He was born the son of an architect in Kew, Surrey and educated at St Pauls School, Hammersmith. He read Botany at Jesus College, Cambridge and in 1947 moved to the University College of Wales, first as a research student in Aberystwyth and then as a lecturer in the Department of Agricultural Botany at Bangor. There he worked on the adaptation of plants to heavy metal pollution, demonstrating the ability of natural selection to bring about rapid evolutionary changes in natural grasses, even in very localised situations.
In 1958 he accepted the Chair of Botany at the University of Liverpool where he pioneered novel ideas of restoration ecology to help recover polluted sites without the need to cover them in imported topsoil. His work on the revegetation of china clay tips in Cornwall formed the basis of the techniques behind the Eden Project.
In 1982 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was President of the British Ecological Society for 1982–83 and the Inaugural President of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management in 1991–94. In 1991 he delivered the Croonian Lecture to the Royal Society on Genostasis and the limits to Evolution.
He married Betty Alliston and had 3 daughters.