In search of the Platzgeist (TIME 100)

It’s easy to pin scientific credit on a person. He or she usually has a name on the key publication, but how do you credit a place? Science is a human activity, so is it just the humans that matter or are there things were place contributes as much as people? While I was kicking round this idea, Pat came up with a few places that he thought mattered.

Mendel's garden in St. Thomas's Abbey, Brno.
Mendel's garden in St. Thomas's Abbey, Brno.

The first website he pulled up was Biodiversity Hotspots. I’d never seen this before. It’s fascinating. I didn’t know the Irano-Anatolian region was a biodiversity hotspot. I’m more familiar with it from the development of early crops that eventually led to agriculture spreading across Europe. In terms of plant-life this is a disaster in progress. Orchid collection is threatening species throughout the region. Other eyecatchers are the halophile plants that have adapted to live the extremely salty conditions rendered hot and dry by the sun. There’s plenty of the site to look at, but I couldn’t find Mauritius listed.

I can’t work out whether Mauritius is a good choice or not. It’s an ecological catastrophe in progress at the moment, but there’s a lot of work saving species going on with tiny budgets. Work in Mauritius could make a difference around the world. Douglas Adams identified it as the place where humans first recognised they could make a creature extinct, when the last dodo was killed and there were going to be no more dodos ever. On his visit he also wrote the most amusing description of the near extinction of a plant.

We finally made it to Rodrigues, a small island dependency of Mauritius, to look for the world’s rarest fruitbat, but first of all we went to look at something that Wendy Strahm was very keen for us to see – so much so that she rearranged her regular Rodrigues-visiting schedule to take us there herself.

By the side of a hot and dusty road there was a single small bushy tree that looked as if it had been put in a concentration camp.

The plant was a kind of wild coffee called Ramus mania, and it had been believed to be totally extinct. Then, in 1981, a teacher from Mauritius called Raymond Aquis was teaching at a school in Rodrigues and gave his class pictures of about ten plants that were thought to be extinct on Mauritius.

One of the children put up his hand and said, ‘Please, sir, we’ve got this growing in our back garden.’

At first it was hard to believe, but they took a branch of it and sent it to Kew where it was identified. It was wild coffee.

The plant was standing by the side of the road, right by the traffic and in considerable danger because any plant in Rodrigues is considered fair game for firewood. So they put a fence round it to stop it being cut down.

Immediately they did this, however, people started thinking, ‘Aha, this is a special plant,’ and they climbed over the fence and started to take off little branches and leaves and pieces of bark. Because the tree was obviously special, everybody wanted a piece of it and started to ascribe remarkable properties to it – it would cure hangovers and gonorrhoea. Since not much goes on in Rodrigues other than home entertainments it quickly became a very sought-after plant, and it was rapidly being killed by having bits cut off it.

The first fence was soon rendered useless and a barbed wire fence was put around that. Then another barbed wire fence had to be put around the first barbed wire fence, and then a third barbed wire fence had to be put around the second till the whole compound covered a half acre. Then a guard was installed to watch the plant as well.

With cuttings from this one plant Kew Gardens is currently trying to root and cultivate two new plants, in the hope that it might then be possible to reintroduce them into the wild. Until they succeed, this single plant standing within its barbed wire barricades will be the only representative of its species on earth, and it will continue to need protecting from everyone who is prepared to kill it in order to have a small piece. It’s easy to think that as a result of the extinction of the dodo we are now sadder and wiser, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that we are merely sadder and better informed.

Last Chance to See, the book of the radio series.

It’s that last sentence that’s the problem with Mauritius. The dodo might be extinct, but has the extinction really changed anything? At the moment the rate of extinction is climbing, so it seems not.

Another place Pat suggested was St Thomas’s Abbey in Brno. This was where Mendel performed his experiments on peas. The cleverness of Mendel is in no doubt, but is the Abbey special? Could the work have happened elsewhere? It’s an unanswerable question, but it’s worth recognising the opportunities and demands that the abbey placed on Mendel would be very different to a university post. If you follow the extended mind hypothesis, is a place part of the cognitive process? There’s also a question of whether a connection needs to be that deep to be historic. Is it enough that something happened here first to make it noteworthy?

As an example of a place where ‘it happened here first’ might be enough, there’s Botany Bay in Australia. New Holland was known long before Cook’s arrival. The expedition in the South Seas had found many more plants and animals before landing at Botany Bay. Banks was a good botanist, but if another competent botanist had been on the trip they could have spotted the flora was different. The ship didn’t even need to arrive at that specific point in Australia to produce an event. If they’d landed a bit further north, there still would have been a shore of unseen plants. So if the botanist and place are interchangeable what is the attraction? I think it is entirely ‘it happened here first’. The contact event could have happened anywhere along the east coast but here is where it happened. It’s what encouraged the British government to start transporting convicts and even though Botany Bay was not a successful site (the settlement had to move to Sydney) it was the thing that pulled British colonisation into the region.

Clearly for Botany there are places that are simply special. Pat also mentioned the Last Stand of the Wollemi Pines as an importance place in Botanic History, though probably not quite as dramatically as that. Plants can make a place important but the possibility of a Platzgeist something like a spirit or an atmosphere of a place, like a zeitgeist situated in space rather than time, that makes a discovery in one place possible while it’s not in another is interesting – if I could define it in less vague terms.

Photo: Jardín donde trabajó mendel en Brno by Rafael Robles. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.