The Mythical Balance of Nature?

The Balance of Nature theory states that an ecological system, if left to its own devices, will essentially self-correct. In other words, if nature gets out of whack, it’ll eventually fix itself. It’s a popular theory, believed by practically everyone…except for ecologists that is.

Is Herodotus the father of the “Balance of Nature” theory?
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Mythical Balance of Nature?

“This concept of natural equilibrium long ruled ecological research and governed the management of such natural resources as forests and fisheries. It led to the doctrine, popular among conservationists, that nature knows best and that human intervention in it is bad by definition.” ~ William K. Stevens, New Eye on Nature: The Real Constant Is Eternal Turmoil

Yes, it’s true. Nature is never in balance. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of balance. When an ecological system experiences a disturbance, whether it’s a forest fire or an ice storm or something else, it never comes back in its original form. Instead, the system evolves in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. And predators and prey, contrary to popular opinion, don’t maintain constant population levels relative to each other. Instead, their numbers vary wildly over time. Sometimes, predators drive prey to extinction. Other times, predators die off on their own accord.

The Origin of the Balance of Nature Theory?

The Balance of Nature theory is very old, tracing all the way back to Herodotus, who is often considered the first historian. However, it entered the scientific world in the 1950s thanks to the efforts of two brothers named Howard T. Odum and Eugene Odum (see The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts by documentarian Adam Curtis). The Odums viewed nature as a self-stabilizing, cybernetic system filled with nodes and feedback loops. If a disturbance occurred in nature, it would be recognized via feedback loops. Nature would then adjust itself to eliminate the disturbance.

Over the next few decades, Howard Odum collected data and modeled ecosystems as electronic networks filled with nodes and feedback loops. Eventually, he and Eugene took the idea of “nature as a system” and made it the basis of ecological studies. Unfortunately, their work was deeply flawed. The brothers ruthlessly simplified and cherry-picked the data to fit their predetermined models. But no one realized that at the time and their ideas became gospel.

The Failure of the Balance of Nature Models?

Later, a systems ecologist named George Van Dyne attempted to model a small piece of land as a complete ecosystem. He gathered tons of data and built a computer simulation, hoping to gain a better understanding of how nature self-stabilized. But as he gathered more and more data, he began to realize his model didn’t even begin to resemble the real world. In fact, he found nature to be extremely unstable and ultra-complex.

But while the scientific theory behind the Balance of Nature was no longer considered accurate, it remained widely believed by the greater public. Indeed, the mythical Balance of Nature theory continues onward today, driven largely by poorly trained educators, popular culture, New Age environmentalism, and ancient romanticism. Will that ever change?

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Let’s hope so. The Balance of Nature might seem like a romantic idea, but nothing could be further from the truth. It views nature in machine-like fashion. Plants, animals, insects, and everything else are mere nodes in a network, reacting to constant feedback loops. However, nature is far more complex and unstable than even our most sophisticated computer models. It’s wild, ever-changing, and full of surprises. It’s unpredictable and remains beyond our understanding. And that, at least from where we stand, is a far more romantic…and accurate…idea of nature.

 

Guerrilla Explorer’s Man vs. Nature Coverage

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5 Responses to The Mythical Balance of Nature?

  1. Well put. Evolution never stops. The universe is in constant flux. Nature is dynamic.

    Fortunately, she also does a lot of self-regulating. Those feedback loops you dislike; they really do exist and operate. They won’t save individual species, perhaps, but they maintain the planet.

    In cases of prey and predator population swings, which can be enormous, they usually self-regulate, as well. A good birth cycle brings good prey/food growth kicking off predator population explosion; which eventually runs into a die-off when too much of the prey/food is eaten.

    But in a similar vein, there’s no such thing as an invasive species. On the flip side, all species are invasive. Look at us, the ultimate invasive species.

  2. David says:

    I don’t like or dislike feedback loops. They merely exist. My point is they don’t lead nature to self-stabilize.

    You can’t really make the claim that prey and predator populations “usually self-regulate.” There’s just no empirical evidence to back up that claim. It may happen over the short term to a certain degree. But in the long run, things are far more complicated. For example, a predator may have a secondary prey. If this alternative prey exists in high numbers, the predator population may remain robust even as it drives the primary prey to low numbers and perhaps, to extinction. Also, there are many nuances at work here…optimal foraging theory, surplus killing, and mobbing behavior to name a few. Ultimately, chaos theory makes it impossible to predict the long-term relationship between prey and predators.

    Good point on invasive species. Interestingly enough, there’s an argument to be made for invasive species in many cases. Take zebra mussels in the Great Lakes. They’ve actually improved the water quality.

    Thanks for reading!

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