A tale of bio(graphic)diversity

A Passion For Plants
February 23, 1996

This readable and enjoyable biography gives a revealing insight into the varied life of the director of Kew and eminent tropical botanist, Sir Ghillean Prance. Clive Langmead paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of a man who is, amongst other things, "statesman and scientist, manager and missionary, visionary dreamer and practical researcher, jungle explorer and cloistered academic". We are left with an abiding impression of a man with a great sense of personal integrity that permeates everything he does. The book is also a fine introduction to the nature and pitfalls of tropical botany, and as such deserves to be read by any prospective field student.

Yet as good as it is, it perhaps falls a little short of what could have been. If the author had put Prance's considerable achievements and convictions in a more scientific perspective, he might have added some spice to the stew. For example, one of the strongest threads running through Prance's life has been his Christian faith. Many scientists might agree that a belief in some greater good than the mechanistic processes of science itself is essential if our work is to have meaning.

But ever since Darwin, few have held a religious conviction that life-forms have been "created" by an external god. Prance's belief that "something as complicated as the leaf system of a plant, the eye of a mammal or the subtle, intricate, co-operative habitat of the rainforest could not happen by accident" and his view of evolution "as a creative activity employed by God" make him diametrically opposed to the vast majority of taxonomists, ecologists, and evolutionary biologists. Being in the minority does not make anyone wrong, but such strong convictions can hardly have gone uncommented upon by his peers and on this Langmead is silent.

Other opportunities for controversy were missed. Prance has been a leading exponent of the refugia theory, which holds that alternating dry and wet periods in the Quaternary caused the vast Amazon forest to alternately fragment and coalesce, allowing populations to become temporarily isolated and sometimes to evolve into distinct species that remained reproductively isolated from one another once they were reunited.

This model provides an attractive explanation for the high diversity of Amazon forests, but has proved very controversial, yet it is not mentioned in the book.

Better editing would have caught some unintentionally misleading phrases. Yet the book is engagingly written, and has some very moving passages. For example, the account of a collecting expedition out of Manaus to one of the remotest regions in the Amazon which went disastrously wrong, with Prance and most of his colleagues almost dying of a virulent strain of malaria, is an extraordinary tale, grippingly related.

Langmead is successful because he is able skilfully to convey how Prance's multifaceted life and his urge to take on new challenges has been influenced by some very personal forces - most especially the early pressure of family expectations, a strong Christian faith and ethical code, and the unstinting support of Anne, his wife.

Ghillean Prance review overleaf Oliver Phillips is biodiversity research fellow, school of geography, University of Leeds.

A Passion For Plants: The Life and Vision of Ghillean Prance

Author - Clive Langmead
ISBN - 0 7324 1254 4
Publisher - Lion Publishing
Price - £16.99
Pages - 208

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