Genius of the Place
René Jules Dubos
Berkeley, California February 26, 1970
The Positive Values of Environment
The world environment now evokes nightmares. It calls to mind the
exhaustion of natural resources, the accumulation of waste products,
the various forms of pollution, crowding, noise, and the thousand
devils of the ecological crisis. But while it is true that environmental
degradation is now almost as widespread and as traumatic in the
country as in the city, there is danger in thinking about the environment
only in such negative terms. If we limit our interest to the correction
of environmental defects, we shall behave like hunted creatures,
trying to escape from one danger after another, taking shelter behind
an endless series of protective devices - today afterburners on
our cars and complicated sewage treatment systems, tomorrow gas
masks over our faces and filters on our water faucets. Such technological
fixes will have temporary usefulness, but they will increasingly
complicate our life and ruin its quality. The real solution to the
ecological crisis will have to come from a change in our ways of
life and from the development of positive values relating human
nature to external nature. I had these positive values in mind when
I selected "The Genius of the Place" as a title for my
Positive values can at times be introduced from the outside. But
almost universally, the values most likely to be successful in a
given system are those which are inherent in the system itself and
which are part of its "genius" or "spirit" -
using these words in the sense they had in the classical Greco-Roman
Ancient peoples personified a locality with a particular god or
goddess who symbolized its qualities and potentialities. We no longer
believe in dryads, nymphs, or genii. But rationalists as we may
be, we still respond to phrases such as "the genius of New
England" or "the spirit of the Far West". These phrases
imply the acknowledgment that each place is characterized by a set
of attributes that makes it different from others, and that gives
The visitor can perceive in a few minutes the spirit of London
in a pub, or the spirit of Paris on the crowded terrasse of a student
cafe. He needs only cross the frontier between Italy and Switzer-land
to apprehend at a glance the contrasting geniuses of these two countries.
Much as I am tempted to do it, I shall not discuss the differences
between city and city or country and country- - even though this
topic would provide telling examples of the genius of the place.
Suffice it to point out that the word genius, as used here, does
not imply a judgment of values or some measure of superiority. It
refers only to the array of attributes which give its unique characteristics
to a place and enable it to evolve in such a manner that, while
changing, it retains its uniqueness.
One of Aldo Leopold's famous aphorisms is that conservation shows
us what a land can be, what it should be, what it ought to be. In
my opinion, this statement implies a questionable philosophy of
nature, because it seems to assume that some invisible hand guides
nature to the one perfect path of ecological harmony among its different
parts. In reality, as we shall see, it is possible in most areas
of the world to find several safe roads to ecological salvation.
Leopold's aphorism implies furthermore a defeatist view of man's
relation to nature. It regards man as an intruder whose inventions
almost inevitably dislocate the ecological order and are likely
thereby to cause nature's destruction.
Leopold's type of pessimism has taken the curious form among many
conservationists and ecologists of making Biblical teachings responsible
for the destructive influence of man on nature. I shall devote some
space to this peculiar assertion, not only because it is unwarranted
by historical facts and present practices, but also because its
widespread acceptance threatens to distract attention from the real
problems of the relationships between the earth and mankind.
The Judeo-Christian Tradition
The ecological crisis in the Western world, so the saying goes
among ecologists and conservationists, has its origin in the first
chapter of Genesis, where man is given dominion over creation. Finding
a ready excuse in this passage of the Scriptures, the peoples of
Judeo-Christian origin have had no scruples - so it is stated -
in exploiting nature for their selfish benefit. The outcome has
been a variety of ecological disasters - from erosion of the land
to exhaustion of natural resources. Oddly enough, conservationists
and ecologists who certainly know better, hardly ever mention that
many peoples outside the Judeo-Christian tradition have also been
ruthless with nature, in many cases even before the Bible was written.
Erosion resulting from human activities has occurred in ancient
China and it probably caused the end of the Teotihuacan civilization
in ancient Mexico. Plato explicitly stated in the dialogue Critias
his belief that Greece was eroded before his time as a result of
deforestation and overgrazing. The noble groves of cedars and cypresses
in Lebanon were massively exploited not only by Solomon but also
by the Assyrian kings and the Roman emperors.
The Judeo-Christian civilization has been no worse and no better
than others in its relation to nature. Throughout history, men have
disturbed the ecological equilibrium, almost universally out of
ignorance and chiefly because they have been more concerned with
immediate advantages than with longrange goals. The goat has helped
countless human beings to survive by its ability to derive nourishment
from poor lands, but it has probably contributed even more than
modern bulldozers to the destruction of the land and the creation
The view that Biblical teachings have been responsible for the
exploitation and raping of nature by modern man has recently led
to the advocacy of a return to the humble attitude of the early
Franciscans. Because Francis of Assisi worshipped all aspects of
nature, it has been suggested that we should try to follow in his
footsteps and abandon our aggressive attitude toward nature. In
a fascinating and often-quoted article, Professor Lynn White has
suggested that Francis of Assisi be made patron saint of ecologists.
Even the early Franciscans, however, soon abandoned the romantic
and unworldly attitude of the saint. Man has never been just a worshipper
of nature or a passive witness of natural events. Indeed, he developed
his humanness in the very act of interacting constructively with
the world around him and while molding nature by his will to make
it better suited to his needs, wishes, and aspirations. Stonehenge,
Angkor Vat, the Parthenon, and the countless other temples created
by man before the Judeo-Christian era represent expressions of man's
will which exacted as much from nature as did the construction of
Gothic cathedrals or of the George Washington Bridge.
Among religious leaders, Saint Benedict of Nubia is much more relevant
to the human condition than Saint Francis. Saint Benedict and his
followers taught and practiced a doctrine based on the second chapter
of Genesis in which it is stated that the Lord instructed man to
tend the Garden of Eden and dress it. Their attitude toward nature
was one of active intervention, but their wise management of the
land has proved compatible with the maintenance of environmental
The Concepts of Saint Benedict
When Saint Benedict established the first great monastery of Western
Europe on Monte Cassino in Italy during the sixth century, he decided
that the monks should not only pray to God, but should also work;
he recommended furthermore that their monasteries be self-sufficient.
In order to achieve self-sufficiency, the Benedictine monks developed
skills pertaining to agriculture and architecture. They learned
to manage their holdings on such sound ecological principles that
their land retained its productivity despite intense cultivation
and thus continued for long periods of time to provide the monasteries
with food, clothing, and wealth. The monks also developed an architecture
well suited not only to their religious and lay activities, but
also to the type of country in which they lived; Benedictine architecture
thus achieved such great functional beauty that it constitutes one
of the major achievements of early medieval civilization.
The Benedictine order was so successful that during the Middle
Ages, it established numerous monasteries over most of Europe, and
thereby greatly contributed to the creation of European agriculture
and landscape in the form we know them today.
Most influential from this point of view was the Cistercian branch
of the Benedictine order which established its monasteries in wooded
river valleys and marshes. The Cistercians rapidly became masters
in the art of drainage, developed the use of water power, and converted
malarious forests into habitable and fertile land. They achieved
such great fame in the control of malaria that a Pope gave them
the responsibility of draining the Campagna Romana.
The conversion of forest into farmland by the Benedictine monks
is just one among the many historical examples that could be quoted
to illustrate that man has great latitude in determining the face
of nature. Before the Christian era, the Celtic populations of Britain
lived almost exclusively on the calcareous plateaus, such as the
Salisbury Plain, probably because the low, wooded areas were unhealthy
and too difficult to cultivate. In contrast, the Romans, and then
the Saxons, who had a more advanced technology, succeeded in colonizing
the malarious forest of the Thames Valley and thus prepared the
ground for one of the greatest centers of civilization. The Pennsylvania
Dutch country provides another striking example of the fact that
land created from the forest can long be maintained in a healthy,
productive state. Thus, the transformation of the land by man need
not be destructive; in many cases indeed it has been a creative
The ecological crisis in our times has nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian
tradition but rather comes from the tendency now prevalent all over
the world to use land and waters, mountains and estuaries for short-range
economic benefits. The solution to the ecological crisis will not
be found in a retreat from technological civilization, but rather
in an enlightened transformation of it based on ecological understanding.
We must learn to recognize the limitations and potentialities of
the land and to manipulate it in such a manner that it remains a
productive and desirable place for human life.
The "Vocations" of a Region
Successful management of the earth demands that we identify the
"vocations" of its various parts. In Latin, the word vocatio
refers to the divine call for a certain kind of function. Similarly,
each part of the earth has, so to speak, one or several vocations,
which it is the duty of scholars to identify and of practical men
Certain parts of the earth, like certain persons, may have only
one vocation. For example, there may be only one thing that can
be done with certain arctic areas, with tropical lands, or with
desert regions. But in general most places, like most persons, have
several potential vocations; the indeterminacy resulting from these
several options adds much to the richness of life.
Consider for example what has happened to the primeval forest in
the temperate countries. Much of it has been transformed into farmlands,
each area developing its own agricultural specialization, social
structure, and esthetic quality. But the temperate forest can have
other fates. In Scotland and Eastern England, it was progressively
transformed into moors by lumbering activities and sheep grazing.
These moors are not productive from the agricultural point of view,
but their charm has enriched the life of Great Britain and its literature.
In North America, most of the forest was transformed into prairies
as a result of the fires set by the pre-agricultural Indians. Even
though the prairies have now been replaced by agricultural lands,
they have left a lasting imprint on American civilization.
Utilitarian considerations are only one aspect of man's relation
to the earth. The widespread interest in the preservation of wildlife
and of primeval scenery is sufficient evidence that man finds in
wilderness a kind of satisfaction that transcends economic usefulness
- perhaps because he wants to retain some contact with his distant
In practice, however, the only chance most people have to experience
and enjoy nature is in its humanized aspects - cultivated fields,
parks, gardens, and human settlements. This is true all over the
world, even in the United States, where so much is made of wilderness
preservation. For this reason, it is not sufficient to save the
Redwoods, the Everglades, and as much of the wilderness as possible;
it is equally essential to protect the esthetic quality of farmlands
and to improve Coney Island.
There are many different kinds of beautiful landscapes. Some derive
their appeal from their majestic scale, their uniqueness, or their
splendor. The national parks in the United States provide many varied
examples of scenery to which man's presence does not add anything.
In most cases, however, the quality of the landscape consists in
a sense of fitness between man and his surroundings. This fitness
accounts for most of the charm of ancient settlements, not only
in the Old World but in the New World as well. The river settlements
of the Ivory Coast, the Mediterranean hill towns, the pueblos of
the Rio Grande, the village greens of New England, and the old cities
organized along peaceful rivers throughout the world, are as many
different types of landscapes which derive their quality not so
much from topographical or climatic peculiarities, as from the intimate
association between man and nature.
Living as we do in an industrial mercantile society, we are inclined
to overemphasize the role of technological and economic factors
in determining the quality of the environment. But there are many
other environmental factors that have a pervasive influence on human
life. History and the climate, for example, play creative roles
in determining the architecture and materials of dwellings and churches,
the shape and botany of gardens and parks.
The formal gardens of Italy and France did not just happen through
the caprice of wealthy men or the genius of a few landscape architects.
They were successful because they fitted in the physical, biological,
and social atmosphere of Italy and France at the time of their creation.
Formal gardens and parks also flourished in England but the English
school achieved its distinction by creating an entirely different
kind of park better suited to the local conditions. The great English
parks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are characterized
by magnificent trees grouped in meadows and in vast expanses of
lawn. This style was suited to the wet climate of the British Isles.
In France, many attempts were made in the eighteenth century to
create gardens and parks in the English style, but with limited
success. As Horace Walpole remarked in a letter giving an account
of his visit to the continent: "In short, they [the French]
can never have as beautiful a landscape as ours, til they have as
bad a climate."
Walpole's witticism expresses the biological truth that a given
landscape style can be lastingly successful only if it is compatible
with the ecological imperatives of the country. This is what Alexander
Pope summarized in his famous line, "In everything respect
the genius of the place."
Just as the climate in most parts of France is almost incompatible
with the green magnificence of the English parks, so is the atmosphere
in many American cities unsuited to certain types of plants. This
does not mean that plant life is out of place in urban conglomerations,
only that more effort should be made to identify and propagate for
each particular city the kinds of trees, flowers, and ground cover
that can best thrive under its set of climatic and other constraints.
Ordinary grass looks so pathetic in most cities, and the rows of
plane trees so monotonous, that botanists and foresters should be
encouraged to discover or create other plants congenial to urban
environments. Studies of plant ecology may become more urgent in
the city than in the wilderness.
Ecology and the Genius of the Place
The genius of the place is thus made up of the physical, bio logical,
social, and historical forces which together give it uniqueness
to each locality or region. All great cities have a genius of their
own which transcends geographical location commercial importance,
and size. And so is it for each region of the world. Man always
adds something to nature, and thereby transforms it, but his interventions
are successful only to the extent that he respects the genius of
Man's transformations of the land from one ecological state to
another have not always been successful. As already mentioned, the
famous stands of cedars and cypresses in Lebanon have all but disappeared
and much of the Mediterranean basin has been disfigured by erosion.
Ecologic changes have given desirable results chiefly in situations
where they occurred so slowly that they were compatible with adaptive
processes of biological and social nature. Deforestation yielded
beautiful farmland and romantic moors in Great Britain where it
occurred progressively over several centuries. But, in contrast,
deforestation resulting from massive and hasty lumbering has been
responsible for ghost towns and eroded land in many parts of North
Because most transformations of the earth's surface will now occur
rapidly, a new kind of ecological knowledge is needed to predict
the likely consequences of technological interventions and to provide
rational guides as substitutes for the empirical adjustments that
time used to make possible. Ecology will provide the scientific
basis for understanding and developing the genius of the place.
But orthodox ecological knowledge is not enough. In the final analysis,
all decisions concerning the environment involve matters of taste
and therefore value judgments.
During the eighteenth century, tastes concerning landscape architecture
were profoundly influenced by the artistic style of a few painters,
in particular Salvadore Rosa, Claude Lorrain, and Nicholas Poussin.
Each in his own way, these painters used Italian scenery to create
an idealized picture of the pastoral ways of life, and this ideal
rapidly found its way into the design of parks and gardens all over
Europe, especially in England.
Nature and the climate in England are far different from what they
are in Italy. But the English landscape architects succeeded nevertheless
in using the genius of their land to develop a new kind of scenery
expressing the emotional and esthetic values that they had acquired
from seventeenth-century painting. By so doing, they created the
scenic beauty of England which we still enjoy today.
The successes of the English school of landscape architecture illustrate
that man's intervention in the environment can generate new values.
It can take the form of creative interplay resulting in the progressive
flowering of the potentialities hidden in human nature and in external
Introducing: René Jules Dubos
For the man of insight, studies of the metabolic re-quirements of
pneumococci can lead to a comprehensive under-standing of the ecology
of man. In following this route, René Dubos has demonstrated
that intensive specialization can provide the solid foundation for
Dr. Dubos is a native of France who studied at the College Chaptal
and Institut National Agronomique in Paris. After service in the
French army during World War I, he was employed by the International
Institute of Agricultu re in Rome. He moved to the United States
in the early 1920's, completing his Ph.D. at Rutgers University
in 1927. He was appointed to the faculty of The Rockefeller University
in New York in the same year. He continues as a member of that faculty
Through his specialized studies in microbiology and experimental
pathology Dr. Dubos became the first scientist to demonstrate that
germ-fighting drugs could be obtained from microbes. His studies
of the metabolic requirements of pneumococci were directed to finding
a way to destroy the polysaccharide capsule I that protects the
pneumonia germ, making it resistant to the body's defense. He began
his research among soil microbes and found his answer in a sample
of swamp soil. By 1929 he had isolated a bacterium, grown it under
controlled conditions, and extracted from it an enzyme that destroys
the pneumonia germ's protective polysaccharide. In 1939 he applied
the same principle to the isolation from the soil of a microbe which
produced two important antibiotics, gramicidin and tyrocidine. These
pioneering studies opened the pathway for subsequent research leading
to the development of other antibiotics.
His intensive studies led him to a more general concern with the
effects that environmental forces - physiochemical, biological,
and social - exert on human life. He has become involved in the
socio-medical problems of underprivileged communities, as well as
those created by economic affluence in industrialized countries.
He particularly studied the effects of environmental factors that
impinge on developing organisms during the prenatal and early postnatal
periods. During the past few years Dr. Dubos has developed a number
of experimental models that reproduce in animals some of the lasting
effects of early influences observed in human beings.
Happily, he is as adept in sharing his perceptions with others
as in conducting research. He is the author of more than a dozen
books, including The Torch of Life, The Unseen World, The Dreams
of Reason, Pasteur and Modern Science, Mirage of Health, Bacterial
and Mycotic Infections of Man, Biochemical Determinants of Microbial
Disease, The White Plague - Tuberculosis, Man and Society, The Bacterial
Cell, Health and Disease, Man, Medicine and Environment, and, most
recently, So Human an Animal, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize
Dr. Dubos has received many other honors, including twenty-one
honorary degrees from leading universities. He served as Hitchcock
Lecturer at Berkeley in 1954 and has now returned as the Albright
Lecturer in Conservation in 1970.
Drawing on this remarkably productive career which continues to
flower, Dr. Dubos brings his particular genius to his discussion
of "The Genius of the Place."
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