Tag Archives: ecology

Glossary for Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement

Just as it is said that the index of a book is the last chance for the author to shape how the book is read, a glossary can convey the sensibility of a book.  Below is the glossary for Taylor, Peter J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement.  The place in the book where the terms are introduced or elaborated on is given in parentheses.  Items in italics are described elsewhere in the glossary. Continue reading

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Philosophy of ecology

Abstract of updated article to appear in Encyclopedia of the Life Sciences,

Although philosophy of ecology was slow to become established as an area of formal philosophical interest, there is a rich history of developing and debating conceptual frameworks in ecological and environmental science. A key challenge in conceptualising ecological complexity is to allow simultaneously for particularity, contingency and structure – structure, moreover, that changes, is internally differentiated, and has problematic boundaries. In contrast to ambitions of earlier decades for identifying general principles about systems and communities, ecologists now widely assert historical contingency, nonequilibrium formulations, local context and individual detail. Given that all organisms – humans included – live in dynamic ecological contexts, philosophy of ecology raises more general questions about conceptualising the positionality of humans and other organisms in the dynamic flux of their intersecting worlds.

On ecological philosophy

Introduction to a forthcoming entry in the Oxford Bibliographies in Ecology:

Ecological philosophy does not have a single meaning. To some social thinkers it signifies a worldview that invokes ecology in promoting environmental protection; to others ecology is invoked in relation to a wider realm of social action; to philosophers of science, ecological philosophy may seem to be a synonym for the part of their academic field that focuses on ecology. For this entry in a bibliography in ecology, however, the term is taken to refer to conceptual frameworks in ecological and environmental science (hereon: ecology), and as such combines theorizing in ecology with some contributions from philosophy of ecology. Concepts and theorizing in ecology can be viewed in relation to the challenge faced by all ecologists (taken hereon to include environmental scientists) of dealing with the complexity of ongoing change in the structure of situations that have built up over time from heterogeneous components and are embedded or situated within wider dynamics. Continue reading

Ecological philosophy: A series of impulses in addressing complexity

A 22-minute youtube of ecological philosophy, taken to refer to conceptual frameworks in ecological and environmental science.

Given the gaps in my knowledge of the literature, especially recent research, I would be grateful for any suggestions listeners/readers can provide, however brief. For example, I would be helped by getting notes of significant publications you think I might have omitted, categories (or, in my terms, impulses) I have overlooked or misconstrued, and so on.  (If you are really interested a draft of the article that the youtube gives an overview of can be viewed at http://ptaylor.wikispaces.umb.edu/EcologicalPhilosophy.) Continue reading

Historical and autobiographical origins of an ongoing project on scientific and social complexity

From Taylor, Unruly Complexity (2005, xiv ff):

The sequence of cases [in the book] should help researchers and students in this wide range of fields appreciate more acutely the limitations of assuming that ecological, scientific, and social complexity can be delimited into well-bounded systems.  My hope is that readers will then take steps—on their own and in collaboration with others—to reconstruct the unruliness of complexity without suppressing it, to link knowledge-making to social change, and to wrestle with the potential and limitations of critical reflection as a means to redirect practice.  In the words of Raymond Williams (1980, 83), I want to encourage others not to “mentally draw back [and be] spared the effort of looking, in any active way, at the whole complex of social and natural relationships which is at once our product and our activity.”

Historical origins

Why undertake a project that addresses complexity and change across the different realms of science, interpretation of science, and critical reflection on practice?  One answer would be that the realms are already always connected, but concepts and practice are shaped to make the realms seem separate.  This is a position that can only emerge after the book has worked its way through many steps.  A shorter answer that might suffice in the meantime derives from the project’s historical origins, which can be located in the intersection of two kinds of ecology during the 1970s.

A century earlier Ernst Haeckel had defined “ecology” as the study of the complex interrelations among animals, plants, and their living and non-living environments (Allee et al. 1949).  The meaning of the new term soon stretched to refer to the complex interrelations themselves as well as the scientific study of them.  Starting around 1970, “ecology” (and the prefix “eco-“) also became associated with actions responding to the degradation of the environment of humans and other species.  The array of endeavors that have come under the umbrella of ecology-as-social-action is vast: preventing pollution, ozone holes, global climate change, future catastrophe; advocating radical social change, environmental activism, recycling, simpler lifestyles, unrefined foods; preserving nature, biodiversity, endangered species; promoting balance and interdependency.

Ecology-the-science promised to help address ecological concerns from a number of angles.  Researchers competent in using tools of ecological research could provide technical assistance on particular environmental problems.  Systematic environmental analysis and planning might be established so problems could be managed before they became the crises that provoke environmental campaigns.  General theories of ecological complexity might enlighten humans about the conditions for more harmonious relations among people and with other organisms sharing our environment.

The rise of ecology-as-social-action, however, also involved a serious critique of the scientific enterprise.  The presumption that scientific advances constitute Progress was challenged by peace and environmental activists, among others.  The destructive effects of science applied, for example, in military technologies and synthetic agro-chemicals made it hard to justify the pursuit of knowledge as a good thing for all.  The pertinent question was raised: Who benefits from scientific research, and who does not?  Such probing exposed science’s role in many forms of domination: developed nations over former colonies, military and security branches of the State over dissenting citizens, managers over workers, whites over other races, men over women, and humans over non-humans.  Some people saw science in the service of domination as abuse, not use, of science, but other critical commentators associated these tendencies with the nature of scientific inquiry itself.  Either way, science was not viewed as unfettered inquiry; instead, specific developments in scientific knowledge began to be interpreted in terms of the social priorities of the governmental bodies, military agencies, corporations, and individuals who sponsored, created, or applied them.

The critique of science also involved positive proposals for alternative processes of inquiry and alternative applications of the products of science.  To counter the inherent tendencies of science towards domination—or the recurrent abuses of science in that direction—these alternatives should revolve around cooperation and should not take the contributions of other people or species for granted.  Scientists were urged to accept local, democratically formulated input to their research.  Even among scientists who insisted on their freedom of inquiry (albeit within parameters set by their funding sources), there was wide recognition of the need to take more responsibility for how the knowledge they made would be applied.[endnote]

In short, ecology-as-social-action challenged ecological researchers not only to attend to ecological concerns through technical assistance, analysis for planning, or general theories, but also to shape their scientific practices and products self-consciously so as to contribute to transforming the dominant structure of social and environmental relations.  In retrospect, I would read in the broad terms of the critique of science an overoptimistic assessment of the potential, on one hand, for the social movements of the 1960s and 70s to bring about radical restructuring of social relations and, on the other hand, for people to transform their lives accordingly—including, in this context, for scientists to redirect their research.  Yet the 1970s critique of science was a key aspect of the context in which I first began to engage with the complexities of environmental, scientific, and social change together, as part of one project.  The challenge I take up in writing this book, then, is to build on the historical and personal origins of the project and to convey its subsequent evolution in terms that help other researchers engage with such complexities in the context of the early 21st century.

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Conceptual exploration: An autobiographical narrative

My decision to study ecology during the early 1970s stemmed from environmental activism in Australia that ranged from a collaboration with trade unionists opposing the construction of an inner-city power station to street theater exposing fraudulent, industry-sponsored recycling plans (Whole Earth Group 1974).  Ecology-the-science was the recommended choice for college students who sought programs of study in which to pursue their interests in ecology-as-social-action—if indeed any other choices were available.  I hoped my studies would lead to some kind of career that would take me beyond responding to one environmental issue after another and instead allow me to help in planning that prevented future problems from emerging.  I also hoped that understanding how to explain the complexities of interactions in life would lend support to less hierarchical and exploitative relationships, both within society and among humans and other species.

I had brought a mathematical disposition to my studies in ecology, so I undertook projects that advanced my skills in quantitative analysis and mathematical modeling.  I was excited to learn that some biologists and mathematicians were creating a specialty called theoretical biology (Waddington 1969).  This discovery was still fresh when I took a course for which E. C. Pielou’s (1969) text on mathematical ecology was assigned.  In the introduction she noted that organisms come from a range of species; within any species they differ in age, sex, genetics, experience, and so on; and any particular individual changes over its lifetime.  Any situation an ecologist might study is continually altered by births and deaths, by migratory exchanges with other places, and by seasons and climatic change.  Even so, ecological regularities persist long enough for most people to recognize some order, such as, an oak-maple forest or the sequence of plants encountered as one moves inland from the seashore (Pielou 1969, 1).  The processes could be simply described, yet the combination of them seemed theoretically challenging—how could ecologists account for order arising out of such complexity?…[continued through the book]

References

Allee, W. C., A. E. Emerson, O. Park, T. Park and K. P. Schmidt (1949). Principles of Animal Ecology. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Pielou, E. C. (1969). An Introduction to Mathematical Ecology. New York: Wiley-Interscience.
Taylor, P.J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: U. Chicago Press.
Waddington, C. H. (Ed.) (1969). Towards a Theoretical Biology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Whole Earth Group (1974). Uncle Afrely’s Earth Guide (info)
Williams, R. (1980). “Ideas of Nature,” in Problems in materialism and culture. London: Verso, 67-85.

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).

Biology as Politics: The direct and indirect effects of Lewontin and Levins

Introduction to my essay review of

Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health, by Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, Monthly Review Press, 2007

In “A Program for Biology,” one of this collection’s thirty-one essays, the Marxist biologists Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins (hereon: L&L) list recent “big mistakes” in scientific approaches to complex phenomena: “the green revolution, the epidemiological transition [from infectious to chronic diseases], sociobiology, the reification of intelligence testing, and the current fetishism of the genome.”  They attribute such mistakes to the “posing [of] problems too narrowly, treating what is variable as if it were constant and even universal, and offering answers on a single level only” (p.81).  What they point to is not simply the “philosophical tradition of reductionism,” but also “the institutional fragmentation of research, and the political economy of knowledge as a commodity” (p.9).  Indeed, their critical position extends beyond science to rejection of “the greed and brutality and smugness of late capitalism” (p.373).

Their anti-capitalist stance notwithstanding, the foci or starting points of L&L’s essays, like their 1986 collection, The Dialectical Biologist, lies in research in the life sciences.  Regarding the green revolution, for example, L&L see:

 …that a view based on unidirectional causation leads to the expectation that since grasses need nitrogen, a genotype that takes up more nitrogen would be more productive; since pesticides kill pests, their widespread use would protect crops; and since people eat food, increased yields would alleviate hunger (p.84).

The actual outcomes did not end up matching such simple causation because:

 …the increase in wheat yield was partly achieved by breeding for dwarf plants that are more vulnerable to weeds and to flooding; the killing of pests was accompanied by the killing of their natural enemies, their replacement by other pests, and the evolution of pesticide resistance.  The successful yield increases encouraged the diversion of land from legumes.  The technical packages of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and mechanization promoted class differentiation in the countryside and displacement of peasants (p.84).

“A Program for Biology” ends with three fundamental questions for the study of complexity:

Why are things the way they are instead of a little bit different (the question of homeostasis, self-regulation, and stability)?  Why are things the way they are instead of very different (the question of evolution, history, and development)?  And what is the relevance to the rest of the world? (p.86)

The third question, rephrased in a later essay as “how [do we] intervene in these complex processes to make things better for us”? (p.115), invites… readers to ask what L&L’s essays tell us about having an effect—direct or indirect—on the complex processes of the production and application of scientific knowledge.  The essay review approaches this third question as it relates to social studies of science and technology and L&L’s contributions from four angles:

  • a more vigorous culture of science criticism;
  • a visible college of Marxist scientists in the USA;
  • inquiries into the diverse social influences shaping science; and
  • motivating readers who want to pursue their science as a political project.

Indirect contributions—influences on and appropriations by other actors in the wider realm of biology as politics—are discussed as well as the more direct effects.