I began with a question: where do we fix the boundary between an organism and its environment? I will now return to it.
In the early years of the twentieth century, biologists seemed to be more willing than they presently are to ask radical questions about the nature of the organism and its relation to the inanimate world in which it lives. Indeed, the idea of a superorganismal physiology, of the type I have outlined and tried to defend in this book, was mainstream biology back then. Ecolo-gists will recognize throughout this book the strong influence of thinkers like Frederic Clements, Arthur Tansley, Alfred North Whitehead, Raymond Linde-man, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, Howard Odum, and other biologists who brought a deliberately holistic perspective to the matter of life and the environment, in which the boundary between the organism and its environment was not so strongly drawn as it is today. Such a point of view is no longer in the mainstream, though. Presently, biology that is not strictly materialist or reductionist is commonly regarded as somehow suspect or deficient in intellectual rigor. Even among ecologists, I think it fair to say, "good" ecology is defined by the distance one can put between it and the holistic philosophical leanings of the early ecologists like Clements and Whitehead.
Have we lost something we once had in those years? I think we have, but if the loss is to be regarded with any sentiment other than nostalgia, we need to ask why biology developed the way it did. Put another way, was the holistic perspective in biology lost be cause it really was inadequate, or did it simply go out of fashion?
Most likely, it was a little of both. The twentieth century has been biology's first Golden Age: the merging of chemistry, physics, and biology into the modern science of molecular biology has resulted in magnificent insights into the very nature of life itself. Similarly, neo-Darwinism put powerful conceptual tools in the hands of those interested in a scientific theory of evolution. The combination of the two has been one of science's great tag teams. In comparison, the early holistic biology simply offered less in the way of intellectual rigor and rewards: it was difficult to pin down exactly what a superorganism was, never mind how to recognize one when you saw one, or even what critical questions to ask of it when you did. It is no surprise, then, that biologists flocked to the disciplines that offered them the greater prospects for intellectual reward and professional advancement. Evolutionary biology and molecular biology offered these in abundance: "holistic" biology simply did not.
I usually am not one to argue with success, but I think holistic biology has also suffered for reasons quite apart from its intellectual merit. Looking back from our present vantage, it is easy to forget just what a revolutionary period the twentieth century has been, not just in science, but in politics, art, economics—the entire realm of human existence. Just as people were caught up seemingly at random in the turmoil of the twentieth century, so too was science, and the course of biology and ecology was altered in ways that we are only now beginning to comprehend. For example, holistic ecology flowered during the 1920s, in Germany, where the German Naturphilosophen had prepared fertile ground for it, and most fruitfully in the newly fledged Soviet Union, in the hands of thinkers like V. V. Dokuchaev and Vladimir Vernadsky (whom we have to thank for the term biosphere). Unfortunately, holistic concepts in biology and ecology shared a provenance with some of the philosophical underpinnings of National Socialism in Germany and of fascism generally. In the bloody turmoil that followed, it would seem inevitable that the entire stock, and not just its odious branches, would come under attack. Despite its promising early start among the Soviet ecologists, holistic biology would be strangled in its crib by Stalin and his minions. To the west, holistic biology was left gasping in the smoldering ruins of post-Nazi Germany, shunned as politically suspect. England was left too poor and exhausted to take up where Tansley and his students had left off. And in America, holistic biology was smothered under massive mountains of cash devoted to "big ecology" programs like the International Biological Program, which, in its brisk way, set about to "solve the ecosystem problem" with organizational charts, five-year plans, and the peculiarly American myth of the can-do everyman with little use for dreamy speculations about superorganisms. So perhaps there is something to the claim that the holistic perspective in biology faded because it became unfashionable (and for some of its proponents, literally deadly).
Every revolution carries within it the seeds of its own destruction, though, and the intellectual revolutions in twentieth-century biology are no exception. Molecular biology, which still has a very rich future in developing new pharmaceuticals, treatments for disease, enhancement of crop productivity, and so forth, has become transformed essentially into a branch of industrial biology. There is nothing wrong with that, mind you, but, I would suggest, there is also nothing to come from it that will make us think about the world in a fundamentally different way, as did the discovery of the structure of DNA. Neo-Darwinism, meanwhile, having explained the world to its own satisfaction, is now looking a bit frayed and dowdy, its proponents insisting to anyone who will listen that they really are the keepers of the keys to understanding the history of life on Earth. In short, evolutionary biology has become scholastic, with all its best insights behind it, and its adherents engaged in endless rancorous debate over ever more arcane and abstract subjects.
So, now that the revolution has become bourgeois, we at the end of the twentieth century are in the privileged position of being able to give serious consideration to the question: how much farther can these approaches to biology go? Put another way, can they lead us into biology's next Golden Age? Perhaps, but I think not. Maybe somewhere, someone will stumble across a gene for consciousness—now that would make us think differently about the world, wouldn't it?—but I doubt that such a thing exists. Similarly, it is hard to see what, short of a direct glimpse at the very origin of life, could penetrate the internally consistent and cozy world of modern Darwinism and make its adherents ask really critical questions of themselves. Rather, I think the path to biology's next Golden Age will involve breaching the essentially arbitrary boundary between organisms and the environment, to create a biology that unifies the living and the inanimate worlds.
Readings / Credits / Index
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