Gaia: some implications for theoretical ecology

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Gaia: some implications for theoretical ecology

by Edward Goldsmith · October 1, 1987


If we accept the Gaia Hypothesis, then modern reductionist and mechanistic ecology, as taught in our universities, can no longer be defended. However, rather than simply returning to the ‘holistic’ ecology of Clements and Shelford, a more sophisticated ecology must be developed to take account of the work of such holistic thinkers as C. H. Waddington, Paul Weiss, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy and others.


This paper was presented at the Wadebridge Ecological Centre’s First Annual Conference on the Implications of the Gaia Hypothesis, which took place at Camelford, Cornwall in October 1987. It was published in The Ecologist Vol. 18 No. 2–3, April–May 1988.


Ecology, as an academic discipline, was developed towards the end of the last century. It came into being largely when a few biologists came to realise that the biological organisms and populations which they studied were not arranged at random but were, on the contrary, organised to form ‘communities’ or ‘associations’ whose structure and function could not be understood by examining their parts in isolation from each other. Both Frederick Clements and Victor Shelford, two of the most distinguished of the early ecologists in the USA, defined ecology as the “science of communities”. [1]


In the 1930s the Oxford ecologist Arthur Tansley coined the term ‘ecosystem’ [2] which he defined as a community taken together with its abiotic environment, much as Jim Lovelock sees ‘Gaia’ as the biosphere taken together with its abiotic environment. It is probable that if Clements or Shelford were alive today they would see ecology as the ‘science of ecosystems’.


Eugene Odum, one of the most prestigious ecologists alive today (and also one of the few remaining ‘holistic’ ecologists) defines ecology as “the structure and function of nature”. [3] Since he is one of the few modem ecologists to have taken the Gaia thesis seriously, I recently asked him if he would agree to seeing ecology defined as “the structure and function of Gaia” [4] – the overall ecosystem into which nature is organized. He fully agreed that this was a very acceptable definition.


Ecology, seen in this light, would be indistinguishable from Jim Lovelock’s ‘geophysiology’. It would of necessity be inter-disciplinary. This was clear to the early ecologist who saw ecology as an all embracing super-science. Barrington Moore, for instance, the first President of the American Ecological Society, saw ecology as “the science of synthesis”, and as being “superimposed on the other sciences”. As he asked his colleagues, in his address to the St. Louis branch of the society in 1919,


    “Will we be content to remain zoologists, botanists, and foresters, with little understanding of one another’s problems, or will we endeavour to become ecologists in the broad sense of the term? The part we play in science depends upon our reply. Gentlemen, the future is in our hands.” [5]


Ideally, of course, ecology taken in that holistic sense of the term, would be non-disciplinary, rather than inter-disciplinary, since the disciplines into which knowledge has been divided have developed in such total isolation that they are difficult to reconcile with each other, still more difficult to merge into an ecological superscience.


What is certain is that ecology, if it is really to explain the structure and function of Gaia, should take into account a whole body of material that was not available to the early ecologists and that has been ignored by modern ones. This would include the Gaia thesis itself; the work of Lynn Margulis on symbiosis, which even the latest ecological literature on cooperation or mutualism in ecology does not mention; and the equally relevant and highly holistic writings of A. N. Whitehead, C. H. Waddington, J. H. Woodger and other members of the Theoretical Biology Club that flourished in the 1940s.


J. H. Woodger, for instance, clearly saw that nature was one. He saw, too, that its functioning could not be understood in terms of a set of separate compartmentalised disciplines, and clearly stated that what was needed was


    “a most general science, not immersed in a particular subject matter, but dealing with the relationship between various special sciences and trying to synthesize their most general results.” [6]


The similarity between this view and that expressed by Barrington Moore is very striking. Indeed Woodger’s Biological Principles, now totally overlooked by ecologists, is an important ecological work which we cannot afford to ignore. The writings of other holistic thinkers such as the Cambridge ethologist W. H. Thorpe, the Swiss psychologist and biologist Jean Piaget and the US cytologist and embryologist Paul Weiss, are also of the greatest ecological value.


Equally relevant is the general systems theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy of which a variant was developed independently at about the same tune by Ross Ashby. General systems, which must not be confounded with systems ecology, an essentially mechanistic and reductionistic discipline, provides an indispensable tool for the development of a unified science – what one might call “real ecology” – but is equally ignored by modem ecologists. I shall refer to this again later.

The perversion of ecology


However, real ecology is not the order of the day. If modern ecologists take no account of Jim Lovelock’s Gaia thesis, of Lynn Margulis’ work on symbiosis, or the writings of Whitehead, Woodger, Waddington, Piaget or of Von Bertalanffy’s general systems theory, it is because ecology is no longer a “science of communities” nor a “science of ecosystems”, let alone a science concerned with “the structure and function of Gaia”.


As Donald Worster shows in his most illuminating book Nature’s Economy, [7] Odum is today on his own. Worster documents the extraordinary transformation that ecology has undergone in the last 40 years to make it conform more closely to the paradigm of reductionistic and mechanistic science – and thus to conform with the paradigm of modernism, which serves to rationalise, and hence legitimise, our aberrant and necessarily short-lived modem industrial society. Significantly, a closely parallel transformation has taken place in comparative psychology, genetics, evolutionary theory, anthropology and sociology.


Other students of the history of ecological ideas have also noted this transformation. Daniel Simberloff, for instance, tells us:


    “Ecology has undergone, about half a century later than genetics and evolution, a transformation so strikingly similar in both outline and detail that one can scarcely doubt its debt to the same materialistic and probabilistic revolution. An initial emphasis on a similarity of isolated communities replaced by concern about their differences: the examination of groups of populations largely superseded by the study of individual populations; belief in deterministic succession shifting with the widespread introduction of statistics into ecology, to realization that temporal community development is probabilistic: and a continuing struggle to focus on material, observable entities rather than ideal constructs”. [8]


As a result of this transformation, virtually all the established principles of the old ecology have been abandoned. Thus the whole is no longer seen as being more than the sum of its parts and is therefore studied by examining the parts themselves in isolation from each other: competition has replaced co-operation as the ordering principle in nature: diversity no longer favours stability: ecological succession no longer leads to a stable climax: and the mere mention of the term ‘Balance of Nature’ elicits from our academic ecologists a condescending smirk, if not a belly laugh.


Ecology has in fact been perverted-perverted in the interests of making it acceptable to the scientific establishment and to the politicians and industrialists who sponsor it. In a way, this is understandable. Were it otherwise, as Worster admits, “ecologists might have disappeared as an independent class of researchers and would not occupy today such an influential position among the sciences.”


That said, however, it is by no means clear that ecologists do in fact exert such influence. Indeed, it is unlikely that those ecologists who view the biosphere in purely reductionistic and mechanistic terms can understand the implications of the devastation being wrought by the modern industrial system, and hence that they can understand what action is required to bring this devastation to an end. This partly at least explains the negligible role played in Britain by the British Ecological Society in awakening scientists, politicians and the general public to the present world ecological crisis which threatens the very survival of man on this planet.


The answer to the question, ‘What are the implications of the Gaia thesis for ecology?”, must thereby depend on which ecology we refer to. Clearly the Gaia thesis cannot in any way be reconciled with the ecology that is taught in our universities today. If the thesis were to be accepted, and today’s academic ecologists were to face its implications, then conventional ecology would have to be transformed into a more sophisticated version of the old ecology of Clements, Shelford and Barrington Moore, which today’s ecologists have been at pains, over the last fifty years, to discredit.


For that reason, I agree with Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan that “the Gaia hypothesis . . . is likely to provide the foundations for a new ecology.” [9]

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The pioneer and the climax world views


The reductionist and mechanistic ecology of today and the holistic ecology that the Gaia thesis will help us create, reflect two diametrically opposed world views. For the purposes of this paper, I shall refer to the former as the ‘pioneer world-view’ and to the latter as the ‘climax world-view’. Let me explain why.


A pioneer ecosystem, that is to say an ecosystem in the earliest stages of development, or one that has been ravaged by some discontinuity, such as a volcanic eruption or an industrial development scheme, displays a whole constellation of closely related features. In a sense, such an ecosystem is the least ‘living’ of ecosystems or, more precisely, the one in which the basic features of living things are least apparent, for the obvious reason that they have not yet had time to develop.


Such an ecosystem is among other things highly productive, which of course endears it to our modern production-orientated society which can cream off the apparently surplus biomass, process it, and put it up for sale on the international market. The reason why it is so highly productive, of course, is because as soon as it is brought into being, so the healing processes of nature are brought into operation, and the ecosystem changes rapidly via the different stages of ecological succession, until it achieves that state which resembles, as closely as possible, the original climax.


The climax or adult ecosystem, on the other hand, is very unproductive. This must be so both because the climax is the most stable state possible in the local biotic, abiotic and climatic circumstances, and because the achievement of such a stable state appears to be the basic goal of living things. Once achieved, change is kept to a minimum.


The pioneer stage has other essential features that are all closely associated with each other, so much so that to display one of those features means displaying the others too. For instance, there is little diversity and little organisation in such an ecosystem, and, as a result, its constituent parts appear to be arranged in a disorderly or random manner.


This being so pioneering ecosystems appear individualistic and their behaviour seems to be explicable by studying them reductionistically on their own. They are also competitive since they are subject neither to the constraints which might be applied on them by the larger whole, of which they are part, nor to self-imposed internal constraints. Instead, only external constraints (competition, predation, ‘management’ etc) operate.


Such controls are crude and inefficient; as a result, the life of these ecosystems is punctuated by large and often unpredictable discontinuities which they cannot accommodate without undergoing serious structural changes (population collapses, for instance). In other words they are highly unstable.


Randomness, individualism, competition, crude external controls and instability are indeed the inevitable features of a pioneer ecosystem; they are the features too of a world in which the basic features of living things are still embryonic. They are also the features of the degraded society of which we are part and of the degraded environment in which we live today, both states being the inevitable result of the process of industrial development which we are misguidedly taught to identify with ‘progress’. They are, in fact, the features of what Eugene Odum refers to as a “disclimax”. [10]


The features of a climax ecosystem, on the other hand, are totally different, indeed diametrically opposed. A climax ecosystem is orderly and its behaviour goal-directed or teleological. Individuals are integrated into larger wholes at different levels of organisation – the family, the small community and the larger society, levels which themselves are part of the hierarchy of the biosphere. For such wholes or systems to exist implies that their parts co-operate with each other.


They also possess highly sophisticated internal control mechanisms which enable them to reduce environmental discontinuities, either by bringing about the appropriate changes to their environment (changes, which among other things, must serve to insulate them from the rigours of their external environment) or, alternatively, by increasing their ability to deal with such discontinuities.


Both such strategies serve to assure the preservation of their basic structure in the face of change and hence, correspondingly, to increase their stability. Such systems are thereby homeostatic, and their fate is no longer dependent on the crude interplay of external forces.


Order, teleology, wholeness, co-operation, stability, and internalised control are the inevitable features of a climax ecosystem, as they are of all complex living things. They are also the features of a climax society – that is, a society culturally designed to flourish as part of a climax ecosystem. The only society that fits this description is a tribal society.


If Jim Lovelock’s Gaia thesis has caused a major stir in scientific circles, it is largely because it implies a major shift from the pioneer world-view to the climax world-view. In this paper, I would like to show just how it has affected some of the main features of the former world-view as it is reflected in modern ecology. I would also like to carry the argument a stage further to see how the Gaia thesis itself would be affected by what ecology should be – a ‘Gaian ecology’, we might call it – one that takes the climax rather than the pioneer state to be the norm.

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Science is still reductionistic or analytical. Underlying it is the metaphysical assumption that the smaller the particles the more concrete and real they must be. W. H. Thorpe defines reductionism as:


    “the attribution of reality exclusively to the smallest constituents of the world and the tendency to interpret higher levels of organisation in terms of lower levels.” [11]


Atoms are considered particularly real today; however, with the great vogue enjoyed by molecular biology, molecules have also acquired ‘realness’. Francis Crick still insists, for instance, that they are the only reality. In saying this, he and other reductionists are committing what Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness”, that of abstracting a part and ascribing to it the sort of reality that belongs to the whole. [12]


Science also assumes that for knowledge to be ‘exact’ and ‘mature’, it must be formulated in quantitative terms. This can be done where the subject matter is physics, hence the tendency to seek to understand biology, ecology and even sociology in physical terms. However, as Pantin notes, physics has been able “to become exact and mature just because so much of the whole of natural phenomena is excluded from this study”. [13]


The physicist, by reason of his training, cannot avoid leaving out “so much of the whole of natural phenomena”, but then, as Paul Weiss argues, “there is no reason for us to downgrade nature to meet his inadequacy.” [14]


One of the failings of the reductionist world view, is that it sees the world as dead, machine-like, passive and crude. Indeed, as Von Bertalanffy notes, it makes no differentiation “between physical and chemical processes taking place in a living organism and those in a corpse; both follow the same laws of physics and chemistry”. [15] He goes on to note: “Concepts like those of organisation, wholeness, directiveness, teleology, control, self-regulation, differentiation and the like, are alien to conventional physics”. Yet they are “indispensable for dealing with living organisms or social groups”.


The Gaia thesis is holistic – holistic in the extreme. Jim Lovelock notes how “most of us were taught that the composition of our planet could adequately be described by the laws of physics and chemistry”. [16] He refers to this as “a good solid Victorian view”, but it is wrong. Gaia can only be understood in terms of the structure and function of living things. This is one of the most important messages of the Gaia thesis. Lovelock’s argument is still more holistic when he tells us:


    “The entire range of living matter on earth, from whales to viruses and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts.” [17]


This clearly means that the behaviour of Gaia cannot be understood by examining its parts in isolation from each other, which must follow if Gaia is an organisation and therefore more than the sum of its parts. Lovelock even compares Gaia to a biological organism, in that, like an organism, it is a cybernetic system geared to the maintenance of its stability or homeostasis. This thesis would have been acceptable to the early ecologists who regarded an ecological community as very similar to an organism.


Thus A. S. Forbes stated in 1896 that “a group or association of animals is like an organism”. [18] C. C. Adams, in the first American book on animal ecology, published in 1913, insisted that:


    “the interactions among the members of an association are to be compared to the similar relations existing between the different cells, organs or activities of a single individual.” [19]


Thienemann went further. He saw the living things that made up a lake community, for instance, as “a unity so closed in itself that it must be called an organism of the highest order”. [20]


Frederick Clements in his book, Plant Succession, published in 1916, tells us that:


    “The unit of vegetation, the climax formation is an organic entity. As an organism, the formation arises, grows, matures and dies. Its response to the habitat is shown in processes or functions and in structures which are the record as well as the result of these functions.” [21]


In fact, this view of the ecological community as a ‘supra-organism’ became so well established that Simberloff refers to it as “Ecology’s first paradigm”. [22]


As Bodenheimer noted at the time, the highly integrated supra-organismic concept of the community was stressed in nearly every textbook of ecology and “backed by established authority”. Indeed, it was generally regarded “if not as a fact, then at least as a scientific hypothesis not less firmly founded than the theory of transformation” – that is, of evolution. He went on: “It is, above all, the concept that distinguishes ecology from biology proper”. [23]


With the transformation of ecology, which I have already referred to, this view was slowly abandoned in favour of one that better conformed to the reductionist paradigm of science and, hence, with the paradigm of modernism which it serves to rationalise. The resulting reductionistic approach to ecology -which sounds like a contradiction in terms – is normally traced to the writings of H. A. Gleason, whose famous article “The Individualistic Concept of the Plant Association”, was first published in 1926 and presented and discussed at the International Botanical Congress that year.


Significantly, Gleason used the usual reductionist argument I have described above. He regarded the association or community as an abstract entity that only existed in the eyes of the beholder, for only the individual was real. The same argument, one might add, is still used by neo-Darwinists today to justify their preoccupation with selection at the level of the individual, and their refusal to see evolution as a process occurring at the level of the ‘unreal’ ecosystem, let alone of a still more ‘unreal’ Gaia.


Initially, Gleason’s thesis was very badly received. In the words of McIntosh, a noted historian of ecological thought, Gleason was “anathema to ecologists”. [24] Gleason himself admitted that for ten years after the publication of his article, he was “an ecological outlaw”. [25] His thesis simply did not fit in with the ecological paradigm of the times. However, as the latter was transformed so as to make it conform with the paradigm of science, so Gleason’s ideas became increasingly acceptable.