Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

A racist gaffe about ‘garden and jungle’ that speaks volumes

  • There is no civilisation, only civilisations, and Western civilisation was among the most violent, destructive and savage in history

In the Canadian province of British Columbia, in several sites that were once home to native peoples for thousands of years, there are small fruit and nut trees, clusters of berry bushes and some herbs that can be used for food and medicine, as well as pruned crabapple trees and salmonberry bushes.

These are the remnants of remarkable gardens cultivated by natives more than a century and a half ago, and are ecologically distinct from the rest of the forests in which they are found. They were well-tended until their gardeners were forcefully displaced by white colonial settlers.

A fascinating study published last year by a team of researchers at Simon Fraser University finds that those gardens, long abandoned, are still distinct from the rest of the forest; they are more ecologically diverse and resilient in terms of the numbers and kinds of species compared to their surroundings, and so they survive and preserve themselves even to this day.

“Europe is a garden and everywhere else a jungle” is a racist statement

How apt is the Simon Fraser study, showing how the “gardens” could resist the encroachment of “jungles”! The metaphor of garden and jungle is perhaps one of the oldest used in the contrast between civilisation and barbarism. And scholars have often observed that even collapsed civilisations had long-lasting impacts on the subsequent development of human society; their legacies endure long after death, just like the wild gardens of British Columbia.

So, not including the Canadian case, literally and metaphorically, who were the gardeners and the savage beasts?

Josep Borrell, the European Union foreign policy chief, recently compared the EU to “a garden” and everywhere else “a jungle”. After a media furore, he apologised that some people had been offended, not that he thought the analogy was wrong or racist.

“Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden,” he said. “The gardeners should take care of it, but [they] have to go to the jungle … Otherwise, the rest of the world will invade us.”

Perhaps Borrell would have been right if he had said there was not one garden, but many, and that without proper gardening, they would revert to primeval conditions.

But clearly he didn’t mean that; so far as he was concerned, the threat was external, not internal. In fact, he apparently reverted to the 19th-century view of the one true civilisation, that of Europe, which was the only one capable of progress and enlightenment – as opposed to China and Islam – against the savagery of the world.

A literal metaphor – “garden and jungle”

Whether Borrell knew it or not, “garden and jungle” was a metaphor that figured prominently in debates during the Victorian era, at the height of European imperialism, about the nature of civilisation among many leading intellectuals. Frenemies Thomas Huxley, the biologist, and Herbert Spencer, the polymath, and their decades-long debate serve as an especially instructive example.

Under the influence of Charles Darwin, both men argued over whether human societies, beliefs and behaviours evolved like species in nature. Perhaps more than anyone, the pair helped spread the gospel of evolution among professional scientists and the general public alike. Spencer coined the immortal phrase “survival of the fittest”, which Darwin ended up adopting for what he more technically called “natural selection”.

If Jesus needed St Paul to spread his message and institutionalise it, then Huxley and Spencer were the Pauline messengers in the establishment of evolutionary theory. In their works, “garden and jungle” often became more than a metaphor, but a literal contrast.

In the Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1, for example, Spencer wrote about the native Fuegians in Tierra del Fuego: “The Fuegians [were] made worse by the dense growth underwood … Indeed various equatorial regions, made almost useless even to the semi-civilised by jungle and tangled forest, were utterly useless to the aborigines, who had no tools for clearing the ground.

“The primitive man, possessing rude stone implements only, found but few parts of the Earth’s surface which, neither too barren nor bearing too luxuriant a vegetation, were available: so again reminding us that rudimentary societies are at the mercy of environing conditions.”

Civilisation, for Spencer, was all about the conquest of nature. Civilised people turned forests into cultivable land or cities; savages just lived, died and became extinct in jungles. The notion of living in harmony with nature seemed completely foreign to him. (Prince Kropotkin or Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist and naturalist, was one of the first to propose that cooperation was as important as competition in evolution).

For Spencer, the laws of evolution applied equally to human society. That became known as Social Darwinism. Competition, especially in economic activities among people, was what drove progress and selected the successful and the fittest from the failures and the unfit. Governments therefore should not interfere with progress. Paradoxically, eugenics, a more extreme version of Social Darwinism, advocated that governments should intervene to weed out the inferior within the population.

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Spencer, you would not be surprised, was a big proponent of laissez-faire capitalism and free trade, the twin ideological pillars of the British Empire. It’s fascinating how in British-Scottish intellectual history, Adam Smith, Malthusian population theory and classical political economy inspired Darwin’s view on competition for survival among species in nature, which in turn led to Spencer’s Social Darwinism and eugenics – all in a recycling intellectual loop – that turned science into an ideology for empire.

To his credit, Huxley rejected Social Darwinism. In his study of ethics, he posited the opposition between jungle and garden, that is, the laws of the jungle, or the laws of evolution didn’t apply to the development of ethical behaviour within society, nor should they be a model for it.

However, he agreed with Spencer when he likened gardening to colonisation.

“The garden, or the colony, is a work of human art,” he wrote in the long essay Evolution and Ethics – Prolegomena.

“The process of colonisation presents analogies to the formation of a garden which are highly instructive. Suppose a shipload of English colonists sent to form a settlement, in such a country as Tasmania was in the middle of the last century. On landing, they find themselves in the midst of a state of nature, widely different from that left behind them in everything but the most general physical conditions.

“The common plants, the common birds and quadrupeds, are as totally distinct as the men from anything to be seen on the side of the globe from which they come. The colonists proceed to put an end to this state of things over as large an area as they desire to occupy. They clear away the native vegetation, extirpate or drive out the animal population, so far as may be necessary, and take measures to defend themselves from the re-immigration of either.”

The colonists are literally those who have made a garden out of a jungle.

“In their place, they introduce English grain and fruit trees; English dogs, sheep, cattle, horses; and English men; in fact, they set up a new Flora and Fauna and a new variety of mankind, within the old state of nature. Their farms and pastures represent a garden on a great scale, and themselves the gardeners who have to keep it up, in watchful antagonism to the old regime. Considered as a whole, the colony is a composite unit introduced into the old state of nature; and, thenceforward, a competitor in the struggle for existence, to conquer or be vanquished.”

Perhaps like those vanquished natives in British Columbia?

The image of the gardener is that of a genteel soul. In reality, the British or European colonists were anything but genteel. Was Borrell not aware of the racial and imperialist history of his gardening metaphor? Western civilisation has been among the most violent, destructive and savage in history. Many of those who came from countries and cultures that were once brutally subjugated and which are still under the thumb of rich Western countries are very much aware of this. Are they overly sensitive about Borrell’s speech? Perhaps, but no more than Jews who are sensitive about the public display of Nazi symbols.