Scientists reject the notion of “Balance” in nature

"Delicate Balance of Nature" Painting by N. Robert Wagstaff, Maui, Hawaii

The recently published book by Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden,* is getting the attention it deserves from conservationists and the managers of public lands.  If you read widely in this field, as we do, you won’t find much new in her book, but you will find a comprehensive and comprehensible overview of the emerging scientific consensus that it is time to revise the assumptions of invasion biology.

If you haven’t the time or inclination to read this book, you can take a short cut to two recent interviews with Ms. Marris, published by the American Society of Landscape Architects and the magazine of the Nature Conservancy.  The published interview by the Nature Conservancy is another indication that this prestigious organization is shifting its emphasis to embrace the realities of nature as we know it, rather than as we imagine it was in the distant past.

Ms. Marris methodically revisits the original assumptions of invasion biology and offers us the growing evidence that they have not been confirmed by the science that tested them in the field.  In a recent post, we reported that the assumptions that ecological “niches” are exclusive and therefore new species will displace former occupants, are not consistent with the fact that introduced species far outnumber the loss of native species.  In fact, there is little evidence that introduced species have resulted in extinctions. 

“Nature has no ‘Balance’ for us to keep”

Matt Ridley, in his weekly column “Mind & Matter” for the Wall Street Journal, invites us to revisit the concept of the “balance of nature” with the help of Ms. Marris’ book.  Mr. Ridley is a British scientist who has written many popular books about human genetics and evolution. 

In our interminable debate with native plant advocates, we find that the concept that nature achieves an equilibrium state that is, by definition, balanced, is central to their ideology.  Their argument is that man has disrupted this balance and that he is therefore obligated to right this wrong.  Furthermore, when this balance has been achieved, theoretically, nature sustains itself without further interference from man. 

This is a powerful narrative with much intuitive appeal.  Particularly for those who feel some guilt for the damage that man has inflicted on nature, the obligation to heal those wounds is strong.  However, the scientific evidence is mounting that there is no such thing as a “balance” of nature, as Mr. Ridley tells us in his column:

Academic ecologists have abandoned such a static way of thinking for something much more dynamic.  For a start, they now appreciate that climate has always changed, and with it, ecology.  Twenty thousand years ago the spot where I live [in the UK] was under a mile of ice.  Then it was tundra, then birch forest, then pine forest, then elder, linden, elm and ash, then most recently oak, but beech was coming.”

Mr. Ridley goes on to lament that although science tells us that a stable balance in nature cannot be achieved, particularly at a time of rapidly changing climate, the notion still dominates practical conservation management, which he describes as:  “preserve this rare species, maintain this habitat structure, freeze in time this ecological moment, return this degraded land to a particular state, whatever the weather and whatever the novel arrivals of exotic species.”  These goals sound very familiar to those of us who follow the various “restoration” projects on our public lands in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

We are grateful to Ms. Marris for bundling the recent science that dismantles the mistaken assumptions of invasion biology into a readable package that is being reported by the mainstream press.  We anticipate that the public will eventually realize that the destructive native plant “restorations” in which the managers of our public lands are engaged are unnecessary and ultimately futile. 

It’s just a matter of time!


“Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden, Bloomsbury, 2011

7 thoughts on “Scientists reject the notion of “Balance” in nature”

  1. As someone who took only the required courses in physical and biological sciences 50 years ago, I appreciate scientific articles geared to the layperson. These educational articles should help people to understand the issues and persuade them to oppose radical actions by the Natural Areas Program.

    I think of nature as in balance, just not a static balance. I have a couple of acres I leave alone except for some mowing. I see changes in flora and fauna not only decade-to-decade but year-to-year. Contrary to the concern about non-natives taking over, I found it very difficult to grow non-native trees and shrubs. I had some pines that never fully recovered from the seven-year drought we had several years ago. I have now given up on non-natives such as Japanese maple and plant mostly natives; they do better. Maybe the Natural Area Program should simply plant natives and let nature take its course. Shouldn’t natives be able to hold their own in the long run?

    Webmaster: You make some good points, but if I remember correctly there is one important caveat to your story. Isn’t your larger property in Napa or Sonoma? If so, that would help to account for the success of natives in your area.

    The environment in urban areas has been more radically altered than rural areas. The levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen are much higher because of cars and other sources of greenhouse gases. The climate is also altered by the “urban heat effect” caused by the buildings and hard surfaces. Soils and water flow patterns have been altered by what has been planted in and built on the land. Etc.

    However, if the Natural Areas Program would just plant natives–or whatever they like, for that matter–we would not be having this debate. It is the destruction to which we object.

    Thanks for your comment and your perspective. That’s what moves the dialogue along.

  2. We at Clegyr Boia have been looking at it from a different perspective. We see that native species can be just as invasive as non-native species here in Wales on the British-islands.

    We humans have altered the face of this planet dramatically and it does not make sense to feel constant guilt about that. We should see each habitat, urban, agricultural, roadside, woodland, desert, prairie, ocean, beach in their own light and not just the human spot-light but the total light of all aspects around this habitat including humans.

    To say it in a more dreamy way listen to the land we stand on not the land we wish we stand on.

    Things have changed, at time these changes can’t be called bad. The Snowdon Mountains in Wales are appreciated as a wilderness, many people do not realise that this area is a cultivated wilderness, with other words created by human actions.

    The other day we walked over an old tin mine which has been restored to a natural area. The species there are native and non-native living in the same habitat, it feels and look like wilderness if it was not for the pipes of Liverpool on the horizon.

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