When not in church, Gilbert White spent his time outdoors, marvelling at the world. The Natural History of Selborne, published in 1789 at the end of his life, hasn’t been out of print since. It records White’s gentle, perceptive insights into nature – he realised the importance of the earthworm to soil before Darwin, for one – and describes an England unspoiled by the Industrial Revolution. It’s a foundational text of English naturalist writing and boasts a long list of admirers, including Richard Mabey and Robert MacFarlane.
But reading it recently, one passage struck me as incorrect: ‘most men are sportsmen by constitution: and there is such an inherent spirit for hunting in human nature, as scarce any inhibitions can restrain.’ While he might be first rate on the matter of birds and worms, on this evidence with regards humans, White surely mistook his own era for the whole of human history. Haven’t we changed since then? And aren’t the campaigners right? Humans don’t have an innate desire to hunt.
Fox hunting, the last widely popular pursuit sport, was outlawed in 2005. Conservative efforts to repeal the Act were always a manifesto commitment, but either the party didn’t clear the electoral hurdle, or, once it did, let the issue fizzle. But Theresa May then decided to keep the commitment in her 2017 manifesto, and it went off like a firecracker. After the disastrous social care U-turn, fox hunting was the second-most talked about election issue. It became shorthand for Tory cruelty.
This is where we are now. Far away from Gilbert White’s confident proclamation. But what if he was right? What if humans do still like to hunt – but we have we moved the activity from the terrestrial plane to a digital one?
I thought of White again this week as Mary Beard was hounded online. She had written ‘I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone,’ when talking about Oxfam’s scandal in Haiti. The vicious tweets and blogs started pouring in and soon Beard was on the run. Earlier this year, Toby Young was hunted too. In 2014, Emily Thornberry became the fox, after she posted that picture of an England supporter’s home.
Whether Beard, Young or Thornberry were right or wrong is immaterial. They were hunted. Instead of horseback riders, we now have accounts with thousands of followers; instead of trumpets, we have ad-hominem blogs. For the hounds, we have the followers, ready to leap with righteous anger on any scent that’s wafted their way. The aim is the same: to tear the fox – or the person – apart. The foxes might be good or bad, but for the hunt, this is irrelevant. The hunt does not bother with the inner motives, or thoughts, of their quarry. So Gilbert White was right and the anti-fox hunters are wrong. Humans love to hunt – but nowadays, we do it online.