The Balance of Nature, Once Again

Our own Liam Heneghan in Aeon:

Reenadinna-Yew-wood-MuckrossThe term ‘balance of nature’ raised the hackles of some scientists as early as the first decades of the 20th century. The Oxford ecologist Charles Elton forcefully claimed in his book Animal Ecology (1927) that ‘the balance of nature does not exist, and perhaps has never existed’. Nonetheless, it remained central to the highly influential systems thinking of the late and celebrated American ecologist Eugene Odum. Think of an ecosystem as something like an individual organism: the adult develops in an orderly, predictable way from the child. Similarly, Odum argued, the trajectory of natural systems was preordained too.

In the mid-20th century, Odum modernised the concept of succession, so central to early ecology. He turned it into a mechanistic account of how organisms and their environments interact to produce orderly and predictable results. He identified 24 trends that might be expected to develop as ecosystems mature, each of which was like a physiological marker of a functioning organism. One of these was ‘overall homeostasis’ — the ability to retain equilibrium in the face of change, just as our bodies keep a stable internal temperature. The ‘development’ of a mature ecosystem led to a stable whole. When severely disturbed, the system would simply rebound to balance.

More here.