restricted access Edward F. Ricketts: Man of Science and Conscience
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Steinbeck Studies 15.2 (2004) 15-22



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Edward F. Ricketts:

Man of Science and Conscience

As a doctoral student in the Geography Department at University of California, Berkeley, I undertook a dissertation project on the environmental history of California's sardine industry. During the research phase of this project, I repeatedly came into contact with the science and philosophy of Edward Flanders Ricketts. This fascination brought me to this sketch about Ricketts's research on sardines and his social activism.

Ricketts was formally introduced to the field of ecology at the University of Chicago while studying with Warder Clyde Allee, the "father" of modern ecology. This relationship shaped the framework of his adult life—both in terms of his science and his philosophy about life and human relationships. Even though he did not remain at Chicago long enough to finish his degree, he nevertheless became one of the most important marine ecologists of the twentieth century, a claim not made lightly. Plenty of evidence supports this perception, not the least of which is his seminal work, Between Pacific Tides (Stanford University Press), which is in its fifth edition, and after sixty-five years remains required reading in many university ecology and biology courses across the country.

While Ricketts was at the University of Chicago, the fledgling field of ecology was undergoing rapid transformations, and it must have been an exciting time to be a student. The science being constructed at Chicago during this period was not just about plant and animal biology; it was also about humans as part of an ecosystem community. It was, according to Gregg Mitman, author of State of Nature, also about the "place of humans in nature, [End Page 15] and the laws of nature that have guided the past and direct the future of social evolution" (47). By the early 1920s, the interactionist paradigm—focusing on organism-environment relationships as interactive—provided the framework for animal ecology. It would also shape Ricketts's own science and even his philosophy of the relationship between human culture and non-human nature. The Chicago ecologists who effectively shaped Ricketts's scientific understanding believed that morality could be discerned in nature and that the theory of succession in plant and animal communities offered seminal lessons for human society. Allee was, like Ricketts would become, much more than an objective observer of human nature. His was a powerful personality and he deeply influenced his students with his philosophy as well as his science. He served in World War i and returned as a social activist who was strongly opposed to war and deeply committed to social change. Throughout my reading of Ricketts's papers and letters, I found in Ricketts a similar commitment to social change. Allee's influence is evident in the way in which Ricketts organized his life, his philosophy, and his science. Whereas Mitman claims that the idea of biologist as prophet, as someone who reveals the moral teachings of nature to society through science, has not yet been analyzed, that role is abundantly evident in the life and work of Ed Ricketts.

In 1946 Ricketts wrote to Steinbeck of his interest in "comparing the action of human society as is and how it got there with the presence of societies in the tide pools, and their controlling environmental factors." He was concerned, however, with whether he could "work it out intelligently, acceptably, and interestingly" (15 September 1946). By the time of his death in 1948, he understood, perhaps better than anyone at the time, these connections between human and non-human societies. In his research on the California sardine industry and the Monterey fishing community, he worked out many of these connections. He saw, for instance, the intimacy of the relationship between fish and fisher, between human industry and non-human natural resource, between the vagaries of nature and human hubris.

Ricketts conducted a thorough investigation of the California sardine. In the 1940s he worked for several years for the California Packing Company (CalPak) as a lab technician in one of the Monterey...


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