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The Balance of Nature

The Balance of Nature: Ecology's Enduring Myth

John Kricher
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 252
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  • Book Info
    The Balance of Nature
    Book Description:

    The idea of a balance of nature has been a dominant part of Western philosophy since before Aristotle, and it persists in the public imagination and even among some ecologists today. In this lively and thought-provoking book, John Kricher demonstrates that nature in fact is not in balance, nor has it ever been at any stage in Earth's history. He explains how and why this notion of a natural world in balance has endured for so long, and he shows why, in these times of extraordinary human influence on the planet's ecosystems, it is critical that we accept and understand that evolution is a fact of life, and that ecology is far more dynamic than we ever imagined.

    The Balance of Naturetraces the fascinating history of the science of ecology and evolutionary biology, from the discipline's early innovators to the advent of Darwin and evolution, to the brilliant and inquisitive scientific minds of today. Blending insights and entertaining stories from his own remarkable life in science, Kricher reveals how evolution is a powerful engine that drives ecological change, how nature is constantly in flux and, in effect, quite naturally out of balance--and how notions to the contrary are misguided and ultimately hazardous to us all.

    The Balance of Natureforcefully argues that an understanding of the dynamic nature of ecology and evolution is essential to formulating policies of environmental ethics to guide humanity toward a more responsible stewardship of our planet's ecosystems.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3026-8
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. 1 Why It Matters
    (pp. 1-7)

    That there is a balance of nature is one of the most deep-seated assumptions about the natural world, the world we know on planet Earth. For as long as we humans have had the ability to think seriously about our world we have attempted to find order in chaos. The world is vast and surely appeared vaster when our collective knowledge was far less than it is today. Humans living, say, 10,000 years ago, at the dawn of agriculture, must have perceived nature as impossibly complex, perhaps beautiful, very mysterious, and surely fairly scary. These perceptions have changed to various...

  5. 2 Of What Purpose Are Mosquitoes?
    (pp. 8-19)

    Only once have I been accused of being a baby killer. To be absolutely accurate, I was accused of being an accomplice. The actual murderer was an anonymous mosquito. Oh, and the murder had not yet occurred, but surely would unless this particular small New England town dowsed itself with insecticide. Spraying would hopefully annihilate the summer hordes of mosquitoes, a few of which could possibly be carriers of the virus of eastern equine encephalitis, a tiny chunk of renegade nucleic acid that unfortunately can sometimes kill not only babies but other people as well.

    As a scientist and academician...

  6. 3 Creating Paradigms
    (pp. 20-39)

    The “balance of nature” is a paradigm, a venerable and little-questioned belief about how nature is organized. Almost anyone will tell you they think there is some kind of “balance” in nature and that humans tend to upset that balance. Numerous websites are devoted to it, and the history of the concept has been well documented.¹ Humans create paradigms for a number of obvious reasons. We wish to make sense of our world as well as the universe of which it is part, but in doing so, we wish to simplify and unify information that, at first glance, appears to...

  7. 4 Ecology B.C. (“Before Charles”)
    (pp. 40-52)

    When did ecology, the science, really begin? Ecology is rooted in the Greek wordoikos, referring to home, and the word was not invented until the second part of the nineteenth century, when the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel¹ used it in 1866, seven years after Charles Darwin published his most famous and influential work,On the Origin of Species. Haeckel meant the word to mean roughly the “household of nature,” or the “economy of nature,” a term Darwin had used in theOriginin his description of natural selection. Darwin wrote,

    I am convinced that the whole economy of nature,...

  8. 5 Ecology A.D. (“After Darwin”)
    (pp. 53-66)

    Charles Robert Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born on February 12, 1809. Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. Darwin would survive until April 19, 1882. It is hard to overstate the importance of either man. Each was an agent for profound change.¹

    Charles Darwin, with stimulus from a younger man, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913),² solved what is arguably the greatest problem in biology. Darwin, borrowing an expression first used by the astronomer John Herschel, called it “that mystery of mysteries,” the means by which species form. Darwin and Wallace discovered a mechanism for evolutionary change. Natural selection...

  9. 6 The Twentieth Century Ecology Comes of Age
    (pp. 67-83)

    Charles Darwin got ecology launched. He described what really happens in the economy of nature far better than anyone who preceded him. Ecologists then promptly forgot about him for something like a half a century. Even then they were a bit slow on the uptake. Ecologists were conspicuously absent from the grand synthesis of evolutionary theory that was started in the 1930s with the seminal work of J.B.S. Haldane, Ronald Fisher, and Sewall Wright. When Theodosius Dobjhansky and Ernst Mayr developed the biological species concept,¹ the notion that reproductive isolating mechanisms separate species, ecologists contributed little. George Gaylord Simpson’s classic...

  10. 7 A Visit to Bodie Ecological Space and Time
    (pp. 84-96)

    Ancient Greek philosophy can be found in unusual places, including on a wall in a ghost town. Situated among the hills just east of the extensive Sierra Nevada mountain range in the Great Basin Desert of California, the town of Bodie was founded in 1859, the year Charles Darwin publishedOn the Origin of Species. In that year a certain William “Watermelon” Bodie succeeded in his search for gold, at a place that became known as Bodie Bluff. By 1880 some 10,000 people inhabited the thriving town of Bodie, which rose from scratch among the sagebrush and hills of desert....

  11. 8 Ecology and Evolution Process and Paradigm
    (pp. 97-112)

    G.evelyn Hutchinson authored a classic book about ecology with the titleThe Ecological Theater and the Evolutionary Play.¹ Hutchinson was a genuine polymath when it came to ecology, and a good few of his students became some of the most eminent ecologists of the twentieth century.² Hutchinson’s brief book, written (as this book is) for the lay reader, is engaging as it describes evolution as an ongoing process shaping Earth’s various ecosystems, whatever they might be. But there is a deeper, more profound meaning. Evolution is the paradigm, not ecology. Ecology is the process, and it provides the actors and...

  12. 9 Be Glad to Be an Earthling
    (pp. 113-127)

    “It’s all about me” is a commonly used expression of egocentrism. Of course it’s all about me. Natural selection saw to it. Why would it be about you, at least from my vantage point? You have your genes, I have mine, and mine are what I care about, more than I care about yours. Or actually, as evolutionist Richard Dawkins tells it, it’s the other way around.¹ I am the product of my “selfish genes” (though, of course, they must have “cooperated” to make me) and thus my behavior (and beliefs, at least to a degree) reflects my genes’ coded...

  13. 10 Life Plays the Lottery
    (pp. 128-139)

    One obvious argument against the existence of a balance of nature, at least as such a balance implies purpose and teleology, is the reality of just plain luck. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter. Especially when luck changes the world.

    Luck is not a very scientific term but it comes close to one that is, the word “stochastic,” meaning nondeterministic. If evolution-altering events are stochastic in nature, then patterns of extinction and speciation (at least some of them, maybe many) may have little to do with anything other than “dumb luck.” This reality does not reduce the importance of natural...

  14. 11 Why Global Climate Is Like New England Weather
    (pp. 140-154)

    When I moved to New England nearly four decades ago, the locals used to tell me, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait fifteen minutes.” The region is well known for its fickle weather patterns, but then again, so are other areas here and there around the globe. Take Colorado, for example. On one of my visits to Colorado Springs it was nearly 70°F and clear on Sunday, but Tuesday featured a blizzard that closed Denver airport for several days. In the scale of human existence, New England and Colorado weather is, indeed, changeable. Now, stepping back to the...

  15. 12 Taking It from the Top–or the Bottom
    (pp. 155-169)

    On my thus far one and only trip to Africa, my group was observing the African megafauna at a wondrous place, the great Serengeti of Tanzania. It was late in the afternoon, nearly dinnertime, and we were driving along searching especially for large cats. What we came upon was a lone wildebeest calf, apparently separated from its mother and now abandoned, standing on a mudflat next to a lake. Few things look more pathetic than a baby herd animal whose herd is nowhere in sight. It stood alone bleating. I doubt it was happy. Soon we realized that it was,...

  16. 13 For the Love of Biodiversity (and Stable Ecosystems?)
    (pp. 170-185)

    One fine June night some years ago, I was with a group of friends returning from an outing on the tropical island of Trinidad. Stars twinkled above the Arima Valley and the warm, humid night air was filled with sounds of frogs and insects. As we turned on to the long drive that led to our lodge, the Asa Wright Centre, I saw in front of us a very formidable serpent beginning a slow and deliberate crossing of the road. I abruptly stopped the van and my friends and I hurried out. In the light of the van’s headlamps, and...

  17. 14 Facing Marley’s Ghost
    (pp. 186-202)

    Remember that old bumper sticker, “Have you thanked a green plant today?” Well, to bring it into this century, what have Earth’s ecosystems done for you lately? Drawing a blank? You’re not alone. Most people regrettably have only the foggiest notion. But consider how each of us benefits from all those oceans, estuaries, marshes, fields, forests, savannas, grasslands, deserts, etcetera. Taken together, they provide “nature’s services,” the natural ecosystem functions upon which all life, including humanity, ultimately depends. Ranging from purification of air and water, cycling and movement of nutrients, climate modification, generation and preservation of soils and renewal of...

  18. Epilogue
    (pp. 203-206)

    Has ecology found its paradigm, a paradigm that will help take humanity through the twenty-first century? Is biodiversity linked so tightly with Earth’s ecosystem-level services that active intervention to maintain biodiversity and thus ensure sustainability will guide human actions in the years to come? Well, maybe. That remains to be seen.

    I don’t think that what ecologists describe as a paradigm shift really amounts to such a thing. I once did and even titled a talk and paper to reflect that view.¹ But now I think ecologists are just seeing biodiversity in a new light, free from the once looming...

  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 207-208)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 209-228)
  21. Index
    (pp. 229-237)