Stephen Jay Gould examines the concept of “native plants”

The native plant ideology is inconsistent with the basic principles of evolutionary theory and has dangerous political implications which have been applied in the past.  In his article (“An Evolutionary Perspective on Strengths, Fallacies, and Confusions in the Concept of Native Plants”), published by Arnoldia, the journal of Harvard University’s arboretum, Stephen Jay Gould describes the concept of “native plants” as “a notion [which] encompasses a remarkable mixture of sound biology, invalid ideas, false extensions, ethical implications and political usages both intended and unanticipated.”(1)

First, who is Stephen Jay Gould and why should we care what he thinks about the ideological construct of “native plants?”  Professor Gould taught geology and paleontology at Harvard University and biology and evolution at New York University, while also working at the American Natural History Museum in New York.  His most significant achievements as a scientist were in the field of evolutionary theory.  He is one of the most frequently cited scientists in the field of evolutionary theory.  But he is best known as a writer of essays and best-selling books on natural history for the general public.  Incidentally, he had a life long interest in civil rights and he brought that interest to his scientific inquiries with his abiding opposition to the use of pseudoscience to promote racism or sexism.(2) It is that interest that led him to his analysis of the concept of “native plants.”

Native plant advocates believe in the inherent superiority of native plants.  This belief is based on an assumption that native plants “belong” in a particular place and that their presence in the proper location represents an “optimal” landscape for that place.  This belief is based on a lack of understanding of the concept of natural selection. 

As Gould explains, “Natural selection does not preferentially lead to plants that humans happen to regard as attractive.  Nor do natural systems always yield rich associations of numerous, well-balanced species.  Plants that we label ‘weeds’ will dominate in many circumstances…weeds often form virtual monocultures, choking out more diverse assemblages than human intervention could maintain.”   The mechanism of natural selection does not produce the optimal adaptation, but only the adaptation that is better than its competitors at any particular point in time, which is why introduced plants are frequently more competitive than their predecessors deemed “native.” 

The argument that native plants “belong” in a particular place is equally fallacious because it assumes that the plants are there because they are best suited to conditions in that location.  In fact, plants are “products of a history laced with chaos, contingency, and genuine randomness.”  Plants have been moved—and continue to be moved—about the planet by weather, by birds and animals, including humans.  “’Natives’, in short, are the species that happened to find their way…not the best conceivable for a spot.”  (see video, “The Fallacy of Native Plants“)

A closely related argument used by native plant advocates to justify their crusade against non-native plants and trees is that the natives have “co-evolved” with other species of plants and animals and that they therefore fit together like some magic puzzle, implying that if the native plants disappear, native animals will also disappear because they are dependent upon the plants.  Gould says, “this notion, however, popular among ‘new agers,’ must be dismissed as romantic drivel.” 

Gould credits the native plant movement for efforts to preserve biodiversity, a goal that is defeated if other plants are simultaneously eradicated by their efforts.  He counsels native plant advocates to balance their efforts to achieve an inclusive biodiversity and we share that view.  We encourage native plant advocates to preserve the plants they prefer and plant more if they wish, but to quit destroying the plants they do not prefer.

But Gould does not come to this topic solely from his knowledge of the principles of evolution and his desire for the public to correctly understand its mechanisms.  He is also concerned about the “slippery slope” of nativist ideology from application to plants to application to humans.  This is not a theoretical anxiety on his part.  It is based on historical precedents. 

Wikimedia Commons

In Nazi Germany and in the United States around the same time, horticultural theories abounded about the superiority of native landscapes and those theories were inextricably linked to the belief that non-native humans were also inferior.  For example, “In 1942 a team of German botanists made the analogy explicit in calling for the extirpation of Impatiens parviflora, a supposed interloper:  ‘As with the fight against Bolshevism, our entire Occidental culture is at stake, so with the fight against this Mongolian invader, an essential element of this culture, namely, the beauty of our home forest, is as at stake.’”   And similar sentiments from an American horticulturalist, Jens Jensen, “’The gardens that I created myself shall…be in harmony with their landscape environment and the racial characteristics of its inhabitants.  They shall express the spirit of America and therefore shall be free of foreign character as far as possible…Latin spirit has spoiled a lot and still spoils things every day.”

Having debated many times with native plant advocates about their plans to eradicate non-natives, and listened to their justifications for those plans, we know that no counter argument inflames them more than the suggestion that their plans are reminiscent of similar efforts to eradicate human non-natives.  However, for the vast majority of the public who have not engaged in this debate, we provide the scientific evidence that the native plant movement is an ideology not based on scientific principles which has been associated in the past with horrific discrimination against non-native humans. 

"The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal" Book cover in the public domain

 We cannot dismiss these historical precedents as irrelevant at a time when anti-immigration sentiments are rampant in our society.


(1) All quotes are from “An Evolutionary Perspective….” 

12 thoughts on “Stephen Jay Gould examines the concept of “native plants””

  1. Intriguing article. Stephen Jay Gould’s article, like everything he wrote, is an interesting read. Thanks for this examination of what it says and why it matters.

  2. We wish an unbiased and truthful biologist would publish the fact that spartina grass grows along fresh water lakes and rivers. In fact it will grow in any inland area in rainy western Wa.,thus making it a migrating not invading grass that is impossible to eradicate! What a waste of tax dollars to control weeds in wealthy corporate owned oyster beds. The Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association are pro-chemical advocates for spartina and mud shrimp removal and should be boycotted. Save a salmon avoid PCSGA products!
    Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Steve Bova
    229 Toleak
    Ocean Shores, Wa 360-580-5534

  3. All I’m reading in this article is a lot of opinion, nothing based on or citing any scientific studies. Yes, habitats and plant populations change on their own over time, but human intervention is speeding up the process and introducing hybrids into the ecosystems which in some instances would never occur naturally. The most ludacris aspect of the article is to implicate the preference to preserve historical native habitat and plants as being somehow linked to Nazism. If this is a typical example of his professional scientific presentation, I find it hard to understand how the author scored a Living Legend award from the Library of Congress

    1. The native plant element in Nazi ideology is historical fact. Here is a paper on that subject: A similar paper was also published by the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University.

      That association to the modern version of the native plant movement is a matter of opinion. However, some native plant advocates are strongly opposed to all forms of immigration, which suggests that it may apply to at least some modern adherents to the native plant ideology. Here is an article about anti-immigration sentiment among some native plant advocates in the San Francisco Bay Area:

  4. As one commenter noted, “Yes, habitats and plant populations change on their own over time, but human intervention is speeding up the process and introducing hybrids into the ecosystems which in some instances would never occur naturally..”
    I would add that it’s the rapid rate of non-native introductions from all over the world in the last few centuries that has not allowed for formerly natural and gradual co-evolution of local ecosystems, including wildlife. Just notice the increase in wildlife in a native garden after it has been converted from a typical landscape. The flaw in Gould’s argument is that he doesn’t acknowledge the effects of scale and velocity of change on the ability of ecosystems to adapt. (Of course the Nazi analogy is ridiculous). Here is a the opposite opinion, supported by some evidence:…/in-your-garden-choose-plants.

    1. There is no question that the environment is changing at an accelerating pace because of the activities of humans. However, that just accelerates natural selection, adaptation, and evolution. It doesn’t nullify Mr. Gould’s analysis. It makes it more important.

      Plants and animals must be allowed to respond to the changes in the environment. Many will have to move to find what they need and to survive. Humans aren’t doing them any favors by trying to freeze them into historical ranges to which they are no longer adapted. Humans should get out of their way. We aren’t smarter than they are. We know very little about what they need. Who knows better than they do?

  5. An obsession with “nativism” is a sure sign of Nazism while a worshipful devotion to fitness and natural selection are the hallmarks of eugenicists, racists and imperialists.

    Take your pick.

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