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THE MYTH OF COMMUNITY AS ORGANISM ROBERT P. McINTOSH H The traditions of natural philosophy, natural history, and one of their successors, ecology, converge on a concept of nature having the properties of an organism or, as it came to be called, a supra- or superorganism. This tradition was surveyed by Haraway, who traced it to Aristotle [1 ] . The extension of biological organicism to the social group, single species, or community was accomplished in the 19th century, and protoecologists and ecologists applied the metaphor of organism to the entire complex of organisms, the multispecies community, or even to organisms and environment, the ecosystem [2]. For example, Karl Semper characterized species as related "like the organs of a healthy living organism," while the pioneer ecologistlimnologist , Stephen A. Forbes, wrote: "A group or association of animals or plants is like a single organism" [3, 4]. Clements and Shelford described the organismic concept in ecology as "a veritable magna carta for future progress," and the major treatise on animal ecology of the first half of the 20th century stated: "The interspecific system has also evolved the characteristics of the organism and may thus be called an ecological supraorganism " [5, 6]. F.S. Bodenheimer declared that "every modern textbook of ecology stresses the highly integrated supraorganismic structure of communities ," and he traced the notion's empirical sources in ecology and its epistemological sources in philosophy, notably Immanuel Kant and Bertrand Russell [7]. The dominance of the supraorganism concept of community in ecology was essentially uncontested before 1950, in spite of a few lonely voices opposing it—including Bodenheimer, who stated that whatever its merits as a heuristic device, there was no scientific evidence to support it. The concept of the organismic community was most explicitly and effectively advanced in ecology by the plant ecologist Frederic Clements [8]. Clements described vegetation as composed of "climax" communities recThe author extends his appreciation to Dr. Clifford W. Gurney and Dr. David Lodge for helpful comments on early drafts of this essay. * Department of Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556.© 1998 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0031-5982/98/4103-1062$01.00 426 Robert P. Mcintosh ¦ Community as Organism ognizable by characteristic dominant species, each occupying an extensive area ofsimilar or identical climate: "Thus like other but simpler organisms, each climax has its own growth and development, ... A formation arises, grows, matures, and finally dies. The formation, moreover is able to reproduce itself" [9]. Clements visualized the landscape of America as largely covered by stable, deterministic regions of climax vegetation until the advent of civilization in the form of European agriculture, which, he claimed, made recognition of distinct boundaries difficult. Although some ecologists demurred, it was not until the 1920s that an alternative paradigm of community appeared, in the work of L.G. Ramensky in Russia and H.A. Gleason in the United States. Gleason's "individualistic concept"—which was ignored when it first appeared in 1917, attacked on its second appearance in 1926, doubted at its third appearance in 1939, and then largely ignored by ecologists—was specifically developed as an alternative to Clements' organismic concept of community [10]. Gleason's thought was based on three premises: (1) each species responded to the environment individualistically; (2) the environment varies continuously in time and space; and (3) dispersal of organisms from place to place is stochastic . Hence the community at any site was individualistic, differing from the community at other sites. The contrasting metaphors were "predictable ," "integrated," "unit," and "organism" for Clements' idea, and "coincidence ," "spectrum," "continuum," and "gradient" for Gleason's. These largely qualitative models remained as conceptual alternatives, with Clements' climax model in ascendance, until the 1950s, in spite of the doubts of some ecologists. Michael Barbour wrote that "something profoundly important happened among American ecologists during the decade of the 1950s" [H]. What happened was that Gleason's "individualistic concept" was resurrected in ecology as an alternative to the traditional organismic concept of the community. The "fragmentation" Barbour noted beginning in the 1950s led to extended, even heated, discussion of the attributes of community [12-14]. Although some ecologists had not accepted Clementsian theory before 1950, because...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 426-438
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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