ISHPSSB 2001 || Quinnipiac University, July 18-22, 2001

Making Ecological Objects I & II

The state of ecological objects is constituted in manifold ways -- scientifically and morally, among others. This session provides reflections on the making of ecological objects, its changes, driving forces, actors, and central concepts. The general theme can be stated as follows: Ecology has always grappled with the need to define objects scientifically and at the same time to present environmental - instrumental as well as moral - significance of objects and measures in order to maintain ecological objects within the human realm. A demand for keeping all parts, the function or the health of ecological systems has been expressed for a long time. The making of ecological objects also constitutes different role models for ecologically informed environmental action within the ecologist's community, expanding into the realm of environmental philosophy, too. Concepts and programs have been changed and challenged, respectively, ever since. Reasons for 'keeping all the parts' are reconsidered up to now, especially facing ecosystem function, ecosystem health, and the historicity and uniqueness of ecological objects. These and other issues shall be discussed by a variety of case studies from different locations and time periods, thus bringing together philosophers and historians of ecology, and practising ecologists. It shall also facilitate the communication of scholars from different countries not least by developing comparative perspectives on ecology.

Organized by: Thomas Potthast and Chris Young

Claire Waterton, Lancaster University
"Scientists Reflect on the Making of Ecological Objects"
Woolgar (1988) and others in a rich tradition of ethnomethodological 'laboratory studies' have observed how scientists routinely 'deny' or forget about much of the work that goes into doing science in order to establish the objectivity of the things that they discover. When scientists talk about their work therefore they tend to omit what Woolgar (1988) calls 'modalisers', such as: a) reference to agency (the discoverer, scientist, author); b) reference to the agents' action (claiming, writing, constructing, etc.); c) reference to antecedent circumstances bearing upon the agents action (his/her motive for making the claim, the interests served by acting in this manner, etc.), since the inclusion of these elements can be heard as the deconstruction of a purportedly objective claim (Woolgar 1988: 71). This may occur particularly in policy fields, which have been 'scientisted' by the authority of science (Knorr-Cetina,1981).
This paper describes recent research (1998-2000) that aimed explicitly to encourage practising ecological scientists to include 'modalisers' in semi-formal interview conversations between social and natural scientists. Ecologists themselves reflected on how the form, boundedness and certainty/uncertainty of the objects/facts they were in the process of making were contingent upon: structural conditions in science today, the context of their research, value judgements about nature and landscape, judgements about the agency of research in applied situations, etc.. The paper will illustrate how ecological objects, and accounts of ecological objects, are flexible according to the scientific, social and policy contexts for (and in) which they are made. Ecological scientists' own reflections upon this, and their associated reflections about scientists' responsibility in creating ecological objects will be drawn out with particular reference to the implications for policy, public and social science understandings of scientific knowledge.

Patricia Bunner, West Virginia University
"John Bartram's Contribution to Ecological Succession"
In 1738 John Bartram (1699-1777), American farmer and plant collector, was one of the first men of science to recognize and describe the concept of ecological succession. As a practitioner of the developing ecology, that of life history study and description of vegetation, which we generally associate with the field of botany, John Bartram, a Quaker and man of the Enlightenment, was among the first to realize that the Baconian emphasis of data observation method promulgated by the Royal Society left room for a systems approach to nature, which enabled the study of nature within a specific locale or what we would today as an ecosystem. This led the way to the modern view of ecology, often said to have had its roots with Carolus Linnaeus, but which from the record of his own empirical observations, can be traced to the field observations of John Bartram.

Chris Eliot, University of Minnesota
"Revising Succession"
In the vein of "making ecological objects," this essay considers a case of revising and dismantling an ecological object. Around the turn of the century, plant ecologists established the concept of succession as an organizing principle of their discipline's emerging theory. The new concept, articulated most prominently by F.E. Clements (e.g. 1916, 1934) and extending from the research of H.C. Cowles (1899), helped create theoretical plant ecology from descriptive natural history, taxonomic botany, biogeography, and physiography. Early ecologists considered succession a real process discernable in nature. Subsequent well-known criticisms of the concept, beginning with Gleason (1926) and Tansley (1935), called into question features of succession such as its stability and uniformity, and the analogy of plant communities to individual organisms. With its particulars discredited, succession came to be treated as more a useful descriptive category than a real process, but ecologists retained the concept. This paper considers how the succession concept has been revised from observable entity to analytical tool to its enduring usage in current ecology. It considers this transformation in the context of recent discussions of realismand representation in philosophy of science.

Chris Young, University of Wisconsin-Milwauke
"Making Predators"
Predators became important to range and game managers in the early 20th century as enemies of livestock and wildlife. Historians explain this increasing importance as the result of an emerging ecological awareness of the role predators play in animal communities. Such accounts assume that this awareness preceded or occurred simultaneous to concerns about damage to valuable livestock or game animals. By considering a class of animals including wolves, cougars, coyotes, and bears as "ecological objects," a history of predators -- and their meaning for ecologists, range and game managers, and a broader public -- raises new questions about how the term came into use. Neither the professional conception that appeared in biological literature in the early 20th century, nor the traditional view of predatory animals, existed as isolated alternatives. As such, the reformulation of individual species of carnivores into a broader category of predators involved fundamental changes in scientific thinking that have gone unexamined in this history. The question of how to consider them as a single class of animals -- as predators -- did not emerge preformed in the minds of ecologists. In this paper, I examine the development of questions relating to the role of predators as ecological objects in animal communities by tracing the way biologists referred to carnivorous species in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly in the context of range and game management. I will show that previous accounts of the value of these animals perpetuate misconceptions about the development of ecological ideas by neglecting the complex interplay of conceptual development, practical fieldwork, public perception, and profession building. The origins of ecology are closely tied to the creation and examination of ecological objects.

Lisa Gannett, California State University, Chico
"Epistemological & Ontological Reflections on Biological Populations"
This paper raises and attempts to answer some epistemological and ontological questions about breeding populations (units such as "Mendelian populations," "demes," etc.). These epistemological and ontological questions include:
  • Are breeding populations the ideal objects of mathematical models or do they exist as real objects in nature?
  • How are breeding populations in nature identified?
  • Are breeding populations discretely bounded? What does an object's discreteness have to do with its reality?
  • Are breeding populations mind-independent objects discovered by scientists or are breeding populations pragmatically constituted with their composition varying from one context of investigation to another?
  • Are human populations biological, bio-social, or social entities?
  • What relationships exist between human populations and ideas of race and ethnicity?

Peter Taylor, University of Massachusetts, Boston
"No Units Anywhere, Anytime? Multiple Causality, Intersecting Processes, and Ecology as a Historical Science"
A key challenge in conceptualizing ecological complexity is to allow simultaneously for particularity, contingency, and structure, and for such structure to change, be internally differentiated, and have problematic boundaries. Together with the fact that all organisms live in dynamic ecological contexts, this gives philosophy of ecology the potential to be a site where difficult questions are addressed concerning the situatedness or positionality of organismsóhumans includedówithin multiple, intersecting processes. This paper examines attempts in ecology to deal with multiple causality and to reconceive the field as a historical science.

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