The Western Cultural Construct of the “Balance of Nature”

We’ve all heard or said something along the lines of “we must protect nature’s balance”. But where does this concept of a nature at balance come from? And is it to be interpreted literately or, rather, metaphorically? Today’s answer differs from the one we would’ve been given in the past.

A thousand of years ago, back in ancient Greece, people believed that the Gods maintained nature at balance, with the aid of human prayers. When the first Greek philosophers started to ponder and understand the laws of nature, the need for prayers was de-emphasised but the concept that the Gods looked after the balance of nature remained1.

Similarly, in the middle ages (5th-15th century) the common belief in the western world was that the balance of nature was set in motion by the Christian God at the time of creation. The first doubts started to emerge when people found the fossils of animals they had never seen before. How could nature maintain its balance if some of its components were no longer around? The thinking at the time was that such animals were still alive but lived in other unexplored lands1.

In the 1700s, the Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus, who is also the father of the binomial nomenclature that we use in taxonomy today, observed that no species increased to crowd the others, and different species played distinctive roles. This ultimately led him to suggest that animals coexisted in a sort of super-organismic balanced whole2.

The concept of nature at balance was shaken again during the 19th century, when the first expeditions concluded that fossils belonged to extinct animals. While Darwin’s theory of evolution simply changed the perspective from such balance being created by God to being the product of natural selection, his contemporary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace was amongst the firsts to challenge the idea of a nature at balance. “Some species exclude all others in particular tracts. Where is the balance? When the locust devastates vast regions and causes the death of animals and man, what is the meaning of saying the balance is preserved… To human apprehension there is no balance but a struggle in which one often exterminates another”3.

With the conception of the discipline of ecology, the study of animals and ecosystems brought new knowledge to the table, and during the 20th century the idea of a nature at balance increasingly lost credit. Charles Elton, one of the founders of ecology, argued that no such balance existed: ‘‘The balance of nature does not exist, and perhaps never has existed. The numbers of wild animals are constantly varying to a greater or lesser extent, and the variations are usually irregular in period and always irregular in amplitude. Each variation in the numbers of one species causes direct and indirect repercussions on the numbers of the others, and since many of the latter are themselves independently varying in numbers, the resultant confusion is remarkable”4.

Gradually, by the second half of the 20th century, the predominant view of ecologists saw the idea of nature at balance as irrelevant or even a distraction, and replaced it with the concept of a dynamic and changing nature, also known as the flux of nature metaphor. This new view had profound implications for the conservation world as it considered ecosystems to be dynamic (variable over time), patchy (variable over space), non-linear, complex and stochastic (full of surprises), which is the view that persists to date5,6.

While ecosystems are dynamic, there are thresholds within which they operate that if we overshoot can lead to ecological breakdown with rapid biodiversity declines and the loss of ecosystem services. This is why understanding where those thresholds lay is important and is the focus of research concerned with studying ecosystem resilience.

Public perception appears to lag behind this paradigm shift in the way we understand ecosystems today. From the news to the work of NGOs, a lot of emphasis is still placed on conserving such “balance of nature”6. Possibly, that is also because the idea of the balance of nature is easier to grasp while the flux of nature metaphor is complex.

In a way, this new idea of how we see nature brings us a new paradox and present us with a new challenge in conservation: trying to conserve what changes.

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References

  1. Egerton, F.N., 1973. Changing concepts of the balance of nature. Quart Rev Biol, 48, 322–350
  2. Linnaeus, C., 1744. Oratio de telluris habitabilis incremento. Leiden: Cornelium Haak.
  3. McKinney, H.L., 1966. Alfred Russel Wallace and the discovery of natural selection. J Hist Med Allied Sci 21: 333–357.
  4. Elton, C., 1930. Animal ecology and evolution. New York: Oxford University Press
  5. Simberloff, D., 2014. The “balance of nature”—evolution of a panchreston. PLoS biology12 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001963
  6. Ladle, R.J. and Gillson, L., 2009. The (im) balance of nature: a public perception time-lag?. Public understanding of science18(2), pp.229-242. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662507082893

Cover image credits: Photo by John Salzarulo on Unsplash

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