Putting Nature in its Place

By Andrew Inkpen

If natural preserves are not made, how will the next generation be best grounded in the general principles of the science?

Charles C. Adams, 1913, Guide to the Study of Animal Ecology

In field biology, a central problem has been that of place: where to do one’s research.[i] This is perhaps best illustrated by way of a quotation from biologist, turned historian and philosopher, Ernst Mayr. Contrasting the life and physical sciences, he writes,

If a physicist says ‘Ice floats on water,’ his statement is true for any piece of ice and any body of water. The members of a class usually lack the individuality that is so characteristic of the organic world where all individuals are unique; all stages in the life cycle are unique; all populations are unique; all species and higher categories are unique; all inter-individual contacts are unique; all natural associations of species are unique; and all evolutionary events are unique.[ii]

It seems not a stretch to extend Mayr’s thesis to place: each biological place is unique. A general consequence of this ‘universality of uniqueness’ is that one place may not well represent another, just as one species may not well represent another.[iii] What we learn about the patterns, processes and dynamics of mice communities in the country, may not hold for their urban counterparts, and vice versa.

Many current ecologists, acknowledging the uniqueness of ecological places, have wondered whether we’ve focused on the wrong types of places, particularly so-called ‘natural’ places at the expense of ‘human’ places. A recent meta-analysis of the ecological literature, for example, showed that there is a strong bias in favor of studies performed in ‘protected’ areas—to be clear, they mean protected from humans.[iv] The bias is troubling, the authors argue, given that 75% of ice-free land on earth has been transformed by humans, whether through agriculture or settlement, and it is just as often these humanized places that we struggle to manage and protect. It is an open and serious question whether the ecological theory we’ve developed from studying ‘protected’ places will also apply to those places making up most of the globe.[v]

There are many reasons for this bias in favor of ‘protected’ areas, ranging from deep-seated institutional and publication biases to practical research issues, such as gaining access to private land for long-term study.[vi] There are also interesting, and I think underappreciated, epistemological reasons. Current ecologists, for example, sometimes underwrite this bias by arguing that unmediated nature provides a foundation onto which we can subsequently operationalize and build in the effects of humans. ‘Our understanding of even the basic characteristics of major areas, like the Congo Basin, are missing,’ one ecologist recently remarked, ‘Adding direct human impacts to studies requires a certain initial understanding first’.[vii] It often seems as though we think there is something more predictable, or permanent, or necessary, to be found in natural places. The modern articulation of this idea, that natural places are epistemically foundational, has roots in the origins of the Ecological Society of America (ESA). Looking at this history cannot solve our current problems, but it does allow us to understand the origins of the bias and the creation of its scientific rationale. It also highlights the centrality of a longstanding philosophical conundrum: should we—as the authors of the meta-analysis ask in their conclusion—‘discount human activity as external to ecosystems’?[viii]

Following its founding in 1915, the ESA assumed a role in protecting ‘natural areas’ through its Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions (est. 1917).[ix] Over the next few years, a number of well-known field biologists served on the committee, including Victor Shelford (first chairman and first president of the ESA), Henry Cowles (third president of the ESA), Francis Sumner, and Joseph Grinnell, among others. The goals of the committee were to list all of the preserved and preservable areas in North America, to broadly explain the need for preservation, and to attempt to secure the preservation of each area. According to its members, the actions of the committee represented a more sustained and organized American conservation effort than had previously existed, and one that focused not just on particular species, or resources like coal, but also large tracks of land housing valuable natural communities and habitats.[x]

In order to secure a preliminary data set, the committee mailed out information cards to its members. Those cognizant of areas desirable for preservation were encouraged to fill in as much information about these places as possible, including the location, area, and ownership, but also the type of ecological habitat and species therein. The committee could then prioritize and secure as large a portion of natural variability as possible, spanning prairies and mountains, swamps and deserts.


Report of the Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions, 1921. Courtesy of JSTOR.

Report of the Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions, 1921. Courtesy of JSTOR.


In its first report, published in 1921, the committee explained the aesthetic, literary, recreational, scientific, and economic reasons for preservation and specified diagrammatically how one might go about preserving natural areas from the encroachment of civilization.[xi] These ‘suggested management’ plans demonstrated how to preserve the ‘Natural’ by building a buffer zone, presumably less natural, around its borders. These landscape architectural plans, as historical objects, reflect the committee’s own ideas about what nature was like, where it could be found, and how it could be contained. That the committee’s plans ultimately rested upon a distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘domesticated’, despite their possessing a rich vocabulary for describing the variability of ecological associations, is a testament to their belief in the homogeneity of urban spaces, and the degenerative effects of urbanization.[xii] Human encroachment transformed a richly heterogeneous ‘natural’ world into a homogeneous, domesticated space.


Courtesy of Google Books.

Courtesy of Google Books.

Of all of the reasons offered in the report for the preservation of nature, the ‘scientific reasons’ were front and center. In fact it was a central goal of the committee to articulate a scientific rationale for the study of natural places.[xiii] The committee argued that the ‘original conditions of nature’—those existing before the advent of man, and those essential for proper ecological study—were being lost as the North American landscape was urbanized or adapted for agriculture. Grinnell, the committee’s livestock ‘grazing advisor’, wrote that ‘as the settlement of the country progresses, and the original aspect of nature is altered, the parks will probably be the only areas unspoiled for scientific study’.[xiv] ‘The science of ecology,’ wrote Sumner, ‘depends upon undisturbed patches of nature as its “material”’.[xv]

The committee drew stark attention to such human-induced environmental degradation using photographs of the progression of Gary, Indiana from 1905-15, following the establishment of a U.S. Steel plant.


Courtesy of Google Books.

Courtesy of Google Books.

Gary represented a missed opportunity and a forewarning. Without the committee’s protestations and subsequent guidance many other natural areas throughout the American Midwest might be similarly de-natured—a scientific as well as aesthetic, recreational, and even economic tragedy.

But why, returning to the epistemic origins of our current bias, did the committee think that undisturbed places were particularly epistemically valuable? Why think that the study of nature inside the buffer-zone is suitable for ecologists, but not that outside the buffer-zone; or, perhaps more to the point, why think that nature can only truly be found inside the buffer-zone? One answer was natural historical in character: we were losing areas before they could be scientifically catalogued. But this was not the most important rationale offered by the committee, who were ambivalent about what they saw as old-fashioned methodologies—mere ‘stamp collecting’. Another answer is that the committee simply proposed a scientific rationale as a rhetorical strategy to support their conservation efforts. While this is partly true, it doesn’t seem to fully explain the sincerity or conviction for the study of undisturbed nature one finds expressed by these ecologists.

What seemed to be most directly on their mind was the importance of ‘natural’ places for the development of ‘pure’ ecological theory, as my epigraph suggests.[xvi] A popular answer to this effect was that summarized by ecologist, and seventh president of the ESA, Charles C. Adams. In his Guide to the Study of Animal Ecology (1913), he, like many ecologists at the time, compared ecology to physiology, and argued that the study of human-disturbed or urban environments was like the study of pathological organisms: it could be a means, but was not an end in itself. Nor, he concluded, would we get very far without a prior understanding of nature’s normal development, what he called a ‘bionomic base line’.[xvii] He wrote,

Some appear to think that an interest in such original conditions is of no particular scientific value, or is largely one of sentiment; still others, that such studies have no practical value. But if we come to consider that the original primeval conditions give us our best conception of the normal processes of nature and are comparable to the normal health of an organism, it puts the subject in another light. […]

To study disturbed, artificial, and ‘pathological’ conditions, without an adequate knowledge of the normal and original conditions of both the organisms and the environment, is an attempt to interpret the abnormal and artificial in terms of itself, rather than in terms of the normal.[xviii]

The scientific rationale for choosing ‘natural’ places for study was that they gave one an idea of nature’s ‘normal’ state and developmental processes. ‘Normal’ here was both descriptive and normative. It provided not only a description of nature sans humans, but of the way healthy nature should be. The study of ‘natural’, as opposed to ‘disturbed’, places was thus thought to provide the ecologist with the proper foundation for developing ecological theory. In other words, behind the committee’s recommendations was the idea that ecologists should focus on natural places at the expense of urban environments because such places were more appropriate for guiding our theories about nature itself and how it might be healed following human disturbance. Human intrusion into nature was pathological by definition. Natural places held a privileged epistemic position.

Of course there was opposition to this point-of-view, especially from those defending the experimental-laboratory study of ecology. Burton Livingston, for example, tactfully argued in 1917 that the ‘older reverence for natural or “normal” phenomena has largely disappeared’.[xix] ‘We have learned that the range of conditions offered by nature’, he continued, ‘does not generally happen to be great enough to allow adequate experimental interpretation of plant processes’. Of the future of ecological study, he wrote, ‘if a student has not a liking and talent for creating physical and chemical conditions such as never have occurred in nature, he should not cast his lot with plant physiologists, for the next generation’.[xx] ‘Where would the chemist be’, he asked, ‘if he were constrained to study his salts always as they occur in nature’?[xxi] Livingston’s review of the field was, however, more rhetoric than accurate representation of biologists’ views, especially those of the Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions.

The meaningfulness of a distinction between human places and natural places—founded on a prior distinction between pathological and normal—was connected to a number of historically-specific arguments about the degenerate effects of urbanization on both humans and nature, demonstrating the inseparability of early conservation, conceptions of nature, and scientific methodology.[xxii] One particularly outspoken member of the committee, Francis Sumner, wrote a number of pieces pulling these various themes together. The ‘love of nature’, he wrote in 1920 as co-chairman of the committee, ‘includes vastly more than the appreciation of natural scenery. It includes that deep-rooted feeling of revolt […] against the noise and distraction, the artificiality and sordidness, the contracted horizon and stifled individuality, which are dominating features of life in a great city’.[xxiii] Sumner had first-hand experience of urban life: he began his career unhappily teaching in New York City, and moved to the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, only to witness the urbanization of the American West coast. Of the trend towards urbanization, he wrote, ‘If this is the real trend of human evolution, we who represent the “unfit” type, may well pray for a speedy extermination’.[xxiv]

Sumner’s ideas about preserving natural conditions, and about what counted as “natural conditions,” were closely connected to his views about proper biological practice. Pure laboratory biologists—his frequent target—were happy to study the products of domestication, but the problems of ecology, genetics and evolution, he wrote, ‘are not all to be solved by rearing pedigree-cultures of the fruit-fly and evening-primrose. We must study the actual products of evolution as they have arisen in nature.’[xxv] Taking this to heart, he even doubted the results of one of his own experiments simply because of the perceived ‘pathological character’ of his lab-raised mice.[xxvi] Furthermore, it wasn’t simply that laboratory biologists were scientifically misguided; they were also inclined to promote (or disinclined to speak against) what he considered undesirable environmental ideas. Since they could not appreciate nature, they didn’t have a sense for its need of protection; a sense that biologists, of all scientists, should have. As such, he believed them to be failing in their responsibilities as biologists. ‘That both our native fauna and flora and our natural scenery are disappearing at an appalling rate is obvious to all’, he wrote, ‘except those whose interests and outlook are bounded by the walls of their laboratories.’[xxvii]

Returning to the present, although the efforts of these early ecologists were only so successful during the interwar period, they did lay the groundwork for the future of ecology as central to environmentalism and conservationism.[xxviii] What they also help us understand is the recent origins of our own epistemic bias for ‘natural’ places. Although the cultural, scientific, and material contexts in which ecologists now work are obviously very different from those of the past, the idea that ‘natural’ places, rather than ‘human’ places, are epistemically fundamental for the science is still a defining one, and still seeks a scientific rationale. Perhaps we still think that there is something universal, predictable, or foundational to be found in ‘natural’ places free from the often capricious intrusion of humans. Regardless, today, as in the early twentieth century, where we think nature is placed is part and parcel of where we think research should be done.

What I find striking about the intellectual relationship between early twentieth century ecology and ecology today is that the age-old artificial-natural distinction—so full of ambiguity and interpretative license, so conceptually problematic—is still a dominant conceptual paradigm. Early ecologists drew that distinction to focus on ‘natural’ places at the expense of those deemed ‘artificial’. As evidenced by the meta-analysis at the beginning of this paper, today’s ecologists draw the same distinction, but for the opposite reason: they want to make sure ‘artificial’ places are no longer neglected.


Andrew Inkpen wears two hats. As a historian, he is researching a book with the working title Denaturing Nature about the many ways that the artificial-natural distinction has been drawn and contested by modern biologists. As a philosopher, he works on the epistemology of experiments, most recently he has written about the conditions under which less manipulative experiments, like natural experiments, can be epistemically advantageous. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History of Science at Harvard University.


[i] For a recent essay on the role of place in ecology, see Sharon Kingsland, ‘The Role of Place in the History of Ecology,’ in Ian Bullock and Mary Price (eds.), The Ecology of Place (Chicago, 2010).

[ii] Ernst Mayr, ‘Cause and Effect in Biology,’ Science 134 (1961): p. 1505.

[iii] Ernst Mayr, ‘How Biology Differs from the Physical Sciences,’ in David Depew and Bruce Weber (eds.), Evolution at the Crossroads (MIT, 1985): p. 55.

[iv] Laura Martin, Bernd Blossey, and Erle Ellis, ‘Mapping Where Ecologists Work: Biases in the Global Distribution of Terrestrial Ecological Observations,’ Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10 (2012): pp.195-201.

[v] James Collins, Ann Kinzig, Nancy Grimm, William Fagan, Diane Hope, Jianguo Wu, and Elizabeth Borer, ‘A New Urban Ecology: Modelling Human Communities as Integral Parts of Ecosystems Poses Special Problems for the Development and Testing of Ecological Theory,” American Scientist 88 (2000): pp. 416-25.

[vi] Matthew Chew, ‘Good Ideas at the Time: Historians Look at Ecology,’ Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 90 (2009). Michelle Nijhuis, ‘Where Research and Tourism Collide,’ New York Times 22 July 2008.

[vii] Simon Lewis, quoted in Zoë Corbyn, ‘Ecologists Shun the Urban Jungle,’ Nature News, 16 July 2000.

[viii] Martin et al., ‘Mapping,’ p. 200.

[ix] ‘Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America,’ volume 4 (1917). The history of the Ecological Society of America is well documented on their website at http://esa.org/history.

[x] Francis Sumner, ‘The Need for a More Serious Effort to Rescue a Few Fragments of Vanishing Nature,’ The Scientific Monthly 10 (1920).

[xi] Ecological Society of America, Preservation of Natural Conditions (Schneph & Barnes, 1921).

[xii] For example, many argued that pests, such as scale insects, only existed in human-disturbed places, and not in nature itself. See Victor Shelford, Animal Communities in Temperate America (Chicago, 1913): p. 18.

[xiii] See Mark Barrow Jr., Natures Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology (Chicago, 2009), and Julianne Lutz Warren, ‘Science, Recreation, and Leopold’s Quest for a Durable Scale,’ in Michael Nelson and J. Baird Callicott (eds.), The Wilderness Debate Rages On (Georgia, 2008): pp. 97-118.

[xiv] ‘Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America,’ volume 6/9 (1917), p. 4.

[xv] ‘Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America,’ volume 6/9 (1917), p. 10.

[xvi] See Victor Shelford (ed.), Naturalists Guide to the Americas (Williams & Wilkins, 1926): p. 14.

[xvii] Charles C. Adams, Guide to the Study of Animal Ecology (MacMillan Co, 1913): p. 30. He borrowed this phrase from ecologist Orator Fuller Cook.

[xviii] Adams, Guide to the Study, p. 26-8.

[xix] Burton Livingston, ‘A Quarter-Century of Growth in Plant Physiology,’ Plant World 20 (1917): p. 9.

[xx] Livingston, ‘A Quarter-Century,’ p. 10.

[xxi] Livingston, ‘A Quarter-Century,’ p. 10.

[xxii] See Francis Sumner, The Life History of an American Naturalist (Jaques Cattle, 1945).

[xxiii] Sumner, ‘The Need for a More Serious Effort.’ See also Barrow, Natures Ghosts.

[xxiv] Sumner, ‘The Need for a More Serious Effort,’ p. 239. Sumner’s views didn’t change much throughout his life. He wrote in his autobiography, published the year he died, ‘One of the glorious features of the desert landscape is the relative scarcity of that hopelessly unesthetic creature, man. But, even here, he has begun to stream in over a maze of newly constructed automobile roads … Alas, poor Desert!’ See: Francis Sumner, The Life History, p. 223. This quotation can be found in a chapter titled ‘Man versus Nature.’

[xxv] Francis Sumner, ‘The Responsibility of the Biologist in the Matter of Preserving Natural Conditions,’ Science 54 (1921): p. 11.

[xxvi] Francis Sumner, ‘The Stability of Subspecific Characters Under Changed Conditions of Environment,’ The American Naturalist 58 (1924): 504.

[xxvii] Sumner, ‘The Responsibility,’ p. 39.

[xxviii] See Barrow Natures Ghosts.

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