botanic gardens familiar to us today. Though plant and animal trophies had been collected from distant lands in former times, those sent to Greece likely stimulated the later establishment and goals of zoos and botanic gardens

                    Theophrastus observed the changes that can occur to plants when under human care and selection, his writings Causa Plantarum and Historia Plantarum (presumed to be his lecture notes) suggested almost every aspect of modern botany including observations on plant sexuality and what we might today call genetypic and phenotypic variation, the way cultivated plants had sometimes acquired characteristics that differed from those of wild plants.

                    Libraries in Greece were among the earliest stores of knowledge being also places of learning and research. From the gymnasia of ancient Greece , the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle, have evolved the modern university.

                    Alexander was; encouraged the distribution of plants and animals by sending back specimens from his military campaigns.

                    Greek thinking influenced social behavior of later Europeans and the attitudes to plants of the early Australian settlers. Persian gardens seen by Alexander and his generals inspired the creation of luxurious Hellenistic gardens that were later emulated and developed by wealthy Romans who passed on their gardening traditions to Europe through their vast empire, and eventually to Britain during the Roman occupation from 45-410 CE.
                    Botanists of both the early Herbals and Enlightenment were well aware of Theophrastus and his work. At first this was descriptive medicinal botany but during the Enlightenment it would include aspects of his acquisitive economic botany by which he had hoped to serve the people of ancient Athens. Through people like Linnaeus (who honoured Theophrastus with the title ‘Father of Botany’) the botanic gardens of Leiden and Amsterdam, Joseph Banks at Kew, and Andre Thouin at the Jardin des Plantes the social value of plants for economic botany would playing an important role in European empire-building.

                    While Theophrastus was mostly an academic botanist Philosopher Epicurus was eccentric outsider who designed a beautiful ‘home garden’ on the outskirts of ancient Athens as a ‘pleasant and peaceful place’ referred to by the later Roman pastoral poets as a locus amoenus. Greek society was directed towards wealth, acclaim, fame, and power. Much more than today masculine heroism played a large part in all this – the pursuit of a peaceful life was contrary to all these values. Instead Epicurus valued close friendship, the freedom that comes with financial independence and self-sufficiency, and the rejuvenation we gain from meditation and reflection. The Garden was a retreat from the clamour of clashing human egos and a sanctuary from the rat-race. His own age was ravaged by warfare and undoubtedly the Epicureans were followers of the utopian and romanticised theory of the past as outlined in Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 750 BCE) in which ‘The first humans were a golden race who lived in harmony with one-another in perfect peace and leisure in an eternal spring, and were beloved of the gods‘. When all have gained wisdom cities themselves will be unnecessary and laws will become redundant as all people will naturally cultivate justice. His age, he believed, sought unnecessary luxuries in distant lands, drowning in abundance as gold was chased and money invented. Cities, so much admired by Aristotle, were perceived by Epicurus as imperfect places where people sought wealth and power until, exhausted by strife and motivated by fear, they had ‘agreed to be bound by restrictive laws and coercive justice‘ and, as Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (99-55 BCE) later said, ‘hence fear of punishments taint the prizes of life‘. For all his skeptical Romanticism Epicurus has struck a chord to the present day.


                    Theophrastus studied plants for their own interest as well as their utility – investigating their classification, structure, function, reproduction, relationship to the land, and geographic distribution as well as their medicinal, agricultural and other practical uses. He observed plant variation under human care and selection distinguishing what today we might call genetic and phenotypic variation, while foreshadowing almost every aspect of modern plant science. This detached curiosity so evident in western science – the desire to extirpate the least subjective bias – does seem to be a paricularly ancient Greek theme and is not always regarded as a virtue, Romantic movements in particular seeing it as a lack of humanity.

                    Theophrastus inherited Aristotle’s garden and plant collection at the Lyceum, some collected from military campaigns such as those of Alexander the Great (the first ‘Westerner’ to observe tropical vegetation) and his generals or introduced by other people. Used by Theophrastus for botanical instruction this collection, though similar gardens had been developed elsewhere in the ancient world, can claim to be a major forerunner of the modern botanic garden. Persian gardens seen by Alexander and his generals inspired the creation of luxurious gardens that were later emulated and developed by wealthy Romans who passed on their gardening traditions to Britain during the Roman occupation.
                    Theophrastus’s description of the social value of plants for economic botany and the methods of their collection were likely emulated by later botanists and explorers notably Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks.

                    Socrates, Plato, Aristotle

                    The intellectual world of the ancient Greeks, as exemplified by our five great thinkers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus and Epicurus was later adapted by the more practical Roman society which, through its empire, laid the foundations for European society, its colonies, and eventually Western society as a whole. European leaders-to-be were for many generations educated in the classics, the literature, science, philosophy and ethos of the classical world. Europe inherited from the Greeks and later Romans not only a tradition of intellectual rigour but their system of economy, justice, and politics, even social attitudes concerning the role of women and sexuality, education, the structure of society, and sport.

                    These men are Greek representatives of a stream of intellectual exploration that was taking place across Afro-Eurasia during the Axial Age (c. 800-200 BCE). In an unprecedented period of introspection the known world was taking mental stock in a movement that included not only the Mediterranean philosophers and developing Abrahamic religions but, in China, Taoism and Confucianism, in India Buddhism, and in Persia Zoroastrianism.

                    In The Republic and Timaeus Plato constructed an intricate and compelling edifice of thought, a toolbox for understanding and coping with the world, his intellectual architecture being something that could be further worked by subsequent generations. Much of the foundation of Western science came to us through ancient Greek thinking and Plato especially would provide the bedrock of all subsequent Western philosophy including those aspects of his thought incorporated into Christianity by St Augustine. We may not agree with his overall thesis today but the clarity, depth and breadth of thought expressed in The Republic over 2000 years ago is truly stunning: it laid out a roadmap for philosophical debate that has continued to this day with its carefully crafted metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, ethics, political theory, and theory of education. It even included a mystical four-step path to transcendental enlightenment.

                    Plato was a Rationalist. The world of Being, the world of Forms, could only be accessed through reason and logic. He is also associated with what became known as ‘idealism’, maintaining that ‘truth’ was abstract and transcendental (like the truths of mathematics, and the idea of the Forms) and it existed more clearly in our minds than in the natural world and only insofar as it approximated the ‘idea of the Good’. The world of sense experience was unreliable and illusory. It would take the genius of Aristotle to provide an alternative more earthly and scientific ourlook on the world.

                    Following the decline of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity Christian medieval scholastic theologians transposed Plato’s ideas into Christianity aligning his adeas with the world of Christian revelation. Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) in a school of thought that later became known as Neoplatonism, converted Plato’s worlds of Being and Becoming into the worlds of Heaven and Earth and the Form of the Good into God. Plato’s ‘soul’ (his tripartite mind) also belonged to the world of Forms because though invisible and capable of self-reflection it ruled the body. As ideas are not physical things they must belong to a spiritual realm which is more real than the material realm. As Forms were immutable then the soul too must be immortal, passing from the world of Becoming into the world of Being at death. For St Augustine Plato’s eternal world of Being, or heaven, was the place in the afterlife supporting the immortality of the soul. Plato’s objective morality became God’s law. Following Plato’s conviction that the world of sense-experience was unreliable, Christianity portrayed the physical world of experience as an inferior, imperfect or ‘fallen’ world, a wretched place totally unlike the perfect, eternal and transcendental world of God. Similar analogies were made in Islam and Judaism.

                    Plato’s works remained available after the fall of Rome while Aristotle’s thought was temporarily lost. Transcribed into Arabic by Islamic scholars Aristotle’s cogitations were later recovered by Christians during the Crusades, the depth of Aristotle’s thought being immediately recognised. Early Christian thinkers maintained that the consequence of reason had been a rag-bag of different viewpoints on all aspects of life resulting in chaos and confusion. Only faith could provide certainty and be our true support in life. Reason was condemned. When Aristotle’s works were rediscovered in th West they too were reconciled with the gospels through the ‘scholasticism’ of St Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 CE) and his monumental work Summa Theologica that would become so influential in Christianity. Aquinas pointed out that God created not only the natural world but also the human faculty of reason. With St Thomas Aquinas reason was once again permitted a place in intellectual life, Aquinas supporting his position by noting that reason could be used to discover and celebrate the order and wonder of God’s Creation (a view that became known as ‘natural theology’). Only through Aquinas’s admission of reason did science become acceptable within that early Christian world. Christianity then incorporated Aristotelian ideas (he was known as ‘The Philosopher’) like his teleology, into the Christian idea of God’s purpose or plan.

                    For both Plato and Aristotle existence entailed a plan and therefore a supernatural agency. Plato thought that the order we see around us in the universe must have an ‘organising principle’. Aristotle also saw purpose and design in everything around him and referred to this as telos (see Meaning & purpose) with God the prime mover or initiator of the universe.

                    Though acknowledging a spiritual world, Aristotle is most closely associated with ‘analytic empiricism’ which maintained that it was possible to obtain true statements about the natural world by means of careful observation and analysis (break-down and classification) combined with the use of rigorous logic. He did not share Plato’s disdain for the material world. A scientifically-based bitter resentment of Plato for his transcendental religiosity, philosophical idealism and subjectivity, and authoritarian politics is not helpful as I hope you agree. Without Plato we would almost certainly have not had Aristotle.

                    Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, & Enlightenment

                    After the ancient Greeks open-minded philosophy would not return to the West for about 1200 years until the Renaissance when the intellectual battle-lines were clearly drawn. There were those following the transcendental Platonic tradition of innate ideas (the Rationalists) and those who followed Aristotle’s tradition of earthly observation (the Empiricists). These two schools of thought arrived at a stale-mate. Rationalists needed to generate objective truths from ideas untainted by experience (that is, from a priori ideas) this was a tall order). Meanwhile empiricists like John Locke and David Hume, who maintained that all meaningful ideas must be traced back to experience, had to confront the subjectivity of sense-experience, the ‘egocentric predicament’, an equally difficult problem. Only with Immanuel Kant would come the suggestion that our brain structures, or filters, our sensory input and that this is why we perceive the world the way we do – this filter was the a priori aspect of our ideas: it was a fusion of the Rational and Empirical positions so philosophy could move on.

                    So we can now see how Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the other ancient Greek philosophers had a profound influence on the future character of subsequent religion, education, science, politics, law, economics, social structure, morality, sexuality, sport and much more. Their influence on the history of ideas cannot be doubted. No education is complete without a knowledge of their contribution to the modern world and plant people will add to this trio Theophrastus, Aristotle’s heir at the Lyceum who laid the foundations of plant science. In our admiration and deep respect for their intellectual rigour we should not forget our social differences – these men lived in a strongly hierarchical society that supported slavery and denied women political and legal rights, Aristotle even describing women as ‘incomplete men’.

                    The vital link between human nature, reason, morality, science, and sustainability will be explored in the other articles of this section.

                    Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)

                    On weekends the egocentric Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, Professor of Botany and Director of the Uppsala Botanic Gardens, would lead a devoted band of natural history ramblers out of the botanic gardens into the Swedish countryside preceded by banners and fanfares from French horns. His passion for the natural world and desire to categorise it has left us with the legacy of his fundamental division of the natural world into three basic groups, plants, animals and minerals from which we get the expression ‘animal, vegetable, or mineral?’

                    Linnaeus lived at a time when medicine, botany and horticulture were all closely related and he considered himself privileged, through his work, to be revealing to people the miraculous design of the natural world that had been placed there by its Creator. His aim was to name and describe every plant, animal and mineral in the world and his achievement was to lay the structural foundations of a system of classification and nomenclature that would allow later scientists to work together towards the goal that he could not possibly have achieved himself.

                    At a time when Britain and France were becoming the major European powers he managed to win over most of the scientific world to his ‘system’. He was well aware of the momentous role that plants could play in the future of humanity and sent his ‘Apostle’ students to the Americas, South Africa, Iceland, Egypt, Oceania, China and elsewhere to bring back natural history specimens and plants of economic value.

                    Linnaeus was an older contemporary of the wealthy English gentleman Joseph Banks. The two never met but Banks admired and supported Linnaeus’s ‘system’ and Linnaeus knew all about Banks’s famous voyage with Captain Cook to New Holland and the stunning collections made at Botany Bay (although he never saw any of these). This was because his favourite student ‘apostle’ Daniel Solander, who Linnaeus hoped would marry his daughter, was Banks’s botanical assistant on the voyage.

                    Linnaeus was undoubtedly the founding father of the closely integrated world of 18th century natural science.

                    Philip Miller (1691-1771)

                    As Head gardener of London’s Chelsea Physic Garden, Miller added state-of-the-art greenhouses and converted the former Apothecaries’ physic garden (a garden of medicinal herbs) into what was possibly the most extensive plant collection known to the world at that time. He presided over these gardens before Kew had become established as a public collection acting as mentor to the young Banks one of the many eminent visitors to the Chelsea Physic Garden. With an encyclopaedic and unrivalled knowledge of plants he was able to publish the Gardener’s Dictionary, a compendium of the many plants cultivated in Britain at this time, running to many editions and, for over 100 years, the standard reference on cultivated plants in Britain. Well-known as an advisor to the wealthy on all matters horticultural he was a key figure in the acquisition of new and curious plants from around the world and in the promulgation of horticulture. Unfortunately his curmudgeonly attitude meant that his meeting with the younger Linnaeus in ?1737 had not gone very well and he had resisted Linnaeus’s nomenclature, only grudgingly taking it up in 1768 in the 8th edition of the Dictionary, his surly attitude finally and sadly leading to his dismissal from the Chelsea Physic Garden after decades of service.

                    Miller died in the year that the Endeavour returned laden with plant collections from the east coast of New Holland so, like Linnaeus, he never saw any of the plants returned from Botany Bay.

                    Well known and respected throughout Britain and Europe Miller’s standing in the world of horticulture must be placed alongside the botanical stature of his contemporary Linnaeus.

                    Joseph Banks

                    Banks, more than any other person, linked Australia to the European world, not only in terms of its natural history, and botany in particular, but also in terms of its political and other appointments.
                    Joseph Banks masterminded and oversaw unprecedented volume of trade in both ornamental garden plants and crops. During his watch we witness the emergence of ‘Western’ (Neo-European) agriculture and horticulture. This took several forms: a rapid increase in numbers of commercial plant nurseries to meet the demands of an increasingly affluent middle class trying to emulate the lifestyles of their social superiors by growing new and exotic plants on larger garden plots; the large-scale transference of plants from one continent to another – no longer a few plants and packets of seed to collectors and specialist institutions but large commercial shipments, like those from America. Ornamental plants were imported to Britain from Africa (especially South Africa), Australia and Oceania, China, the Americas (especially North America) and the Far East: it was, in effect, the opening up of global trade by the world’s largest empire. Once in Britain the new plants could be quickly ‘bulked up’ in the new nurseries. New technologies that streamlined gardening included conservatory-like greenhouses that greatly extended the range of warm climate plants that could be grown. There was the introduction of plant breeding, pest control, and the serious study of plant acclimatization.

                    Banks was an entrepreneur, recognising the commercial gains to be made through well-organised economic botany as plants passed between Kew gardens and British colonies and outposts dotted through temperate and tropical climes. This was a period that included Bligh’s hunt for breadfruit and other stories relating to quinine, rubber, coffee, tea, cocoa, new spices and other plants. Botanical curiosity was transformed into global economics.
                    Most importantly trade was two-way. Settlers in the various new colonies needed food and as they lived mostly in temperate fertile regions it seemed obvious to import the traditional cereals of wheat, barley and rye along with fruit trees, root vegetables and the like. Maybe the distribution of ornamental and crop plants across the British Empire in the 18th century was part of an inevitable progression of events, but it marked a transition from minor and innocuous trade to a globalization of plants transport that would have far-reaching and unforeseen environmental consequences – consequences that we are now still digesting.

                    The spread of agriculture and pastoralism across the neo-Europes has been the single greatest devourer of land and ecosystem services. With increased food (energy) supply has come increased population and food demand in a spiral that is still with us along with increasing population, infrastructure and heavy consumption of resources, most notably water. This follows a well-known pattern: displacement of indigenous people; spread of invasive organisms as part of global biotic homogenisation; and extinction of species.

                    Insofar as humanity was ever engaged with nature in a battle for supremacy, to control nature for its own ends, it was in the 18th century that they discovered the means to gain the upper hand as environmental issues which would soon become global were set in train. Banks, well-meaning and in complete ignorance of the consequences of his actions (what would he think if he were placed in the centre of Sydney today?) is a part of this less inspiring narrative. Humans have won (for now).

                    In Banks we see the close connection between botany and horticulture, nurseries and botanic gardens, even the Royal Society, the English House of Parliament and British high society all linked by the exchange of living and dried plants. He is credited with the introduction to Europe of the First Australian live plants and seed for cultivation and was a major supporter of the international science, being actively involved in maintaining communication with continental scientists during the Napoleonic Wars, and in introducing the British people to the wonders of the wider world. Linnaeus was so impressed with the natural history collections made on the first voyage (although he did not see any of them) that he thought the new continent should be named Banksia. He was patron to many gardener-botanists sent out from Kew including those sent to Australia such as Peter Good etc. and on the voyage of the Endeavour his experience of living plant care, herbarium specimen collection, and ways of preserving seed viability was passed on to his charges.

                    Banks’s insistence on scientific representation on major voyages and teams setting off on land exploration no doubt strengthened a tradition that would later include Menzies on the Discovery, Labillardière on the Recherche, Brown on the Investigator, Darwin on the Beagle, Hooker on the Erebus and many more.
                    Before Phillip left for Australia with the First Fleet he was a regular guest at Soho Square where he received instructions on the plants to take, received seed from Banks and notes on which plants to pick up at Rio and the Cape. Banks’s botanical collector Masson met the Fleet at the Cape, later writing to Banks informing him that the captain’s cabin in the Sirius had been packed with pots of cocoa, coffee, oranges, figs and vines.
                    Banks was an Enlightenment scientist whose desire to improve was a two-edged sword. The ripples of his influence steered Britain in a direction that would benefit empire, economy and society, changing lives and landscape. Now that Banks has ‘gone global’ we see that benefits have travelled in tandem with costs.

                    Josephine Beauharnais (1763-1814)

                    With the passing of Napolean came the passing of French influence in the world. French claims to land in the antipodes included the Marion Dufresne claim to Van Diemen’s Land in 1772 and Louis St Allouarn’s claim to the west coast of New Holland in the same year, followed by Napoleon’s Baudin expedition which claimed the south coast of New Holland under the name Terre Napoleon. Without subsequent settlement all these claims were to lapse.

                    Paradoxically, France at the time of Empress Josephine was caught in a frenzy of ‘anglomania’, the fashionable set seeking out English fabrics, teas, even assuming English manners – eating roast beef, wearing riding coats, enjoying horse-racing … and setting up gardens in the romantic English tradition, á l’anglaise, in preference to the formal rectilinear parterres so popular in France at the time.[10]

                    In common with the rest of European society, France’s Enlightenment intelligentsia and social elite were also in the grip of ‘botanophilia’ an obsession with natural history that was focused firmly on plants. As, in France, a hopeful Revolution turned into the Reign of Terror, botanophilia beamed out as a tantalizing intellectual ideal that held the imagination of Europe’s Enlightenment elite – in a way botanophilia symbolized the culmination of human achievement to that time through the innocent combination of botany and horticulture: an unlikely coupling of science and beauty that rose above the politics of the day.

                    Like Joseph Banks, Empress Josephine was a key link in the European network of social connections that included royalty, aristocracy, the wealthy, intellectuals and scientists, nurserymen, garden designers, gardeners, botanists and government officials. Because of her position she was able to set the fashionable trend of the day and in so doing play a key role in delineating the future path of botany and horticulture by advancing the ideas and practice of: plant introduction; exploration; plant hunting; plant exchange; acclimatization; garden design; hothouse cultivation; botanical description; botanical illustration; and science above politics.

                    Robert Brown (1773-1858)

                    Brown had made many astute and detailed observations on plant affinities and penetrated more deeply into plants with his microscope than many of his contemporaries. He made detailed studies of protoplasmic streaming, fertilization and pollination, his studies of pollen grains revealing a strange, apparently random and jittery movement of particles suspended in a fluid, a phenomenon named after him as ‘Brownian motion’. In an 1825 paper he noted the fundamental distinction between the exposed seed of coniferous plants (gymnosperm = naked seed), and how in flowering plants seed was contained within the fruit (angiosperm – enclosed seed), then in 1831 he observed the cell nucleus (his term). In 1833 he was awarded one of the eight prestigious foreign memberships of the French Academie des Sciences. His colleagues regarded him as an authority on plant geography and was lauded by von Humboldt as ‘Botanicorum facile princeps‘. He always maintained contact with Australian botany, his last work being the appendix to Charles Sturt’s Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia. He kept a close control over the collections; much of his material was never published and the next major work on Australian plants, George Bentham’s Flora Australiensis 1-7 (London, 1863-78), was not commenced until after Brown had died.

                    It is the scale of Robert Brown’s collections and the descriptive output of Bentham and Mueller that stand out in the early history of Australian botany. He had established his scientific reputation by emphasising the experimental aspects of the study in addition to the descriptive approach of his day, championing a ‘natural’ system of plant classification to replace Linnaeus’s ‘sexual system’ (as Linnaeus had predicted, and long after the French) but making many astute and detailed observations on plant affinities and penetrating more deeply into plants with his microscope than many of his contemporaries.

                    Sadly his later years were clouded by disagreements between the botanical division of the British Museum and Kew Gardens. He resisted the tradition of patronage, dilettante botanists and the perception of botany as a leisurely hobby, doing this by successfully lobbying for state-paid botanists at the British Museum working hard to create a Royal Society with greater emphasis on ‘science’ and less emphasis on ‘gentlemen’. Consequently He clashed with the influential Lindley, author of the Gardener’s Chronicle and, since he was seen as usurping, to a degree, the status of Kew as the premier botanical institution, he also lost the support of a former admirer Director Joseph Hooker.

                    This was all part of the changing times as the religious hold on universities decreased, the professional scientist achieved respectability, and experimental science began to replace the old natural history.

                    Brown’s achievements in Australian botany would not be eclipsed until the arrival of Ferdinand Mueller in the 1850s.

                    Ferdinand Mueller (1815-1896)

                    Ferdinand Mueller was by today’s standards a workaholic, describing more than 2,000 Australian plant species and producing more than 2,000 publications. Many of his articles provided perceptive commentary on matters related to botany and horticulture – such as the role and function of botanic gardens, papers on economic botany and even conservation. In 1857 he produced a review of exploration in Australia which followed the theme of geographical research promoted by the popular and influential von Humboldt a fellow Prussian that he admired.[10]

                    The exploration was to continue throughout his life, both within and outside Victoria. In 1880 he told Alphonse DeCandolle he had “travelled on horseback and on foot 28,000 English miles [45,062 km]!”[11] this was in all states and through the continent’s major vegetation types, possibly a greater distance, and certainly more varied, than any other explorer in Australian history including Leichhardt, and a feat that will never be repeated.

                    Much of his time was spent battling government bureaucracy and, as an eccentric, he was mercilessly lampooned by both the public and press for his ever-present scarf (he had a dread of tuberculosis), love of meringues, and a steady flow of English neologisms spoken in a rich German accent.

                    Mueller was profusely decorated, becoming a baron in 1871. He was always a prominent and contributing figure in both academic and public life. With a well-established international reputation he was, without doubt, Australia’s most outstanding botanist and one of Australia’s greatest ever scientists.

                    Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

                    Though Darwin himself was inoffensive his theory was an affront to the beliefs of his day. It seems likely that his lifelong ailments, and long procrastination in publishing his theory, were a manifestation of his dread of the inevitable reaction that greeted his life’s work – the papers dubbing him ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ and pointing out the arrogance of his challenge to natural theology’s intelligent design by a divine creator. Cartoonists had a field day lampooning the degrading implication that humans were related to monkeys.

                    The theory of evolution, descent with modification under natural selection, was in many ways the culmination of Enlightenment science: it created a new grand narrative because it placed humans within nature rather than separate from it and challenged the idea of human moral superiority within the universe. Like Aristotle he was a great theoretician who spent many hourse dissecting, observing and analysing the natural world itself. By about 1870 his new grand narrative, the reality of evolution, was broadly accepted but Darwin’s claim for natural selection as its engine remained controversial until the modern evolutionary synthesis of the period 1930-1950. No longer able to resist its explanatory power the various Christian churches moved from a literal interpretation of the Bible as its historical content now became metaphor and allegory. To this day not all are convinced, believing that the Christian story is essentially correct or that there is (or need not be) conflict between the two accounts of the nature of the world. Darwin had sent the internationally famous Melbourne botanist Ferdinand Mueller a personal copy of On the Origin of Species but Mueller died in 1896 still believing in the immutability of species.

                    For natural scientists the theory of evolution neatly combined into a unifying and coherent theory anomalous information that had steadily accumulated in biogeography, geology (notably its fossils, geological strata, and much-extended time-frame), embryology, and studies of artificial selection in the domestication of animals and plants. It placed humans within a branching evolutionary tree that dated back many thousands of years, and a geological time frame of eons that, less than 200 years ago from today, most people believed was no greater than about 6,000 years. Under the influence of Thomas Huxley natural theology was now challenged by what became known as ‘naturalism’ which asserted that only the natural world and natural laws exist: that there is no credible evidence for spiritual or supernatural forces.


                    Administration : governance

                    Food production


                    parliament : law courts : prison : basilica

                    fields : orchards : vineyards : market gardens
                    temples : churches : mosques
                    tombs : cemeteries : mausoleums : necropolises : pyramids : burial mounds
                    markets : shops : bazaars
                    forum : agora
                    amphitheatre : hippodrome : stadium : coliseum
                    parks : gardens : beaches : lakes : rivers
                    universities : libraries : museums : art galleries : academies : lyceums
                    roads : alleys : rivers : canals : railways
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