DREAMING UP NATURE

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The Music of Science: Oliver Morton explains how psychoanalysis led a conflicted botanist to coin the ecosystem...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012

During the Great War a botanist at Cambridge University, Arthur Tansley, had a dream. It was not, as dreams go, a particularly juicy or disturbing one. He was in a South African landscape, an open space abutting scrubland, separated from his friends. A line of "savages" stood by the scrub. They were not a direct threat, but they held spears and shields and formed a barrier that, despite his rifle, Tansley knew he would not be able to overcome. His wife appeared, dressed in white, seemingly oblivious to the shields and spears. Then things got confused. At some point the rifle went off, but Tansley could not, on waking, recall why, or whether anyone was hurt.

What is remarkable about the dream is not its content—Tansley was conflicted between duty to his wife and desire for a forbidden love, with a female student—but its effect. Tansley was fascinated by it and what he thought it said, and that led him to steep himself in Freudian thought. Well known within his profession for his work on the plants of the British countryside, he set about writing an exposition of "The New Psychology" (1920), which became a bestseller. Soon he had moved to Vien­na in order to undergo analysis by Freud himself, who saw his new patient as something of a catch. “It might be a gain to win him over to our science at the loss of botany,” Freud wrote to his acolyte Ernest Jones.

Eventually botany won Tansley back, with a coveted professorship at Oxford. But analysis had left its mark on how he saw the world. The Freudian mind was structured by tensions and contradictions, the boundaries between what was normal and abnormal arbitrary and permeable. And that informed his great gift to the science: the notion of the ecosystem.

Like many of England's early Freudians, Tansley was a man of the left. His study of plants in terms of process, development and utility, rather than mere morphology and taxonomy, had a senior colleague accusing him of "botanical Bolshevism". And his beliefs put him in conflict with a powerful school of thought in the emerging science of ecology. American ecologists had developed the idea that plant communities were themselves organisms, and had a natural "climax" state towards which they tended, just as organisms tended to a mature adult form (deviation from which was, in some way, suboptimal). These ideas had fed into the new philosophy of "holism" propounded by Jan Smuts, sometime prime minister of South Africa, whence they returned to the field of ecology with an added imprimatur—Smuts was seen as one of the great men of the day—and a more explicit political dimension. The idea of a natural whole into which people had to fit in an appropriate way appealed to various conservative mindsets, both in Oxford, where Smuts was feted, and in South Africa, where it justified the idea that native people should not be tempted by, or allowed, the industrial development natural to the more evolved races. (One of Smuts's Oxford supporters was J.R.R. Tolkien, also born a South African; the idea of the world having a proper, settled way of being that industrialisation, and lesser species, can but threaten would be a powerful part of "The Lord of the Rings".)

Tansley was having none of this; the ecosystem, a term he coined in 1935, was his alternative. Like the human mind, it was dynamic and shaped by circumstances. It was composed not only of plants and animals, but also of their mineral substrates and the energy they used. And unlike the communities of holism, which had a pre-ordained endpoint, ecosystems were the product of the forces and flows that made them up. While there were typical ecosystems, there could also be novel ones; wherever living things came together there had to be an ecosystem of some sort, whether nature had ever envisaged it or not. People powerful enough to reshape, destroy and create ecosystems, whether by design or not, were responsible for a great deal of novelty along these lines. With the ecosystem, Tansley wrote, "human activity finds its proper place in ecology".

The term stuck. The ideas, rather less so. The ecosystem is ecology's unit of analysis, and an approach which takes the flow of energy and nutrients as the essence of what is going on—which looks at the system, not just the components—is often the norm. But there is still a distinctly Smutsian tendency in some academic ecology. The study of human-influenced ecosystems, such as farms and cities—which are the ecosystems that matter most, and are most amenable to better management—all too often comes a poor second to those seen as “natural” and pristine, which pose far fewer problems. And holism is rampant in the environmental movement at large, many of whose adherents are convinced that there is a proper, natural and quite possibly rather hobbity place for people in a world of ordained order, and that they leave it at their peril.

My friend John Whitfield, who writes about ecology, points out that it is not a doctrinaire undertaking, and allows distinct and even opposing viewpoints to rub along quite happily. It is a complex, contingent thing quite capable of living with contradiction. Which is something that, as Tansley might have pointed out, it has in common with the minds that do the studying.

Oliver Morton is the briefings editor of The Economist and author of "Eating the Sun". He is a former editor of Wired (UK) and features editor of Nature

Illustration Gary Taxali