Dr A from Swadlincote wonders if I can help him with a public lecture that he is about to give, on the theme ‘ genetic modification, good or bad?’
Now it’s a wonder that no one ever attacked that artist of the antique, Capability Brown, on this head in his own day. Let’s piece it out: since every manmade modification of genes is essentially designed to change our relationship with nature, it must also change our ability to relate imaginatively to nature, because we shall have determined unilaterally and beforehand what that relationship should be. Hitherto humanity has co-evolved with other organic life, but once we leave Darwin and evolution behind, we shall forever change our relationship to that life.
So moving on to Brown, I suspect his obituarist understated the case when he wrote ‘so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken’, – Brown’s work was not just a copy of nature, it replaced it. It was therefore inauthentic. At least that’s what John Constable felt when he described a park as ‘not beauty because it is not nature’. You could say, like the poet William Shenstone, that we make landscapes as naturally and instinctively as ants make nests. You could say that Brown was after some Platonic idea of England as it ought to be, and that his contemporaries never questioned his judgement. You could say either of those things, but I don’t think they’d be helpful, and I don’t think Dr A would be helped. Both arguments give us licence to reshape the world according to our own ideas of what the world should be – a recipe for expunging the species in quick time.
Brown was doing something else anyway.