For all of the eighteen years
that I have known Mark Sagoff, I have admired both the provocative power of
his ideas and the wit and clarity of his written expression. His critique of
the role of classical economics in environmental policy has permanently
benefitted my thinking, as I
have adopted with little refinement, much of the body of his
ideas. However, about three years ago, our positions diverged
sharply. At a conference in Montreal, Sagoff presented his radical
critique of what he calls "theoretical ecology," to which I
replied with a paper eventually expanded into "Reconstructing
Ecology" (on this site).
And then, three years ago, another
profound disagreement between us appeared at a symposium at the
Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. There Sagoff defended a "cornucopian" view of
natural resources reminiscent of the late Julian Simon (i.e., "the
only shortage is in information and intelligence"). Once again, I
presented a dissenting view, "How
Much is Too Much?" . Another
dissent to this position (directed this time at Simon rather than
Sagoff) is found in "Holes
in the Cornucopia." Both of these published papers have been combined
Optimism" (this site).
Despite all this dispute, Mark Sagoff
remains and honored and cherished friend. An authentic scholar, he
delights in presenting outrageous ideas and "stirring-up"
controversy. And so he has, as this Gadfly has risen to the bait
In the paper which follows, the reader
is at the distinct disadvantage of not being able to hear or read
Sagoff's presentation to which it replies. The second section of
the following paper (on evolution), repeats an argument
that is more thoroughly developed in "Reconstructing Ecology"
(this site). However, the first and third sections deal with
dimensions of the Sagoff/Partridge dispute not explored elsewhere
in The Online Gadfly. First of all, in his AAAS paper, and
at greater length in this voluminous article in the William and
Mary Law Review ("Muddle or Muddle Through," 38:3, March
1997), Sagoff takes great pains to draw "connections" between
"theoretical ecology" on the one hand and "The Great Chain of
Being" and other ancient cosmologies on the other hand. In my
reply, I fail to find any significant point to such exercises. The third section the following paper responds to Sagoff's claim
that there is no identifiable reason to "prefer" natural
ecosystems (such as tropical forests) to artificial systems (such
as feedlots or tree farms).
ON BEHALF OF ECOLOGY AND
I have three primary concerns about Prof. Sagoff's paper. In a few
words, they involve: (a) the "point" of speculation concerning
"historical contexts," (b) evolution, and (c) management.
"Historical Contexts:" In the paper presented to us, Sagoff
proposes to "describe some of the intellectual history that connects
conceptions of Nature's mathematical design, structure and order in
earlier centuries with views theoretical ecologists defend
I confess that I find this entire enterprise to be highly suspect.
How, for example, does one validate the claim that theoretical
ecology "takes up themes which stretch from Neoplatonic sources,
particularly Plotinus, to poets and theologians of the eighteenth
century..." and near the end of this essay, Sagoff claims that
several "ecological stability principles... have a common history"
with such ancient belief systems as gnosticism, cabalism and sufiism.
Even if such a "connection" is validated (and how would it be?), just
what does that prove? To the scientist, it is not the source
of an idea that matters, it is the proof which may or may not follow.
The theory of gravity was not proven by falling apples. (An
apocryphal story, you say? My point exactly!). Neither was Special
Relativity "proven" by Berne streetcars, Archimedes principle of
buoyancy by a bathtub, or the double helix by a lighthouse staircase
-- although all of these, we are told, were the "sources" of the
Nor do rough and generalized similarities between current ideas
and their alleged historical antecedents prove any "connection" that
should interest the scientist. Sagoff asserts that theoretical
ecologists "seek to discern uniformities or patterns in the natural
world. They are interested in discovering overarching concepts or
principles - even general formulas - that structure what would
otherwise appear to be contingent accidents of time and place." But
does this not also precisely describe the objectives of physicists? If such motivations and objectives are found to have antecedents in
ancient and discredited philosophies and crypto-sciences (e.g., gnosticism, alchemy, etc.) is this reason to dismiss physics? In
short, just what does such an exploration into "the history of ideas"
I suggest that unless you are dealing with direct and acknowledged
influences (e.g. Plato on Aristotle, Berkeley on Hume, or Hume on
Kant), speculations as to "historical antecedents and influences" are
like Rorschach Tests, Freudian dream-interpretation, or "Scriptural
Proof" -- ingenious or even entertaining, perhaps, but completely
unfalsifiable and utterly devoid of methodology or proof. In a word,
I suspect that Mark's search for "historical contexts" and
antecedents has all the imperfections (and more) that he attributes
to "theoretical ecology." Explorations into "historical antecedent"
are all too often, nothing more than analogy arguments, and poor ones
at that. As always, the best rebuttal to an analogy argument is to
cite disanalogies. In the case of theoretical ecology vs. Cabalist
numerology, that's not a tough assignment.
For all that, "historical antecedents" can be startling and
entertaining, to be sure -- e.g., linking theoretical ecology with
"great chain of being cosmology," Gnosticism and the Cabala, or even
comparing it to "creation science" ("Muddle or Muddle Through..." William and Mary Law Review,
3/97, 959-60). But then, in the "history
of ideas game," anything goes. In that spirit, Bertrand Russell once
whimsically suggested that Cartesian Dualism explains the French
male's disposition to acquire both a wife and a mistress. Well, why
Evolution: Sagoff contends that while organisms exhibit
systemic structure (logos) and goal-oriented activity (telos), these
traits are the result of evolution. However, he argues, none of this
applies to ecosystems, for
natural selection operates only on
creatures that breed true, that is, creatures that enjoy genetic
inheritance. Ecosystems do not reproduce, possess genomes, or breed
true; heredity is nothing to them. Accordingly, they are not subject
to evolution. We should have to account for any order, design,
harmony, or structure we impute to ecosystems by appealing to some
cause other than evolution. ["Muddle" 957].
Darwin's investigations were motivated by what philosophers would
recognize as a "Kantian question:" "How is the diversity, complexity
and adaptability of life possible?" Once he rejected the traditional
answer, "by the power of an infinite Creator," he found another
answer: through evolution.
The ecologist, I suggest, is motivated by the next question: "how
is evolution possible?" I suggest that the only sensible answer is,
"in a relatively stable context of complex interrelations among
organisms and their physical environment - i.e., in an ecosystem." I
would further suggest that evolution is not possible in the
disorganized, accidental hodgepodge described by Sagoff.
On the contrary, far from being irrelevant to ecosystems,
evolution is the source and sustenance of these integrated life
communities, and thus evolution suffices to account for any and all
"design, harmony, or structure we impute to ecosystems." This is so,
simply because the integration of the organism with its ecosystem is
essential and inalienable, to both organism and ecosystem. Thus
organisms evolve as they do because of the contingencies in the
environment, which is to say, because of conditions in the ecosystem
of which the organisms are components. And this is a reciprocal and
dynamic interaction: adaptations to the organism due to the
environing ecosystem cause changes in the ecosystem, which
subsequently affect the organism, and so on.
In short, the same sort of systemic structure, integrity and
resilience which Sagoff readily recognizes within functioning
organisms is, I suggest, exhibited in the ecosystems from which they
have evolved. For if, as he elsewhere suggests, "ecosystem" is an
oxymoron (i.e., if ecosystems are not systemic), there could be no evolution, and no diversity of life that
is both apparent and in peril today.
If this is so, then Sagoff is wrong to deny an "order of design"
in ecosystems while affirming same in organisms. As Darwin suggests
in the case of organisms and species, ecosystems display an "order of
design" grounded in efficient causes. There is no need, either with
organisms or with ecosystems, to bring in the Aristotelian apparatus
of telos, final causes, entelechy, etc., much less "the Great Chain
Thus, with evolution brought back into the ecosystemic
picture, the integrated and 'self-organizing' structure of ecosystems
ceases to be an unexplained mystery. For organisms must have some
(albeit not total) order and stability in the environment if they are
to survive in a niche. Natural selection is simply too slow to allow
any macro-organisms to survive in the sort of chaotic non-system that
Management: Sagoff asks: "why should we think, then, that
the genetic and other biological mechanisms that operate in the
pristine forest cease to operate on the factory farm." ("Historical
Contexts" 9) Well, we shouldn't. However, it does not follow from
this concession that there is no significant practical difference
between that "pristine forest" and the factory farm, and that we
might therefore, without qualm, allow the biotechnologists to
"construct just about anything -- for example, to increase yields of
fish, flesh and fiber."
And why not? To put the matter simply, "pristine nature" is
self regulating and self managing.. Artificial systems require
constant attention, lest they unravel. Accommodation with nature yields few
surprises, whilst interventions invite the stern rebuke of "unintended
consequences." Increase yield with chemical fertilizers? Terrific! But what has happened to our ground water? Kill off the
pests with DDT? Whatever became of the song birds? David Pimentel and his
associates [in a paper presented at this AAAS symposium]
vividly present this point in their discussion exotic species - e.g.,
the Indian Mongoose in Jamaica
Natural systems are sustainable, and so is our use thereof
provided we "skim off" a modest portion of the "biotic interest"
while we leave the capital intact. Thus the Grand Banks could have
sustained the New England and Maritime Province fisheries
indefinitely, at 18th century levels. But not at late 20th century
levels. So too the Buffalo herds and the salmon for the pre-Columbian
plains and North-West Indians. And the labor-intensive and "inefficient" but
"nature friendly" farm practices that we saw at work in Tuscany and
Umbria sustained that land for over three millennia, as the Italian
farmers nurtured the soil micro-ecology, and recycled natural
nutrients. But will that bounty continue for another three millennia,
once Monsanto and Genentech and their counterparts get their
corporate and bio-engineering hands on that magical soil? Don't count
An assault upon natural systems exacts a heavy price, as we take
on the burden of sustaining, with persistent and possibly
ill-informed management, what nature accomplishes freely,
thoughtlessly, and yet effectively. In one of the most significant
recent displays of unintended reductio ad absurdum argument,
Alvin Weinberg urged us to accept with enthusiasm, the "Faustian
Bargain" of breeder reactor energy at the cost of accepting the
burden of perpetual management.
"We must prevent man from intruding [on the nuclear
waste deposits] -- and this can be assured only by man
himself. Thus we again come back to the great desirability, if not
absolute necessity ... of keeping the wastes under some kind of
surveillance in perpetuity... something that we [will be]
committed to forever.
"We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society.
On the one hand, we offer -- in the [breeder reactor] --
an inexhaustible source of energy ... But the price that we demand
of society for this magical source is both a vigilance and a
longevity of our social institutions that we are quite
unaccustomed to." (SCIENCE, 7 July, 1972).
As several commentators have correctly noted, Faust got the worst
of "the Faustian Bargain." So too would we.
The source of "the management problem" is no mystery: it is the
principle of entropy. The order ("negentropy") that we impose on our
artificialized systems must be purchased at the price of increased
entropy [disorder] elsewhere -- e.g., pollution, disease,
ecosystemic "unraveling," and other "unintended consequences." In
natural systems, all that entropy is taking place at a safe distance:
91 million miles away, at the sun. (See my "Perilous
Optimism" this site).
Please understand, I am not advocating a return to paleolithic
hunter-gathering existence. Biotically speaking, nature had no more
"use" for me half a lifetime ago -- when I had passed the age of
procreation and child-rearing. I am duly grateful for those
additional decades. While the biotic purpose of legs is to acquire,
or to avoid becoming, prey, this does not diminish the beauty of the
thoroughly artificial Swan Lake. Artificial interventions into
natural processes and conditions have greatly enriched our lives, at
a quite acceptable cost in "management."
My essential message is that we should be aware that artificial
interventions exact costs, and that in some cases (e.g., nuclear
power, destruction of the rain forest, and possibly industrial
agriculture) a circumspect assessment of those management costs might
mandate caution and forbearance.