October 22, 2017

Sir Frank Fraser Darling

Sir Frank Fraser Darling (1903–1979) was one of the very greatest figures in the ecological movement. A human ecologist and senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, his greatest contribution to ecology and conservation was in his development of the ‘ecological survey’ – the analysis of the complex relationships between man, landscape and wildlife. A brief summary of his life and achievements may be read here, on the NAHSTE website.

This tribute was published as an editorial in The Ecologist Vol. 9 No. 8–9, November–December 1979 shortly after his death.

I first met Sir Frank towards the end of 1971. Robert Allen and I were finishing our Blueprint for Survival and were seeking to persuade as many eminent scientists as possible to endorse it. He very much liked the document and it was largely due to his influence, as well as that of Sir Julian Huxley, that so many eminent scientists featured among the signatories.

Sir Frank also chaired the press conference organised for the launching of The Blueprint in January 1972 and it was his eloquent presentation more than anything else that influenced the journalists present to give it the massive coverage in the popular press that it obtained.

Most people, including the bulk of the scientific community, regarded The Blueprint as representing an extremist position. Not so Sir Frank. He was one of the few eminent scientists in this country to realise that it was, in fact, a very conservative document. His pessimism regarding the future of our industrial society was even deeper than our own. At the Stockholm conference he said to me in private, “I think that we are doomed”.

Recently Professor Ray Dasmann and his wife Beth made a pilgrimage to Forres to visit Sir Frank and his wife in their retirement. They later passed through Cornwall and suggested I write to ask him to join the Ecology Party (now the Green Party). With Lady Fraser Darling’s permission, we are publishing his reply. Significantly, she asked me to publish it in toto as she felt that it faithfully reflected his views on the Human Prospect.

15 October 1978

Dear Edward,

I appreciate your letter. Ray Dasmann came one day this summer with Beth. Above their bed was a picture painted by Beth a good ten years ago, which I had admired in Washington and which they sent to me. I am still alive in the mind but the body is a poor show – balance gone, eyes all squiffy and one ear dead, hair still dark, which looks silly in a man of seventy-five. My writing is well on the way to being illegible. Once I wrote books so that the outside world should or might read them: now the mountain has to come to Mohammed, which sounds a bit silly and conceited.

So like the villager in Punch, “Sometimes I sits and sometimes I sits and thinks – but mostly I just sits.” Sometimes I talk, especially when folk come and see me. Strokes are not helpful to an active life, so I have closed up as far as writing is concerned. I suppose you would say I could talk with a recording machine but when I wrote the pen was an extension of my mind and as I did not revise, there was spontaneity. Dictating hasn’t got this with me.

Sorry your Movement seems to be not so good. I think one of your shortcomings is that you are not pessimistic enough and perhaps you are in too much of a hurry. To change Man is going to take more time than we have. One can tell the world this – in some ways I have tried to for 40 years – but despite small strugglings, such as your own and mine, Man goes on his own way.

My only hope is in what we have recently glimpsed, that life has happened elsewhere (vide the probable organic nature and origin of some molecules in meteorites). If evolution is cosmic rather than planetary, well God has all the time in the Universe and Man is rather small beer (as he has long appeared to me, despite my admiration for some individuals). Did God evolve? This seems to me very possible and he isn’t finished yet. So far I would say Man is his biggest mistake. God gave Man free will too soon, along with his inordinate capacity to reproduce.

Your mistake, as I see it, is in your capacity to ignore the existence of two thirds of humanity. Having got this gift of God, compassion, we can’t brush off these two thirds, despite earthquakes and floods (like Persia and the Indian Valley – the latter exacerbated by economic exploration of sub-Himalayan forests) because we are in some ways growing more humane. We continue to fell the Mato Grosso and kill the indigenous Indians, but we subscribe to the notion of the “sanctity of human life”. (This phrase seems to mean less and less when applied to some poor child whose cry we don’t hear).

It seems to me that Man is going to kill himself as a species, along with whales and lions and tigers and those thousands of species of mites and things which perform necessary jobs of conversion. (You can’t make much of these in a World Wildlife poster.) So if snow leopards and pandas look well in posters which folk can see with our conceptions of beauty, they are doing a good job in helping to preserve those lesser creatures which are not photogenic, nor their functions scarcely observed as yet.

I believe that we must examine our own individual behaviour all the time and behave according to our vouchsafed enlightenment. Even so we shall often be wrong, obviously, but there is a lot of cosmic time. I just missed Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in New York in 1955, for which I have continued to be sorry, but his noosphere was, and still is, utterly beyond me.

So am I without hope? Not really. We can be learning all the time. Pierre Teilhard might say there is hope for me yet! For life to have reached literacy, abstract thought and the concept of evolution has been a considerable breakthrough. May compassion stay with us, despite our apparent human determination to cut it in two.

Yours ever,




Frank Fraser Darling

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