Ecology: Science versus Poetry?
- Science or Poetry?
debate between Alastair McIntosh and Robert Muetzelfeldt
Published in Sylva: Journal of the Edinburgh University Ecological Society, No 58, 1994-95, pp. 5 – 11.
ecology a science? Should ecology be seeking to emulate
other sciences by taking a reductionist approach, or is ecology only achieving
its true purpose when overviewing entire systems with an holistic approach? This
is the question we posed to Robert Muetzelfeldt (RW), Lecturer in
and Knowledge Based Systems at the institute of Ecology and Resource Management,
and Alastair McIntosh (AM) who runs the MSc course in Human Ecology at
the University’s Centre for Human Ecology. Today, when the word ‘ecology’
has taken on many different meanings, we thought it would be interesting to
engage these two people, both deeply involved in the subject and yet with very
different approaches, in a debate concerning the nature of their discipline.
True to the spirit of the age, this dialogue was conducted through e-mail.
think it’s unhelpful to argue about whether ecology, by its nature, is a more
holistic science than more numbers-based sciences, such as physics. How can we
answer this? By counting up or sampling all the questions that ecologists
address, and all the questions that physicists address, and classifying them
as needing a reductionist or a holistic approach?
I’d suggest that the interesting issue is: when ecologists are being
reductionist in order to answer an ecological question that requires a
reductionist approach, how does their reductionism differ from that of, say,
physicists? And when ecologists are being holistic, how does their holism differ
from that of physicists?
I’ll concentrate on comparing the holistic approach of the two disciplines. What we notice immediately is the dichotomy of symbols and text. Physicists integrate using formal, symbolic systems. Ecologists integrate using written text. Not all ecologists, of course - some ecologists develop computer simulation models, with a claim that these integrate knowledge. However, those ecologists who go on about holism are in general not sympathetic to computer-based modelling seeming, in fact, to be constitutionally against any attempt to treat ecology according to the cold and hard language of symbolic mathematics or logic.
I’d like to propose that we focus down on a particular question: is there
something special about ecological questions requiring a holistic approach for
their solution that requires us to use a soft (prose, poetic) type of approach,
when similar types of questions in many other sciences are answered using
I think it depends what kind of “ecological questions” you are referring to.
I have no problem whatsoever with ~reductionist, mathematical approaches for
ecological questions like, for instance, simple population dynamics. By
extension, I can accept and value modelling for more complex systems
understanding, such as carrying capacity dynamics in a varied ecosystem provided
we remember we are dealing with limitations to our understanding which
will be both explicit and implicit. Explicit limitations are things like data
shortcomings of which we are overtly aware, and can, for instance, apply
sensitivity analysis to. Implicit limitations include assumptions in a model
that we don’t realise we are making, and information filtering due to our
perception plane, or worldview, being prejudiced in accordance with the need to
fit reality into our model.
think these implicit or covert limitations increase with complexity. They certainly
become overwhelming when human factors enter the equation. Human behaviour has
now become the most significant ecological variable. We are the end-users of a
substantial proportion of the world’s photosynthetic product. Some of this is
used for growth, reproduction and maintaining homeostasis, but one respect in
which we differ from other species is that much of our consumption goes far
beyond levels of homeostatic sufficiency. This excess consumption is
model which deals with the big ecological questions of our times must therefore
be capable of modelling individual psychological and collective sociological
behaviour. I believe this to be impossible. I think you cannot model the soul or
psyche, because the psyche is in essence poetic. Poetics is a level of symbolism
far beyond the mathematical in complexity. Indeed, traditionally, the
mathematical was judged by poetics and not vice versa - people believed that
good mathematics would fulfill aesthetic criteria of elegance.
short, modelling is valuable in limited ways, many of which can be of great
importance as parts of the whole. But the big issues facing us as humans and
ecologists involve being able to understand and influence one another. A
computer helps mainly in that it aids communication. To think that we can be
modelled is to misplace energy and resources. To suggest that global
ecosystems can be modelled without taking account of human psychospiritual
considerations is, as the ethologists would say, displacement activity.
say that you believe modelling individual psychological and collective sociological
behaviour to be necessary for effective models, and to be impossible. I would
question both whether it is in fact necessary, and whether it is impossible.
Even accepting that “human behaviour has now become the most important ecological variable”, it does not follow that it needs to be modelled; it may simply need to appear as an input in an ecosystem model. For example, we can model agroforestry systems without including humans ‘in the loop’. Indeed, I’d be pretty disturbed if you were suggesting that we should not engage in the ‘displacement activity’ of modelling agroforestry systems just because humans have a big effect on them! I must confess to a number of displacement activities, but I never realised before this dialogue that modelling was one of them. Displacement from what, I wonder? Writing poetry?
not necessarily from writing poetry, but from living it!
would say that for human behaviour to be an “input” to an ecosystem model,
you are implicitly modelling it. How else do you input it? Your model is thus
predicated on presumptions of human behaviour. Not to be explicit about this is
to claim a false objectivity.
Your own example of modelling agroforestry systems “without including
humans in the loop” illustrates the point. Human values determine the choices
made by the agroforestry managers, and the whole model is thus predicated on
human behaviour. As such, it cannot but be a portrayal of an anthropomorphic
see two basic ways in which we can know reality. The holistic model is poetic.
The word poetic derives from the Greek poesis, meaning “the making”.
The poetic is when we relate to something because it resonates, it has a good
“vibe”, it feels right. The other way is the linear way of rationality -
rationality being that which pertains to the ratio, to measuring. Our capacity
to measure is limited. Computers help, but ultimately we cannot count the whole
of reality. Hindu philosophy recognises this. The word maya, cosmic
delusion - the root of evil in the Hindu system - is derived from the same root
as words meaning “to measure”. Maya is delusion because it involves us
weaving a little web of reality around us into which we invest consciousness.
But it’s not reality. It’s only our measured construct thereof. The ultimate
illustration of such constructs in my view are such contradictory concepts as
“artificial intelligence” and “virtual reality”.
believe you can model human factors when you can model poetry, because poetics
is, in my view, our primary way of relating to complex reality.
The claim that modelling human factors is
impossible because of our essentially poetic psyche leaves us with the
question of whether human activity would be modellable if it weren’t
psychogenic. Modellers would claim that even psychogenic activities can be
predictable - for instance, in models of human travelling. If we accept that the
modelling of psychogenic activity should not even be contemplated then we are
left with an even more fundamental problem for modelling - how can we truly know
what activity is psychogenic? Maybe red deer, or even Sitka spruces, have psyches.
Your acceptance of population dynamics models is inconsistent with your
criticism of other models which do not include human psyche considerations -
there’s a fair bit of poetic feeling in procreation!
would accept that you can usefully model parts of an ecosystem. So you can model
traffic systems, or even population dynamics. I don’t doubt that and I greatly
value it. But an attempt to model an ecosystem means trying to play God if
you’re trying to be in any way comprehensive about “understanding” the
reality of it.
focus down with a particular example. The Assynt Crofters’ Association is
involved in a joint proposal with the University of Edinburgh to the European
Union to fund the establishment of a wide-ranging computer-based information
system for “flexible and sustainable long-term management”. This will
include GIS, knowledge-based systems and models. The use of knowledge-based
systems reflects a recognition of the value, even the necessity, of the
symbolic-based approaches that I have been advocating in our exchange. So what
would you consider to be the constraints imposed by human psyche considerations
on modelling this most poetic of human societies?
constraints imposed by the psyche are implicit to the nature of nature and the
nature of human nature. What can you usefully computer model in a crofting culture?
Optimal deer carrying capacity levels - yes, given human values of what are
optimal. Optimal forest species mix - perhaps, but for what end? Will the
model optimalise economic return or native species diversity (for which we
hardly need a model)? Whichever, it cannot model that arrangement of nature in
on the moor,
rainbowed splendour of diffracted dewdrops,
at every sunny dawn,
the shepherd’s eye,
sees dew on grass,
riches in abundance –
seem to be quite a lot of things that you do not believe about formal, symbolic
approaches. Tell me what tests you could imagine applying to some modelling/symbolic-reasoning
approach that would cause you to change your mind about its value. And I’m not
now asking you to give me examples of where you accept that modelling already
has some value. Rather, I’m asking you to think of some situation where you
think I would claim that modelling has some value, and you would disagree.
Then we can apply some test whose result could go either way. Otherwise, we’ll
be ‘believing’ or ‘not believing’ this or that till the cows come home,
and not progress.
I find your style of arguing by opinion and poetry difficult to cope with.
I’m no good at poetry! Hey, wait a minute...
was a young lass from Assynt,
sheep were nutritionally skint,
sorted her muddle,
one shot of my model;
her RAMs delicious with mint!
of my concern with symbolic approaches to modelling ecosystems is that so many
of our assumptions about reality embody implicit values. I’ve no problem with
values, but I do have problems when they’re not overt. Econometric modelling
is full of this. Utility gets translated into a symbolic equivalent, money, with
implicit behavioural assumptions such as time value and the resultant travesty
one example to rise to your challenge with. How would you model utility without
recourse to cash quantification?
- how would you model the deep processes of love which, in my empirically
informed belief system, not only animate but also give meaning to all
reality processes. This matters, because if we are manipulating reality as we
inevitably do in our lives, learning to dance with the rhythms of love is,
arguably, what life is all about.
see your objection, and frustration, arising that, once again, we’re speaking
different languages and worldviews. But understanding that is an important part
of our dialogue. I am maybe being horribly naive about benefits of modelling
which I’m being too short-sighted to see. On the other hand, you may be
modelling and shaping decisions on a worldview which drives out processes of
magic, music and spirituality that are actually central to our being human.
need to address the problems facing the world - we can’t just sit back and do
nothing. Any attempt at generating solutions must involve some form of
modelling. This might involve drawing on a large body of ineffable experience,
or it might involve using more formal methods, such as simulation modelling.
also know that natural systems are characterised by interactions between their
components, and that the problems that we face now are new problems.
These two points, together or separately, suggest that internal models, based on
experience, are inadequate for coping with the range of problem scenarios that
we are faced with.
have a right to expect that the rationale for proffered solutions is explicit
and transparent. We should be sceptical of solutions that we are expected to
take on trust. This does not mean that solutions offered without formal
justification, generated by intuition, are generally wrong. They may be right.
They might even be more right more often than solutions generated by formal
models. It’s just that we have no basis for assessing the nature of a solution
in advance - and in any case, whose intuition do we trust?
is an awful lot wrong with the current practice of modelling. Parameter values
can be fiddled to give good agreement between model and data; it is possible
to choose from the set of equally plausible model assumptions those that produce
the results you want; it is impossible to find out what goes on in many models.
However, these are problems with the current methodology of modelling, for
instance the implementation of models as large computer programs, and they do not
invalidate the premise that a given system is modellable.
is true 5that some natural systems behave chaotically, and even that
it may be hard to know which systems are chaotic and which ones aren’t.
However, there is also a lot of regularity and pattern in nature, and modelling
represents a powerful tool for exploring issues concerning the limits of chaos.
am quite happy to believe that the prevailing modelling paradigm, the use of
mathematical equations to represent change over time, could well be replaced by
some other approach, perhaps based on qualitative relationships, in the
future. That is not what this debate is about. Rather, it is about explicit
versus implicit methods for developing an integrated, holistic view of complex
natural systems. The explicit is the formal and symbolic; the implicit is the
poetic, the intuitive, the psyche. Certainly, let us value our feelings, let us
let our hands wander over the surface of roughly-hewn wood. Let us, indeed, be
forever sceptical of technological fixes. But let us also value the conceptual
tools that the mind conceives which give real expression to our poetic notions
of holism, integration and connectedness.
say that our debate is about implicit versus explicit approaches to knowledge.
I think this embodies a false presumption of the possibility of objectivity. I
think it probable that all logic is narrative resting within a wider mythical
metanarrative and as such, logic is only one approach to knowing reality. As
David Hume, the philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, famously put it,
“Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.”
is explicit only within the worldview or frame of reference of the narrative it
rests in. This is why the question I put to you about how you would model, for
instance, the pre-fiscal construct of utility in economics is critically important
and completely unanswerable! Utility is a metanarrative of cash economics, not a
function of it. Utility precedes the neoclassical economist’s dubious and
damaging presumption that money can reflect utility preferences. Poetics reveals
such metanarratives through narrative, music, art, dance and lovemaking.
aware that my style of writing may be concealing the degree of uncertainty I
have in what I’m saying. For instance, is logic really part of a narrative, or
is it metanarrative? I’m not really very sure. I just know, as Alan Watts
points out, that there is a difference between watching the wild geese fly past
and marvelling at the music of their sounds and the rhythm of their wings and
the elegance of their formation and totemic symbolism of their sheer being and
feel to oneself, “Wow!”… and watching the wild geese fly past and wondering
where they’re going and what they’ll eat when they get there and how their
aerodynamics work and maybe, also, going “Wow!” As a lover of both poetics
and science, I want to have my “Wow” squared!
problems can arise if modellers have any sort of sociopolitical influence, for
their models may give them the power to assume narratorial control. With this,
they may construct a “virtual reality” using “artificial intelligence”
and a simplified worldview (“input data”) in a way which effectively leads
to the exercise of power. The one who tells the story constructs the reality and
remember - the key to credible story telling is to get others to forget that
you’re making it all up!
poet may also broker power using narratorial control, but this is normally less
successful since the innate truth or falsity of poetics is often intuitively
obvious to the human psyche.
adherents to the “Church of Reason” are dangerous because they may
contribute to the illusion that we are ecological managers over nature,
instead of rational partners in a nature which is sculpted and upheld by the
poetic dynamics of that providence by which we live and die and live again,
I rejecting modelling completely? No, and I am sincerely impressed, indeed
touched, by the humility of your closing remarks, Robert. Such care and caution
is the mark of a true scientist and can hardly but lead to poetic sensitivity.
Modelling does have a role in certain carefully defined circumstances as we have
earlier discussed. But it must be humble. It must rest within and not usurp the
qualitative. As such, I would say that modelling, to be of value to humankind,
must hold an important place in science as, of course, a spiritual discipline.
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