Moon and the Nautilus Shell VBC II. The Ecosystem Idea and O’Neill’s Critique


As I read it, the key question in Botkin’s book is found on page xii on my Kindle..

“Whatever the scientist’s knowledge of the dynamic, changing properties of nature, the formal representations of these remove such considerations in most cases…whether or not environmental scientists know about geological time and evolutionary biology, their policies ignore them. It is strange, ironic and contradictory.”

My feeling is that the locus of these contradictions may lie in the competitive forces among scientific disciplines and ideas, competing for power and funding. When I was a graduate student at Yale, I shared an office with the Hubbard Brookians..they had a way of looking at the world measuring N P and K and applying systems thinking. But there were others around who simply observed or did experiments in manipulating organisms. At the time, these were all equally legitimate approaches to studying Nature- in our minds, if not those of the Big Funding Agencies, such as NSF. Since I had taken History of Science, I understood their (the BFA’s) peculiar attraction to the Mathematical and Abstract; and understood that the rest of us were little more than flower collectors in the hierarchy of Science. And that was OK with us, because our science was more of an interplay or conversation with Nature.. in population genetics we looked for mathematical equilibria but never found them. Ideas, measure, more ideas, more measurement, that was our conversation with Nature. We used math to explore ideas, but we did not have external ideas that we tested Nature against.

To clarify, I do use the term “ecosystem”; if we had talked about “prairies” in the past , the “prairie ecosystem” is handy because it denotes all the critters, plant, animal, insects, fungus, bacteria, viruses, water, soil- all of which we had studied before. We had studied them and their interactions with the environment, but at the time we might call ourselves “wildlife or fish biologists” “plant physiologists” “soil scientists” “entomologists” or “silviculturists”(applied vegetation ecologists). We even had a course at Yale called “genecology” but what else would creatures adapt to other than the environment? My point is that we were all studying things and their relation to the environment, which would make us all “ecologists,” I guess. Except that our language was not about equilibria, attractors, functions, etc. These are all abstractions that came from systems theory. It’s legitimate, I think to question how helpful these abstractions have been and continue to be.

But don’t believe me. Check out this 2001 piece.. Is It Time to Bury the Ecosystem Concept? (With full military honors, of course) by Robert V. O’Neill. The ideas he raised in 2001 are as current as the “ecosystem integrity” requirement in the 2012 Planning Rule.

The term ecosystem was coined by Tansley in 1935. But as Botkin (1990) points out, the underlying concept goes back at least to Marsh (1864). Nature was viewed as relatively constant in the face of change and repaired
itself when disrupted, returning to its previous balanced state. Clements (1905, 1916) and Elton (1930) offered plant and animal succession as basic processes that permitted relative constancy by repairing damage.
Forbes (1925) described the northern lake as a microcosm, a relatively closed, self-regulating system, an archetypic ecosystem.

Science emerged from the Second World War with a new paradigm, Systems Analysis (e.g., Bode 1945), which seemed uniquely suited for this ‘‘balance of nature’’ concept, and fit well with earlier work on the stability of interacting populations (Nicholson and Bailey 1935). Systems Analysis dealt with complex systems as interconnected components with feedback
loops (Hutchinson 1948) that stabilized the system at a relatively constant equilibrium point. Systems Analysis can be seen underlying E. P. Odum’s (1953) definition of the ecosystem as a ‘‘. . . natural unit that
includes living and nonliving parts interacting to pro duce a stable system in which the exchange of materials between the living and nonliving parts follows circular paths . . . .’’

The machine analogy, inherent in Systems Analysis, became a central paradigm for many ecologists (Odum 1971, Holling 1973, Waide and Webster 1976). The paradigm offered a practical approach to the enormous
complexity of natural systems (Teal 1962, Van Dyne 1969). The paradigm helped harness the power of the computer in ecosystem models (Olson 1963). The paradigm permitted a holistic view of system properties
such as nutrient cycling (Webster et al. 1974). The familiarity of the machine analogy facilitated the communication of ecological concepts to the public.
If the ecosystem concept has held such a central place in ecology and been so productive of new ideas, why call it into question? The simple fact is that the ecosystem is not an a posteriori, empirical observation
about nature. The ecosystem concept is a paradigm (sensu Kuhn 1962), an a priori intellectual structure, a specific way of looking at nature. The paradigm emphasizes and focuses on some properties of nature, while ignoring and de-emphasizing others. After a half century of application, the paradigm is showing some rust. Limitations in the concept are becoming more apparent and leading to a vigorous backlash toward ecosystem concepts in particular, and ecology in general.

One more story. When I was working for the FS in R&D we did a review of one of the Research Stations. One of the administrators there was a big aficionado of systems thinking. One of the scientists had done this fascinating study (to me) of how fish move around in streams and discovered something very useful that hadn’t been known before. I thought it was great work. This administrator, though, felt that “organismal biology is passe, it’s all about systems, now.” In arguing that this scientist should be better appreciated, I stated “you can’t understand systems without understanding their components” to which he replied “oh, yes you can.. it’s about flows among boxes and you don’t need to understand what’s in them.”

So you may say “this guy was off the wall, and not in the mainstream.” Well, that could be true. Still the reason I’m telling the story is that to point out that people can cross the line from systems being 1) one way of conceiving of how nature works, to 2) the best way of conceiving how nature works, to 3) how nature works. And somewhere along that line, the empiricism that “science” claims as its basis for legitimacy gets left behind.

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