Saturday, July 30, 2011

Kant makes me sick: Russell, Moore and Carnap and the liberation from Kant

In a number of philosophical memoirs Bertrand Russell describes his break from the Kantian (and Hegelian) tradition in which he trained.  Russell’s first book, an extension of a fellowship dissertation, took up the Kantian question, “how is geometry possible?” An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry elaborated a “mainly Kantian” theory of geometry in which he claimed that geometry is possible “only if space is one of three varieties, one of them Euclidean, the other two non-Euclidean but have the property of preserving a ‘constant measure of curvature’.”  As Russell noted, this was a claim subsequently undermined by Einsteinian General Relativity.  On later reflection, he claims that his book does not contain “anything valid”.  A heavy price to pay, perhaps, for its Kantian commitments.
The retreat from Kant was not merely a matter of scholarly progression.  For Russell, there was an emotional appeal to setting Kant aside.  He records it as “a great liberation, as if I had escaped from a hot-house on a wind-swept headland”.  Furthermore, he claimed that he “hated the stuffiness involved in supposing that space and time were only in my mind”.  Elsewhere, he further underscores the emotional flavor accompanying his disagreements with Kant, regardless of any claims about their veracity, indicating that he finds “displeasing” any attempts to “humanize the cosmos”. “Kant made me sick”, Russell reported to Alan Wood.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Social Ladder and the Ecological Ground – Julian Steward and multilinear evolution in the middle 20th C

The urban experience is a relatively new one for us.   The oldest cities emerged from 5000-3500 BC, slowly evolving out of antecedent Neolithic villages and settlements throughout the world, some of which date back as far as 10,000 BC.  George Cowgill gives us a solid review.[1]  And agriculture - the productive excess of which urban living depends - is, of course, also a new business for humans, emerging around 10,000 BC after hundreds of thousands years in which we gained sustenance by hunting and gathering.  That these events – from primitive times to the greater complexity of urban life – have been lined up as a progressive scheme is not surprising.  Progress, as I discussed before, has two principle meanings: one is a developmental one in which advancement through a process is meant; the other suggests improvements, indicating that each step is better than the last.  Attempts in early anthropological theory to classify the elements of culture, and then theorize them as a developmental sequence of different stages of culture (“ethnical periods”) emerged as a successful paradigm for anthropological work in late Victorian times.  The idea that prevailed in those early days was that culture evolved through time, that it was directional, that it was represented by a succession of traits that moved towards a particular end, that the changes represented improvements, and that cultural retrogression was the exception rather than the rule.[2]  That is, there was belief that social evolution was progressive in both senses.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I like the way a hand

[From my manuscript Unpublishable Poems]

I like the way a hand can cup
The temple,
The way the shank
Of the arm props it thus upon the knee
And the way a calf can angle to the floor
Or curl under the torso –
How they all fit together
From head to toe:
Like sculpted metal!
Although it is all just
A fortuitous alignment,
The body’s geometry
Performing its unexpected yoga.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Progress on "progress" – towards a model of social evolution

Interpreting the story of a development, any development: personal, social or evolutionary, as progressive is an enormous seduction.  Of course this is because development often is progressive in the sense that it is advancement through a process, and towards an outcome or a conclusion.  There is, for instance, a progression of steps prescribed in normal organismal development – the steps are more or less prescribed ones.  There is a second sense of the term progress, one that registers development to more advanced stages, often regarded as higher or better states (most dictionaries including OED record both senses).  Progress towards finishing jigsaw might be progressive in both sense, one advances through a prescribed sequences (this is how one solves puzzles), but also, for most of us, advancing towards the better condition of being more complete. 

In matters evolutionary we are counseled to resist the seduction of seeing the process as a progressive one.  Douglas Futuyma, the evolutionary biologist, explains why: “future conditions cannot affect present survival. The enduring variations may increase the organism’s complexity or behavioral repertoire, or they may decrease it”.  There is enough said on the subject of progress in evolution to keep a dozen Scheherazades regaling their Kings for thousands of nights, though I suspect that many of these Kings would be caught snoozing.  And yet it remains almost irresistible.  The evolution of life from single celled animalcules to a multi-cellular Levitation, or better, the evolution of primitive primates to that balloon-headed Great Ape, the human, seems like a arrow-flight from simple to complex, from primitive to advanced.  This pattern is so blatant that many not only see it as progressive in the first sense, but also progressive in the second.  Kai Hahlweg, a philosopher at Bond University in Australia distinguishes three camps in this evolutionary debate.   The first group holds that the application of the term progress is anthropocentric that there is no evidence supporting a claim of evolutionary progressive directionality in evolution.  A second group rejects the idea of progressive evolution as anthropocentric, but concedes that evolution exhibits directionality.  Hahlweg places Stephen Jay Gould in this camp.  A final group thinks that “evolutionary progress can be purged of its anthropocentric connotations”, and with this done one can arrive at a acceptable scientific notion of evolutionary progress.  According to Hahlweg, Francisco Ayala, John Maynard Smith and William Wimsatt are in this camp.  It’s that camp that Hahlweg feels a close sympathy, and his thermodynamic solution is worth studying; but we won’t do that now.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Brain, liquefaction of

My 3quarksdaily column for this month...

The following is an excerpt from my unpublished manuscript “A Shorter History of Bodily Fluids”

Brain, liquefaction of: also known as encephalomalacia (from the Greek, μαλακία softening), necrencephalus (from Greek, νεκρο + κεϕαλή  deadhead), ramollissement cérébral (from the French ramollissement cérébral), cerebromalacia (from the Greek, μαλακία  a colloquial onanist, esp a vehicular onanist; cf blood, semen), cerebral softening (from the Old English soft meaning soft), or more commonly, softening of the brain (pronounced US /breɪn/).  When the tissue affected is white matter it is called leukoencephalomalacia; polioencephalomalacia refers to necrosis of the gray matter. This condition may manifest as multiple Brainnecrotic fluid-filled cavities replacing healthy brain tissue.  It is preferable to inspect this necrosis post-mortem especially if attempting to administer home remedies.  If you are a sheep the following suite of symptoms will be diagnostically useful in identifying brain liquefaction: somnolence, short sightedness, ataxia (poor coordination), head pressing, tumblesaulting, walking in circles, walking bipedally, excessive bleating or bleating in prime numbers, and terminal coma.  I treated a mouse once that after a fall complained to me that she could only walk in circles.  It greatly affected her travel plans and she died penniless, vastly undereducated, and living very close to where she was born.

If you can tolerate more go here

Sunday, July 24, 2011

In Luster Diminished: Writing Kant out of the Philosophy of Science

In the introductory chapter of his helpful Introduction to Phenomenology Robert Sokolowski reports on the genesis of his book project in a lunchtime conversation with a professor of mathematics and philosophy who reported on the following significant difference between mathematicians and philosophers: the former absorb the findings of their predecessors into their own work with little comment on or explicit acknowledgement of this foundational labor, compared with the manner in which “classical works often become enshrined as objects of exegesis rather than as resources to be exploited” in philosophy[1].

The observation regarding the absorption of earlier work is true of many natural science disciplines: for instance, rarely does one find explicit references to Darwin in the primary literature in ecology, even though Darwin provided the intellectual substrate upon which modern ecology is based[2].  Though one might be cautioned against overrelying on a taxonomic tool such as this one for distinguishing philosophical works from those in the natural sciences and mathematics, nevertheless the philosophy of science behaves quite philosophically when the tool is applied.   To illustrate, Rom Harré’s The Philosophies of Science: An Introductory Survey (1985) indexes Aristotle and Aristotelian (27 times), Hereclitus (and “Hereclitean individuals”) (5 times), Hume (3 times), Locke (5 times), J S Mill and his canons (22 times), and so forth.  Even Darwin gets mentioned (1 time).  Kant it seems gets two mentions in the book, although the second indexed reference cannot be found on the page referred to, and the first reference discusses Kant in relation to accusations regarding fundamental inconsistencies levied against Corpuscularian philosophy (something that Kant apparently levied validly, but “in a less clear form” than Boscovich, according to Harré[3]).  There are no references to any of the key terms of the Kantian lexicon, none that relate to the theory or practice of science (that is, no entry on a priori, transcendental idealism, analysis in the Kantian sense and so on.).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Shorter History of Bodily Fluids

For reasons that are not completely clear to me I have decided that my 3quarksdaily columns for next week will be from my work-in-progress (WIP): A Shorter History of Bodily Fluids. This book is conceived as the lavatory version of a coffee-table book (is there a term for this - a commode companion?).  Fluids appeal to me, and I have a body, and it seems when you put them together you get something amusing.  The problem is that when I write about them what I produce is macabre rather than funny. So it is a WIP going in the wrong direction.

I have most of the piece for Monday sketched out; I am starting by bending the rules a little: the brain is typically solid but there are a number of conditions that produce a softening of the brain tissue; in some case the brain may be liquified. So my first bodily fluid is liquid brain. See: not all that funny.

Since the editors at 3quarks want original material I won't be able to post it here till next week.  But if you are interested please check it out on Monday.  I am trying to keep it pretty short.  Typically my columns here have been excessively long, perhaps unreadably long.

Last months on environmentalism as a form of asceticism is here.

Oh if you have a favorite bodily fluid - especially if its a hilarious one, please feel free to share below.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Finished: "Lessons learned from Chicago Wilderness – Implementing and sustaining Resiliency-Oriented Management (ROM)"

This has been a collaboration with several of my Chicago Wilderness colleagues.  Assuming all goes well it'll go into a book where the authors from around the world look at cities from the perspective of resilience theory. I was happy to include a brief description of our "100 Sites for 100 years project", overseen by the incomparable Lauren Umek of DePaul and Northwestern, and with me and Dr David Wise from UIC as the co-PIs.

Funded by the The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the ‘100 Sites’ project identifies a unique collaborative effort between CW coalition to move toward realizing its vision of increasing the number of accessible, interconnected, restored, diverse and healthy ecosystems in the greater Chicago metropolitan area. This project capitalizes on the general best management practices of the region’s land managers by including multiple natural areas subject to similar management and time frames in a replicated experiment in order to address two main questions that relate to current outcomes of restoration efforts:  How effective are current management practices for restoring and conserving biodiversity?  How effective are current management practices for rehabilitating key ecosystem processes?  In addition, this program has prepared the groundwork for addressing questions into the future.  It has established sites that will be maintained at current management regimes for many years (maybe not a hundred, but that's our idealistic goal), with the goal of uncovering long-term trends in management outcomes that will appear with climate change and changing influences of urbanization.

The Ethical Arrogance of Vegetarianism and other Scolding Insights from Pleistocene Living

One of my first, perhaps not so bright, solutions to Irish environmental problems was to relocate all the peoples of Ireland west of the Shannon River, and restrict access to that rewilding environment only to those with a Bowie knife and a willingness to hunt for their food.  Not long after this musing of mine, a small clan of Irish broadcasters spent time in Connemara roughing it, and claimed, to national outrage, that they had slaughtered a lamb to survive (it is referred to in Ireland as the Lambo incident).  However, the idea that our abandoning, ten thousand years ago, of the primitive hunter-gatherer (H-G) lifestyle was unfortunate for ourselves and for the environment has been perennially part of environmental mainstream thought (versions run from at least Rousseau to David Abram).  The arguments were most forcefully articulated by the late Paul Shepard, an environmental writer and professor.  In this post I give a sketch of his argument on behalf of a renewal of the Pleistocene human in which he claims that that “secret person is undamaged in each of us and may be called forth by the most ordinary acts of life.”[1]

In his preface to The Only World We’ve Got a collection published in 1996, the year Paul Shepard died, we get a succinct overview of where this interdisciplinary environmental thinker’s work brought him.[2]  Or rather one might quip “to when” his thought brought him, for he was infamously nostalgic for Pleistocene times, dismissing the achievements of agriculture tartly in essays entitled Ten Thousand Years of Crisis, The Domesticators and so forth.  

Monday, July 18, 2011

Losing the Family Farm: A Case of Human Population Collapse in the Irish Neolithic

It is said that Ireland skipped the industrial revolution and instead, after its moment of prosperity in the 1990s, went directly to post-industrial decline.  Similarly, Ireland for the most part missed the Paleolithic, that stage in which humans settled down to the ecological business of living on this planet with their full suite of evolutionary gifts, and skipped straight to the Neolithic – the period associated with the origin of farming.  Indeed, most of the substantial early settlement action in Ireland was by farmers of the Neolithic. Since there is significant disdain in environmental literature for agriculture, privileging instead the salad days of Paleolithic hunter-gathering times (“the original affluent society”) it would seem that Ireland missed out on the all the glorious action. 

My posts in the coming weeks will primarily be concerned with interrogating this disdain of many environmental writers for agriculture.  I start, though, by reviewing a case study in early Irish agriculture archeology, the Céide Fields, an early Irish agricultural settlement.  The fields are now covered by mountain blanket bog which grew up over the fields around the time that farming was abandoned.  Since the extensive field system of the Céide Fields were forsaken after a few hundred years of apparently continuous activity the question of whether this was the result of climate change or as a result of environmental modification imposed by farming has been raised.  Did it simply get too dry for farming, or did productivity crash and the human population crash with it?  If one of the complaints against agriculture is that it results in disastrous environmental modifications to the point where feedbacks ultimately result in declines in the human population, it will be instructive to see if this Irish case study provides evidence for the unsustainablity of early farming.  Why, if this case is not completely atypical, did agriculture ultimately supplant hunter-gather ways?  That is, if the evidence is that agriculture does not pay out its dividends easily, why has it almost universally adopted?  This question is made all the more pointed when laid alongside the re-evaluation of the hunter-gather mode of existence that has been proposed over the last couple of generations.  Thus, since early agriculture was more tenuous, hunter-gatherer life less arduous, how come the farmers won out?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A City for Human-clams: a Plea for Environmental Immobility

A young man of my acquaintance, adequately nourished, and provided with a room and a gaming console appears to be sustainable, quite extraordinarily so, in the environmental sense.  He has a small physical footprint.  A few square feet of a pleasantly upholstered couch in an ill-lit room is all that is needed to sustain him.  From this perch he can command vast legions of hobgoblins, medieval warlocks, sport heroes, and assorted heavily-armed movie characters.  He can distract himself for days at a time, emerging from his room very occasionally, like a three-toed sloth, to pad to the latrine.  An army of youth so employed needs little in the way of a great outdoors.   Slightly soiled pajamas, or underpants, it seems, can suffice for clothing.  The nutritional requirements of this battalion extend little beyond sodas and pop-tarts.  In light of this, might it not be wise for us to reverse course, and rather than advocating strenuously, as many of us have, for urban kids to get out of doors to cultivate responsible environmental stewardship, might we not instead council the cultivation of obsessive gameplay, reclassifying it as environmentally laudable behavior?

If we take this pragmatic tack, setting aside our pious feelings about the “old environment” and the worthy pleasures to be found there, it is apparent that there are several tendencies in contemporary life that we might encourage rather than scorn.  We have for too long decried our sedentary natures and the accompanying tendencies towards corpulence of body and spirit.  Bloat a little, rest a little more; you are doing your bit for the environment.  Applaud your small adventures in the great indoors – a peregrination from fridge to sofa will never have felt so good, and the lazy-boy is a fine environmental destination.  Think of the gas saved compared with a trip to Yosemite – no planes, no trains, no automobiles.  Even if your kids might like to romp in the corn fields of some distant rural hinterland, spare yourself the self-laceration.  Quite simply a family ensconced in a moderately appointed metropolitan apartment may well have a smaller environmental cost than a family whizzing around in their so-called mini-van in some suburban Eden.

A back of the envelop calculation shows that the environmental footprint of the immobile is smaller that of one in constant auto-motion.  Whole earths can be saved by merely standing still [1]. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Two Blind Watchmakers and their Thermodynamic Braille – Why Living Systems are Hierarchical

In a post earlier this week I retold the story of Genesis, giving it a systems theory spin. In that story I emphasized God’s role as creative disrupter. The story was a stretch perhaps; it was the best I could write on a hot Chicago day after 24 hours without electricity! A more deftly-told story related by systems theorists conveys other important aspects of the systems message. It goes like this.

Once upon a time there were two watchmakers. The watches that they craft are each composed of one thousand pieces. Now, one of the watchmakers, a systems thinker seemingly, proceeds by assembling subunits of hundred component parts; these subunits when complete are stable. They can then be set aside before finally all completed ten subunits are assembled into the final product. The other watchmaker assembles each watch in its entirety after which that watch is complete and stable. Both watches are functionally indistinguishable. Since the watches are intricately made and take a considerable amount of time to assemble, each maker will get called away from their labour with some frequency. If the first watchmaker gets called away before a watch is fully assembled, the subunit that the she is working on falls apart but the already assembled subunits remain intact. Upon her return, the task is resumed with little loss of work. Her colleague’s efforts, however, decompose to hundreds of scattered pieces when she is disrupted and upon return the work must start from scratch.

The point of the story is somewhat obvious: we live in a conspicuously hierarchical world where many, though not of course all, of the objects of concern to us are composed of parts within parts (like Chinese boxes, as systems theorists like to say), akin in some respects to the watch assembled by the first of our watchmakers. Why is this the case?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Quaking bogs and other Shaky Ground: some thoughts on the history of phytosociology

In the early 1980s I volunteered to work in Killarney National Park in Ireland on a project to rid the oak woodlands of Rhododendron ponticum, an invasive shrub that was encroaching in the understory of this habitat.  The concern was that this invasive species prevented the regeneration of oak.  Since oak woodland, or in fact any woodland type other than spruce plantation, is rare in Ireland, Rhododondron, that most beautiful of vandals, could wreck a national treasure.  Many of the volunteers were, like me, students from one of the colleges in the National University of Ireland system.  We stayed in a deconsecrated church at the edge of the park and would travel by boat across the delightful Lakes of Killarney to our worksite for the day.  At the foot of the mountainous slopes upon which these woodlands are found, the ground is boggy.  These small patches of bog are themselves of some interest botanically – often dominated by heather and gorse, with an occasional butterwort (a carnivorous species). Some of these bogs were so spongy underfoot that if one hopped up and down a little (ah youth!) the entire landscape would respond – slowly at first, and then like a slow green sea the ground would sinuate out towards the woody margins where the trees themselves would seem to sway.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The God of Disruption – Is Genesis an ecological fable?

In the beginning was the disturbance: God disrupted the pristine formlessness of the deep and created the heavens and the earth. Literally in a flash. With His utterance, the darkness was relegated to Night; the light He called Day. Waters were separated from waters by an expanse, and the expanse was called Heaven. Vegetation, and their seed, sprouted from the Earth and then, the Good Ecologist provisioned vegetation with light to distinguish day and night, to separate the seasons, and to mark the passage of time. God started on the largest imaginable scale, and then He attended to the ecological details. On the fifth day the earth pullulated with creatures: birds in the air and the great sea swarmed with life. On the sixth day God successfully propagated the terrestrial surface with creeping things, beasts, and livestock. And then He made man and in giving him dominion over the creatures, explained the ecological services that each could provide – for instance, the plants He told him make good eating. When He rested, His creation was stable. That which He created in a cataclysm persisted in the aftermath.

When He was adequately restored, He resumed His labor. His tasks were now ones of governance rather than creation. The largest entities of all were stably in place – the heavens and the earth, the stars in the firmament, the day separated from the night, the seasons, the seas and the land, the vegetation and the creeping beings, the livestock and mankind. The world that God created though it persisted was an imperfect one. His creature, Man, fell and God expelled Adan and Eve from his Garden. The children of the first man and women fought and Cain slew Abel. The descendents of Adam were numerous; the very old gave way to the young; but God saw the wickedness of man and was sorry that He made him. In surveying the earth God thought it corrupt and was determined to disrupt it by ending all flesh. He commanded Noah, a righteous man, to build an ark, and on that ark Noah brought his family: his wife, his sons, his sons’ wives, and seven pairs each of all clean animals, and a pair each of unclean animal, and seven pair of each species of bird. And then God unleashed his Disturbance in the form of a flood. The flood remained for 40 days and the water persisted for 150 days. All flesh upon the earth died – beast and man. The sacrifice that Noah made of some parts of the clean animals and the clean birds pleased him and God made a covenant with man and with the animals. He determined never again to destroy all flesh.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Kant’s body and other natural disasters

This post is part of a series of occasional posts I am working on concerning the body and ecology.  I start somewhat circuitously by examining the re-introduction of the body into philosophy in the work of Kant.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in tones braggadocio, prefaced his intellectual autobiography, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, with the following sentence (suggestion: read it slowly and dramatically), “Seeing that before long I must confront humanity with the most difficult demand ever made of it, it seems indispensable to me to say who I am.”
Nietzsche proceeded to review the challenges he confronted us with in several chapters with titles progressively more grandiose (or jocular, depending upon your sensibility): "Why I Am So Wise", "Why I Am So Clever", "Why I Write Such Good Books" and "Why I Am a Destiny".  My objectives are more humble than Nietzsche’s.  I am interested in re-examining the relationship between the comportment of our bodies and the founding of knowledge about the natural world.  Does having a body matter at all for deepening our relationship with the rest of nature? Though my objectives are modest, nevertheless it may be mannerly to take Nietzsche’s lead and say a little more about who I am.

Once a week or so for the last three years I metamorphose into a graduate student of philosophy at the same school where I am a professor of environmental science.  Though I am a clamoring scientific cuckoo dumped into the philosophical nest, my professors have been affable, hospitably taking my fledgling efforts seriously.  They have taken me under their capacious wings, (to keep the metaphor straight I can say they have placed this outlandish egg alongside the rest of their brood beneath their downy underbellies) and they treat me as one of the clutch.  And though I have perhaps been a little more impatient than my fellow students to sweep philosophy up into rapid use, I have nonetheless taken to heart their teacherly advice to be a slower and more attentive reader.  (Could it be that scientists, in general, are less patient readers of their foundational texts than are philosophers? Surely not all biologists have read their Origin of Species line by line, though it might be harder to imagine a philosopher that has left unread The Critique of Pure Reason).  These days I am as entertained as the next man by, let us say, lengthy disquisitions on the use by Kant of the two German words translated as “object” in the English rendering (Objekt and Gegenstand).  Despite my newfound persnicketiness when it comes to texts, I remain relatively impatient to launch myself from the nest’s edge and try out my new feathers.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Introducing the Rules of the Ecological Game: The descent of a flock of hierarchy theories in Manhattan, circa 1986

TAKE HEED YE YOUTHFUL SCHOLARS: books discovered in your tender years will influence your thinking for decades to come. In 1987 while surfing the stacks of the library of CUNY Graduate School in Manhattan, I plucked off the shelves a copy of Hierarchy: Perspectives for Ecological Complexity by T. F. H. Allen and Thomas Starr (1982). Shortly after this I picked up a copy of a monograph by R.V O’Neill and his colleagues (including T.F.H. Allen) entitled A Hierarchical Concept of Ecosystems. I recall that this volume was regarded with a measure of scorn, albeit a bemused rather than a vicious scorn, by several of the ecologists who taught me at the time (primarily population and community ecologists). It was this book, placing the ecosystem into the framework of a more general systems theory, that ultimately had the longest lasting influence on me in terms of my conception of how the complexities of nature can be made tractable. 

Hierarchy theory was in the air back them. Perhaps one should say “hierarchy theories” since the observation that many of the complexities in the world can be resolved into structures comprised of parts within parts within wholes is not only a commonplace observation; it is one that has been theorized in many disciplines. Herbert Simon, a leading figure in developing this perspective, was an economist, Ilya Progogine, a chemist, Howard Pattee, a theoretical biologist, Jean Piaget a developmental psychologist. Hierarchy theory draws upon more general systems theory developed by luminaries such as Ludwig von Bertalanffy and James Grier Miller, both theoretical biologists. These early students of complex systems developed ways of thinking about commonalities between disciplines whose objects were structured as nested sets of parts within wholes (in more mathematical terms, hierarchies are a partially ordered set).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

From the universe as a whole down to the atoms: distinctions between community and ecosystem ecology

Tools of the trade: ecosystem ecology
In one of the more nerve-wracking moments of my early career I was informed that the ecosystem concept was “putting food on the family table.”  I was to stick to the methods of ecosystem ecology and not to waste time with community level questions.  By this I understood that I should not indulge an interest in individual organisms nor attempt to identify these to the species level – certainly this was consuming a lot of my time. I should not, I was told, become overly interested in species diversity, another community-level phenomenon.  Though ecology is rapidly changing, nevertheless as recently as a decade and a half ago you picked your favourite flavour early – if you chose chocolate it is frowned on if you started adding dollops of vanilla.
The ecosystem, as we have discussed, is a compound constituted by all the organisms of a region interacting with the non-living environment – soil, water, and atmosphere.  In modern ecology the ecosystem concept has become the foundation for functional studies of the environment, often at the landscape scale, where ecologists study the processes contributing to the flow of energy (primarily starting with the photosynthetic “fixing” of the sun’s energy by plants) and the cycling of nutrients.  For instance, a present-day ecosystem ecologist might be interested in how the rates of leaf litter decomposition in a woodland affects the availability of nutrients in the soil, thus influencing subsequent plant growth.  This functional interpretation of the ecosystem is contrasted with the approach taken by population and community ecologists who study the interaction of individual organisms, the growth of populations and the interactions that occur between individual of multiple species coexisting in the same place at the same time. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Is your climax a super-organism? The complexity of nature. Or, on being made of little parts

Vegetation Climax, Western Ghats 2009
ECOLOGICAL PAPERS WRITTEN IN THE 1930S are the Burgess Shale of the discipline. As in that middle-Cambrian fossil bed of primordial forms, everything is already there and often piled pretty closely together. Arthur Tansley’s 1935 paper “The use and abuse of vegetation concepts and terms” appeared in the journal Ecology and re-reading it three-quarters of a century later opens a window on the debates in the early years of discipline. Tansley’s proximate concern is to chastise the younger South African ecologist John Phillips, whose views on vegetation development had chagrined him. In the background is the powerful figure of Frederic Clements, the senior American ecologist and archdeacon of the concepts of “succession” and the “complex organism”, whose views Phillips was advocating and justifying. These days Tansley’s paper is primarily remembered for introducing the term “ecosystem”; however, other debates swirl around it, including questions concerning the degree to which we might regard the largest entities of nature as “super-organisms”.  (For an account of this paper go here) Is the plant community correctly seen as a large independent organism that grows, matures, and reproduces in the way an individual plant or animal does? Debates about this matter – a storm in arcane scientific teacup – prefigure more contemporary debates about Gaia: can the planet itself be regarded as a single super-organism?