Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Reconstructing Ecology


By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside

A briefer version of this paper appears in the anthology: Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation, and Health Edited by, R. Noss , L. Westra and D. Pimentel, Island Press, 2000



In the canon of environmental ethics, Aldo Leopold wrote Genesis I-1: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise."(1) However, ecology is a science, and environmental ethics is pursued most scrupulously by philosophers. And to scientists and philosophers, there is no holy text. Even Leopold's maxim is fair game for circumspect analysis, evaluation and confirmation. In fact, the presuppositions of Leopold's maxim have been relentlessly scrutinized, to the point that, if you are to believe many of the "new ecologists," a literal reading of that maxim is about as scientifically respectable as a literal interpretation of Genesis. Gone is the easy assurance of "the integrity and stability of nature." Even "community," that cornerstone of the Leopoldian land ethic, is in disrepute. The "beauty" of nature, a concept saturated with subjectivism and evaluation, never has cut much scientific ice. "Balance" and "equilibrium" are rarely heard today in respectable eco-scientific circles, and according to some radical critics of classical ecology even the system of "ecosystem" is suspect.

Attacks on the once-cherished concepts of ecological stability, equilibrium, balance and integrity come from both within and beyond the ranks of biological science. For example, the biologist, Michael Soulé writes:

"... the idea that species live in integrated communities is a myth.. Living nature is not equilibrial -- at least not on a scale that is relevant to the persistence of species. Nor do homeostatic systems such as Gaia buffer life on a relevant spaciotemporal scale... Current ecological thinking argues that nature at the level of local biotic assemblages has never been homeostatic. The principle of balance has been replaced with the principle of gradation -- a continuum of degrees of disturbance."(2)

So what then remains of "ecology"? According to Kristin Shrader-Frechette and E. D. McCoy, ecology fails as grand and comprehensive theory: it can not predict events, nor can it explain deductively -- i.e., "down" from general theory to particular events. They observe that

... ecologists have defined and used two of the concepts most basic to community ecology -- "community" and stability" -- in ambiguous and often inconsistent ways... Ecologists are likewise divided on what structures communities or holds them together.

Accordingly, they argue, we are thus best advised to confine our ecological attention to empirical "natural -history knowledge" and "individual case studies." [8]

One of the most carefully articulated and thoroughgoing critiques of "classical ecology," is by philosopher Mark Sagoff and was published in the March, 1997 issue of The College of William and Mary Law Review.(3) A pre-publication draft of that paper was presented to The Global Integrity Project at its Montreal meeting in October, 1996.(4)


In Sagoff's lengthy and scrupulously argued critique, the following nine points are conspicuous:

1. The principles of theoretical ecologists can not predict and are not falsifiable, and thus, by implication, they are not confirmable and thus are devoid of scientific significance. [888]

2. "Ecosystems" are, in fact, devoid of system. Put bluntly, "the terms 'eco' and 'system,' when conjoined, constitute an oxymoron" [923] This is because "the ecosystem as an object of scientific inquiry is just a pointless hodgepodge of constantly changing associations of organisms and environments." [901]

3. Nature is in constant change: In support of this claim, Sagoff quotes the biologist, Daniel Botkin: "Wherever we seek to find constancy, we discover change... [We find] that nature undisturbed is not constant in form, structure, or proportion, but changes at every scale of time and space."(6)

4. Ecology lacks a classification system:

"If the term "ecosystem" or "community" [is] to be predicated on a collection of objects over time, there must be a way of telling when this collection is the same community or ecosystem and when it has evolved or changed into a different one. After all, ecosystems never die; they just fade into other ecosystems. Accordingly, in order to predicate properties of ecosystems, we must have a classification scheme that allows us to determine when the object of study remains the same ecosystem even though its qualities change, and when an ecosystem of another time replaces it.... This requirement is an important conceptual condition for doing ecology because otherwise crucial notions, such as resilience or stability, could not have any meaning." [894]

5. Ecology lacks "baselines," -- norms from which to assess deviations. Thus theoretical ecologists are unable to address such questions as these:

"Where in the flux of a biological community do we take a 'snapshot' and say 'here it is in equilibrium' or 'here it has integrity' or 'now we have reached the carrying capacity of the land'? Is the ecosystem developing toward a 'healthy' condition, is it now 'healthy,' or is it falling apart" 'What is the criterion?' These questions are unanswerable because we do not know which qualities of ecosystems are the identifying, genuine, or defining ones." [900]

6. "There are no general truths about ecosystem organization ... anything is possible consistent with the laws of physics in nature. If ecosystems are unstructured, transitory, and accidental in nature, it would seem to follow that no general economic or utilitarian grounds exist for protecting them from change." [931-2]

7. Nature has no logos and it has no telos:

"...nature is going nowhere, has no "integrity" or "well-being" of its own [logos], and is utterly devoid of any meaning, order, purpose, or end [telos]. If contingency, historical accident, turmoil, disturbance, and path-dependent chaotic randomness comprise the only rules that govern the course that ecosystems follow -- or if the terms "eco" and "system," when joined, constitute an oxymoron, as suggested by the "new paradigm" -- then it is just one damned thing after another out there. Nature does not know (it has no logos) and Nature does not care (it has no telos)." [923] (Note the ambiguities raised in the final sentence: logos first as "design" and then as "knowledge," and telos first as "purpose" and then as "caring." These will prove significant later in our analysis).

8. Ecosystems are unaffected by organic evolution.

"Ecosystems could not possibly have acquired [their allegedly] wonderful organization through evolutionary processes. This is because 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. The only other cause is agency, human or Eternal." [957]

9. Value is grounded in individual organisms and (at most) species, not ecosystems.

"It is the unlikelihood, not the perfection, of the living world that amazes us; the improbability of every plant and animal leads us to treasure its existence. Species, even those not yet named, command our moral attention because they have emerged through a billion-year-old toil of evolution... This ethic of preservation, which frankly regards creatures as miraculous in their improbability, values every species as intrinsically marvelous and worthy of respect and admiration, but does not pretend that it fits into a larger design or plan." [966]

With challenges such as these, we have clearly come a long way from the confident quasi-scientific rhetoric of the first Earth Day -- from such bold pronouncements as Barry Commoner's four "Laws of Ecology:" (7)

1. "Everything is Connected to Everything Else."
2. "Everything must Go Somewhere." ("There is no 'away.'")
3. "Nature knows best."
4. "There is no such thing as a free lunch."



Mark Sagoff's critique of ecology strikes at the heart of most (but not all) contemporary schools of environmental ethics. (The exceptions would be the "animal rights" approach, "strong" anthropocentrism, and Sagoff's "intrinsic valuation" of individual organisms). In particular:

  • Most vulnerable is "the land ethic" of Aldo Leopold, who, in that most quoted of all environmental maxims, wrote: "a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."(7)  From this, Sagoff would strip integrity, stability and community, leaving only beauty -- but a beauty, not of the whole, but of the component organisms and species.

  • Gone too is "Muir's maxim:" "You cannot disturb a pasque flower without disturbing a star" -- an affirmation that "all things are connected." Instead, we have a disconnected "hodge-podge" of independently co-existing organisms.

  • Furthermore, "the new ecology" challenges the notion that "integrity" is a recognizable condition in ecosystems, and thus a meaningful goal of environmental policy. "An ecosystem in a state of integrity," writes Laura Westra, "comprises self-organizational processes both in its internal relations and its external ones with adjacent ecosystems."(9) To the contrary, Sagoff rejoins, "nature has no 'integrity' or 'well-being' of its own, and is utterly devoid of any meaning, order, purpose, or end." [923]

  • And if Sagoff is correct, the attention of conservationists and preservationists should be directed, not to ecosystems, but to individual organisms and to species. In particular, "wilderness preservation" is a meaningless and pointless enterprise.(8)

The implications of "the new ecology" for public environmental policy are profound. Gone is a justification for wilderness preservation, much less of wilderness restoration. For if ecosystems are in constant but aimless flux, then attempts to "preserve" (i.e., protect from change) an allegedly "pristine" state, are "contrary to nature."(9) And proposals to "restore" wilderness raise the question, "restore to what condition?" If there is no definable "baseline" condition that describes "wilderness," then that question has no answer and thus "restoration" policy has no foundation or meaning. Finally, endangered species legislation loses its justification for, according to Sagoff, extinction is of no great practical significance. After all, he writes, "... no extinction of any species in the United States seems thus far to have altered the capacity of the ecosystems to provide these services. The reason may be that for any species that is lost, tens, hundreds, or thousands of others are ready, willing, and able to perform the same functions and services valuable to human beings." [904] And, human beings aside, "no prima facie, general, or theoretical reason can be given, then, to suppose that the extinction of species now feared will in any meaningful way harm nature, because nature, having neither design or direction, is not the sort of thing that can suffer harm."(10) [967]

To be sure, Sagoff is not indifferent to the loss of species which, he insists, "commands our moral attention..." (And thus I wrote, above, of extinction as having "no practical significance, though to Sagoff it would be of moral significance). Accordingly, Sagoff endorses an "ethic of preservation," which "values every species as intrinsically marvelous and worthy of respect and admiration." [966] How, then, are we to act in conformance to this "ethic of preservation?" By preserving habitats and ecosystems? Only if such preservation serves as effective means to the end of protecting the species. The ecosystems themselves, he assures us, have no intrinsic value. So if, for example, the California Condor would be safer in a zoo or refuge than in its "natural" habitat, so be it. There remains no further objection to bringing in the bulldozers and "developing" the Los Padres National Forest.(11)



So what remains of ecology, and is it enough to lend comfort to those still attracted to the Leopoldian Land Ethic or, for that matter, an ethic of "integrity"? I believe there is. But while I believe much of value can be salvaged from the older notion of "nature as community," it would be a mistake to assume that this older view can be rescued intact from these critics. Ecology will never be the same -- nor should it be.

I offer nine fundamental points of rebuttal to the new critics in general, and to Sagoff in particular:

  • These challenges are both persuasive an original. Unfortunately, many of the challenges that are persuasive are not original, and many that are original are not persuasive.(12)

  • Some of the challenges are plainly false: in particular, the charge that ecological theory is non-falsifiable, non-predictive, and devoid of an operational classification system.

  • Ecosystems are, in fact, systems.

  • Ecosystems are sensitive to natural selection among their components, and thus exhibit the kind of systemic structure, integrity and resilience that is found among organisms.

  • Sagoff's charge that "nature does not know ([because it] has no logos) and does not care ([because it] has no telos) is true -- and irrelevant to the "moral uses of ecology.

  • Traditional ecologists did not (or at least did not need to) claim that "equilibrium" and "balance" were perfectly exemplified in nature. Rather, these are "ideal types," of the sort that are well known in such "hard sciences" as physics.

  • Ecosystems can be recognized to be, in some non-normative sense, "better" or "worse" than others. ("Healthier" if you prefer.). Thus there may well be good reason to prefer "natural" ecosystems to those "cultivated" by human societies.

  • The ultimate inscrutability of ecosystems, suggested by the new ecologists, far from undermining ecological morality, serves to strengthen it.

  • Because virtually all "deconstructionist ecologists" accept the theory of evolution, they must presuppose some degree of design, order, constancy and resilience -- i.e., some system in ecosystems.

1. That which is persuasive is not original; that which is original is not persuasive..

Persuasive but not original: "Wherever we seek to find constancy," writes Daniel Botkin, "we discover change." Perfect equilibrium and balance are nowhere to be found in nature. "Nature is in constant flux."(13)

But of course nature is in constant flux. What self-respecting biologist would deny this! It's called "evolution." But this does not preclude us from recognizing significant differences in the scale of change. After all, species change through evolution. But this does not forbid biologists from utilizing the concept of species, nor to develop a taxonomy of species. In fact, without that taxonomy, the theory of evolution might never have been developed.

The issue deserves closer scrutiny. And so we return to Botkin -- in particular, his account of the biotic history of the history of the "Boundary Waters" region of northern Minnesota and southern Ontario:

... the last glaciation was followed by a tundra period in which the ground was covered by low shrubs now characteristic of the far North, as well as reindeer moss and other lichens and lower plants. The tundra was replaced by a forest of spruce, species that are now found in the boreal forests of the North, where they dominate many areas of Alaska and Ontario. About 9,200 years ago the spruce forest was replaced by a forest of jack pine and red pine, trees characteristic of warmer and drier areas. Paper birch and alder immigrated into this forest about 8,300 years ago; white pine arrived about 7,000 years ago, and then there was a return to spruce, jack pine, and white pine, suggesting a cooling of the climate. Thus every thousand years a substantial change occurred in the vegetation of the forest, reflecting in part changes in the climate and in part the arrival of species that had been driven south during the ice age and were slowly returning. Which of these forests represent the natural state. If one's goal were to return the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to its natural condition, which of these forests would one choose? Each appears equally natural in the sense that each dominated the landscape for approximately 1,000 years, and each occupied the area at a time when the influence of human beings was non-existent or slight."(14)

Botkin asks, rhetorically, "which of these forests represents the natural state," as if to suggest that, due to the multiplicity of states thus described, there is no so-called "natural state." But this very passage suggests a non-rhetorical rebuttal: "the natural state" is that which is brought about by the climatic (and other) conditions that prevail at the time. That "state" is established by (relatively) undisturbed nature, and then is succeeded when natural circumstances change.

Put bluntly, I suggest that a critical examination of this passage will yield us less here than meets the eye, and less than Botkin intended. For what is Botkin asserting that any informed "equilibrium model ecologist" such as Odum or Leopold, would deny? All these ecologists are well aware that North America undergoes periodic recurrences of ice ages and other climatic changes, measured in tens of thousands of years. But "balance," "equilibrium" and "resilience" are conditions posited within stable abiotic (e.g., climatic) conditions -- or as the popular phrase has it, "all else being equal." Granted, "all else" is never completely "equal," and so classical ecologists write of "tendencies" toward balance, equilibrium and resilience. Still, these ecosystemic concepts are quite enough to supply us with explanations of the past and predictions for the future.

To illustrate this point, let us shift our attention from the Boundary Waters to the Pacific Northwest.

About ten years ago, on a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle, I looked out the window upon an unforgettable scene of utter devastation. It was, of course, the area immediately north of Mount St. Helens. On that vast mantle of tan pumice and fallen logs, there was no apparent sign of life. And yet, a layman might surmise, and a professional historical-ecologist would confirm, that in another five hundred years (absent climate change or massive human intervention), the area would look very much as it did on that early morning of May 18, 1980, moments before the north face of the mountain exploded. Through known stages of ecological succession, it will once again become what it was before: a northern conifer rain forest -- not a tundra, or a tropical rain forest, or a prairie, or a Sonoran desert.

How would we know this? We know by studying neighboring areas up and down the Cascade Range, where other volcanoes, at determined dates in the geologically recent past, caused similar devastation. There we find, at this moment, the various stages of succession and recovery. And in those regions untouched by a recent eruption or fire or logging, we encounter an identifiable "type" of integrated life community -- an ecosystem -- very much as one would have encountered two-, three-, or four-hundred years ago. This is what ecologists correctly call a "climax stage."

Would the acute botanical eye of a time-traveling Prof. Botkin detect differences at hundred-year intervals? Of course. But once again, no one suggests that "balance, equilibrium and resilience" are ever perfectly exemplified in nature. Nor is a "climax community" ever completely static. These concepts, after all, describe "tendencies." But surely, these concepts are scientifically useful, as they describe significant conditions and differences. (We will expand upon this point in "Objection 4," below). True, there is no "perfect balance and equilibrium" in nature. Still there is a significant difference between the "imbalance and disequlibrium" of the Pacific Northwest forests of, say, four hundred years ago, and that of the same forest today as it is assaulted by Weyerhauser's chain saws. The former is measured on a time scale of millennia, while the latter is measured in years.(15)

To ignore such contrast in scale would be comparable to dismissing the concept of "disease" in medicine, with such an argument as this: "you say that so-called 'disease' causes changes in the organism? Well, so too does aging? In fact, everyone's organic condition is in constant flux. So what's the difference?" Similarly, "the biodiversity crisis" is casually dismissed with the remark, "why worry about extinction? After all, extinction is a natural process." In all these cases the difference is degree of change -- and it is a difference that is ignored at the peril of both the patient and a civilization.(16)

No doubt, the concepts of ecological balance and stability have been exaggerated in the hands and heads of some uncritical writers and activists, and some unfounded ideology has emerged from these abuses. We are thus indebted to Daniel Botkin and others for supplying a much-needed antidote. But is it not possible that Sagoff has taken an overdose of that antidote, as he proclaims that the term "ecosystem" is "oxymoronic," and that so-called "natural communities" are merely "random, accidental, contingent and purposeless collections of biological flotsam and jetsam." [931n]


Original but not persuasive: In a breathtaking feat of creative imagination, Sagoff associates "theoretical" or ("old") ecology -- a position defended by renowned biological scientists -- with "the design argument" and even with "creation science." He writes:

Theoretical ecology .. represents the triumph of Great Chain of Being cosmology in our time... The term 'evolution,' as employed in theoretical ecology, may be understood as a stand-in or proxy for God as the designer of ecosystems. If this is so, then to the extent that ecology attributes logos and telos to nature, there may be little reason to distinguish it from Creation Science.". [959-60]

And in his dismissal of Paul Ehrlich's well-known "rivet popping" analogy, (19) Sagoff writes:

The implication of [this] analogy is that ecosystems are designed to support human existence and that each species has a (sometimes redundant) place in that design. Humanity, in that design, crowns creation, and all other species are artfully placed, like rivets in a wing or links in a chain, supporting homo sapiens. [962]

I am sure that Prof. Ehrlich would find this a bizarre interpretation of his analogy, as do I. The rivet story was, after all, an illustrative figure, not an argumentative device. Never have I read nor heard of Ehrlich, or any scientifically trained ecologist for that matter, drawing such "theological implications." Nor does the concept of "ecosystem as system" require such an analogy or bear any such implications. Bio-scientists normally treat ecosystems naturalistically. Thus by posing the question, "What are ecosystems designed to do?," Sagoff is simply begging his assumption that ecologists are crypto-theologians in search of a "designer." [962] In fact, few ecologists believe that ecosystems are "designed," still less that they are "designed" for our benefit -- nor do they need to. Quite the contrary, they argue that the widespread attitude in industrial civilizations that the Earth is a cosmic vending machine "designed" for our benefit, has caused homo sapiens much grief in the past and is leading us toward catastrophe in the future. As James Lovelock once said of his Gaia hypothesis, to suggest that the Gaia operates to make the planet hospitable to life, does not necessarily mean hospitable to human life.


2. Some of the challenges are plainly false: in particular, the charge that ecological theory is non-falsifiable, non-predictive, and devoid of an operational classification system.

Falsifiability: Sagoff correctly points out that scientific hypotheses and theories must be falsifiable: they must, that is, they must describe a world that is identifiably different from what the world would be like if the scientific claim were false. [949] Thus a scientifically sound theory yields predictions which, by implication, "rule out" innumerable conceivable states-of affairs.

Consider, for example, general relativity theory. If the established alternative theory of Newton were correct, light from a distant star passing near the sun during an eclipse would be unaffected. Einstein's equations, to the contrary, predicted deflection of the light due to "space-time distortion," and then placed precisely the apparent location of the star during the eclipse. The prediction thus, by implication, ruled out all alternative apparent locations. Had the light source appeared at any other apparent location, the theory would have been falsified.

Similarly, there are numerous imaginable fossil depositions, or DNA sequences, or anatomical structures, and so forth, which, if discovered, would refute organic evolution. Exhaustive field and laboratory research has failed to find any of these.

In contrast, consider two creationist "theories" of the origin of fossils that I was taught as a child: (a) God placed them in the ground to test our faith, and (b) Satan placed them in the ground to lead us astray. Each theory is non-falsifiable, since, no matter what we might find in nature, we can assume, a priori, that God or Satan (take your pick) has superior capabilities to "test" or "deceive," as the case may be. Put another way, neither of these "theories" "explain" fossils; rather, they attempt to "explain them away." Presumably, Sagoff's complaint against "theoretical ecologists" is that reports of failure to find "integrity" in ecosystems, is routinely followed by the retort, "well, you just haven't looked hard enough" -- i.e., that these ecologists give no hint of what it would be like for their theories to be false, and thus they interpret this self-defined "failure" to refute as confirmation of their theory.

Contra Sagoff, it appears, in numerous cases, that ecological theory is quite falsifiable -- i.e., that it describes a world, that could readily be found to be otherwise if the theory were false. Consider for example, "succession theory." Any time someone returns, contrary to that theory, with a confirmable report of a meadow being replaced, first by shade tolerant conifers, then succeeded by shrubs and "junk wood" such as aspens and birches -- at such a time, standard succession theory will have been falsified and refuted.

Or consider Liebig's law of "limiting factors." One can describe a Julian-Simon type world in which an ecosystem, or a species population within, having utilized all available amounts of a necessary nutrient, then go about and find some suitable "substitute resource." Nature simply does not, and can readily be shown not to, work that way.

Finally, there are all kinds of ways that energy flows through ecosystems might be imagined to violate fundamental thermodynamic laws. If, for example, these laws did not apply to ecosystems, the numbers or the biomass of predators in proportion to their prey would be found to be different than they are in fact.

The predictability of ecological assertions follow directly from their accordance with the falsifiability criterion. Thus we can correctly predict the succession of tree communities in a clear-cut or burnt-over forest. And, once we have ascertained that oxygen is the limiting factor in an aquatic ecosystem, we can predict the consequences of oxygen deprivation.

Finally, classificatory systems: Sagoff points out that "in order to predicate properties of ecosystems, we must have a classification scheme that allows us to determine when the object of study remains the same ecosystem even though its qualities change, and when an ecosystem of another time replaces it." [894]

In this criticism of "the old ecology," Sagoff is employing "the spectrum argument" (also known as "the argument of the beard"(20)); namely, the argument that from the absence of clear lines of demarcation along a continuum, one concludes that there is no difference in extremes in that continuum. Applied to the case at hand, it is admittedly true that absent catastrophic events such as fires, floods or volcanic eruptions, ecosystems change gradually. Thus, the "boundary lines" (if any) between ecosystemic types are indistinct and somewhat arbitrary. However, it does not follow from this that an ecological classification scheme is unattainable. The ecological application of the "spectrum" fallacy is compelling: When settlers find a forest, and then clear-cut it to make way for monocultural fields, at which particular tree-felling does the ecosystem change from forest to field? None? Then, the argument goes, there is no difference between a forest and a field. Clearly a fallacy.

In point of fact, ecology does have a classification scheme. The distinction between producers, consumers and decomposers is as secure in ecology as the distinction between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks in geology -- and as fundamental to the structure of the science. In addition, it is noteworthy that these concepts are defined in terms of functions within a system -- the ecosystem. And while Daniel Botkin might disagree, there is also a less-firm but nonetheless essential classificatory distinction between transitional and climax communities. The former are characterized by internal mechanisms of relatively rapid change often following sudden catastrophic interventions (such as fire or volcanic eruption), while the latter are characterized by slow change brought on by moderate external perturbations. However, as the "new ecologists" never tire of reminding us (while few of the "old" have ever disagreed), so-called "climax communities" are never totally static.

Notwithstanding all this, Sagoff insists that ecology is a quasi-science since "there are no universal patterns or determinate relationships among the typical constructs of ecological theory..." [949] Really?  What about the universal pattern that describes the relationship between producers, consumers and decomposers?  What about the unidirectional flow of energy and nutrients "up" the trophic pyramid?  Wolves "universally" hunt, never graze -- even when there is no game to hunt, in which case they starve. Why is this?  Because of the digestive system of canids, which has evolved to its state due to the ecological niche that the organisms have come to occupy. The ecosystem has shaped the genome of the wolf which, reciprocally, has implications for the system. All this is described by rules and concepts of ecology which are falsifiable -- i.e., might be recognizably false in a world differently ordered (e.g., a "Star-Trek" world of "shape-shifter" and "genome-shifter" organisms -- a conceivable world, but not our world).

Having said all this, we must acknowledge that Sagoff's criticisms are not without some merit. As we shall point out in the conclusion, while some ecological theories are falsifiable, others are just marginally so. And while there is an identifiable classificatory scheme in ecology, there is room in the science for considerable improvement in conceptual clarification and taxonomy.


3. Ecosystems are, in fact, systems.

Perturbations to parts of ecosystems affect all or most other parts. In that finest ecological speech never uttered, Chief Seattle (allegedly) said, "all things are connected." And Garrett Hardin: "You can't do just one thing." Yet Sagoff would have us believe that "the terms 'eco' and 'system,' when conjoined, constitute an oxymoron." [923]

If we are to determine whether or not ecosystems are "systemic," we must first define "system." I propose the following definition: "a system is a collection of identifiably separate entities acting in dynamic interaction to perform tasks in concert that can not be accomplished separately." Accordingly, a watch and a computer is a system -- also a football team, a thermostat and furnace, and, as I hope to demonstrate, an ecosystem.

Consider first, the football team. A well-executed play accomplishes, through the integrated activity of the team, what no single player can do by himself. A completed forward pass is, by definition, a "binary" act (involving the quarterback and receiver), and it takes place in the context of blocks, fakes, etc., involving all eleven members of the team. By contrast, a broken play is a system in disintegration, and it is accomplished through the successful systemic integration of the defense.

The thermostat and furnace, acting together, constitute a simple "negative feedback system." We all know the "loop" mechanism: furnace on > heat rises > thermostat off > furnace off > heat falls > thermostat on > furnace on -- and thus the loop is closed, and the process continues in perpetuo, "all else being equal" (which it never is).

But take note of some properties of this simplest of systems. First of all, the temperature is constantly changing, and thus "unstable" and in "disequilibrium." We will call this "first-order instability." But the pattern and the outer limits of that change is constant ("all else equal"), providing what we shall call "second-order stability and equilibrium." However, "all else" is not equal, for the temperature outside the house fluctuates, so that when that temperature rises, the furnace-on phase is proportionately lower until, past a certain point, the system shuts down.

But although the furnace-thermostat system undergoes constant "first-order" change, no one would deny that it constitutes a "system." A thermostat alone can not heat the house, and a furnace alone will  not provide a regulated temperature. Together, these components accomplish what each can not do alone.

Consider next a biotic analog to the thermostat-furnace system, namely the Canadian lynx-hare cycle, familiar to most beginning students of animal ecology. When the lynx population is low, the hare population soars, increasing the food supply for the lynx, causing an increase in the lynx population, causing a crash in the hare population, followed by a crash in the lynx population, once again opening an opportunity for the hares to do their rodent-thing -- da capo, perpetuo moto. So much for the theory. In fact, a two-hundred year record from the Hudson Bay company confirms the theory.(17)

Thus we are led to ask: if the thermostat-furnace interaction constitutes a "system," then why not the lynx-hare interaction? What do the lynxes and hares accomplish together that they might not accomplish alone? First of all, they have (at least in part) selected each other's genomes. Also, the "system" succeeds precisely because the lynx do not succeed in hunting down the last hare, for if they did, the ecosystem would collapse. Thus the hares "cooperate" by obligingly avoiding complete annihilation. More to the point, the ecosystem to which these two species belong -- comprising climate, soils, and many additional species, including those that feed the hares -- provides a "home" for all these species, which could not survive outside of such a system.(18)

In short, ecosystems are systems because the components are dynamically interactive. An organism receives its nutrients from other components, and in turn yields its nutrients to still others. A functional change in one component organism thus reverberates throughout the system. The literature of ecology is rich, even notorious, with examples of inscrutably complex interactions and "webs" in life communities, catastrophically disrupted by the introduction of exotic invaders -- notably, the arrival of avian malaria to Hawaii, of rabbits to Australia, Zebra Mussels to the Great Lakes, feral goats on the Channel Islands off California, DDT broadcast to control "insect pests," and so on.

None of this impresses Sagoff, as he scoffs at the idea of "keystone species," the removal of which can cause the collapse of an ecosystem. [928-9] He should explain that insignificance to the orchard growers of California, who now must hire bee keepers to bring in the little critters to do the work that nature provided for free, before industrial agriculture "improved" on nature by broadcasting pesticides. No bees, no pollination; no pollination, no crop. Who would have thought?!

But don't the California orchard growers just prove Sagoff's point; namely, that there is 'no prima facie reason to believe that changes we humans inflict on nature ... must go badly for us?" [931] After all, they were capable of solving their problem by importing pollinators. Generally speaking, if, as Sagoff has argued, "ecological systems and communities are just random, accidental, contingent , and purposeless collections of biological flotsam and jetsam, then there is no general instrumental reason to preserve them." [931n]

On the contrary, it seems that Sagoff's allegedly random, chaotic hodgepodge of life forms cannot be duplicated by any available amount of human ingenuity. This fact was vividly demonstrated by that spectacularly failed experiment, "Biosphere 2." This two-hundred million dollar project attempted to establish a totally isolated and enclosed ecosystem which, like natural systems, could sustain the eight "ecospherians" indefinitely. Instead, reports Paul Ehrlich and associates,

... the experiment ended early in failure: atmospheric oxygen concentration had dropped [from 20] to 14 percent (a level typical of elevations of 17,500 feet); carbon dioxide spiked erratically; nitrous-oxide concentrations rose to levels that can impair brain functions; nineteen of twenty-five vertebrate species went extinct; all pollinators went extinct thereby dooming to eventual extinction most of the plant species; aggressive vines and algal mats overgrew other vegetation and polluted the water, crazy ants, cockroaches and katydids ran rampant. Not even heroic efforts on the part of the system's desperate inhabitants could suffice to make the system viable.(19)

"Biosphere 2," it seems, reiterates J. B. S. Haldane's reflection that nature is more strange than we know or can even imagine.(20)  More to the point, it seems to tell us, contra Sagoff, that not just any collection of aggregated life forms is sustainable -- still worse, we seem quite incapable of assembling any group of organisms that is sustainable.

Sagoff's charge that the word "ecosystem" is oxymoronic -- that life communities are random and chaotic -- places him on a fringe beyond most of the "new ecologists." Among the biologists leading the charge against "the old ecology" is Daniel Botkin.  Yet Botkin remains an ecologist to the last for, despite his attacks upon the idols of "equilibrium" and "the balance of nature," he can not eschew the fundamental concept of the organized life community -- the ecosystem:

"We are accustomed to thinking of life as a characteristic of individual organisms. Individuals are alive, but an individual cannot sustain life. Life is sustained only be a group of organisms of many species -- not simply a horde of mob, but a certain kind of system composed of many individuals of different species -- and their environment, making together a network of living and nonliving parts that can maintain the flow of energy and the cycling of chemical elements that, in turn, support life." (Botkin, DH 7)

4. Ecosystems are sensitive to natural selection among their components, and thus exhibit the kind of systemic structure, integrity and resilience that is found among organisms.

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." [957]

On the contrary, I will argue, 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.

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. Since Darwin's time, we have recognized that the eagle's eye, the bee's dance, and the deer's alertness are all traits "designed" (better, "selected") to enhance the prospects for survival of the organisms. Why, then, do such critics as Sagoff have such difficulty acknowledging that these survival traits "fit," one to another, into larger patterns of mutually accommodating arrangements? Any student of biology recognizes such arrangements when they exist between two species; they are called, symbioses, of which the cooperative arrangement between the bee and the blossom is the paradigm example. The bee evolves better to find the blossom, as the blossom evolves better to attract the bee. Thus emerges a subsystem of the larger ecosystem. Further investigation reveals that these interactions are not only binary, but also triadic, quadratic, n-atic -- i.e., systemic. In other words, the number of species with which an organism interacts and which determines its genome extends far beyond those which it eats and by which it is eaten. Just to begin to extend that list, we must include those that eat and are eaten by their prey and their predators, and to that the many species which regulate the soils and climate, and still others that perform symbiotic services -- and so on, ad infinitum.

And when there is a tear in the fabric of the system, does not the system react in a manner that is least traumatic to the component members, for no other reason than that those members are designed to respond "conservatively," which is to say, within the capacities of their genomes? There is no mysterious telic "design" at work here, nor does the ecologist need to hypothesized such a design.

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 Sagoff describes. In fact, a Sagovian chaos describes precisely what is wrong with thoughtless human intervention into nature; after a clear-cut or the planting of a monocultural grainfield, there are few niches remaining that can be occupied by any species, save the managed species (e.g., corn or red-pine) and, of course, short-lived organisms and rapidly adapting species such as insect and microbial pests, which must, in turn, be "managed."

In fact, the "natural" stability of forest ecosystems precisely explains the threat posed to them by global warming; for such an event threatens the collapse of established forests due to their inability to adapt to sudden climate changes. For example, northern boreal forests are too well adapted to their "normal climate" to adjust to the change that may be coming, and, unlike the birds, they can not "migrate" north -- not in the time scale forecast by the climatologists.

In sum: natural ecosystems are "self-organizing" simply because the component species require some order and stability if they are to survive -- that's simple genetics. And if no ordered stability, then no ecosystem -- or at best, a simple and desolate system, such as a desert.

Thus far, we have suggested how ecosystemic evolution reflects and reciprocates the evolution of the component species. However, there is an even more direct "natural selection" of ecosystems which takes place even though, as Sagoff reminds us, ecosystems do not reproduce, lack genomes, and do not breed true. The basis of this "natural selection" is the simple fact that most combinations of co-existing life forms are not sustainable.

Consider the implications of two laboratory studies. Botkin reports G. F Gause's experiment involving two protist species, a predator (didinium) and a prey (paramecium). They did not follow the "Lotka-Volterra model" of predator-prey oscillation, such as that which took place between the lynx and the hare. Instead, the predator didinium devoured the very last paramecium, following which, of course, the predators starved. A similar, and quite familiar, experiment involves fruit flies confined to a jar and an abundant supply of food. The population soars, and then drops to zero as the flies consume all their food, or alternatively (before the food is gone), are poisoned by their own waste. (This phenomenon precisely describes why naturally fermented wine achieves no more than 12 percent alcohol content. At that concentration, the alcohol, a waste product of the yeast's metabolism, destroys the yeast cells).

These are two laboratory examples of failed ecosystems. No doubt there are, in nature, many comparable failures. In the case of the Canadian lynxes and hares, if the lynxes had managed to hunt out the very last hare, and no hares were to migrate in, then that ecosystem would have collapsed. The external perturbations and internal mutations of which the "new ecologists" are fond of reminding us, constantly "throw up" new arrangements, most of which presumably fail. Those that succeed do so (through no prearranged our "thought-out" design), because they happen to come up with sustainable patterns of nutrient recycling, energy flow, population control, and other essential services that characterize a stable ecosystem. Established ecosystems of which we are aware are necessarily systems that have thus succeeded. The failed systems, per hypothesis, are not available for study, unless of course we happen to find them as they collapse.

This is how "natural selection" operates "on the ecosystem level." As with evolving organisms, "ecosystemic evolution" is not planned, but it is selected, resulting in a systems that are intricately structured, robust, resilient -- in a word, hospitable to the species that comprise them.

The falsifiable implications of the ecological theory that I have sketched here are easily articulated and, moreover, are widely discovered in nature. A catastrophic intervention in the system, such as a fire or a drought, creates conditions which are no longer viable for the organisms that are specialized and/or higher in the trophic pyramid. The system suffers what is called a "crash", leading, not just to "some other" community, but rather a community that is simpler (less diverse), less productive (of biomass), and more entropic (ergo more probable). And so we find the desert which follows the forest and the prairie.

And what if the event impacts just one species? The American Chestnut blight, or the hunting to near extinction of the southern Sea Otters comes to mind. If the species is a "keystone" in the system, and if there is no other species at hand to do the essential job ("fill the niche"), the system might crash, and be replaced by a simpler system, which then might evolve in the long-term toward complexity. This describes the fate of the kelp forests along the northern California coast, following the loss of the sea otters. If the system is diverse, however, the lost niche may be occupied by an adjacent species, as was the case when the oaks replaced the chestnuts, with little impact upon the stability of the hardwood ecosystem. (Or so it was in the hardwood forests of New Jersey, where I grew up. Sagoff describes more severe results elsewhere [894-5]). However -- and this is the essential point -- that eastern hardwood forest was essentially unchanged, not because there was no ecosystem there; not, that is to say, because the "forest" was nothing but a bunch of trees growing up independently, side-by-side. The system was able to "repair itself" because of the redundant and interlocking functions of the component members. It had, so to speak, the "spare parts" at hand. And thus the catastrophe for the chestnuts became an opportunity for the oaks.

But now we are back to "the old ecology" -- the notion of an evolving, self-maintaining system of dynamically interactive parts.

In short, while it is true that "ecosystems do not reproduce, possess genomes, or breed true," [956] the biotic components of ecosystems do all these things! And thus, ecosystems evolve as their components evolve. ("Fallacy of Composition," you say? However, not all composition arguments are fallacies. Ask any chef). Or, putting it another way, the component species of ecosystems evolve concomitantly, selecting strategies of survival in their environment. And since that environment provides both food sources and threats, this means that those "strategies of survival" must be attuned to the evolving natures of the other species in the system. The deer owes its alertness and fleetness to the wolf which selected those traits, as the wolf owes its keen olfactory sense to the deer which selected that trait -- and thus they evolve together, two adjoining parts of a complex system, the parts and interactions of which can never be fully enumerated, but which include earthworms, dung beetles, intestinal bacteria, and all the other "little things that run the world" which, as E. O. Wilson reminds us, we need but do not need us.

To Sagoff, nature is wonderful enough without what he considers the ill-founded baggage of ecology. He writes that: " ... the unlikelihood -- not the perfection -- of the living world amazes us; the improbability of every plant and animal leads us to treasure its existence. Species -- even those not yet named -- command our moral attention because they have emerged through a billion year old toil of evolution." [966]

Eloquent and commendable sentiments! But note what is left out. "Toil of evolution" through what?! Through the interactive company of other species, of course, the vast majority of which have passed into extinction. And these surviving species and their lineal predecessors have prevailed because, throughout that billion year history, they have functioned in ecological niches, from which they have secured nourishment and defense sufficiently adequate to keep this biotic line intact. Any sudden break in that constant condition, and that species would not now be available for Sagoff's and our admiration. Not just any arbitrary and chaotic "hodgepodge" of aggregated co-existing life forms can accomplish this -- only a moderately (though not perfectly) stable and integrated "community" of life forms.

Sagoff's view of nature reminds me of the Bronx Zoo that I visited as a child. There I encountered, in adjacent and isolated cages and boxes, one species, and then another, and then another. But as Sagoff knows full well, along with the rest of us, that's not how nature "works." What else but a complex "community" of dynamically interacting life forms, in the context of favorable physical and chemical conditions, could possibly account for the evolution of that abundance of life, with all its beauty, mystery and wonder, that Sagoff treasures, along with the rest of us? Yet, somehow, I find in his de-ecologized nature much less to wonder at.


5. Sagoff's charge that "nature does not know (has no logos) and does not care (has no telos) is true -- and irrelevant to "the moral uses of ecology." Ecological science is not the whole of an environmental ethic: it is an essential, albeit non-normative ingredient of such an ethic.

Sagoff's assertion that nature has neither logos or telos turns out, in its several expressions, to be ambiguous.

In one interpretation -- that "nature does not know (has no logos) and does not care (has no telos)" [923], he is clearly correct. Knowing and caring are qualities of sentient, cognitive, and moral beings, which the abstraction "nature" clearly is not. Trouble is, I cannot identify anyone (apart from new-age cultists) who believe that nature "knows" or "cares about" anything. Certainly, no bio-scientists that I am aware of.

Explicating a different interpretation of natural logos and telos, Sagoff remarks that certain unidentified "contemporary theorists ... argue that nature exemplifies a purposive design -- an equilibrium, homeostasis, or orderly strategy of development." [940] But are these appositional terms -- "purposive design" on the one hand, and "equilibrium," etc. on the other -- equivalents? I suggest not. It is quite possible to affirm "orderly strategy of development," or "equilibrium," and "homeostasis," and yet deny "a purposive design." The former triad of terms need not involve ontological or even theological presuppositions. For while the concept of (first order) "equilibrium" is fast losing favor among ecologists, such notions of "orderly development" as speciation and community succession remain robust.

In fact, ecological theory is not wedded to pre-Darwinian doctrines such as Aristotelian final causes, "the great chain of being," and certainly not, as Sagoff suggests, to "creation science." Nor does ecology assume that ecosystems are somehow "designed" to benefit humanity. Quite the contrary! With rare exceptions, scientific ecologists do not attempt "to describe the living world in ways that answer to religious and moral expectations." [963]. "Design" and "plan" are Sagoff's words, not the ecologist's.

Still, the scientist's "nature," though devoid of "knowing," "caring," or "purposive design," is not devoid of interest to the environmental ethicist. The admittedly non-normative laws of nature (including "laws" of ecology), supply essential consequents of moral hypothetical imperatives: "if (moral desideratum), then (obedience to natural law)." In this sense, ecology is no more or less relevant to morality than physiology is morally relevant to the doctor, or, for that matter, materials science to the civil engineer building a bridge. The properties of cyanide are non-normative. The murderer's knowledge of those properties, and his willingness to apply that knowledge, constitute his moral guilt. Those non-normative properties of cyanide, and a knowledge thereof, are necessary but insufficient grounds of that guilt. Thus we can see that while medicine is a normative activity, it is based on non-normative science.

Similarly, the known facts (or laws, if you will) of ecology are morally significant, albeit non-normative, ingredients of decisions, say, whether or not to use DDT on crops, to clear-cut rain forests, to release CFCs into the atmosphere, etc.


6. Traditional ecologists did not (or at least did not need to) claim that "equilibrium" and "balance" were perfectly exemplified in nature. Rather, these are "ideal types," of the sort that are well known in such "hard sciences" as physics.

"Old" ecologists freely use "ideal types" -- arguably, too freely -- e.g., "equilibrium," "climax ecosystem," "natural balance," etc., all of which they acknowledge are not perfectly exemplified in nature. "Ideal types" are often identified by the following tag, "all other things being equal" (which, of course, they never are). No one is particularly troubled when physicists use such "ideal types" as "perfect vacuum," "absolute zero" or "frictionless machine" -- none of which are ever found in nature. We should, however, be much more troubled than we are when we encounter such ideal economic types as "perfect market" or "economic man." (Cf. our "Twentieth Century Alchemy," this site). Most ecological "types," I suspect, fall in between these extremes.

Why should we be comfortable with the ideal types of the physicists, but not with those of the economists? Because in physics, these "ideal types" are derived, "one at a time," from carefully conducted experiments and measurements, and they are asymptotic extrapolations from "near perfect" laboratory conditions -- "end points" of precisely measured empirical functions. And finally, in physics, unlike economics, these "ideal types, when employed in the "hypothetical-deductive" methodology of physical science, yield falsifiable predictions and thence experimental verifications.

None of this is true of the economists' "ideal types." They are not extrapolated to zero, they are not the single controlled variables of experiments, but rather are "bundled together" in theoretical constructs. Furthermore, they "posit" as irrelevant to their theory, conditions which are in fact inalienable to human motives and economic activity: i.e., they "factor out" such things as transaction costs, externalities, collusion, restricted access, imperfect information, distributive injustice, self-transcending motivation and communal loyalty. In other words, they fail to describe "real" human beings and real human communities.

The ecological concepts of "climax," "balance," stability," etc. belong, I suspect, somewhere midway in this scale of theoretical utility between "absolute zero" and "economic man." Admittedly, many ecologists, and even more, environmental activists, have given these concepts more conceptual and theoretical solidity than they deserve and can bear. And we owe much to biologists such as Botkin, and philosophers such as Sagoff, for pointing this out to us. But perhaps their criticisms should also be looked at with caution.

Granted, when it comes to its use of "ideal type concepts," ecology isn't rocket science. But neither is it creation science.


7. Ecosystems can be recognized to be, in some non-normative sense, "better" or "worse" than others. ("Healthier," if you prefer). Thus there may well be good reason to prefer "natural" ecosystems to those "cultivated" by human societies.

The essential difference, I contend, between (relatively) "natural" and artificial ecosystems is that undisturbed nature is "self-managing" -- i.e., absent significant perturbations from the outside, a mature ecosystem remains pretty much as it is. In contradistinction, "artificialized" ecosystems (e.g., farms), must be "managed". And even so, they tend to lose even their anthropocentrically defined "values," as, for example, topsoil is lost or soil nutrients of the forest are "exported" along with the lumber. The new ecologists insist that there are no "constant states" in natural ecosystems -- that "all is flux." Granted, perfect constancy is a myth -- an "ideal type," if for no other reason than no ecosystems are entirely "closed," and thus outside forces (migrations, climate changes, etc.), keep "bumping" the system. Moreover, mutations are constantly occurring to organisms within the system. But here is the essential point: the heraclitean "flux" in natural ecosystems that so captivates the attention of the new ecologists is a very slow and a self-healing process, while anthropogenic effects are sudden and disruptive.

But need we be so suspicious of human interventions in nature? Might we not, instead, "look to technology" to overcome biotic limits, just as we have done so to overcome physical limits, e.g., to transportation. "No one," Sagoff remarks, "still believes that we should not fly because God did not give us wings."(21)  Answer: we can fly today, because we have learned the physics of aerodynamics, not because we have "overcome" physical laws. We can not overcome biotic constraints, precisely because we do not have an understanding comparable to our understanding of physics and mechanics. In the life science, we are not like rocket scientists aiming for the stars; we are more like Icarus, pasting feathers on our arms with beeswax.

Furthermore, those limits of natural law, so rigorously obeyed even by rocket scientists, are, in the case of ecology the very components of our fundamental bio-physical-chemical nature, and thus are found to be even more confining than the constraints of aerodynamics. Here the statement of the Ecological Society of America, which Sagoff sets up for criticism, is entirely correct: "nature has a range of ways to be, but there is a limit to those ways, and therefore, human changes must be within those limits." [920] What physical scientists or engineer could disagree with that?

Another difference between natural ecosystems and artificial "extractive systems" is that the latter require the importation of labor and nutrients if they are to be sustained, and even so, their life-cycle is numbered in decades or even years, while natural systems persist for millennia (though not forever, as Prof. Botkin reminds us) on nothing more than the importation of solar energy.

I am reminded of a remark I once heard from a commercial forester: "The northwest forests were very unhealthy when we found them in the last century." "Thank God," I replied, "we got there just in time!" The managed "health" of Weyerhauser's forests is something quite different than the self-maintaining "health" of the old-growth forest.

The barren hills of Lebanon, where the cedars once stood; the deserts of Iran, where Darius could once ride from Persephelus to the sea, in constant shade; the deserts of north Africa, once the granaries and orchards of the Roman Empire -- all these testify to the ultimate consequences of careless human intervention with natural systems. And yet, a few summers ago I could look across a broad Italian valley in constant production since the days of the Etruscans over three thousand years ago -- three thousand years of "inefficient," solar-driven, organic agriculture.

Are we now to conclude that there are no noteworthy differences between the ecosystems of ancient Lebanon, Persia, and Algeria, and those of today? Clearly they are different from the point of view of human purposes. Are they now "just another kind of ecosystem, no better or worse than before?" There are noteworthy differences; just to begin, diversity of species and productivity of biomass.

Jonathan Schell describes the post atomic holocaust earth as "a republic of insects and grasses." No more forest, no megafauna, no homo sapiens. "But no matter," we are told, "it is just one ecosystem following another. Who's to say that one is better or worse than another? " Such an attitude is the moral dead-end of the road down which the radical ecological deconstructionists would lead us.


8. The ultimate inscrutability of ecosystems, suggested by the deconstructionists, far from undermining ecological morality, serves to strengthen it.

How has this criticism of "the old ecology" eroded the scientific foundations of such ecological moralities as Aldo Leopold's "Land Ethic?" Arguably, not very much.

We owe a debt to Mark Sagoff, along with Soulé, Botkin, Shrader-Frechette and other critics of traditional ecology, for indicating how the "pop ecology" of the activists and the New Agers has wandered far beyond the characteristic skepticism and qualifications of the scientists. "Natural communities," the new ecologists remind us, are far more complex and inscrutable than we may have imagined. But this is exactly what such eco-moralists as Aldo Leopold have been saying all along. And if "balance and equilibrium" turn out to be oversimplifications, "constant gradual change within limits" is a concept quite congenial with ecological morality.

If "the new ecology" retains four essential concepts of the old, then, I think, this will be foundation enough for a sound ecological morality. These are: (a) that life communities are systems -- of organisms in dynamic interaction, (b) that ecosystems can be meaningfully distinguished and graded in terms of biodiversity, productivity, relative stability and negentropy, (c) that a differences in the scale of change are significant, and (d) that the complexity of natural systems is beyond our understanding, and perhaps even our imagination -- a fact that mandates respect and caution as we intervene in nature.

As for "ecological science" itself, I believe that we can rescue it from the unwarranted fellowship of "creation science." For, as we have seen at the outset of this paper, ecology utilizes productive and discriminable concepts, and it does provide falsifiable hypotheses and predictions, although, as numerous critics have correctly pointed out, there is vast room for improvement in this regard.

Sagoff demurs, as he dismisses ecology with the suggestion that "the only non-theological tenable position" is "that nature is just a pointless hodgepodge of constantly changing associations of organisms and environments." [901]

I submit that the answer to this charge is quite simple and straightforward. We need only ask:

  • Does the study of ecology have anything to tell us about resource or population policies? Or, for that matter, such applied biological sciences as forestry, fisheries, agriculture?

  • Would anyone, having learned the allegedly "vacuous" theories and concepts of ecology, look at the world more "realistically" than, say, an adherent of "creation science?"

If the theories and concepts of ecology constitute authentic knowledge, then the application of such knowledge should have predictable and discriminable consequences -- it should, so to speak, "make a difference." I submit that it has: in agriculture, forestry, and Leopold's field of wildlife management.

Because significant and enduring patterns do exist among that seeming "hodge-podge of constantly changing associations," we should continue our inquiries in ecological science. And we would be well-advised to pay attention to the traditional ecologists, while keeping a critical eye on their rhetorical excesses.

I doubt that such "new ecologists" as Soulé and Botkin would disagree.


9 Because virtually all "deconstructionist ecologists" accept the theory of evolution, they must presuppose some degree of design, order, constancy and resilience -- i.e., some system in ecosystems.

Our final defense of the ecosystem concept follows from much of our preceding argument, and will serve to recapitulate and summarize much that has gone before. Here we will utilize a method employed by a philosopher much-admired by both Mark Sagoff and myself: Immanuel Kant.(22) We then ask: "If we assume (as all parties to this dispute assume) that species evolve through natural selection, what then must we presuppose for evolution to be possible at all?"  Quite simply, I would suggest that the clear answer is "a moderately integrated, stable and persistent ecosystem." In particular:

  • first of all, if species evolve, they must evolve by adapting to their environments.

  • because such adaptation involves the availability of food and adequate modes of defense, this environment is necessarily a biotic environment -- i.e., species evolve in the company of other species.

  • The more complex the system, the greater number of intervening variables (e.g., trophic pyramids) between the organism and the abiotic environment.

  • species that persisted for a long period of time did so because they (a) survived and (b) adapted to changing conditions (i.e., they evolved).

  • they (a) survived because the physical and biotic environments were not in a state of constant, chaotic and extreme change.

  • They (b) evolved, because this environment was not totally static.

Thus, it would seem that in their moderate formulations, both the old and the new ecologies are correct: The former (a) points out that species survive due to stability in the environment, and the latter (b) correctly reminds us that species evolve due to changes in the environment, including, of course, changes brought about by the evolution of the component species. The crucial issue is that of rate and scale of change. On the opposite ends of this continuum (outside the scope of scrupulous science, I would suggest) are those, on the one hand, who celebrate "perfect" balance and equilibrium, and on the other, those who claim to find no "system," much less "integrity," in ecosystems.


This essay has been a clash of adversaries: we have countered Sagoff's adversarial critique of "theoretical" (or "old") ecology, with a rebuttal critique of Sagoff's position. However, we should close on a positive note, with acknowledgment that our worthy adversary's critique has some points of merit, that ecologists, old and new, would be wise to consider. Among them:

  • some ecological language is unacceptably vague and ambiguous. In particular, (a) the "baseline problem" ("what is a normal ecosystem?") and (b) the "boundary problem" ("when in time, and where in space, do ecosystems begin and end?") are both in urgent need of attention.

  • the ecologist's classification scheme must be refined and expanded. An ecological Linnaeus or Mendeleev is overdue.

  • ecologists must be more mindful of the falsification rule. They must be prepared to describe ecological systems, functions and components in a manner that clearly excludes discriminable alternative conditions in nature. While much of ecological theory fulfills this falsification requirement, some does so only marginally, and some not at all.

  • ecological scientists must be careful not to allow their ideological and political agendas, and their moral enthusiasms to "captivate" their scientific claims.

That said, we reiterate, in closing, our conviction that life forms survive and flourish, as they must, as participants in organized, integrated and dynamically interactive systems -- ecosystems. As components of these "systems," the life forms accomplish in concert what they could not accomplish separately. All this, I submit, has been made abundantly and irrefutably clear by innumerable scientific studies of energy flows, nutrient recycling, information interchange, and symbiosis.

Somewhat less certain is the existence of significant degrees of stability, equilibrium and resilience in ecosystems. (I say "significant degrees," since no scientist claims that these "ideal types" are perfectly exemplified in nature). Least of all are ecologists able to explain how these alleged properties are manifest in ecosystems.

Sagoff suggests that the failure of biologists to explain "intelligible or purposive structure or direction [and] self-organizing capability" in ecosystems [958], constitutes sufficient reason to doubt that such qualities exist in ecosystems.

Granted, the failure to explain an X might at times be grounds to doubt its existence. Thus a suspect's inability to "explain" his whereabouts at the time of the crime casts doubt on his claim of innocence. On the other hand, if the simple fact of X's existence is compelling obvious or supported by an abundance of evidence, a lack of "explanation" might in no way mitigate our awareness of that fact. The detective, upon first encountering a corpse, has no explanation as to how the victim died. This in no way diminishes his awareness that he is in the presence of a dead body. Victims of the Black Plague, utterly ignorant of any explanation thereof, were fully aware that they were deathly ill. And finally, Charles Darwin's utter failure to "explain" variation within the species did not compromise the strength of his theory. The documented fact of such variation quite sufficed.

Whether or not biological science has come up with a robust explanation of the putative "self-organizing" structure of ecosystems, I will leave to the ecologists to judge. However, the fact that ecosystems often contain web-like interactions is evident by numerous well-known case histories: the extinction of indigenous Hawaiian birds following the introduction of avian malaria from European ships; the devastation of the Australian outback resulting from the release of rabbits; the collapse of the Kaibab forest ecosystem following the extirpation of the top predators; and, of course, the reproductive failure of hawks and eagles due to the bio-multiplication of DDT and its decay products. And the fact of the systemic nature of life communities has been rendered beyond dispute by the aforementioned studies of energy and nutrient flow, information exchange and symbiosis.

These cases and investigations all testify to the fact of species interdependence in ecosystems, whatever may be the cogency of scientific explanations thereof.

The lack of a clear explanation of the functioning and properties ecological systems does not constitute a refutation of ecological theories and concepts and theories. Rather, it presents an urgent and daunting challenge to ecological scientists, now at work and still to come.

In the meantime, we remain well-advised to tread carefully upon the Earth, upon which we are recent newcomers.

Copyright, 1997, by Ernest Partridge



1. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 224-5.

2. Michael Soulé, "The Social Siege of Nature, Reinventing Nature?, ed. Michael E. Soulé and Gary Lease, Washington, DC: Island Press, 1995, p. 143.

3. Mark Sagoff, "Muddle or Muddle Through? Takings Jurisprudence Meets the Endangered Species Act," The College of William and Mary Law Review, 38:3, March, 1997, pp. 825-993. Sagoff's critique of theoretical ecology is found primarily in Sections IV and V (pp 877-968). Because of the large number of citations from this work, subsequent references thereto will be found in brackets in the text.

4. I must note that my personal and professional debt to Mark Sagoff is beyond measure. His critique of the economization of public environmental policy is brilliant and devastating, and I have utilized his work in my classes and writing to great effect. I am so much impressed and convinced by his work in this field, that I have been much concerned that I might become a Sagovian disciple -- and discipleship is most unbecoming a philosopher. After reading his work on ecology, however, this concern about impending disciplehood has been considerably diminished.

6. Daniel Botkin, Discordant Harmonies, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 62.

7. loc. cit.

8. Mark Woods expresses this view (of which he is critical) with admirable clarity: "We cannot identify what can harm wilderness because there is no such thing as a static, baseline wilderness against which harm can be measured, and we cannot identify what can disturb wilderness because everything can. Further, it may be impossible to characterize what wilderness is (as it now exists) because wilderness is in perpetual change." Mark Woods, "Upsetting the Balance of Nature: Can Wilderness Preservation Survive the New Ecology?," A paper presented at a meeting of the International Society for Environmental Ethics (Pacific Division, American Philosophical Association), March, 1998, Los Angeles, CA.

9. "If ecosystems are unstructured, transitory, and accidental in nature, it would seem to follow that no general economic or utilitarian grounds exist for protecting them from change." And, "If ecological systems and communities are just random, accidental, contingent, and purposeless collections of biological flotsam and jetsam, then there is no general instrumental reason to preserve them." Sagoff, op. cit., 931-2, 931n.

10. Regarding the biodiversity crisis, Sagoff parts company with most of the "new ecologists," who are as alarmed and appalled as most biologists at the current "extinction spasm."

11. Once again, I would separate this position from that of most of the "new ecologists." From 1980 to 1982, I was a visiting professor of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. At that time, the chairman of the program was Daniel Botkin. I vividly recall how, at that time, he supported the "habitat strategy" of preserving the California Condor -- in other words, the "ecosystemic approach." As we shall discover later in this paper, Botkin, while notoriously opposed "equilibrium" and "stability" models of ecology, nonetheless asserts that ecosystems are in fact systems. (Botkin, op. cit., 7).

12.I have lost the source of this marvelous put-down, though I believe it first appeared in a scholarly review in the last century. Much too witty to be so confined, it has long since entered into general conversation and discourse.

13. Botkin, loc. cit.

14. Botkin, op. cit., 58-9.

15. Mark Woods concurs: "... no ecologist has held the view that nature is static and completely unchanging. Rather, as proponents of [the new ecology, such as Botkin and Budiansky] would have us believe, when ecologists have spoken of 'stability' in nature usually they have meant that all the variables of any population, community, ecosystem, etc. will return to equilibrium conditions after they have been displaced or disturbed. In other words, in spite of disturbances (variables) in nature, the structures and compositions of nature remain or return to the same.

"Has anyone really held this view? In his equilibrium theory of succession leading to climax communities, Clements (organismic model) stressed that such an equilibrium was a dynamic equilibrium: 'Even the most stable association is never in complete equilibrium, nor is it free from disturbed areas in which secondary succession is evident.' Elton (community model) claimed: 'The 'balance of nature' does not exist and perhaps never has existed.'" Woods, op. cit., pp 22-3.

16. For an excellent treatment of "the scale issue," see J. Baird Callicott, "Do Deconstructive Ecology and Sociobiology Undermine Leopold's Land Ethic?," Environmental Ethics, 18:4, (Winter, 1996), pp. 369-372 (the final two sections of the paper).

17. Allee, Emerson, Park, Park and Schmidt, Principles of Animal Ecology, Philadelphia: Saunders, 1949. Cited by Botkin, op. cit., 46.

18. Predictably, Daniel Botkin (from whose book I have borrowed these citations), sees things differently. He points out that the "Lotka-Volterra equations" that describe a perfectly "symmetric, out-of-phase oscillation between predator and prey," do not exactly describe the empirical data brought back from the field. "Predators," he concludes, "do not seem to control the abundance of their prey in an exact sense." The operative word here is "exact." But for such "exact control" to be operative -- i.e., for there to be a "perfect" and constant "balance" of nature -- all other factors (e.g., climate, migrations, etc.) would have to be constant and mutations would have to cease. And no biologist has ever defended this such a concept of "stability" and "equilibrium. All agree that "all else" is not "equal." Botkin denies "stability" in the "first order sense," as he rhetorically asks: if "a pilot guaranteed that an airplane was stable and very constant in flight, but its path through the air graced out the curve of the lynx's population... Who would want to call that airplane stable?" But that analogy is faulty, for it is the "second order stability" that interests the ecologists. And the data on lynx population that Botkin supplies displays a sustainable pattern of fluctuations -- a "second order stability." (Botkin, op.cit., 38, 47, 48).

19. Paul Ehrlich, Gretchen Daily, Scott Daily, Norman Myers, James Salzman, "No Middle Way on the Environment," Atlantic Monthly, December, 1997, p. 101.

20. The exact quotation: "Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." Possible Worlds, title essay (1927).

21. Mark Sagoff, "Ecosystem Science and Environmental Law," p. 4. This is the unpublished manuscript distributed to the Integrity Group at its meeting in Montreal, October 17-20, 1995. It was later revised and incorporated into the College of William and Mary Law Review paper, "Muddling and Muddling Through....," loc. cit.

22. Kant asked, "what categories of understanding must exist for empirical knowledge to be possible at all?" And in the realm of ethics, he asked, "what human capacities must be presupposed for morality to be possible?"  Thus the similarity with our question, "what must be assumed for evolution to be possible?"  But the Kantian model has disanalogies as well. Kant was searching for "synthetic a priori" judgments -- judgments that are neither "true by definition" nor gained from experience, but rather are the preconditions for empirical knowledge. I claim no such status for the "presuppositions of evolution" that I sketch above. Rather, these proposed assumptions should all be open to scientific investigation.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .