Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Goodbye" to an old Polymath and consummate communicator called Aubrey Manning

Aubrey, who has died at the age of 88, was born the second child of Hilda and William, a grocery inspector for the Home and Colonial Stores, in suburban London in the spring of 1930 and recalled : "We had a small garden in Chiswick where I was born and I remember being fascinated by snails and ants."

It was the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and the prospect of the bombing of London which prompted the family to move to Englefield Green in Surrey and "it was with our move into the Surrey countryside near Windsor Park that I really became involved. There were fields next to our house with a stream running through." By the age of ten he was spending long days exploring the fields, woodlands and hedgerows around the village.

He recalled : "I remember so vividly that within a week of getting 'The Observer's Book of British Birds' I had clearly identified what then were exotic species to me - tree creeper, nuthatch, greenfinch, jay - which had always been there of course. You just need your eyes opened and the natural world begins to spring to life all around you."

Having gained and taken his place at Strode’s Grammar School for Boys, in Egham, in 1941, he found "a new master founded a scout troop and a friend and I began working for our 'Naturalist's Badge' - I was hooked! I began devouring natural history books - especially on bird behaviour and I knew I wanted to become a zoologist." In fact, he recalled : "my first publication was with a school friend on wood warblers." The friend in question was Derwent May, who would go on to forge his own career in academia and journalism and the publication was a 1947 edition of 'British Birds Magazine.'

Chemistry also became an interest until he nearly blew himself up making fireworks. In addition to school and scouts he also, through the family, belonged to the local Baptist church, although his religion didn't seem to have had an enduring impact on him. He told the ethologist, Richard Dawkins when interviewed in 2008 that "I was brought up a Baptist, very much evangelical kind of stuff, lots of good hymn singing. Much better than the C of E."

His love of landscape also originated in the 1940s and he was doubtless recalling trips out in the family car when, in 2014, he told the BBC 2 tv series, 'Seven Natural Wonders' : "I remember going to Finchampstead Ridges with my parents when I was a boy - it was so much more open then" and "I've lived in Scotland for many years now, but I was born and brought up in the South and several of the places chosen brought back memories of a happy childhood and student days - Stokenchurch, The Devil's Punchbowl and Cuckmere Haven. The great sweep of the chalk across the South of England has been a dominating feature for humans for thousands of years and countless generations have worked it and come to love it."

His 'student days' began in 1948 when he "went up to University College, London, generally acknowledged to be  the fount of all goodness, to read zoology" where JBS Haldane, the great scientist and Professor of Genetics, was an early inspiration. It was now, at the age of 18, that he began to question his strict Baptist beliefs and later said : "I do remember that it was when I went to study biology at University College that I began to have serious doubts." 

"When I was a research student at Oxford, I used to do fieldwork on Wytham Hill to the west. I would look southwards across the vale of the White Horse to the Berkshire Downs and, of course, in my memory it was always a brilliant sunlit landscape. I always loved going to the White Horse at Uffington, because it's magical to know that it really is old. This is the one really ancient chalk figure we have in England, 2,800 years old, carved in the late Bronze Age. It gives you a wonderful link to the people that used to live on this landscape."

"During this time at the University I travelled the A40 a great deal. When returning south, the car I had at the time, an old Armstrong Sidley had a tough time getting up the steep hill at Stokenchurch. I am certain that had there been Red Kites at the time, I would have stopped at top to watch them souring above this area of The Chilterns."

Having excelled in his first degrees at London he "Eventually I went on to Oxford to do research under Niko Tinbergen on animal behaviour which has always remained my first interest." The brilliant and charismatic Dutch scientist Nikolaas Tinbergen was clearly a major influence on Aubrey and he recalled : "It was a wonderful introduction to behavioural research. Niko there with a gang of research students - we were a very tight-knit kind of group and he was like a great uncle to us."  "He was a superb naturalist and to be out in the natural world with him was a wonderful kind of inspiration. He really saw the web of like." "Niko showed how you could do good science, yet more or less, work with animals in their own environment, see the beauty of it, the excitement, the emotional response that you have."

While completing his DPhil on the 'Behaviour of Bumblebees', Aubrey shared a flat with the late David Snow, who, six years his senior, went on to become a celebrated ornithologist. Another of Niko's doctorate students was Margaret Bastock, who had been a zoology undergraduate at Oxford when the War broke out when her studies were suspended and she went to work for the BBC. Having graduated after the War she started her doctorate in some years before Aubrey, in 1950, examining the relationship between genetics and evolution in the fruit fly. It was through Niko that she met Aubrey and they collaborated on her work on 'courtship behaviour.'

Having successfully gained his doctorate, Aubrey undertook his two years National Service in the Royal Artillery and then, at the age of 26, joined the University of Edinburgh in 1956, as an Assistant Lecturer in Zoology and married Margaret three years later. This marked the beginning of a love affair with Scotland that continued for the rest of his life.

At Edinburgh he became something of a star, with his lectures attracting students from non-zoology disciplines with the university scheduling his lectures at 9am on a Monday morning in order to get students out of bed. At the age of 37 he published his 'An Introduction to Animal Behaviour.' Six years later, in 1973, at the age of 43, he was appointed Professor of Natural History. Nine years later Margaret died from cancer, leaving him and their two sons when she was 62. Aubrey married Joan Hermann, three years later, with whom he had another son.

In 1990 he became, and was to serve for 6 years, Chair of the Council of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, where he encouraged the growth of urban nature conservation and raised the profile of campaigns against such activities such as open cast mining and peat extraction. Hearing that an EU fund to promote nature conservation was receiving  no applications from Scotland, he was instrumental in securing a bid for £350,000 to restore Scottish lowland raised bogs.

His career in the media began in 1995 when for BBC TV, he talked about his life and work and chose seven of the things he found most wonderful for the science series called 'Seven Wonders of the World.' He chose 'Trees'. 'The Bee Dance'. the Tasmanian Tiger'Little'i', the 'Hit-or-Miss Governor', 'Durham Cathedral' and the 'Grand Canyon'.

He retired from Edinburgh at the age of 67 in 1997 and set off on a BBC Science Department round-the-world shoot for the series 'Earth Story', visiting Switzerland, Kenya, South Africa, Bali, Lombok, Australia, Canada, the US and Iceland. As a gifted communicator he used the advantage of being a non-geologist to explain geological plates, plume mantles, volcanoes, glaciers and asked questions and drew out answers that could be understood by non-scientists.

The eight episode Story covered :
1. The Time Travellers 
2. The Deep
3. Ring of Fire
4. Journey to the Centre of the Earth
5. The Roof of the World
6. The Big Freeze
7. The Living Earth
8. A World Apart

In 2000 Aubrey presented a series of three programmes on human evolution for Radio 4 and in 2001 he narrated BBC TVs six part ‘Talking Landscapes’ in which he covered :

1. The Weald.
2. The Pembrokeshire Coast and its connections with the sea.
3. The Yorkshire Dales and how generations of Yorkshire families made a living from the the Dales.
 The Fens and whether they are a completely man-made landscape.
5. The Cairngorms.
6. The Vale of Evesham where a flight with a local pilot helps uncover an Anglo-Saxon agricultural revolution.

For BBC Radio 4 in 2002, he narrated, over five series, 'Unearthing Mysteries' which over 20 episodes saw him visit : Turkey for a possible first city; Meadowcroft Rock Shelter near Pittsburgh; Spitalfields for archaeological finds; San Galgano in Italy for the Sword in the Stone; Roumania for a Roman temple; the Valley of the Kings in Egypt to unearth a mystery; Bronze Age mines at Great Orme Head and fossilised remains of Lynford Quarry in Norfolk.

With the Open University his BBC 'Landscape Mysteries' was broadcast in 2003 and in which he in :

1.Search of Irish Gold : asked : Judging by the quantity of gold artifacts discovered in Ireland, gold was readily available there in the Bronze Age but where did it come from?
2. Figures in the Chalk : investigated the enormous chalk figures - such as the Uffington White Horse and the Long Man of Wilmington - carved into hillsides in Southern England.
3. Britain Before the Ice : visited the Gower Peninsiula in South Wales to investigate a 29,000 year old skeleton of a young man and unravel the mystery of the lost world in which he lived.
4. Secrets of the Flood : looked at the land movements in Britain with sea levels falling in Scotland and rising in the south.
5. The Tower People of Shetland : set off to discover what sort of community built the Broch towers and for what purpose.
6. The Abandoned Marsh : traced the history of Romney Marsh in Kent with its ruined churches in the middle of fields and tales of towns lost at sea.
7. The Riddle of the Yorkshire Tracks : uncovered signs of an early chemical industry on the Yorkshire coast.
8. The Terraces of Avalon : travelled to Glastonbury to investigate the origin of a series of stepped terraces on the tor.

His travels continued with his BBC Radio 4 series, 'The Rules of Life' in 2006, linking animal behaviour to evolution. His 8 rules covered :
1. Life Before Birth when a mother's nutrition and stress levels affect her offspring's later life.
2. Early Days when if at first you don't succeed, you don't succeed, where only 50% of grey seal pups survive in their first year.
3. Going Independent and leaving the safety of home can be a testing time, with many new skills to acquire and young bull elephants spend years learning from older males before they can breed.
4. Pairing Up when attracting and choosing a mate can be a tricky and dangerous business and red deer stags have to battle it out for access to females.
5. Happy Families where parenting is often a challenge and meerkats work together to feed and look after the next generation.
6. Food Is Not For Free where for many animals there's a balance between getting enough food whilst not being eaten yourself and spiny lobsters screech like a violin to scare off predators.
7. The Twilight Years when ageing affects us all and for some species it brings dominance and respect, for others life becomes very tough.

8. Changing the Rules where humans can influence animal behaviour in subtle way and as people move into lion territory they drive away wildebeest and zebra and in n Tanzania some lions have switched to hunting people instead.

In 2007, for BBC Radio, his  'Origins Revisited' he explored the latest ideas and discoveries in the quest to understand the origins and evolution of humanity and covered the advances made by palaeoanthropologists and archaeologists since his first series in 2000.

In 2008 for BBC Radio in an 8 part series, 'The Sound of Life' he took listeners on an 'acoustic journey to discover the past, present and future of sound'  which took them from prehistory to find the first animal to ever communicate with sound to Costa Rica where being the loudest really matters,

It was in 2008, when Aubrey was 78, that he was asked, when interviewed by Richard Dawkins : "Do you take a pessimistic or optimistic view of the future of the world ?" and he replied :

"I struggle very hard to be optimistic, a short-term optimist. I have children and now I have grandchildren and one thinks about their world and so I cannot allow myself to feel that things aren't going to get better. What I'm absolutely certain of is that we're going to need some very powerful taps on the shoulder from the planet. Kicks up the arse really and I think we're going to get them."

In his latter years he became increasingly concerned about the question of population control and in 2011 delivered a lecture at the University of Edinburgh entitled : 'Population : Can We Begin to Talk Sensibly ?' In 2016 when asked the question : "When did you first realize the link between environment and population?"  He replied : "Probably when I started as a biologist in the 1950s. Biologists tend to notice the changes. There was a period of rapid recovery after the War, which brought huge advantages, but one could see that the amount of disturbance and development that was going on was putting a bit of a brake on some aspects of wildlife. It struck me that human numbers was a key factor."

"A common response to population concern is that it’s ‘anti-human’. That’s grotesque, it’s pro-human. How else are we to ensure that our children can grow up into a world that has choice and opportunities? You will be labelled fascist, racist, anti-human, but my back is broad, they can call me what they like! You have to be a short term optimist, otherwise you wouldn’t get up in the morning. It is still a beautiful world."

In 2013 at the age of 83 he reminded his audience of his brilliance as a lecturer when he delivered his illustrated lecture 'Scotland's Place in Earth's History' in which he covered the country's contribution to earth sciences.

In 1995 Aubrey said :

What better epitaph ?

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