Alan Roberts (1925-2017), physicist, theoretical ecologist, writer and activist on environmental politics and the need for the self-management of society

Obituary

Alan Roberts, a physicist who also wrote about environmental politics and the need for the self-management of society (Roberts 1979), was the advisor of my undergraduate thesis in ecological modeling at Monash University in Australia and someone who stimulated my interest in understanding science in its social context.

 These two strands came together when I left Australia in the late 1970s with the idea of studying informally with biologists whose work on complexity in ecology, evolution, and development interested me politically as well as intellectually. I had learned that two biologists in the United States whose theoretical work I already knew and valued, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, saw their scientific work as a political project (Taylor 2010). I sought an opportunity to study with them. This journey would draw me away from environmental activism in Australia, but this leave—which has extended longer than I could have imagined—would provide space to focus on questions around conceptualizing life’s complex ecological context and to take up questions of conceptualizing science’s complex social context.

From Roberts and others I had begun to learn that through the course of history all kinds of social lessons had been read from nature (Williams 1980). It would be better to argue directly for, say, cooperative, decentralized social relations than to put forward some account of ecological complexity to justify them. Nevertheless, I could still envisage research on complexity challenging the simple scientific themes, including ones that were often invoked in support of social inequalities and exploitation of nature (Science for the People 1977).

Consider the modeling work in the 1970s by Robert May, another Australian physicist turned theoretical ecologist, showing that stable systems are extremely rare as a fraction of the complex ecological systems being sampled. The conventional wisdom arose, which persists to this day, is that complexity begets instability.  May (1973, 174) concluded that there must be “devious strategies [to] make for stability in enduring natural systems” (May 1973, 174). Roberts (1974) showed, however that, complex systems can be readily constructed over time by the addition of populations from a pool of populations or by elimination of populations from systems not at a steady state (Taylor 2005, chapter 1). The implications of such a constructionist perspective could challenge not only ecologists, but also theorists in all fields that make use of models without a process of construction over time of the complexity of the situation studied. A puzzle is why the constructionist view seems difficult for theorists to take up (Taylor 2018).

(Adapted from Taylor 2005)

References

May, R. M. (1973). Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Roberts, A. P. (1974). “The stability of a feasible random ecosystem.” Nature 251: 607-608.

Roberts, A. (1979). The Self-Managing Environment. London, Allison & Busby.

Science_for_the_People, Ed. (1977). Biology as a Social Weapon. Minneapolis, Burgess.

Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, P. J. (2010). “Biology as Politics: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Lewontin and Levins (An essay review of Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health).” Science as Culture 19(2): 241-253.

“From Complexity to Construction to Intersecting Processes: Puzzles for theoretical and social inquiry,” Ecological Complexity, in press, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecocom.2017.06.006.

Williams, R. (1980). Ideas of Nature. Problems in materialism and culture. London, Verso: 67-85.

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One thought on “Alan Roberts (1925-2017), physicist, theoretical ecologist, writer and activist on environmental politics and the need for the self-management of society

  1. Peter J. Taylor Post author

    Another version, composed for a memorial service on Feb. 3:
    Alan Roberts

    Alan was the advisor of my undergraduate thesis in ecological modeling in the mid-1970s. At the same time he stimulated my interest in understanding science in its social context. These two strands came together in the early 1980s when I took a break from environmental activism to travel and study abroad with biologists whose work on complexity in ecology, evolution, and development interested me politically as well as intellectually. Others will undoubtedly speak of Alan’s long career examining science in its complex social context, so let me mention what I see as his contribution to conceptualizing life’s complex ecological context.

    In the early 1970s another Australian physicist turned theoretical ecologist, Robert May, showed that stable systems are extremely rare as a fraction of the complex ecological systems being sampled. The conventional wisdom arose, which persists to this day, that there must, in May’s words, be “devious strategies [to] make for stability in enduring natural systems.” Alan, however, decided to look at how readily complex systems could be constructed over time by the addition of populations from a pool of populations or by elimination of populations from systems not at a steady state. The answer was, quite easily—ecological complexity does not require May’s hypothesized devious strategies. (Nor does it depend on the engineer’s approach of linking stable modules.) The conventional wisdom is, in short, ill founded. That it persists to this day is a puzzle about science in its social context worth investigating. I would also add that Alan’s line of inquiry poses an ongoing challenge to theorists in all fields—not only in ecology—who theorize about complexity without a process of construction over time of the situations they study.

    Alan and others led me to see that through the course of history all kinds of social lessons had been read from nature. But might we not see in Alan’s underappreciated contribution to theoretical ecology some affirmation of Marx’s lesson that people “make their own history”, but they do so “under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”?

    Peter Taylor
    Professor of Science in a Changing World
    University of Massachusetts Boston

    Reply

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