The emergence of ecology and the challenges of modernism
The emergence of ecology as an autonomous scientific discipline coincided with the emergence of Modernism in the arts and humanities. In setting directions for their nascent field, early ecologists generally placed people outside of nature and focused attention on natural areas, original (undisturbed) flora and fauna, and the maintenance (or restoration) of a balance of nature. Concurrently, Modernism identified, developed, and celebrated dynamism and change; increasing rates of technological innovation and urbanization; and the indefinite removal of limits to future progress. We hypothesized that the dominant streams of ecological thought can be viewed as a critical reaction to Modernism. We tested this suggestion in two ways. First, we examined the full texts of every article published in Ecology, Ecological Monographs, and Ecological Applications from 1920 to 2014 (the “corpus”) for occurrences of 45 key words and phrases representing ontological, theoretical, and metaphysical concepts (sensu Reiners and Lockwood 2015 [ESA Bulletin 96: 64-69]) related to community and ecosystem ecology and the balance/imbalance (equilibrium/non-equilibrium) of nature. We examined linkages among, and temporal changes in, the use of concept words/phrases to see if and how the organizing concepts of ecology have changed through time. Second, we explored responses to Classical and Modernist portrayals of landscapes by contemporary ecologists and non-ecologists.
Textual analysis revealed that 12 concepts have consistently dominated the corpus. The rank-order of these concepts generally has been invariant through time and across journals. With very few exceptions, these concepts also have occurred at the same relative frequency in papers published in ESA journals since 1920. Four concept clusters, centered on “stability” (and “equilibrium”), “succession”, “resilience”, and “landscape” emerged from quantitative analysis of adjacency and correlations among all of the key words and phrases. Responses to representations of landscapes further supported the hypothesis that ecologists place people outside of nature and favor balanced portrayals of undisturbed, natural systems. However, data routinely show that: people are “natural” and, like other organisms, subject to natural laws and processes; ecosystems are not (and may never have been) in balance; and that disturbances are a routine part of any ecological system (i.e., they are not “disturbances” or “perturbations”). We conclude that ecologists see the world as we wish it were, not as it actually is. Ecologists working in the mainstream of ecology appear to work in a conceptual space that was intellectually conditioned and constrained when ecology emerged as a formal discipline over 100 years ago.