Monthly Archives: March 2009

Can An Ecosystem Model Help Us Think About Wholeness?

Readers of this website will be aware of my preoccupation with the question of “wholeness”. The more I observe the world’s current struggle to find its way through complex economic structures or global systems, the more convinced I become of the degree to which our deep-rooted commitment to individualism is betraying us. Individualism is both an ethic, which we are determined to impart to the world, and a habit of thought. This is not the moment to follow that line of thought further; it has been the subject of other postings, and it will be of more in the future.

My concern at the moment is to offer a new approach to this issue. On a visit to the Key School in Annapolis recently, on the shores of the Chesapeake, I was struck by the widespread awareness there that the Bay is sick: 27% of true health was the figure I was hearing. That led me to wonder about the concept of “health” of an ecosystem, and how it might be grasped. With the aid of the computer, I knew, the human mind is today able to reason about problems hitherto too complex to analyze. Could I find a computer model of an ecosystem?

By good luck, I’ve found not only such an ecosystem model, but a revealing account of a team project by which it was achieved. Teams of experienced scientists agreed to set aside their normal researches into separate compartments of the ecosystem, and direct their efforts  instead to a different kind of learning: to the common goal of constructing a coherent computer model which would capture the intricate interrelationships of these many components of one single system.

The system to which fortune had led me was a salt marsh at Sapelo Island on the coast of Georgia. The Book, edited by L. R.Pomeroy and R.G.  Wiegert, is “The Ecology of a Salt Marsh” (New York, 1981). Its innocent title fails to suggest the very special interest of the project it narrates. Quite elegantly, the book pulls together a fascinating account of the scientists’ experience in disciplining their work to this goal.

An aesthetic of wholeness is invoked at the outset, with lines from  Sydney Lanier’s poem, “The Marshes of Glynn”. We learn much about this new sort of scientific endeavor when the book closes with a section on the aesthetic of the marsh, and a final quotation from that same poem.

Though a layman in matters of biology, I’ve since been making an effort to follow the turns of this inquiry. I won’t say more how, beyond the remark that the effort proved successful only after the scientists had learned of a fundamental error they had been making, and accepted correction from the computer.

People whose judgment I very much respect have expressed their doubts as to the whether such a computer model is an appropriate means for approaching wholeness, or whether at this point I’m confusing true wholeness with a mere assemblage of parts by complicated aggregation. (My thoughts go back to Plato’s “Parmenides”, and the paradigm there of Hesiod’s wagon: I agree that the “wagon” is something quite other than an assemblage of its parts!)
In these terms, is a working computer model helping us to grasp the wholeness of a system, or betraying us into confusing true wholeness with a merely clever example of aggregation? In the case of a living ecosystem, in which the wholeness is manifestly organic, is the computer misleading us, tempting us to confuse organism with a complex structure of inherently inorganic parts?

My case for the computer as a welcome aid in advancing toward a  grasp of true wholeness must be made in future remarks which I plan to post soon.