Chaos and order in ecology: the rise of the myth of the superorganism

This is a story about the rise of ecology and our belief in the balance of nature. How the idea of the superorganism was invented, how it inspired us, and how it wasn’t even true.

Cowboys and superorganisms

In the 1890’s, an ecologist named Frederic Clements set out on horse and mule train to explore the wilderness state of Nebraska. The Indian wars had recently come to an end, opening the region to scientific study. Clements saw how the old way of life in these parts, the trails, camps and fields, abandoned because of the fighting, had been re-claimed by wild vegetation. This sparked an idea that would revolutionise the science of ecology. Clements overturned the paradigm of static, unchanging vegetation, with his theory of succession, the idea that ecological communities change over time in response to disturbance through a highly deterministic and predictable process called “succession”.

Frederic Clements, founding father of superorganismic succession

Under the Clementsian model, the community will always tend towards increasing complexity, beginning with relatively few pioneering plants and animals colonising unoccupied habitat. Succession continues until the community reaches equilibrium conditions where mortality and recruitment are matched, meaning the system is stable and self-perpetuating. Essentially, if an ecosystem is disturbed, it will always try to return to its original, climatically determined balanced state, an equilibrium state called the “climax community”.

The great universal law of equilibrium states that all systems tend towards a balance. Clements explicitly analogized the successional development of ecological communities with the growth of individual organisms, where it would be born, mature and even die. The ecosystem was actively progressing towards a stable system where species demonstrated a self-organising capability. The close integration of different species exercised some control over the non-living and living world, to stabilise their existence – Clements called the ecosystem a living, coherent thing, a “superorganism”.

The idea of the underlying balance of nature is present in multiple societies and goes back thousands of years. Clements suggested these myths and dreams could be scientific fact, that all ecosystems, from the African savanna to the oak woods of England, have an underling machine like mechanism that strives towards balance and order. Clements spent a lifetime studying nature to prove his hypothesis. No one knew how the superorganism worked. The answer would not come from the study of nature but from a new kind of machine, the computer.

The cybernetic superorganism

Jay Forester studied electrical engineering at the Massachusetts institute of technology, where he became one of the early innovators of computer technology. He designed the US early-warning system in the 1950s. It was a global network of radars, all linked to giant computers with an aim to maintain a stable-state in the cold war nuclear stand-off.  Forester and the other pioneering cyberneticists saw the world as a series of interconnected systems, where through a mechanism called “feedback”, every action has consequences that shape the future behaviour of the system. The technique fascinated scientists because it offered insight into how order is maintained in an interconnected world. Humans could not understand the true consequences of their actions in a complex world, but the computers could. The cyberneticists used computers to analyse these feedback loops and showed that humans were not independent but driven by major social, technical and economic systems.

In the early 1950’s, cybernetics would fuse with ecology, transforming the discipline forever. The computers promised a solution to the question of how ecosystems maintained themselves around an equilibrium. This would lead to the rise of ecology as one of the dominant sciences of the 20th century, influencing the minds of millions. Integral to this rise were two brothers, Howard and Eugene Odum. These two would take the methods of cybernetics and use them to analyse the entire underlying structure of nature. Howard travelled the world, collecting data from disparate ecosystems, both terrestrial and marine, from humid tropical forest, to coral reefs. Howard then reconstructed the ecosystems as electrical circuits, with nodes and feedback loops, showing how energy flowed between abiotic and biotic components. He even built real circuits that could be manipulated, with the belief that someday a true model of the ecosystem could be made and monitored with pitch-perfect accuracy.

One of Howard Odum’s ecosystem diagrams

Eugene published these ideas as part of his book – “fundamentals of ecology”, one of the most influential books of the 20th century, a bible for ecological science. It defined a powerful image of nature that still dominates public imagination. The entire world was now a series of networks linked together through the flow of energy. It was stated that all ecosystems have a strategy of development directed toward achieving as large and diverse an organic structure as possible within the limits set by the available energy input and physical conditions – with the climax point being a state of order where once competing species become mutual colleagues living in symbiosis. In this climax state energy efficiency and mutualism among individuals is maximised. The species were said to interact together to control their surrounding environment, to better protect themselves from exogenous disturbance and climatic extremes. Due to this ordered nature, the Odums stated that climax communities could be precisely measured, understood and managed for the benefit of nature and society. In short, the Clementesian stable-state superorganism had been cybernetically augmented.

The dreams of the machines became scientific certainty. Odum’s ideas of energy flow between biotic and abiotic units are still pillars of ecology and stand-up to scientific scrutiny. The cybernetic superorganism would not. To make the cybernetic theory work, the Odum brothers simplified the data to an extraordinary degree. The complexity and variability of nature at its various spatial and temporal scales needed to be reduced to fit their equations and circuitry. A student of the Odum’s would later call this:

 “a machine like fantasy of stability . . . driven by the desire for prestige, biological reality disappeared”.

Free of our labours and joined back to nature

The cybernetic superorganism would define not only the natural world but drive a new organising principle for society. Here was a natural law that demonstrated a tendency towards mutualistic order. With it came a vision of the world free from the old political hierarchies and the authoritarian exercise of power. These ideas were propagated by Utopian visionaries and counter culture leaders alike. The palaeoecologist Paul Sears distributed equilibrium theory to the public through his landmark book “Deserts on the march”. He made the idea an integral component of the burgeoning environmental movement. Philosophers Gary Snyder and Alan Watts martialled the more radical sects – the Beats and the hippies – to back the environmental agenda through poetry and eastern thought. Then there was Buckminster Fuller, the futurist engineer of the geodesic dome. This unlikely group declared that people were not to see themselves as members of classes or nations, but instead as equal members of the global ecosystem, all tasked with the goal of maintaining equilibrium.

In 1964 Fuller published “The operating manual for space ship earth”. Within it, Fuller used photographs of planet earth taken by the US from space to persuade the people that they were living on one giant spacecraft in a sea of empty space. The closed system of the ship cabin, designed in part by ecologists, was constantly monitored by computers to keep it in balance. The Earth too then, was one giant closed system and all humans had a responsibility manage the global system to keep it in balance, much like the astronauts on the tiny spacecraft. The individual must surrender itself to the welfare of the whole system.

Fuller was convinced that politicians were the greatest threat to the system because they believed they could control it, but this would always lead to struggles for power, war and increased instability. Instead, the system should be left alone to find its own natural order. This sparked the imaginations of the counter culture movements. They had become dis-illusioned with American politics after several attempts to change the structure of power. Between 1967 to 1971, over half a million Americans left their homes in the towns and cities and migrated to the countryside to establish thousands of experimental communities, adopting the principles of Fuller, Sears and Snyder as their organising axiom (Turner 2006, pp. 32-39). This would be one of the largest migrations in American history. The communes had no hierarchies of authority, the people were to see themselves as equal parts of a system, working towards stability. Members sorted problems through group discussion, where all community members would communicate their feelings towards one another. The intention was to mirror the connections of feedback loops seen in ecosystems.   

A superorganism commune

At the same time, visionaries in California looked to build a self-organising society at the global scale. Engineers were building elaborate new computer technologies, driven by an ideology shaped by Odum’s vision of natural order. They wanted to connect thousands of personal computers, from across the globe, using networks. This global network would free the populace from the conventional hierarchies. People would be liberated from the old society, able to express and interact with each other without any of the old barriers. Through this freedom, the highbred cybernetic-human system would unlock natural order through Information feedback. This work would pave the way for the modern internet. Richard Brautigan’s poem “All watched over by machines of loving grace” succinctly and lyrically expresses this ideology, in which the world of the computer and the world of ecology are fused together in a science-fantasy utopia.

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
     (right now please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
     (it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Equilibrium or die

By the early 1970’s the world was within environmental crises. Issues of extinction, climate change and pollution could not be solved by the old power structures of Nation states because they were issues that crossed national borders, involving the entirety of nature. The technocratic elite offered up a solution and as a result, the idea of the self-regulating system would move to centre stage.

Some of the best systematic minds of the time, alongside some the wealthiest businessmen, became involved in “The Club of Rome”. The group gathered all the known data on population, industry, agriculture pollution and more, and fed it into their computing machines. The data was processed into a model of the entire global ecosystem as impacted by industrial society. The model predicted the crossing of a threshold and the imminent collapse of the global human population. Society had gone beyond the capacity of the planet’s life supporting systems. The results were published in the bestselling book “The limits to growth”.

This transformed politics by transcending the seemingly petty squabbles of nations, presenting instead a global agenda. The international bureaucrats took the book as the starting framework for the “United Nations Conference on the Human Environment” held in Stockholm, 1972. The take-home message was that the world needed to be managed in a new, non-political way, to avoid ecosystem collapse. Implicated in all this was Jay Forester, one of the early cyberneticists. Forester had architected the Club of Rome model and was now advising that governments give up economic growth and instead aim for maintaining steady-state within the global system. This was the only way to avoid collapse. Instead of changing the world, politicians should try to hold back industrial development. The state of industrial growth and the state of global ecosystem equilibrium were at total odds with each other.

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment

The environmental movement became divided. Some saw the move towards political equilibrium as necessary while others protested that the equilibrium model was not made to save the world but to control it. People were presented with a choice, maintain the status-quo or face global collapse. This argument had happened before, in the waning years of Frederick Clements’ life.

In the 1930’s, when imperial Britain’s power started its decline, the autocratic ruler of South Africa, Field Marshall Smuts, designed a philosophy called “Holism”. Smuts took the concept of superorganismic order, where every species has its place, and applied it to Imperial society. Every person, class and race had a natural place in society where they were best adapted. The global nature-society system would remain stable so long as every person stayed in their naturally-ordained place. The white Europeans were responsible for managing the other races to ensure equilibrium. Ecologic-Imperial rule would lead to a New World Order where the artificial boundaries of nations would disappear. It was believed that indigenous cultures were held in a perpetual state of barbarism by the harsh limiting conditions of tropical ecosystems. In Amazonia, lush vegetation masked infertile soils and sparse sources of protein. Experts believed that complex societies could never develop here without the technology of the advanced western societies. Instead, people would always be forced to live as isolated shifting cultivators to maintain ecological equilibrium with their environment.

Much later, in the waning years of the 20th century, archaeologists challenged this view of a “counterfeit paradise”. As ranchers cleared the forest of trees, they uncovered immense earthworks dating to before the time of Columbus, marking the existence of complex societies now long gone. Clementesian climax-theory was a powerful incentive in the often-bloody imperial takeovers of tropical regions across the globe. It offered a seemingly neutral paradigm of an unchanging status-quo. In reality, it was highly politically charged and often unsubstantiated.

Amazonian earthworks

40 years on and the protesters in Stockholm were accusing Forrester of the same trick. They insisted that the environmental movement had been hijacked by the technocrats – using the balance of nature idea as political trick. But the protests were in vain. The superorganism concept had now garnered mainstream appeal, penetrating deep into the public conscience. The 1970’s onwards saw the rise of grand tales of global connectivity in books and other media, like the massively popular “Gaia hypothesis” by James Lovelock. In it, Lovelock laid out a theory where the global biosphere actively works to balance out global temperature within a range where life can proliferate itself unending. The enlightenment ideal of humans as beings separate from nature was crumbling. But during the 1970’s the science supporting the steady-state superorganism fell apart.

Chaos ecology, Or: the new history of ecosystems  

In 1926, a botanist named Henry A. Gleason formally challenged Clements’ organismic theory of climax with his own view- titled “The Individualistic concept of the plant association”.  Gleason applied Clements’ approach to the vegetation of Illinois but instead of finding order he discerned

“…only a mismash of conjoining species, all seeking their own advantage in utter disregard of others”.

Gleason offered an alternative view of ecosystems, where formations are entirely the result of individual species in constant competition with one another. His ideas were nearly totally ignored by the ecologists. That is until a new generation of ecologists in the 1970’s, started generating evidence showing that ecosystems do not tend towards balance. These ecologists had training in population biology first and foremost. They would examine the life-histories of each species, in-order to work up to a truly complete picture of ecosystem function. Instead of finding a trend towards balance, they found that nature was in a state of near-constant dynamic and unpredictable change. Daniel Botkin examined moose and wolf populations on remote islands in the American Great Lakes. These populations were supposed to maintain one another in steady-state but the history of the population revealed that they were constantly changing in response to other variables.

At the same time, a new generation of palaeoecologists started to re-examine ecosystem history. Using pollen and charcoal preserved in sediments, they were able to reconstruct ecological and climatic dynamics over hundreds and thousands of years. When they looked at the records, they saw nothing but change. Ecosystems were at the constant mercy of fluctuating exogenous disturbances- storms, fire, droughts and floods- but instead of returning to their prescribed climax state, the communities were recombining in radically new ways. The new history of ecosystems was unpredictable and full of novel dislocations and as a result, palaeoecology began to challenge the basic concepts of ecology, undermining the very foundations of the science.

Among the most prolific of the palaeoecologists was Paul Colinvaux. Colinvaux made expeditions to remote Amazonia, looking for ancient pollen records preserved in lake sediments. With his records, he overturned any notion that Amazonia was a static “museum” of vegetation. Plant genera and families were constantly shifting and competing within the forest system over thousands of years. Colinvaux became a public figure and a champion of the individualist paradigm. He too was familiar with holism and became sceptical of integrating the equilibrium approach into politics, actively criticising these attempts in his books. For him, the message contained in his records went beyond the scientific, it  revealed a fundamentally libertarian underpinning to nature. 

“We can now… explain all the intriguing, predictable events of plant successions in simple, matter of fact, Darwinian ways. Everything that happens in successions comes about because all the different species go about earning their livings as best they may, each in its own individual manner. What look like community properties are in fact the summed results of all these bits of private enterprise.” (Colinvaux 1978, pp. 117).

The Amazonian archaeologists began to employ these ecological techniques in their own work and made another startling discovery. They noticed that ecosystems surrounding their archaeological sites were enriched with useful species. Records showed that the forests had never returned to their pre-ordained climax state but instead maintained the legacy of human manipulation. Not only had the ancient peoples broken through the supposed limiting conditions of the ecosystem, they had actively transformed them beyond any natural state.

As the new school of chaos ecology started to re-write the discipline, the scientist George Van Dyne set out on a last stand to prove the balance of nature. His plan was to create a computer model of the grassland ecosystem stretching across Colorado. The entire system would be recreated inside the computer, revealing how the system works through networked feedbacks. Van Dyne took an army of ecologists and research students and sent them out into the grasslands to try and monitor every single aspect of the community. Make-shift hoovers were used to suck-up insects which were then meticulously identified in the lab. Some students would follow individual animals, taking precise recordings every time the animal ate. Holes were cut into the stomachs of large mammals, so the team could reach into the animal pull out the food and see what had been consumed. Reels and reels of data were fed into the computer, but the model made no sense, no stable underlying pattern emerged.

George Van Dyne with Norman French and two visitors at the Colorado grasslands project

Van Dyne became obsessed, convincing himself that the model simply needed more data. He worked frantically, day and night, putting more data into the machine. Van Dyne, in trying to prove the underlying balance of nature, had unintentionally recreated the real chaotic essence of ecology. Van Dyne died in 1981 and the grasslands project collapsed, signalling the end of the superorganismic equilibrium theory in academia. Balance was dead in the eyes of the experts but outside the halls of the academy, the ideology continued to grow.

The self-organising society

In the early part of the 21st century, the philosophy of the self-organising network re-emerged in a radical way. Seemingly spontaneous revolutions, starting in the 2000s, in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and ending in 2009 with the Iranian revolt, overturned the old powers. The internet had brought disparate groups of people, with no unifying ideology bar a desire for freedom, together in revolt. Twitter, Facebook and other social networks had brought the computer utopianist vision of a self-organising system to life. But these revolutions lasted only for a moment and the authorities quickly returned, presenting the same old issues.

People had forgotten the results of those social experiments in the ecological communes. The communes had all failed, lasting three years at most, having been torn apart by power struggle. Power was supposedly banished from the communes through the rigid enforcement of egalitarian principles, but social hierarchies quickly formed. Stronger personalities emerged, as did coercive clicks. The group meetings that underpinned the supposed feedback mechanism turned into brutal hazing sessions, leading to an atmosphere of oppression over the whole group. The members disbanded and returned to their old lives (Reider 2009; Hollenbach 2004; Johnson 1998). The hippies thought their vision of society was best because it was based on the underlying concept of natural balance. Their vision was a crude fantasy that failed to account for the dynamical forces of human psychology, sociology and power. They had been fooled by the superorganism fantasy – an idea with deep roots in ancient myth, that hybridised with the cold calculating world of the machines. As the communes declined, so too did the hopes of building a society based on nature’s balance and the myth of the superorganism faded into obscurity.

James Hill

References

Colinvaux, P. (1978) Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist’s Perspective, Princeton: Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0691023649.

Hollenbach, M. (2004) Lost and Found: My life in a Group Marriage Commune, University of New Mexico Press, ISBN-13: 978-0826334633.

Johnson, S. (1998) Excess Blamed for the Death of the Commune Movement, The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/03/us/excesses-blamed-for-demise-of-the-commune-movement.html.

Reider, R. (2009) Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities, University of New Mexico Press, ISBN-13: 978-0826346742.

Turner, F. (2006) From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-81741-5.

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