Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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On Behalf of Ecology and Ecosystems


A Reply to Mark Sagoff 

By Ernest Partridge

Remarks at a Panel on "Integration and Synthesis as
Scientific Method: Environmental Science and Philosophy"

Annual Meeting of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science

Anaheim, California. January 25, 1999.


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 into "Perilous 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 of another.

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).




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 today."

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 ideas.

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" prove?

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 not?


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 of Being."

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 Sagoff describes..."


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 on it.

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.


Copyright 1999 by Ernest Partridge


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 .