Botkin Introduction: O’Neill’s Critique of the Ecosystem Idea

Dr. O'Neill

Dr. O’Neill

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 mind, 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.

I do think the term “ecosystem” can be helpful; 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 Robrt 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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10 Responses to Botkin Introduction: O’Neill’s Critique of the Ecosystem Idea

  1. Gil DeHuff says:

    I think that this is a perfect example of esoteric confusion perpetrated by scientists for whatever reason.

    Who said that an ecosystem had to come back to some point of normality? Who can define that normality? The dynamics of nature dictate that ecosystems are temporal. The geological records show that.

    Ecosystem is a useful label to me although I know Bob doesn’t agree. To me it implies more than just “forest” or “prairie”. It makes me think of more than just the trees or the grass respectively. It takes me into an association of physical and biological entities dominated by a few keystone species which dictate the environment for the other components more than the other way around. An ecosystem exists in a place at a single point in time where I am some insanely mad scientist trying to define all of the components and understand all of their interactions.

  2. This is probably my qualitative, social-science research background talking, but I’m highly suspect of any attempt to reduce any natural system to a simplistic series of numbers. Qualitative metrics are perhaps “squishy” and “non-comparable,” but they have the benefit of including the incalculable.

  3. Sharon says:

    And if my experience with real plants leads me to that conclusion, then the mystery is how it happened that the systems ecologists’ worldview became privileged (as they say) compared to other scientists’ worldviews. Botkin seems to be saying that this happened due to a coincidence between deeper and unscientific thoughts with that that are in balance and can be dislodged from balance. If I am reading him correctly. Did you or others get that impression?

  4. Guy Knudsen says:

    Gil said: “Who said that an ecosystem had to come back to some point of normality? Who can define that normality? The dynamics of nature dictate that ecosystems are temporal. The geological records show that…” and, “Ecosystem is a useful label to me…”

    That’s pretty much how I see it too, as a useful label. Gil again: “It takes me into an association of physical and biological entities dominated by a few keystone species..” Yep, that’s a concept of ecosystem that I find useful, no need to bog it down with too many rules (stability, normality etc.) Ecosystem stability to me is like the stability of the guy balancing on his bike pedals at a stoplight, it looks good at one moment in time but long-term it’s the exception rather than the rule.

    • Bob Zybach says:

      Gil and Guy: I’m in agreement with this — a useful label. Botkin makes a nice description of stability with his analogy of the person on the train having a drink and building a house of cards. Both are stable until the train hits a bump or the breaks — the cards collapse, and the drink sloshes around until it stabilizes again.

  5. Sharon says:

    This comment is from Dan after reviewing this discussion:

    “Here is something that I have written elsewhere, but I see from this discussion should have been said in The Moon in the Nautilus Shell.

    Sustained life requires that organic compounds are produced by living things, then use, and then completely decomposed back to their original inorganic form. No single species can do both all the production and all the decomposition. At a minimum sustained life therefore requires at least one producer and one decomposer, connected by a fluid medium, through which materials are exchanged. Life is therefore sustained by a system, and this is the definition of an ecosystem.

    For biochemical reasons, no single individual can both produce all the organic compounds it requires and decompose all these. The two kinds of processes have to take place in quite different chemical “environments.”

    Bob O’Neill’s criticism of the systems analysis equating ecosystems with steady-state system is a valid criticism of some of the early attempts to apply formal systems analysis to ecology. But the main theme of my book is that the balance of nature idea is ancient, and not merely the product of late 20th century systems analysis.

    Bob O’Neill, by the way, has always been a good friend and colleague, and one of the most imaginative and willing to think differently among ecologists. That I differ in my conclusions about the history and meaning of ecosystems from him is simply healthy scientific discussion.”

  6. Sharon says:

    Hmm. I know the ideas are old, but in my history the some of the science community seems to have adopted stability as implicit since I went to school.

    For example, the shelterwood study I reviewed, that I mentioned elsewhere on the blog.

    The gene frequencies changed from the old trees to the seedlings (as they usually do). When I went to school we would have said that this might be due to :
    1) genetic drift 2) differential female and/or male gamete production among parents 3) seed or pollen drifting from outside the stand, 4) selection pressure among pollen, ovules, seedlings and maybe a few stochastic factors thrown in.

    The paper I reviewed said something along the lines of “if it changed it’s the negative consequence of timber practices, therefore you shouldn’t cut trees.” As if the gene frequencies before was by definition “good” and what was now is by definition “bad.”

    Having this idea presents a serious conceptual difficulty when you are discussing evolution.

    When Leopold said “a rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the pieces” geneticists might have wondered how that applied to genes. Certainly all the pieces are not kept by Mother Nature. Of course, Mother Nature is not tinkering. But we can’t keep them all either.

    So it seems to me that somehow the ancient ideas bled into academic science sometime in the last 40 years, and have been difficult to displace despite Discordant Harmonies. So I think we need to try to pull apart how the scientific and the ancient ideas became entwined to figure out how they perhaps might be separated.

  7. gildehuff says:


    You are hitting on a logical inconsistency that drives me batty. Almost everyone agrees with the concept of evolution on a geological time scale but even the most adamant believers don’t want it to apply to the here and now. At least not in anyplace that impacts them.

    How they rationalize the inconsistency could partially be the result of mankind’s dislike of change. When a “scientist” has a cute cuddly NSO for a pet for thirty years, he can become irrational and want them preserved forever, no matter how many jobs it costs, no matter that he has nothing to prove that it isn’t the natural process of evolution, no matter when 25 years latter it is seen to be the process of evolution. Same thing for the vacationer and hunter who have found their perfect little spot and don’t want to look for another because it won’t be the same. If it is changed they will mourn their loss and cuss those %*$#! people who destroyed their life.

    So selfishness is a large part of it and that lends itself to any “scientist” who wants to play to the crowd that wants to keep things stable/static.

    Then there is the arrogance of the young and their need to invent a new way that arises from their disgust with the failure of their elders to solve all of these simple problems.

  8. Bob Zybach says:

    Hi Gil: I’ve enjoyed reading your posts on the New Century blog and got to know quite a bit about your background and perspective in that manner. I think there is much in Botkin’s book — particularly in the areas of religion and mythology — that I would like to hear your opinions concerning their validity. Would you be willing to provide a brief summary of your own history in the “Introduction” section of this blog, as Sharon, Travis and I have done, before we move onto Chapter 2? Here’s the link:

  9. Pingback: Feedback on the Forest Garden – theculturalwilderness

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