Archetypes: Peter Raven
A conversation with Peter Raven, member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, where, during his tenure as director, he brought the location to prominence as an important center for biodiversity. In addition to the Shanghai-born scientist’s lifetime appointment to the pope’s advisory board—a group that includes Nobel Prize winners—Raven is also a longtime member of the National Academy of Sciences in the US (where he served as Home Secretary), Brazil, Denmark, Sweden and many other countries. He has also been a member of President Clinton’s science and technology advisory committee, a MacArthur Fellow, a National Medal of Science recipient, an International Prize for Biology Winner, a trustee of the National Geographic Society and a TIME Magazine “Hero for the Planet” (and this isn’t even half his CV). In his work for the Pontifical Academy, he advises Pope Francis on topics such as GMO foods, biological evolution and climate change.
What is your current frame of mind? Positive, because I depend on people to do good things.
When and where are you happiest? Looking at plants in the field.
What is your favorite smell? Mint.
What is one word that describes you? Talkative.
What did you eat for breakfast today? Cold cereal.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “Very.”
What is your most marked characteristic? Positivity.
What is your greatest weakness? I’m too enthusiastic.
What trait do you most admire in others? Follow-through.
What or who is the greatest love of your life? My wife.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I’d be thinner.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Building up the Missouri Botanical Garden over 39 years.
Which living person do you most admire? The pope.
Which historical figure do you most identify with? It’s too egotistical, but in a way with Abraham Lincoln because of his way of dealing with things point to point.
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, who or what would it would be? A woman studying archaeology. What is your most treasured possession? I’m not big on possessions.
What is your greatest extravagance? Art.
What is your greatest fear? Making one huge mistake and being shown up for it.
Who are your favorite writers? Wallace Stegner, John Steinbeck and C.P. Snow. Which artists do you admire most? Many. Practically all Impressionists. John Cleveland for his landscapes.
What is your favorite hobby? Looking at plants, which started around age 8.
Where would you like to live? I like living here; I’ve been here since 1971.
If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be? Robert. E. Lee. He’s an incredibly interesting person—he continued to win battles even after the war. It’d be neat to know more about him. In the same vein, Thomas More. Why would he not swear allegiance to Henry VIII?
What’s something interesting you just learned? There are so many things boiling in my mind. I love the fact that the pope jumped out of a car in Cuba and kissed someone. That’s a biblical thing, but I learn little things nonstop.
‘Archetypes’ are off-the-cuff interviews with St. Louis’ most inspiring, well-known personalities based on the 19th century Parisian parlor game known as the Proust Questionnaire.
This story was featured in the December 2015 issue.