John Kricher

 

On his book The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth

Cover Interview of July 17, 2009

The wide angle

I actually began thinking about this book about two decades ago.  I teach at a liberal arts college and I have had numerous fruitful interactions ranging from casual conversations with professors outside of my discipline to interdisciplinary course collaborations.

For example, I once taught a course with a philosophy professor on Evolution and Ethics.  This got me to read extensively about such things as the naturalistic fallacy, for example.  Right now I have a formal connection between my introductory course on Evolution and Ecology and a course taught by a professor of English, called “Empire, Race, and the Victorians.”  The connection focuses on Darwin’s views of race.

So, with my generalist background in the liberal arts, I am drawn to make connections with other disciplines.  The Balance of Nature attempts to do that by historically tracing the likely origin and propagation of the notion of balance of nature.  The idea of a balance of nature was never based one jot on science but on teleological notions of how things “ought” to be.  One might almost count it among the multiple creation myths that characterize various human cultures.

I have always taught both a basic ecology course and various levels of evolution courses.  When I initially approached ecology and evolution, as separate courses, the subject matter in each seemed fairly distinct from the other.  I soon realized that distinction was false, a matter of scale.  Evolution is ecology on a longer time scale.  Ecology is vacuous without contextualizing it within evolution.

Back in the mid-1970s I thought of putting together a book of readings for ecology students that dealt with how evolution could inform ecology more directly than how it was represented in the dominant textbooks of the time.  No publisher was interested.

When Ed Wilson published his sweeping book on Sociobiology in 1975 I felt as though ecology would be forced to embrace evolution in a manner similar to how Wilson brought animal social behavior into such a clear evolutionary light.  Wilson’s book stirred controversy, because humans were included as though human social behavior evolved.  Of course human social behavior evolves!  But such a claim was anathema to many in academe at the time.

Meanwhile, ecologists did focus increasingly on evolution, and that was reflected in ecology texts.  They began to apply more and more stochasticity to their analyses of ecosystem function, in particular to the analysis of the distribution of species within ecosystems.

I quickly realized that ecologists were moving away from equilibrium models.  I realized as well that if there is little or no equilibrium attained in nature, there is no balance of nature, and that the term itself is misleading and meaningless.

I knew that the information ecologists were generating had broad implications for how the general public would perceive what it calls nature.  As I did when conceiving another book, A Neotropical Companion, which is a broad overview of ecology of the American tropics, I thought that I could bring together an array of diverse information, all based on real science, that would synthesize into a cohesive volume.  That’s how The Balance of Nature got started.