for using physics to understand living things and their environment,rnhideed, the influenee of cybernetics was so intoxicatingrnthat Httle attention was paid to the lack of evidence for thernecosystem models that employed it.rn”One of the major criticisms of mathematical-theoreticalrnapproaches to ecology,” wrote biologist Robert J. Mchitosh, “isrnthat they commonly rest on simplifying assumptions, often unstated,rnthat make them tractable mathematically but nonsensernbiologically.” Such was the new ecologists’ fascination withrnequilibrium. These scholars emphasized the balance of nature,rnnot because the evidence supported it but because their mathematicsrndemanded it.rnExamining the concept of niche—the habitat occupied byrnan organism—Hutchinson would reach a conclusion that soonrnbecame conventional wisdom throughout American culture;rnthat biological diversity promotes ecosystem stability. “Communitiesrnof many diversified organisms,” he wrote in 1958, “arernbetter able to persist than are communities of fewer less diversifiedrnorganisms.” But this was an attribute which, like stability,rnwas required not by nature but by mathematics. “The conventionalrnwisdom of ecology,” wrote Mcintosh, “held that diversityrnenhanced ecosystem stability by increasing the number ofrnlinks in the ecological web. This idea became almost axiomaticrnto some biologists despite indications that diversity of trees inrnrelatively stable or climax forests was less than that in serai orrnchanging forests.”rnNevertheless, despite a lack of data, other ecologists, encouragedrnand subsidized by the federal government, embraced thisrnnew more “scientific” approach. In 1946, the Atomic EnergyrnCommission established a Division of Biology and Medicine tornstudy the effects of atomic fallout, inaugurating ambitiousrnecosystem research programs at national laboratories and nuclearrnreservations in Oak Ridge, Brookhaven, I lanford, and SavannahrnRiver. At Savannah, it contracted with University ofrnCeorgia ecologist Eugene Odum to conduct studies of farmlandrnabandoned after construction of the nuclear facility.rnMeanwhile, the Office of Naval Research began paying Eugene’srnbrother Howard to study mineral springs in Florida. Andrnin 1954, at the request of the AEC, the Odum brothers traveledrnto Eniwetok, in the South Pacific, to study, in their words, “therneffects of radiation on whole populations and entire ecologicalrnsystems in the field.”rnTo be sure, many ecologists rejected the ecosystem as merernrecycled holism and spiritual monism. Evolutionary ecologists,rnin particular, stressed that competition between creatures andrnnot self-regulating ecosystems determined evolution. Invokingrnthe rigorous standards of modern science, they insisted thatrntheories about purposeful change and complex wholes werernnot testable. But while such critics had science on their side,rnthey failed to influence public opinion and policy. Their hypotheses,rnsuggesting nature is random, could not justify politicalrnagendas. By contrast, ecosystems advocates, as historian JoelrnB. Hagen comments, “emphasized the important role thatrnecologists could play in shaping public policy.”rnIn other words, ecosystems ecologists had a political agendarnand critics of the idea did not. Indeed, from its inception ecologyrnserved as a rationale for social planning. Inspired by his beliefrnthat all creatures, including humans, were part of an interlockingrnweb of nature, Haeckel founded a political movementrncalled the Monist League, dedicated to promoting a back-tothe-rnland ethic (to put Germans back in touch with nature) andrnto ridding Germany of alien “dualistic” beliefs such as Judaismrnand Christianity.rnClements, too, intended the ideas of ecologists to aid socialrnplanning. As Bowler explains, Clements “saw science as a wayrnof controlling the economy as a whole” and thought ecologyrn”would show us how to manage natural productivity of an entirernregion.” And “where Clements had once justified governmentrncontrol of the environment by appealing to the image ofrnsociety as a super-organism, the new systems theory offered thernprospect of social control through the setting up of stable feedbackrnloops of human interactions. In an atmosphere of postwarrnoptimism, science seemed to offer the prospect of creating arnnew and more secure worid.”rnThanks to its political utility, the ecologists found the selfregulatingrnecosystem to be a money tree. As federal researchrnfunds flowed, public agencies forged long-term associationsrnwith universities, which in turn expanded ecological teachingrnand research. Private philanthropies inaugurated grants programsrndesigned to promote the idea. In 1970, PresidentrnRichard M. Nixon approved funding for United States participationrnin the International Biological Programme, an effort torndevelop comprehensive models for understanding ecosystems.rnIn 1974, the National Science Foundation launched a longterm,rngenerous grants program to promote the idea.rnThen, with the publication of Barry Commoner’s 1971 bestseller.rnThe Closing Circle, the ecosystem idea captured the publicrnimagination. The earth, conservationists decided, was a machine,rna computer, a net! Preservation was saving all the cogs!rnSince ecosystem instability threatened humanity, it wasrnthought, biological diversity must be protected by reestablishingrn”pre-Columbian” conditions by isolating threatened habitatrnfrom human interference. To this end, the EndangeredrnSpecies Act of 1973 was passed “to provide a means wherebyrnthe ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatenedrnspecies depend may be conserved.” Soon this idea would infusernthe rest of federal preservation laws and policies.rnThe simplicity of this idea was seductive, and its use ofrnmathematics gave it the patina of respectability—establishing,rnas Bowler observes, “a more ‘scientific’ image for ecology.”rnYet this “science” was only skin deep. “Ecologists’ increasingrnreliance on the physical sciences and engineering for theory,rnmathematical approaches, concepts, models and metaphors,”rnbiologist Daniel B. Botkin wrote, “led to an increasingly sophisticatedrngrowth of mathematical theory (formal models) that requiredrnand led to exact equilibria, and to a world view of naturernas the great machine. These foundations led to an untenablernsituation: the predominant, accepted ecological theories assertedrnthat natural, undisturbed populations and ecologicalrncommunities… would achieve constancy in abundance, an assertionrnthat became inconsistent with new observations.”rnUnderneath, the same old monism and holism prevailed.rnThe “modern” ecosystem idea was merely Haeckel’s andrnClements’ metaphysics dressed in the fancy clothing of mathematics.rnNatural change was still deemed to be directed towardrnthe goal of stability, only now “energy” had replaced “spirit” asrnthe driving force. And these replacements were incapable ofrntransforming abstract philosophy into hard science.rnMeanwhile, the empirical evidence was revealing that thernidea of a stable, self-regulating ecosystem was fundamentallyrnflawed. Random disturbance, not permanence or order, seemsrnto govern nature. Left alone, biological communities do notrntend toward equilibrium, but lurch wildly, propelled by rapidrnJUNE 1996/19rnrnrn