Falsehood: Nature maintains balance.

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There is a lot of evidence that nature is in balance. An invasive species throws off the balance of nature in a given region by out-competing some similar indigenous form. When something destructive happens there is a return to status quo, eventually. A few cold years are followed by a few warm years, or a few dry years are followed by a few wet years. So, why is “Nature maintains a balance” a falsehood?

Remember what makes a statement a falsehood (refer back to our earlier discussions on this issue). By now you realize that some falsehoods are better than others. “How can a falsehood ever be good?” you may ask. Well, a good falsehood is one that provides an excellent basis for discussion of something interesting. “Nature maintains a balance” is a good falsehood because it opens up more than one can of worms. Let’s just hope that these worms are not invasive species.

The first problem with the statement under consideration is the word “maintains.” Nature might be in balance. The examples I give in the paragraph above, if true, could be evidence of nature being in some kind of balance. Fine (for now). But the belief, under which many people labor, that nature maintains a balance is a bit different than nature being in balance. Nature maintains nothing. Why do I say that nature maintains nothing? You might think because I don’t think nature has a consciousness or can in any way be assigned intentionality. Perhaps I’m saying that nature does not react like many people think it does to good or bad things that happen to it. And if you thought all of these things you’d be partly correct.

But there is a more fundamental reason that I gag when I hear the two words “Nature maintains” … Because there is no such thing as Nature. Well, there is sort of, kind of like there is such a thing as “nouns” or “substance” or “action” or “stuff.” But a statement like “Nature maintains a balance” … this causality wielding construction … assigns the property of sentience or even mere coherence to this thing that we call “nature.” But in realith, what is nature? Perhaps everything that is not dark matter? Including dark matter?

So this is a cool falsehood because it lets us dispose of “Mother Nature” and all her incarnations in one fell swoop. I have not proved that Mother Nature does not exist as anything more than a folk image. I’m simply asserting that if you want to suggest that there is a sentient, reacting balancer entity “out there” that YOU need to come to the table with some proof.

But we are not done with the “Nature maintains a balance” fallacy. The “balance” part of it is also highly questionable. Let’s look at this more closely. What would “balance” look like in nature? Well, we have some examples above with weather. A few years of above average temperature would be balanced by a few years of below average temperature. That feels like a balance to me.

However, this is not really a balance. What is happening here is that there is a system that has (for reasons we’ll ignore for the moment) an average for some linear value (ambient temperature in this case), and random variation around that average. Experientially, you will observe this value being above or below the average almost every year, and since it is random there will be many years where warmer than average is followed by cooler than average, or visa versa. There will be some years where a couple/few years one way is followed by a couple/few years the other way. What you are observing is not balance, but regression towards the mean, a common statistical property of random numbers in series. Add to this a bit of confirmation bias and you have a whole belief system.

Now, having said that, I also have to say that I totally buy that “nature is in balance” with respect to annual temperature. How can I say that after I just said that it wasn’t? Because I’m comfortable with the idea that there is an average and randomness around the average as being like balance. If there were just random variations in temperature (if temperature truly did the “random walk”) then we could have at some point several years where the temperature goes up and up and up until the lakes boil. But that does not happen. There is a kind of balance in that there is a certain amount of energy from the sun, it is dissipated in various ways, and distributed within the troposphere and the oceans a certain way. This ‘balance’ is what we should really call “homeostasis.” And it isn’t really random … a few years of warm followed by a few years of cool could be the result of regular shifts in the homeostasis such as el nino and la nina, which are very regular oscillations in climate that occur over several years. Then there are ice ages and hypsothermals which are major changes in the climatic properties maintained by homeostasis.

(I quickly add: I do think both global temperature and local temperature can be understood as a homeostatic system. However, I’m not sure I would pick this as a prime example of homeostasis if I was trying to explain homeostasis to someone.)

So all of that could be thought of as a complex “balance” in nature. But that is not what people are thinking when they think “Nature maintains a balance.”

The other area where people think of nature being in balance is in the interaction between species. Predators exist to weed out the sick and injured. Plants exist to feed animals. These balance-like concepts are best addressed under the fallacy “Individuals act for the survival of the species” …. which we will address at another time. But we can briefly address another inter-species ‘balance’ concept now.

You have probably heard that when an ecosystem is damaged, it “comes back” …. because nature maintains a balance. If you bulldoze several hundred acres of old forest, eventually there will be old forest there again, for instance. At a larger scale, if continental glaciers march across Canada an the northern US and wipe out all the various habitats, then recede, what was there before will eventually grow back.

Sorry, but no.

Yes, a forest may grow back, but it does not grow back because there is supposed to be a forest in a particular spot, or because nature somehow causes all the plants to do the right thing to reconstruct the forest habitat. If it grows back it does so because this is the eventual outcome of competition among species of plants, and plant animal interactions, that happen to result in forest growing back. I know of habitats in Africa that were once forest, then the forest was cut by humans, and grasslands spread across where the forest grew. Now these grasslands are in parks and forest is starting to grow back in some of them. But in some cases, a certain kind of grass has taken over, and this grass species seems to be dominant and terminal. This is the species that will exist here until some major disturbance or climate change wipes it out. No forest, just Imperata grass, or so it seems.

When Afrikaner trekkers got tired of English colonial rules against things like owning people left the Cape Colony (within the modern Cape provinces, in South Africa) in the 19th century, some of them ‘trekked’ north across a certain part of Namibia. A line of several dozen covered wagons headed north looking for new pasture land. As they drove, the wheels crushed to death the tiny little plants that lived on the stony floor of this desert and left a distinctive mark.

Those marks are still visible today. The plants are still dead. It is not entirely clear how the plants got there to begin with. If “nature maintains a balance”, in this case, nature has checked out.

When ice age glaciers did wipe out the North American flora, a new flora grew back after the ice melted. But although forest tended to come back where forest was before, the dominant species were different each time. We tend to think of North American hardwood forests as dominated by oak and hickory up to a certain latitude, and then maple north of that. Well, other species dominated during the previous interglacial, and before that, other species did as well. The ecological idea of “succession” whereby the same exact sequence of events, with certain pioneer species arriving first, then some other set of species, and finally, a climax flora of specific species at the ‘end’ of the process does not actually happen in nature. That is often what people are thinking when they expect nature to be in balance, but it is not what happens.

Nature is not in balance. But it nature is very big. Disturbance is a vital force in nature, and the name of the game is change. There is resiliency, there is homeostasis, but mostly, nature appears to maintain a balance at the scale of ecosystems and biomes because nature is so big that despite the fact that she is constantly falling over, she never quite hits bottom.

More Falsehoods !!!

This post is one of a series on the topic of falsehoods. The following is a list of falsehoods posts in order:

Comments

  1. #1 Bodach
    August 27, 2009

    Thanks, Greg. I have friends that invoke “Nature” and “Gaia” as part of their magical thinking about how everything will be fine. This probably won’t change their minds but I find it helpful in gathering my thoughts.

  2. #2 Jared
    August 27, 2009

    I like the way you explain this, but I must quibble over Latin:
    visa versa isn’t a phrase, it would be vice versa pronounced “wee-kah wur-sah” meaning “with places turned. I’m actually more forgiving with “visa versa” than with “vīs vur-sah” because at least “visa” contains two syllables. The Latin “c” is like the modern English “k” and the Latin “v” is like the modern English “w.”

  3. #3 Hank Roberts
    August 27, 2009

    Thank you. Wonderful picture, is there a source/high resolution image somewhere?

    bull:china shop
    smart primate:ecology

  4. #4 jj
    August 27, 2009

    Whoa Greg, watch using the term Homeostasis, I’d say that plays into the idea of a ‘sentient’ nature – that nature is somehow balancing itself out. Is this term ever used outside of biology?

    know of habitats in Africa that were once forest, then the forest was cut by humans, and grasslands spread across where the forest grew

    Isn’t this essentially what happened in North America also?

    Really enjoying these falsehoods posts!

  5. #5 jj
    August 27, 2009

    wow, I skipped the last two paragraphs to write a comment, and then went back, and you answered my comment in the paragraph I skipped over. Always read the full article before posting, friends (sometimes I want to comment before I forget my thoughts, and usually it makes me look like an ass).

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    Jared, no one in all of history has ever said “Weka Wersa”. But I get your point!

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    August 27, 2009

    Jared, how do you pronounce “chauffeur” and “clairvoyance”? You’re quibbling over English, not Latin. Don’t let yourself be fooled by knowing where the words came from.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    Hank: Click on the picture and this will bring you to its source.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    Chauffeur is Chaucer, right? Right? Regarding “Clairvoyance” … I don’t know how to pronounce it in the old style…. but I had a feeling you were going to ask about that

  10. #10 mad the swine
    August 27, 2009

    We tend to think of North American hardwood forests as dominated by oak and hickory up to a certain latitude, and then maple north of that. Well, other species dominated during the previous interglacial, and before that, other species did as well.

    For that matter, up into the last century North American hardwood forests were dominated by chestnut trees. See here.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    JJ: Homeostasis is a pretty standard term in biology. I’d hate to abandon it. I have no idea why it would imply sentience.

    Regarding north america: I’m not sure what you are referring to exactly, but I think there are fire or grazing maintained prairies.

    Oh, right, jut read your next comment. Right.

    Recommendation: Open a second browser window with the comment box visible and jot down notes there as you read…

  12. #12 Roxanne
    August 27, 2009

    Ah. But… Oh, right. I get it now. I love falsehoods. (Because they’re bad, of course).

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    Chestnut certainly was common, not really dominating everywhere, but more fire-adapted areas were oat-chestnut adapted, while other areas were oak-hickory dominated, south of a somewhat wiggly line running across the nothern tier of states or a bit south of that.

  14. #14 Jared
    August 27, 2009

    Jared, no one in all of history has ever said “Weka Wersa”. But I get your point!

    I say it all the time… It’s a wonderful way to introduce a little linguistics into a conversation and to explain that language, like culture, changes through the generations.

    I also want to bring back the curse:
    “Kiss the cunt of a cow”
    And the ultimate cynical phrase:
    “Cogito, ergo doleo”

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    … sorry… if you click on the illustration, now it will go to the source. (The link was wrong before)

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    Those Latins must have killed at Vilification Tennis. (Only then it would be “You think, therefore I am depressed”)

  17. #17 Jared
    August 27, 2009

    Steph, the phrase is Latin, as is in vivo and in vitro. While they are common in English, they are phrases meaning “within the living” or “within the glass” respectively. My main quibble was with “visa versa” rather than vice versa. I just thought the rest was interesting.

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    So, would it be “In Wheat-O?” I think people would stop saying it. … : [

  19. #19 Stephanie Z
    August 27, 2009

    Jared, I get the “visa versa” part. I change it in Greg’s writing whenever given the chance.

    However, just like the French words I listed above, “vice versa” is also English, with its own English pronunciation. It isn’t relegated to the foreign words and phrases section of any dictionary. That’s why I said to not get confused by the fact that you know where it came from. It’s English now, and while you may decide to speak Latin when you say it, that’s an affectation that no one else should feel required to adopt.

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    Wait wait, that would then be “In Wee-Wo”

    No, no, won’t fly…

    “Was the experiment done in wheat-o, or in wee-wo?”

    (Sorry, I just think it sounds funny.)

  21. #21 Jared
    August 27, 2009

    Pronunciation really doesn’t bother me that much, but it would be correct. (if you add an “r”)
    “Wheat-Roe” would be closer…
    1) in vitro means “within the living”
    2) in vitro is pronounced like “in wheat-roe”
    3) Roe is unprocessed ovaries
    4) The only thing in wheat ovaries are ovules
    5) Only unfertilized wheat ovules are living

    ???

  22. #22 jj
    August 27, 2009

    Greg,

    Homeostasis is a pretty standard term in biology. I’d hate to abandon it

    By homeostasis referring to the earth, I just felt that implied that you were comparing the earth to a living creature that is able to self regulate itself. And that was, from what I gathered, exactly the opposite of what the post is about, unless, and it is very possible, I misunderstood that passage. I would never ask you to ditch the term (as a biology student!)

    Thanks for the tip on commenting, I think I’ll do that from here on out!

  23. #23 jj
    August 27, 2009

    Also RE: North America Forests –
    That was more-or-less a though. As I remember, probably from some earth science class in HS (which was a long time ago) that much of North America was cover in forests. I don’t remember much to be honest, that’s why I posed the question. Could be unrelated if we’re talking about forest land that has not come back due to development.

    On a quick google search, most informative is from greenpeace, and I’m not sure I trust them…

  24. #24 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    The east and the mountains were covered with forest, and the NW coast. West of a certain wavy line there is not enough rain and to much evaporation. As you work your way west up the Rockies’ slope you get less evapotransporation in spots and thus patches of forest, and major rivers like the Platte have riparian forest. Then, up in the mountains it is all about rain shadows and stuff and can get complicated. There is a hypothetical dry band that includes So. Cal, NM, AZ TX, all the southeastern states … this band runs around the globe and defines where the norhtern arid lands are located. (A lot of Mexico is in this band as well). The SE gets watered, despite being in the dry band, because of the Gulf of Mexico.

    So the prairies that start in Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and so on are natural, but the forest-prairie ‘line’ is complex and moves.

  25. #25 PaulM
    August 27, 2009

    I don’t usually like being so picky, but I’m sure I remember you making the same mistake previously: there is no Cape Province in South Africa any more. Not since 1994. It’s been broken up into the Northern Cape, Western Cape and Eastern Cape. A part of it was also incorporated into the North West province.

    Picky, I know, but I live in Cape Town, so I’ve noticed it each time. :-)

    Anyway, good article. It covers a topic I was discussing on a mailing list some time ago (I was anti-balance) so I’ll be posting a link there.

  26. #26 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    No, you are right to correct me. For some reason I think of Cape town as being in the Cape Province, and north of that being Northern Cape. I’ve not spent much time in Eastern Cape… and I wanted to restrict myself geographically to around Cape Town because the Northern and Eastern Cape Provinces include vast territories TO which rather than FROM which various European descendants moved or trekked.

    I think I have a way to fix that….

  27. #27 jj
    August 27, 2009

    Awesome, thanks for the explanation. Makes sense!

  28. #28 gruebait
    August 27, 2009

    Many, many years ago, in Latin class with a teacher who was quite pointed about the fact that she was teaching “classical Latin, not Church Latin,” it most certainly would have been pronounced “Weka Wersa”.

  29. #29 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    Ok, I’ll say “Wekawersa” for a few days and report back….

  30. #30 travc
    August 27, 2009

    An angle you don’t quite make clear that I think is important. The notion that “nature maintains balance” is wishful/comforting thinking. Doesn’t make it any more true, but does help explain why so many people hold onto the falsehood.

  31. #31 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    Travc: Good point, and yes, that was very much on my mind but I did not toucn on it at all. There is some aspect like that to many of the falsehoods. They serve a purpose!

  32. #32 Katkinkate
    August 27, 2009

    ” “Jared, no one in all of history has ever said “Weka Wersa”. But I get your point!”
    I say it all the time… It’s a wonderful way to introduce a little linguistics into a conversation and to explain that language, like culture, changes through the generations…”

    That’s a good way to get a nerdy reputation, mate. I really like, “Cogito, ergo doleo”. Can I keep it?

  33. #33 Jim Thomerson
    August 27, 2009

    There are species, called j-adapted, which are pioneer species which modify their habitat such that they can no longer survive there as succession goes on. There are K-adapted species which tend to maintain their population in a particular area for long periods of time. These are the climax species. I haven’t kept up with community ecology, so I don’t know how the idea of climax associations is viewed today.

    I do think it important to consider if humans are j or K adapted, or what. I think we are biologically K-adapted but are behaving in a j-adapted manner.

  34. #34 george.w
    September 5, 2009

    Having lived in Washington state for part of my life, I am familiar with Weyerhaeuser propaganda with things like; “There are more trees in North America than there were when Columbus arrived.”

    Probably not true, and if true, irrelevant. Replanted forests, especially if cut every thirty years, are not the same thing as the staggeringly complex ecology of old-growth. Not the same thing at all.

  35. #35 MPL
    September 9, 2009

    If you bulldoze several hundred acres of old forest, eventually there will be old forest there again, for instance.

    Similarly, if you shoot your neighbor, eventually someone else will move into his old house.

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