Herbert Simon hardly killed off the idea of a balance of nature

ONCE upon a time, ecologists talked of the “balance of nature”. It seemed that any small fluctuation in an ecological system was always balanced out by some other change, maintaining equilibrium even in complex situations. Though a seductive idea, it was finally killed off in the 1960s by the American social scientist Herbert Simon, who studied complex systems and concluded that it is in fact the simplest that tend to survive. (New Scientist editorial, p.3, 13 August 2011)

Herbert Simon hardly killed off the idea of a balance of nature.   In practice, the idea continues to be invoked widely, whether in the form that nature’s complex ecosystems are fragile and so need to be treated carefully or are models for how complex productive systems can run and so need to be conserved.  In theory, all Simon showed was that an engineer has a better chance of building a stable complex system if it is simple in the sense of being made up of weakly interconnected modules.  His theoretical result is not, however, relevant to ecology where systems are not engineered, but develop over time through in-migration and turnover of the species making up the system.  Indeed, by mimicking such successional processes, it is quite easy to build stable mathematical models that have much richer interactions than Simon’s modular system (see Chapter 1 of P. J. Taylor, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).


3 thoughts on “Herbert Simon hardly killed off the idea of a balance of nature

  1. Pingback: Herbert Simon hardly killed off the idea of a balance of nature (via Intersecting Processes) « English Language Teaching/Learning (EFL)

  2. systemist

    The idea of balance in nature is also killed off by chaos theory. More commonly referred to as the ‘butterfly effect’ it claims that small fluctuation in a systems may produce random or chaotic behaviour in the system. In social systems such as businesses it is evident as ‘the bullwhip effect’ where a small fluctuation in demand upsets inventories throughout the supply chain.

  3. P.F. Henshaw

    Peter, Stan Salthe passed me your links, and I notice some common concerns, like the differences between models and ecologies, and the construction nature of development. On this “balance of nature” topic I think one of source of confusion comes from people not identifying what system they are referring to and its system boundaries.

    To be a system I think the parts need to be responsive to each other, and relieve each other’s stresses, typically by sharing surpluses of common resources through their mediums of exchange. So internally a system becomes homeostatic enough to constitute a system. That won’t apply to stresses in the environment, except as there is some other kind of stress equalization mechanism. So I find that without identifying a system with the natural boundary of its cooperating parts, it’s hard to know what is being talked about. It may be just statistics without a subject.


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