At the venerable age of 80, Prof. Rene' Dubos is about to become a cult figure -- or so suggests the reaction to a recent appearance in Washington.
That will be a good thing. But do those who have suddenly taken him up as a sort of media star grasp the prickliness, the icy vein of Gallic realism, that qualifies his wisdom about the life in harmony with nature? "Celebrations of Life," full of refreshing departures from conventional wisdom, suggests that they may not.
The first thing to understand, perhaps, is that Dubos is one of a very few scientists who writes from the humanist's perspective, from that of what he calls the "gloomy optimist." The fact is worth remarking. The woods are full of preachers of fashionable forms of scientific determinism who claim to find grim, unwieldy imperatives for us in the environment, in the irresistible diktats of our genes or in one or another form of social conditioning. Their message is that the range of human choice, the scope for human agency, are in fact depressingly small.
Rene' Dubos will have none of it. He is persuaded that the big news about the human race, even now, is not how narrow our choices are, but how wide.
What escape does he offer from the closed world pictured by the scientific determinists? "Celebrations of Life" is essentially a celebration of the bountiful instances in which cultural achievements, large and small, defy natural probabilities.
For instance, he notices the great variety of cultures -- sedentary and nomadic, tent- and cave-dwelling, planting and hunting, warlike and pacific -- that sprang from original American Indian stocks, otherwise so closely related in physical type and genetic endowment. He is equally impressed by the way certain highly successful nations (Japan, the Netherlands, modern Israel) have coped with challenging geographies and climates. The Dutch have battled the sea for centuries, with brilliant success: a classic example of what he calls "the wooing of earth," the imposition of human willpower and values upon a resistant "nature."
But "nature," to speak of that tricky term, is to his mind a nonsensical idea when thought of as a fixed condition not to be manipulated, elaborated or violated by mankind. For all his own eloquent feeling for the duty to be good stewards of the earth, Dubos is no ecological sentimentalist. Nature as he sees it, "human nature" especially, is not a static given but the product of complex adaptations, involving willed ideals no less than genes or geography. It is raw materials plus -- plus human ingenuity, imagination, energy.
Dubos can be amusingly iconoclastic about the doomsday scenarios that burst upon us a couple of decades ago with the popularization, not to say vulgarization, of the science of ecology. As an observer of natural systems he is impressed not only by man's capacity to degrade and foul them but by their resilient capacity for recovery.
As one striking example of "the willed future, based on humanistic values" he offers London: "Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution . . . London was the most polluted large city of the Western world. As a result of the control measures taken by the London City Council . . . the annual amount of sunshine over London has now in the space of some 25 years increased by some 50 percent . . . the songbirds mentioned in Shakespeare can once again be heard . . . and salmon -- that most fastidious of fish -- has returned to the Thames."
Dubos, finally, is skeptical of those computerized manipulations of statistics that produce the bleak reports of the Club of Rome and the recent "Global 2000" study of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In some manifestations of this ecological futurism, he has discovered comic absurdities. For instance, a 1976 report by the British ministry of agriculture offered figures showing that Britons should be malnourished when they are, in fact, well fed and often overweight. Why? "In Great Britain, as in other parts of the world, people use in their diets . . . many items not entered in official documents."
If Rene' Dubos is now to be widely acknowledged as the prophet of human adaptation he long has been in fact, we shall all be improved and heartened. But let us affix a warning label to the prophet's mantle: Dubos is the foe of all sorts of fashionable simple-mindedness, especially of the scientific-determinist variety, and we shall have to complicate our minds to get his message straight.