In the fifth century B.C., Herodotus reports that Arabians behevedrn”the whole world would swarm with these serpents”rn(snakes) were it not for the fact that “Divine Providence” wasrn”a wise contriver.” Belief that “Divine Providence” ensured thernharmony of nature re’crberated among naturalists during thernEnlightenment, and similar notions pervaded early Americanrnthought. In the 18th century, the Swedish scientist CarolusrnLinnaeus, whose work was a forerunner of modern ecolog}’, elevatedrnthe notion of plants and animals interacting for mutualrnbenefit to the status of a scientific principle, which he calledrn”the economv of nature.” Similar notions were embraced b}’rnthe German biologist, Ernst Ilaeckel, when he concei’cd ofrnecology in 1866. Describing his new discipline as “the wholernscience of the relations of the organism to the environment including,rnin the broad sense, all the ‘conditions of existence,'” hernsuggested that all things animate and inanimate arc parts of arnlarger whole, or community.rnThanks to its political utility,rnthe ecologists found thernself-regulating ecosystem to be arnmoney tree. As federal researchrnfunds flowed, public agenciesrnforged long-term associationsrnwith universities, which in turnrnexpanded ecological teachingrnand research.rn”He intended his readers to visualize,” notes historian Peterrn}. Bowler, “a kind of global organic economv in which allrnspecies played a part.” And all things, whether living or not,rnHaeckel supposed, contain a spiritual clement. “He arguedrnthat matter and spirit were manifestations of a single underlyingrnsubstance,” notes Bowler, “which meant that even the mostrnprimiti’e form of life had some spiritual qualities.”rnHaeckel’s ecolog)’, therefore, was more metaphysical thanrnscientific. It encompassed two closely related doctrines, wellrnknown to philosophers, called “holism” and “spiritualrnmonism.” 1 lolism is the view that the whole is greater than thernsum of its parts—that things can be understood only within therncontext of larger communities of which they arc members.rnSpiritual monists bclie’e that a material world does not existrnand that nature consists entirelv of mental entities, or ideas.rnThe same spiritualism was embraced by America’s first greatrnecologist, Frederic Clements, in 1916. Soil, plants, and animals,rnClements suggested, form parts of superorganisms infusedrnwith spirit. These biological communities, he said, arernlike individuals that arc born, grow, and die in predictable wa s.rnThey are alwas in motion towards a goal. Thev moe from disorderrnto order, from loose associations to close-knit communities,rnfrom growth to stabilitv. Onlv disturbances such as forestrnfires, olcanic eruptions, or human interference halt or reversernthis process. But after such interruptions, nature always renewsrnits inexorable march toward balance and stability.rnLike Haeckel, Clements’ science reflected fuzzy thinking.rnFor neither monism nor holism are scientific. Spiritual objectsrncannot be studied empirically, and the supposed somethingrnextra that makes the whole “greater than the sum of its parts”rnis not observable. To be scientifically admissible, a theoreticalrnconstruct such as Clements’ superorganisni had to be logicalK’rnembedded within a theory whose kev concepts were “anchored”rnto empirical reality. And it was not.rnTo extricate biology from this philosophical dead end, inrn1935 Clements’ friend, Oxford botanist A.C. Tanslcy, introducedrna new concept that he thought more acceptable,rnnamely, the ecosystem. “Though the organisms may claim ourrnprimary interest,” he wrote, “when we arc trying to think fundamentallyrnwe cannot separate them from their special environment,rnwith which they form one physical system…. It is thernsystems so formed which, from the point of view of the ecologist,rnare the basic units of nature on the face of the earth.rnThese ecosystems, as we ma’ call them, are of the most variousrnkinds and sizes.”rnUnlike Clements’ superorganism, Tansley’s ecosystems werernentirek’ physical. But although rejecting his friend’s spiritualrnmonism, Tanslev retained his holism. Thus even Tansley’srnecosystem was unobservable. A theoretical concept, it did notrnsignify anything on a map. As plant geographer RichardrnHartshorn observed in 1939: “The problem of establishing thernboundaries of a geographic region . . . presents a problem forrnwhich we have no reason to even hope for an objecti c solution.rn. . . The regional entities which we construct on this basis arerntherefore in the full sense mental constructions.”rnTo advance their fledgling discipline, therefore, ecosystemrnadvocates should have concentrated on observation and experimentation.rnInstead, they went in the opposite direction, developingrnhighh abstract theories that rested on little or no evidence.rnIn a landmark 1946 paper, ^ale University ecologist G.rnEvelvn I lutchinson led the way. The ecosystem, he suggested,rnwas a feedback loop of energy flows which operated to keep thernsystem stable in the face of environmental disturbances.rnAs a tool for analyzing such systems. Hutchinson emplo}edrna new kind of mathematics, called cybernetics. Conceived byrnMassachusetts Institute of Technology professor NorbertrnWiener during World War II and based on his work designingrnaiming devices for antiaircraft guns, cbernetics was the sciencernof self-regulating machines, like guided missiles and thermostats.rnSuch devices exhibited “purposeful” behavior, suchrnas aiming at a target or maintaining a constant temperature,rnbecause they were governed by feedback loops that kept thernmachine in equilibrium. And cybernetics was the mathematicsrnfor such systems.rnUsed with the ecosystem model, cybernetics seemed a powerfulrnanalytic tool. When the ecosvstem was pictured as arnfeedback loop of energy flows, operating like a thermostat tornkeep the community in balance, it appeared to open the wayrn18/CHRONICLESrnrnrn